a woman who indicates with the OK sign she understands the role of paid content in public relations

As a respected and experienced PR agency, a question we get all the time is, “Can you guarantee coverage?” The answer to this question gets cloudier and cloudier as the media world evolves. First, let me explain that earned media, the most valuable coverage, comes from a respected media producer and media outlet. This kind of coverage can not be guaranteed, but a good PR firm can improve your chances considerably. This is what we call earned media, and it’s what most people think of when they think of PR. Yet today, there are options for paid content. This content trend looks a lot like editorial coverage, and in some cases, it goes through a rigorous editorial process, but it is not earned media. I think it is critical to understand the differences between paid placements in magazines and earned media coverage in magazines and TV. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember these as “advertorials.” Paid content is different from advertising, primarily because of the format. Paid placements rarely offer any analytics or tracking in the way digital advertising offers; they are more of a digital PR tool.

You’ll see disreputable PR agencies advertising these kinds of placements as “guaranteed coverage.” The reason this is unethical is that these are NOT coverage; they are placements Paid placements have a variety of options and availabilities, and we believe paid placements have a role in a strategic reputation or awareness-building campaign.

Guaranteed Paid Op-Eds and Editorials

From Rolling Stone to Forbes to Entrepreneur and beyond, numerous outlets allow thought leaders to publish their points of view. This privilege comes with an annual membership cost.

Each of these publications accepts submissions which undergoes a rigorous editorial process. However, none of these publications will allow you to advertise your product or your company outright through this platform. You must still provide value to the reader, and these pieces are published when the outlet decides to publish them; the writer has very little control over the timing. The membership will include a bio profile and photo of the writer, and typically, this will contain a link to your website; these are high-quality links and can be a nice addition to your SEO efforts.

When we offer these to our clients, we are completely transparent about the pricing and the conditions. Typically, we ghostwrite the pieces with approval from the thought leader and walk the piece through the editorial process. Because we understand the process, our pieces are typically accepted on the first submission, but we know exactly how to handle the revisions and corrections when they aren’t. This is important because the first round of editorial review can take up to four weeks, and if there is a second editorial review, that too can take up to four additional weeks. To keep the process moving, you want your piece to be well-written and meet the editorial standards the first time.

Supposedly, you can publish unlimited articles for your membership cost. Still, between bandwidth and editorial timelines, the most we’ve seen our clients push through is six times a year. Still, there are six outstanding opportunities to share your point of view. Also, these are strictly online pieces, they will never be published within the print version and I’ve never seen them on the primary landing page of the online magazine.

One of the most important aspects of these articles is activating them; writers should share them in owned content, like newsletters and on social media. After all, if you want to share your point of view, then share it. These pieces will still have a level of cache, providing you with a more elevated platform than social media. Some paid placement publications will allow you to republish the article after a certain time, which means they could be repurposed on LinkedIn or blog.

Paid Content in Magazines

What if you don’t have much to say and aren’t ready to step into a thought leader’s shoes? There are also paid article publication options—from business to niche lifestyle, publications like USA Today to US Weekly, and even Tech Crunch. While some outlets may charge as little as $2,000 per article, the more prestigious the publication and the better the offering, the more expensive—sometimes $30,000 and up.

We offer these options to our clients less often, but sometimes, they make sense as part of a larger content strategy. The offer varies by publication, but these pieces are usually submitted and already completed and will undergo rigorous editorial oversight. Sometimes, they will include a “do follow” link, and sometimes, they won’t. Our services include writing the piece in an editorially acceptable way to reduce the back-and-forth cycle of editorial changes. For our bespoke clients, paying that much for a single placement rarely makes sense when you’re working with a firm that’s securing 3 to 4 pieces a month; even with our boutique PR pricing, the per-piece price becomes much more attractive, especially when combined with our strategic oversight.

Unlike earned content, which usually stays up as long as the outlet exists, sometimes paid placements appear for a certain amount of time (e.g., three months) and then disappear. Sometimes, the pieces will include disclosures like “sponsored” to indicate to the reader that this is not news; today’s readers understand the implications of sponsored content as much as they know paid partnerships from influencers; the reader accepts the content as paid, and will read it if it’s good content, but they do not have the same value because the reader understands the difference.

Remember that paid placements rarely appear on the front page of the magazine’s website and certainly don’t appear in any of the printed versions. The key advantage is the ability to control the message a little more. While all these outlets will also have an editorial process, you will have more control over the piece’s shape and even possibly links to your website within the piece, which happens more rarely in earned media. Again, activating these sponsored articles can add much value to your investment.

Press Releases: Paid Content Old School

Press releases are a unique tool. They are completely in your control, yet there is a very expected format for them; deviating from this format is a reputational ding for journalists. If a journalist sees a poorly formatted press release, they will assume you don’t have PR representation, which could impact whether they approach you or how they approach you. Today’s press releases hold value as a powerful piece of paid content within a branded search—they rarely generate earned media by themselves.

You control your press release for the most part. You may not make libelous claims, and there are some other editorial conditions, but most companies never encounter any issues. Press releases can typically be issued quickly. Press releases for publically traded companies have some additional requirements.

The pricing on press releases is mostly determined by the credibility of the outlets that republish your press release along with the length of time they stay up.  While your press release will also be on the press release site, most press releases published by online outlets like Yahoo Finance stay up for a certain period time. How accessible your press release is in a branded Google search is also variable. If you want your press release to be visible and even included in the “news” section, then the pricing will be more expensive.

Paid Product Placement

Some television segments offer paid product placement. Typically, the hosts engage with the product and discuss how they would use it. Other segments are pre-recorded and distributed to multiple stations.

These placements also must qualify for the segment in various ways and often be relevant to a gift-giving season or other editorial cycle. We offer these placements within our consumer product PR Sprints for qualified products. Sometimes, the TV show will require that show’s ability to meet demand; sometimes, they will need a split in sales. In some cases, major market TV stations will also allow an in-studio lifestyle segment or interview. The editorial conditions for this are specific and variable. Pricing on TV segments is usually in the 5-figures.

Sometimes, these segments will live on YouTube; sometimes, they won’t. Sometimes there is a written companion on the news website, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes the written companion includes a link, sometimes it doesn’t.

Affiliate Product Placement for Consumer Products

Finally, we have an affiliate product placement. Affiliate links earn a commission on sales for the site that hosts them. You might have seen ads for Rakatun, that’s an affiliate program that gives the commission back to the buyer if they aren’t already using an affiliate link.

We’re seeing more and more that when publications do reviews, they want to include an affiliate link so they receive a commission on the piece. These pieces are typically in gift guides or other reviews of products lumped together. Occasionally, you may receive a featured piece, a stand alone piece for your product.

Journalists typically work with particular affiliate networks; we’re happy to guide our clients to those networks. A whole genre of journalists only writes articles with affiliate links. On reputable media outlets, you will usually see a disclaimer at the top stating that they have genuinely reviewed and approved the product but may receive a commission if a purchase is made. I think it’s an easy way for readers to support publications, and the disclosure means there are no ethical concerns.

From the reader’s standpoint, there is no difference in experience, but from the brand standpoint, there is. For one, there aren’t direct links to your site. It’s a matter of debate how these links impact SEO, but it’s fair to say there’s no clear answer. Second, the brand is paying a commission on those sales. The brand sets up the commission; setting your commissions is an art and science.

Buyers seem very accepting of these practices, especially GenZ. Because the outlet authentically reviews the product, the brand still gets third-party validation. Because the outlet receives a commission on each purchase, you may find affiliate link articles with a very long shelf life that get promoted on social media and landing pages.


In Conclusion

Paid content does have a place in today’s well-rounded marketing and PR campaign. But it’s important to know what you’re getting—and what you’re not. You can bet there’s a catch if it seems too good to be true.