Should we design sponsored content strategies around formats or thought-leaders?

The world of sponsored content offers a myriad of options, for every brand there is a community of subscribers waiting to tap into. However as discussed last week with sponsored content in the vast majority of cases there is fixed up front investment so understanding what you are buying is crucial. The question is though should we design our sponsored content strategies around formats (newsletters, podcasts, youtube) or should we be format agnostic and focus on the ThoughtLeaders themselves?

In this article we’re going to dive into the minds of three of our favourite publishers you can find on ThoughtLeaders, Iain McDonald from Quartz the premium business news publisher, Futur an educational platform for creative entrepreneurs and John Sonmez who’s personal brand Bulldog Mindset supports personal growth.

Interspersed with questions we have asked these publishers about how they go about creating content and for who we will look at the question of format driven strategies vs thought-leader driven strategies. Does format matter or is it the thought-leader themselves that is important?

How do you establish Authority?

Every publisher of content will claim to have the BEST audience with the most SENIOR decision makers but how can that really be the case? So this is where we begin this debate with looking at how these top publishers in their respective areas go about establishing authority and seeing what insights we can glean.


Why do you think today that so many people are turning to influencers like yourself to help them develop both professionally and personally?

John Sonmez:

Honestly, I think it’s because they are tired of the bullshit. They are tired of faceless brands endorsed by celebrities shoving products down their throats with false promises and hopes.

Instead, they want to see someone who’s actually living it and doing it. A real person they can relate to — someone who they could actually see themselves becoming. Humans beings want to connect with other humans.

And of course influencers can fake it — to some degree — but it’s much more difficult to do so when you are posting your life on YouTube and / or Instagram and other social media.


Futur is all about education for creative professionals. How did you establish authority in this space to get the trust of your community?


The biggest thing is that we give away high value content for free. I remember when I was just a futur fan, number 312 on the subscriber list. I was amazed that Chris (Do, founder of Futur) was giving this amazing stuff away for free. Our authority on social media came from this generosity.


Quartz in just a few years has established itself as one of the leading business news publishers with 20 million monthly visitors. How has Quartz managed to build an authoritative media brand in such a short space of time?


I believe it’s a combination of our incredibly talented journalists and our guiding principle of “respect for the user.” Our newsroom is structured around what we call “Obsessions” — the core obsessions that drive our newsroom, and the defining topics of seismic importance to the global economy. This allows journalists to really get under the skin of an issue and look at it from a number of angles. The way we write and have designed the site is also to ensure we respect the user’s time. All of these factors combined have contributed to our success.

Values then…

There is a common thread in the foundation of authority that appears in all the answers of these publishers despite the clear differences in audience profiles they serve. They are all talking the language of values. John discusses the importance of honesty, Futur focusses on generosity and Quartz the respect of the subscribers’ time.

I would tend to agree that values are the driver behind a strong audience base that an advertiser can look to communicate with. At ThoughtLeaders we have come across many publishers with huge subscriber counts that are quite clearly run purely with a money first approach that perform awfully.

It doesn’t seem that format is actually a major consideration in the establishment of authority, certainly they are not suggesting that one format is the main driver of it.

With all this being said we thought it would be useful to ask our publishers how they see the best way for a sponsor to engage with them.

How to engage with Publishers?


When it comes to sponsorship in content, do you think its possible to make a great premium experience for reader and advertiser? What’s the key element in making that all work?


Absolutely. At Quartz Creative — our in-house branded content team that develops best-in-class digital content, experiences, and products for our partners — we take the same principles that guide our editorial to craft campaigns from strategy to execution. Everything we do is with the reader in mind, ensuring they get a great experience when giving up their time to engage with sponsored content. This is part of the reason advertisers come to us. They like the way we create premium content and trust our knowledge of the audience. I think it comes down to giving something to the reader. If they become smarter, or have an emotive response to the content, everyone wins.


You guys have quite a range of sponsorship opportunities available but I get the impression that as a creative agency you enjoy the custom work the most. What do you need from a sponsor in order to put together a truly custom campaign?


In order for an influencer and sponsor to work well together there has to be mutual trust. The influencer needs to trust that the sponsor is not going to try and screw them over on money and that the product they are going to be representing is going to be good. Another thing is the flexibility to bring our own voice to the table. Alot of times we will work with a sponsor who wants to dictate exactly what we say and what we do and in those cases we will just walk away as it feels lacking in honesty with our audience. The quickest way to ruin an audiences trust would be if we were to just read off a script.

The sponsor should also be prepared for negative feedback. If we have a design tool that has something weird or quirky we’ll say so. 9 time out of 10 we’ll gloss over negative elements but a sponsor should expect absolute honesty.

From a deliverables perspective, when starting campaigns we need access to betas, or several copies of a physical product. Often the great ideas for content are a result of brain trust so it really requires our team to get our hands dirty with the product. We can’t actually say we’ve used the product or offer tips if we don’t have our hands on it.

Also a single point of contact on the sponsor side is huge for us as well to have a quality back and forth.

The last thing is that we want your audience to see our content. We want you as a sponsor to be sharing our content on your channels as well.


In your experience what is the best format of a sponsorship placement for an advertiser with a publisher like yourself. A quick video mention, a deep dive into product?

John Sonmez:

The best is when we have a partnership because the sponsor is directly involved in creating some content or creating a product I’m actively using because it’s so good. The more the audience feels that I genuinely like the product and the sponsor genuinely cares about the brand, the more success we have with a promotion.

Aside form that, I would say a deep dive in the product is risky because it can seem like it’s not authentic. Today, consumers are wary about anything that seems like it was just done for the money. It can work if a product is so amazing that showing it is actually very interesting content itself, but for the most part — unless the sponsor is highly involved in the brand — this fails.

So, I’d say a quick video mention is going to be the method that works best for a small investment, but the get the biggest ROI, it’s going to take a real investment that goes both ways.

Going Deep!

Ok some interesting answers there and once again, maybe I’m looking at this too hard to make my narrative work here, but there seems to be a common theme in these answers. DEPTH!

All our publishers are talking about engaging with sponsors in a deeply integrated way. It makes sense at the end of the day as a sponsor you are looking to piggy back on the authority and influence that these publishers have established. So again there seems to be a certain format agnosticism from a publishers perspective.

I think its not quite so simple. As John alluded too perhaps a short quick format like a youtube sponsored mention or a newsletter placement is a great way to run a quick test or ROI play but to get the absolute most from these communities we should be looking at long term partnerships. This means being prepared as a brand to invest time and money in a significant piece/s of content.

Ok so values and depth, but how do you make content?


You guys operate media channels in pretty much all formats, youtube, newsletter, podcast, social etc. How do you decide which content to release on which formats?


All depends each fomat has its own pros and cons. We know that youtube needs to be educational inspiring or give access. We know that anything between 6–12 mins is appropriate for youtube. Every channel has their own specific breakdowns and its all been trial and error to see which works best on each one.

Its not necessarily the type of content really that dictates what platform it goes on. Its more about the format. We will do a 90 mins livestream that will get cut down 2 mins for insta, 6 min yfor youtube and extract the audio for a podcast. We realised that there are completely different audiences for each of our channels so by getting meta and efficient using the same content across multiple channels that really helps us.


You guys touch on a few content areas the Daily Brief is news-focused, Obsession dives into economic news and Quartzy lifestyle pursuits. Is there a single Quartz reader that would be interested in each of these three distinct areas, or are we looking at completely different profiles for the different content areas?


Quartz isn’t just a website, and from the very beginning we decided we would go where the readers are, in a way that was native to that place. So while we do have a site, our mobile app isn’t just a mobile version of the site, it’s designed around messaging. Our emails are designed to be readable and downloadable on all devices, regardless of mobile connection speed. The one thing that unites our audience is a desire to navigate and live well in a global economy, regardless of culture or background. Some people may only know us by one of our products, while others may be power users. The one thing we want is that the reader has a great experience, regardless of how they engage with us.


One thing sponsors are always asking with youtube is that it seems so hard to predict when you are going to get a hit. Do you have an idea which of your videos are going to hit the high view counts?

John Sonmez:

It’s always tricky. I have some idea of what videos will get high view counts, but usually that requires creating a video specifically for that purpose. Which begs the question, why not just create videos designed to get high view counts?

I think there are plenty of YouTubers who do just that, but I’m not one of them. The reason is simple: authenticity. I am creating what I am creating in the world to help people. To help them grow and become better — and to achieve their goals in life. That’s what my mission is — to teach people to be bulldogs.

I don’t want to compromise that to just get views. I could look for keywords and trending topics to create videos on — and I’m not saying I never do — but in general, I prefer not to, because it feels very inauthentic to me.

Again, I’m a pragmatist and I know you need views in order to deliver your message. So, like I said, from time-to-time, I’ll specifically work on creating what I call epic content that is geared to go viral, but for the most part, I just focus on creating the content I feel is important and saying my message unfiltered.

For sponsors specifically, I’d say hoping for viral content is not a good strategy. First, because it’s very difficult to predict and control. Second, because even when you do have that one hit wonder, if it’s heavily manufactured it’s not going to come off as genuine, which will ultimately hurt credibility.

So thought-leaders over formats right?

Yes and no. Definitely from the perspective of these publishers and it is absolutely valid its the quality of their content not the format of it that is the deciding factor in performance but when we take a step back and look at scaling campaigns across multiple publishers and formats we can definitely see that patterns do begin to emerge. This being said I absolutely agree with a thought leader first strategy as the gold mine with sponsored content is connecting with the key ambassadors for our brands in long term partnerships.