Create advertorials that are trustworthy and engaging.

By Sophia McDonald Bennett

An advertorial, which is a subcategory of sponsored content or native advertising, is a magazine or newspaper article that is similar in form to the editorial content of a publication. However, it is funded by an advertiser, which allows the company some influence over the article’s topic and message. Amid today’s ever-evolving changes in the field of advertising, advertorials are yet another tool companies can use to reach consumers—one that can work quite well if done strategically and effectively.

When I took over as editor of Window Fashion VISION, the trade magazine for the window coverings industry, in 2018, one of my goals was to increase the number of advertorials we ran. But as the advertising team started promoting them, we encountered a question we didn’t expect. People weren’t concerned about the cost or who would write them or how advertorials would help them meet their goals. The No. 1 question we heard was: “What is an advertorial?”

Given that experience, the Window Fashion VISION team has spent the past year trying to educate our current advertisers about what an advertorial is and why it might make sense for a company. Given my focus on the editorial side, I also put together a few tips on how to create high-quality sponsored content for our advertisers. Here is a brief summary of the information we’ve shared through webinars and in-person meetings.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Advertorials make sense in a changing marketplace

As we’ve talked about advertorials and sponsored content, our main drumbeat has been that advertising is changing. Especially when talking to millennial or Gen Z audiences, it’s no longer enough for a brand to shout its name and share the most flattering features. People want to be given something of value. They want to get to know a company and its mission. They want to feel that there’s some kind of give and take with a brand.

The other thing is that people are used to consuming copious amounts of content from websites, email and other information sources. That means they’re willing to at least skim articles about topics that interest them. Put that together, and we believe advertorials make sense in the modern marketplace. By offering consumers something of value, they’re more likely to experience a feeling of reciprocity (e.g., “This company gave me something, so I should give it something back.”) They’re more likely to save and share an article than an ad, which is pure gold in today’s social media-focused world. They’re more likely to consider the company a “subject matter expert” (another hot marketing buzzword). In other words, reading an advertorial makes a consumer more likely to engage with and remember a brand.

Create advertorials that are trustworthy and interesting

Not everyone has come around to the benefits of advertorials. The content provision service Contently has been studying consumers’ perceptions of advertorials for several years now. Their findings indicate that although people are accustomed to sponsored content on social media, they still have a harder time identifying native advertising in print publications. That can lead to one of the category’s biggest problems—a feeling of being deceived. To consumers, few things are worse than reading an article, only to find out at the end that it was paid for by an advertiser. In a  2016 Contently study on this topic, 54 percent of people said they had felt deceived by an advertorial in the past.

Another thing that will immediately rub readers the wrong way is if advertorials are of poor quality. People read magazines to learn things. They don’t read magazines to consume advertising. If your advertorials read like an advertisement—that is, they offer nothing other than a one-sided look at the company—people will turn the page and never look back.

Before your publication starts promoting advertorials to advertisers, make sure you’re ready to help them overcome these hurdles. Have an advertorial format that looks similar but different than the rest of the content in the magazine. It should clearly state upfront that the article is sponsored by a brand. And make sure you have a way to help advertisers create articles that are interesting, high quality and offer something of value.

The other thing to consider is who you offer advertorial opportunities to. The Contently study showed that when a publication featured a sponsored article from an untrustworthy brand, 43 percent of people lost faith in that magazine’s trustworthiness. On the other hand, when publications run advertorials from trusted brands, 41 percent of people said that magazine became more trustworthy.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

How to write great advertorials

When I’ve written branded content and put together advertorial guidelines for publications, the No. 1 thing I’ve stressed is that brands must separate the word “ad” from “advertorial.” This is not a place for the company to toot its own horn. It is a place for a company to share something of value and position itself as the best partner in providing that thing of value.

Window Fashion VISION has a sister publication called American Cake Decorating. My colleagues there do a fantastic job of putting together sponsored tutorials for brands. They’re visually stunning and provide a lot of valuable information. People can clearly see that they’re sponsored articles, but there’s no way they can skip reading them. Readers have too much to gain to simply gloss over them. Once they get inspired to make the gorgeous cake in the picture, the first place they’re going to turn for supplies is the company that’s now top-of-mind—the article’s generous sponsor.

Not every industry can create something as visually appealing as a three-tiered cake. But brands in any industry can offer something of value to readers. That should be the focus when creating advertorials.

That being said, having great-quality pictures or video is a big bonus. People are drawn to visuals, and they’re more likely to get sucked in (and share) an article if there’s something interesting to look at.

When writing sponsored content, I always save any straight-out promotion of the company until the last paragraph. By that time, hopefully you’ve generated enough interest that the reader won’t mind a tactfully worded sentence about the company’s products or services.

And although I occasionally allow brands to write their own sponsored articles, I typically ask them to work with a writer who has experience writing branded content. The finished article should read like any other piece in the magazine: they should be written by an independent journalist and not someone from the marketing department. Make sure you get someone who is comfortable writing branded content, however. Not every journalist is comfortable with the back and forth that is often required for sponsored articles.

Sophia McDonald Bennett is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Eugene, Oregon.