Understandably, “advertorial” – the overlap of advertising and editorial – has a bad rap. The practice started at newspapers and magazines going back to the first half of the 20th century. Publication writers would create bylined articles in an editorial voice for advertisers.
The pieces read like and looked like regular editorial content. They sought to pull the wool over reader eyes about a cozy relationship that violated the church-and-state, arm’s length relationship of editorial and advertising.
The practice then popped up in other media, with infomercials, for example, playing on radio and televisions.
Blurring of Boundaries Online
The line between what is legitimate editorial content and what is sponsored is crossed so frequently online that it is sometimes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
We are softened up with search engines, which return paid-for company website promotions with a user’s requested results. Or we have the practice of “native advertising,” in which a company’s advertising message is delivered in a way that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears, and also gives rise to advertorial practices.
Some major “media” sites, such as Mashable and BuzzFeed, don’t use display advertising but instead create sponsored content appealing to audiences targeted by their brand partners.
Real Value Must Be Offered
People aren’t stupid. An advertiser or a media outlet caught trying to trick their audience runs the risk of alienating them.
That’s why traditional media outlets are usually upfront about the sponsored or branded content. Readers understand when a story or video has been created on behalf of a sponsor or by the sponsor themselves.
The editorial department may look down upon branded content sections, but in this era of falling print media revenues such income streams cannot be ignored.
But this doesn’t just have to be a desperate measure embraced by cash-strapped media. Branded content is an opportunity for strong storytelling of interest to their readerships (or viewerships).
Use Editorial Storytelling Techniques
With their sponsorship out in the open, a wise organization will take advantage of this exposure to speak to the publication’s audience in an editorial voice they trust, with content they want to consume, despite its slanted focus.
Whether it produces the branded content itself or hires an editorial writer, a company needs to understand that hard-sell, obvious marketing won’t work in this context. Editorial storytelling techniques, with in-depth interviews and quotes, images and design, win trust and eyeballs.
A telecommunications company with innovative solutions for small businesses does have a good story to tell. If it is enlightened enough to stand out of the way and let the story focus on the experience of a customer – resisting the temptation for corporate chest beating – then the piece will appeal to other small businesses facing similar issues.
A provincial government wanting to attract business investment would, in the same manner, let the article focus on a homegrown success story. The government subsidies and regulations that allow such successes would be buried deep in the story in a modest paragraph.
By providing real value, branded content serves the needs of readers and soft sells the sponsor, posing them as the authority in a given area.
Extending the Message’s Reach
The same online technology that is causing so much havoc among traditional media is also allowing them to extend the reach of branded content messages.
A story package might run in the print and online versions of newspaper. Some stories could be designated for online use only and include videos shot and edited by video journalists.
While the tools of the trade change, great storytelling remains.