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Advertorials Can Work—If You Get It Right

Advertorials Can Work—If You Get It Right

Advertorials are long-form paid ads, presented as informative articles—hence the name, a blend of “advertisement” and “editorial.”

In past print and current online versions, they match the appearance, perception, and function of the media outlet where they’re hosted, so they don’t really look like ads.

Executed well, advertorials provide value to the target audience while also selling a product or service. They’re a content marketing play that borrows the credibility of the site on which they’re published (if they’re “native ads”) or promoted (if they live on other sites).

Advertorials also have their critics. They’re often lumped together with other maligned tactics, like cold emails and pop-ups. We may say we don’t like them and they’re dumb, but they can work. 

In this article, we take a deep dive into advertorials—what they can and can’t do, and how to get it right.

What problems can advertorials solve?

Advertorials are a PR play on steroids, akin to pitching your product or company to a journalist and getting a favorable write-up (but paying for the privilege).

They can also pick up the slack if you’re seeing declining returns on display ads, want to reach specialty consumers, or seek to raise brand or product awareness.

Compared to traditional display ads on relevant sites, advertorials have three unique traits:

  1. A loophole to get past ad blockers;
  2. A way to increase engagement over display ads;
  3. More space to sell potential buyers on your product. 

1. A loophole to get past ad blockers

Roughly a quarter of Internet users block advertising, meaning that one in four paid ads never reaches the intended audiences. (For many companies with target audiences in SaaS and tech—generally savvy audiences—that percentage is likely far higher.) 

Advertorials aren’t restricted from ad blockers because they’re not technically ads. Instead of being piped in by a third party, they’re embedded directly in the platform.

If your click-through rate (CTR) is declining for display ads, advertorials can help.

2. A way to increase engagement over display ads

Since advertorials are less intrusive than banner or display ads, consumers are more likely to interact with them:

  • According to a study by IPG Media Lab, native ads received 52% more visual focus and contributed to greater brand awareness than display ads. 
  • In a report by Facebook, native ads are responsible for 86% of impressions on the Audience Network and receive up to 60% more engagement than regular display ads.
  • A study done by Nielson suggests that native advertising can generate up to an 82% increase in “brand lift,” a positive shift in customer awareness with a brand.

Advertorials—if they’re compelling—also have the potential to earn organic shares via social media, something traditional ads never will. 

example of advertorials earning shares.
SAP’s BrandVoice content on Forbes earns thousands of Facebook likes and shares.

3. More space to sell potential buyers on your product

Compared to a search or display ad, advertorials offer more room to connect with customers. Businesses can tell a story, help customers understand a complex product, and develop trust by providing value, not just asking for a sale.

ServiceNow, a cloud platform that helps manage digital workflows, is a great example. In an advertorial on Forbes, they had a full page to capture interest, explain their technology, tell their brand story, include a case study, and sign off with a call to action

Despite advertorials’ potential, they have their critics.

Critiques of advertorials 

Advertorials are often chastised as sneaky. Some argue that they misdirect users by disguising the source of the message. As Ben Kunz wrote years ago:

Native confuses the source of the message, despite disclosure, and in human communications, understanding the source of anything is critically important for us to judge value.

While banner ads may be annoying, they’re (usually) transparent in their purpose. When crafting advertorials, trying to hide that content is paid or sponsored is shortsighted—and illegal.

The FTC requires disclosures such as “Ad,” “Sponsored,” “Paid Advertisement,” or some close variation in plain sight. A study by Contently, however, found that 70% of publishers didn’t follow FTC guidelines.

Well-known websites tend to adhere to FTC guidelines, although with minimum transparency. For example, Forbes labels advertorials “BrandVoice” content, with “Brand Contributor” as part of the byline. That’s a less-than-explicit signal.

Sites like The New York Times have detailed guidelines to try to maintain the firewall between editorial and promotional content:

nytimes guidelines for advertorials.

In the end, how great or awful advertorials are depends on the execution. Cold emails can be near spam; great outreach emails can spark a real relationship. Intrusive pop-ups frustrate visitors; effective pop-ups deliver relevant opt-ins or deals at just the right time. 

A shady advertorial makes the reader feel “tricked” into visiting a business’s site or landing page. A great advertorial ethically highlights a product or company’s newsworthy, entertaining, or educational aspects. 

Here’s how to ensure yours gets classified as the latter.

What to do before you write your advertorial

To hit the mark with your advertorial, you first need to know whom you’re targeting. 

1. Find the right site for your target audience. 

Your target audience will help you determine which sites are best for your advertorial. (Here’s how you can identify your target audience.)

If you don’t reach the right people, your advertorial will fail, no matter how good it is. Different native ad platforms work with different publishers; Entrepreneur details several platforms that publish or link to advertorials on an array of sites.

When choosing the right site or platform, ask:

  • How big is the site’s audience?
  • What are the audience demographics and psychographics?

Once you’ve found the right platform or site, identify what’s succeeded in the past. 

2. Identify successful content on that site.

A well-placed advertorial already targets a relevant audience on a respected site. Before you craft the actual advertorial, know what editorial and advertorial content has performed well in the past

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Which type of content got the most shares or links?
  • What are the attributes of that content (e.g., length, images, video, etc.)?
  • What content does a site or platform feature in their advertorial case studies?

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel—and doing so, given the costs, is risky. 

3. Estimate publishing costs.

With advertorials, you get what you pay for. The cost fluctuates by publisher, format, integration, and automation. Typically, more authoritative websites and better ad positions are more expensive. 

You can purchase real estate on a given site or pay to have links to your advertorials included as “recommended content.”

According to Harvard Business Review

On average, the cost of a native advertising campaign for top-tier news publishers was $54,014.29. (For lower-tier publishers, which we categorized as having a domain authority of less than 80, the cost drops to an average between $70 and $8,000. For definition purposes, the process for a single campaign includes idea generation, concept research, asset design, and—the final step—promotion.

Moz cataloged the minimum spend top-tier publishers require to produce native advertising campaigns for brands:

estimated costs for publishing on various outlets.

Ad Age estimates that the unlimited publishing BrandVoice Elite on Forbes costs approximately $75,000 per month, with a four-month minimum. BrandVoice Stories go for $50,000, which includes four paid stories over a two-month period. 

In addition to the options above, many publications and ad partners allow for in-feed ads optimized specifically for social media consumption. 

What will you get for all that money? You’d better know before you spend it.

4. Estimate the expected visibility.  

Buzzfeed shares case studies for companies that run advertorials on their platform. In one case study, Cisco sought to increase awareness among small- and mid-sized businesses.

They released two videos that featured business owners playing a game of “Would You Rather: Business Edition,” with relevant questions on business obstacles, joys, and office dilemmas. Additionally, they released an article, “13 Secrets Business Owners Will Never Tell You,” which targeted small business owners.

Both the videos and the article matched the lighthearted tone of Buzzfeed’s platform—entertainment was at the forefront. Here are the results from the campaign:

visibility for buzzfeed advertorial.

You can find some additional case studies by Moz and Fractl that compare the ROI of native advertising to content marketing.

If you’ve got the budget and anticipate a worthwhile ROI, here’s how to maximize your chances of success.

How to write an effective advertorial

Just as creating a high-converting landing page follows a proven structure, an advertorial does the same. Here are the key steps:

  1. Learn how your audience talks about your proposed topic and product.
  2. Define your angle.
  3. Strike a balance between informational and promotional content.
  4. Write like the publisher.
  5. Inspire action at the end.

1. Learn how your audience talks about your proposed topic and product.

Forums are a great source of information on what your target customers think about a topic or product. One way to locate forums is with a Google search operator: “forum: {{insert niche}}.”

forum search on google.

There’s also a Chrome extension, which you can download here. Google disabled the “discussions” search functionality, but this extension adds a button to re-enable searches for forums and message boards.

discussions plugin.

Note top-rated posts, topics within them, commonly used jargon, and stories people tell.

Reviews can also highlight pain points and deliver feedback about specific problems. Let’s say you sell a fish oil supplement. You go to Amazon and start browsing reviews.

The five-star reviews, of course, tell you everything someone loved about the product:

positive fish oil pill review.

You can also spin negative reviews into problems that your product solves (if it indeed does): 

negative fish oil pill review.

In the fish oil supplement example, burping is a negative side effect for lots of brands. But say that your fish oil supplement reduces that unpleasant side effect. 

You could write an article on the “cultural history of burping” (entertainment) or cover what to look for in a supplement that won’t yield nasty burps (education). 

If your product is an info-product, you can dive into reviews of books and ebooks in that niche. What made a book great? What did readers wish it had included—or excluded? 

Amazon is a great place to start your research, but it isn’t the only place to gather reviews: 

  • Angie’s List;
  • TripAdvisor;
  • Yelp;
  • Google My Business;
  • Yahoo! Local Listings;
  • Glassdoor;
  • Manta.
  • G2.

2. Define your angle.

Start with a headline.

Let’s say you’re doing an advertorial for CRM software. You could start by running a “site:forbes.com CRM” search. What patterns show up in the headlines? 

forbes crm site search.

If you have access to paid tools, you could plug Forbes and your topic into Buzzsumo or Ahrefs’ Content Explorer to find highly linked or shared content.

buzzosumo search for forbes content.

Many big publications test for the best headlines—if you see a pattern show up again and again, that’s probably because it works on their site. Here are some more tips to create a headline that converts.

Good example: Here’s the 7-step Strategy One Guy Used To Become A Self-Made Millionaire and Retire at 30

advertorial on self-made millionaire.

This advertorial is a great example of a story-based ad with a captivating title. The title is specific, mentioning a seven-step strategy and promising a story of how one guy became a self-made millionaire and retired at 30.

It also entices the reader to learn more about how to become a self-made millionaire (and offers a calculator to help you figure it out). As the engagement numbers show, people were interested:

social share data from buzzsumo.

Good example: ‘We Will Fight for Your Baby’ How a hospital saved a child before he was born — and again at age 2

This advertorial’s headline goes for a strong emotional hook. Stanford Children’s Health tells a story to show why they’re the destination for maternal, fetal, and pediatric care.

Not surprisingly, the article did better on a more personal platform like Facebook (compared to Twitter):

advertorial's social sharing results.

Good example: Debt-Free College is Closer Than You Think

advertorial on employee benefits at walmart.

Walmart’s advertorial promotes how their Live Better U online education program is disrupting education. They provide their 1.4 million U.S. associates access to a bachelor’s degree for $1 a day.

Given some of the negative press Walmart has received about the treatment of their employees, this advertorial hopes to reshape their image on one of the Internet’s most powerful websites. 

Not every advertorial is as well executed. 

Bad example: How AI Can Help Keep Your Customers Onside

example of advertorial with weak premise.

In Conversica’s advertorial on Forbes, the headline doesn’t capture attention. There’s no story, and the promise or benefit for reading the article is vague. AI is a hot topic, but this headline fails to capitalize on it. 

It’s no wonder that engagement was minimal—even on a powerful website with thousands, even millions, of readers in their target audience. 

advertorial with limited social engagement.

Your advertorial needs a great narrative; start there, and it’s easy to fold in promotional content.

3. Strike a balance between informational and promotional content.

If your audience reads the first line and thinks, “Oh, I thought this was an article, but it’s just an ad,” you’re advertorial is in trouble. 

Generally, an advertorial should be about 70% informative content and 30% advertisement. The balance shifts toward informative content if the goal is awareness and toward promotional content if the goal is leads and sales.

You don’t have to write an advertorial as an article, either. It can be a listicle, quiz, or video with a call to action (CTA) at the bottom. Buzzfeed is notorious for creating listicles with CTAs to company sites at the end. 

Good Example: How Art, Generosity, and Crayons Are Rescuing a Legendary Music Scene

advertorial covering the creation of coloring books.

Paypal tells the story of a teacher and a musician who came up with a creative plan that sparked generosity throughout Minnesota.

Their idea of “Coloring Books for a Cause” commissioned local artists to create music-related coloring books as a welcome distraction for families suddenly required to stay home.

The ad ends by explaining how they used Paypal to help their movement come to life.

Good Example: How to “Steal” Your Competitor’s Search Traffic Using Ahrefs

In Ahrefs’ advertorial, they weave product references into informational content nicely:

advertorial that includes product walkthrough.

They educate readers on strategies to steal search traffic from competitors by showing them how to do it with their tool. The article was shared nearly 500 times.

4. Write like the publisher.

Match the style and tone of the publication where your ad is placed. Vice is gritty. Forbes is bold. The Daily Beast is informal. 

Take a look at Buzzfeed. All their advertorials have a funny, relatable tone, like their  “How Well Do You Know The ‘Star Wars’ Movies?” advertorial, which got plenty of engagement on Facebook:

advertorial social sharing stats.

Another successful example comes from a reading app, Blinkist. They used Outbrain to distribute advertorials on major publications, such as CNN and Forbes, generating over 50,000 downloads per month. That was 25 times the number of monthly downloads prior to the campaign. 

5. Inspire action at the end.

After you’ve educated and pre-sold the reader on your product, the next step is to point them to your offer (or, at least, where they can learn more about it). 

Advertorials often have “soft” CTAs—suggestive internal links rather than clear imperatives.

ServiceNow CTA on Forbes

example of advertorial with soft cta.

This advertorial was about how one Fortune 500 company, Magellan Health, redesigned its employee experience with ServiceNow’s software.

After the story addressed the company’s problems and showed the benefits Magellan Health received from using the software, they concluded with a very soft sell—an internal link on the benefit they provide clients.

SkinnyPop CTA on Buzzfeed

advertorial for skinnypop.

This advertorial was an interactive quiz on Buzzfeed: “What Percentage Of Your Mind Is On Snacks?” The content resulted in 16,000+ shares, 19,000+ views, and 58,000+ likes.

After priming readers to think about snacking, they left a simple link to SkinnyPop at the conclusion of the advertorial. 

Venmo CTA on Thrillist

advertorial on thrillist.

The article, “How to Spend Smart This Holiday Season (So You Have Cash to Ring in 2020),” detailed various strategies to save money during the holiday season. Venmo pitched their product, Venmo Mastercard, midway through the article.

They presented it as another way to save money during the holiday season.

Conclusion

Advertorials allow marketers to tell a story, offer value, and pre-sell an audience. If you write an advertorial, provide value first—tell a story, show the benefits, and then deliver your offer.

In the end, advertorials are one potential distribution channel for your content. As with every other channel, success depends on balancing the needs of your readers with the value to your business.

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Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. I see some eye watering prices above.

    Is this a strategy a newer company/startup can employ?

    Can this type of thing be bootstrapped? Are we talking big money off the bat as table stakes? Or can you get away with spending the sort of money you’d pay advertising on other channels as long as your okay not being featured in the NYT?

    Reply
    1. Jurgen, the rule of thumb for any kind of advertising is that costs go up with the status of the publisher – decided by number of eyeballs and/or specific targeting of eyeballs. If you’re targeting consumers as a startup, I’d hope you have a small location or a tight persona. Find a small platform which matches one or both and talk to them. Prices are likely to be lower.

      But before you make a decision, be absolutely clear what you want from your campaign – and what options your target platform offers. In my experience cash-strapped startups are more interested in response, leads, customers than in brand awareness. Also in my experience, solus EDMs (ie an email to the publisher’s subscriber base which is about your business and your offer only) get a response rate significantly above advertorial.

      Solus EDMs also sometimes come with the option to refine your target further. (eg a major marketing hub which has subscribers evenly split between brand marketers and marketing agencies. If you’re an agency, you can send an EDM to the brand marketers only, but any advertorial you post goes to brand marketers and competing marketing agencies. And the price is based on the publisher’s reach, not the part of the publisher’s reach which you are interested in.)

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking advertorial. Advertorial is great for branding, if you can do it for long enough to get repetition in. (All those Facebook shares for SAP are branding too, not actual leads.) It’s also good for SEO, as you normally get links from the publisher to your site, and those don’t disappear afterwards. And a good advertorial will get responses as well – just maybe not as many as a targeted EDM.

      So the key points are:
      1. Be sure you know what you want to achieve before you decide how to invest your marketing.
      2. However you invest it, make sure the execution – the content, offer, tone of voice, etc – is done well! That can cost as much as or more than the actual distribution channel.

    2. Wow, Bridget,

      You went above and beyond with your answer!

      Thank you so much.

      You’ve given me a lot to think about and some much needed guidance.

  2. So 70% of advertorials are not disclosed basically then… very interesting. Anyway, as far as advertorials go, we have had great results PPC’ing our advertorials after they’re published using 1st person stories be the best type of content to use there in general.

    Reply

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