Over the past few weeks I've received emails like the one below almost every day.
I am just contacting you to see if you would be interested in hosting some third party content on your website, theatlantic.com?
I am currently working with a sports betting website to find websites to submit unique articles to which link back to our client's website.
We would make the article look natural by choosing a topic which is relevant to your website.
The article would need to remain live for a minimum of 12 months, be free of any tags such as guest or sponsored as well as containing no nofollow links.
If this is something that you would be interested in, please email me back so we can discuss the details further such as reimbursement.
The letters vary enough in length, phrasing, introductory greeting, and detailed proposals to suggest they're not all coming from the same boilerplate source. But they're similar enough in their overall pitch—we'll pay you to publish "sponsored content" as long as you conceal the fact that it's sponsored—to suggest, as with the endless flood of "I am the former Finance Minister of Gabon with $35 million for you" scam notes, that someone has figured out a potentially lucrative opportunity. Based on IP addresses, currency details, and so on, most of the senders seem to be based in Europe or Australia, but who knows where they're really from.
I finally wrote back to one of the senders a few weeks ago. Here's the exchange that followed, with all messages in their entirety:
First incoming pitch:
I am J... from a media communications and creative writing company. I am just contacting you to ask if you would be interested in working together for my new campaign, for which I would like to provide your website,theatlantic.com, with a high quality, relevant article based on a current big news topic. With this new campaign there is a number of different opportunities and different content that we are looking at posting.
We are keen to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with you. Could you please let me know if you would be interested? I would be glad to send you more detailed information about this, including the client details and the remuneration.
I look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for taking the time to read this email.
After deleting scores of messages like this I thought it would be interesting to find out a little more. So, in quasi-Catfish spirit, I wrote back as follows:
Yes, I would be interested in hearing more about your campaigns.
And he replied:
I am looking at getting a article placed on your site by my team of creative writers regarding some of the latest industry news around [a big online gambling company], so the article would be igaming/gambling related,but not as a advertisement.
The article it self would be a well researched and written piece looking some of the latest news around [the company], so the acquisition of some of its brands by [another company] and also how the industry is now focusing on women as a main target audience instead of male's
All we would require is the article be live for 12 months, not to be tagged as guest or sponsored and if its possible to have links set as dofollow, if this is not possible we can have nofollow and no links just the brand mention, the budget for this campaign is flexible depending on if we can have links within the article or not
If you could get back to me about if this would be possible and how much it would be that would be great
To spell one detail out: dofollow and nofollow are HTML tags that affect how search engines rank a target site's plausibility and thus its standing in search results. With a dofollow tag, like the one this guy requests, a link from a high-volume, high-ranked mainstream media site (like The Atlantic's) could give a big boost to the linked-to gambling site. With nofollow, the link wouldn't do much good.
I didn't send anything back. A few days later he wrote to ask if I was still interested. I answered, quoting and highlighting part of his note:
>>not to be tagged as guest or sponsored and if its possible to have links set as dofollow,<<
We could not do that.
He replied with an exploration of another possibility:
If there was no links in the article would it be possible to tag it under the authors name?
I said that unfortunately this wasn't going to work:
We could not publish sponsored / outside content without labeling it as such.
And that was all. I have no sweeping point to make here, and I'm not naming this writer or his company because they're just the ones I happened to engage with. But I thought this was an interesting glimpse into one more subterranean layer of the shifting landscape on which "online content" is built.
You can find previous entries in the Glamorous Life series here.
UPDATE: Thanks to reader CG for letting me know that Popehat.com was on this beat long before me.