Branded Content: Advertorial’s Kissing Cousin

The other day, I experienced my first radio advertorial. I was listening to the car radio when I heard the DJ take a call from a well-known actress. The casual conversation turned to the actress’s vacation; she was currently in Las Vegas, where, she said, the energy, shows, and nightlife made it one of her preferred vacation spots. It all sounded a little contrived. My husband and I traded a few suspicious looks. Were it not for the final pitch, I’m sure we wouldn’t have taken the endorsement for a paid ad.

“Isn’t it nearly impossible to find a great hotel in Vegas at a good price?” the DJ asked.

“It usually is!” the actress replied. “But I happen to know there are still a few rooms available where I’m staying, and your listeners can get a great deal if they call right now.”

The ad was sponsored by a Las Vegas travel organization, as a quick concluding disclaimer revealed. Miss that, and you’d think you were getting the inside scoop on a great vacation opportunity.

Advertorials are increasingly prevalent, and increasingly sophisticated. There’s more advertising out there to compete with, and marketers know consumers are more promotion-savvy. Lately, I’ve seen advertorials in magazines that are so artfully presented and provide such useful information I’ve actually clipped and filed them away for future reference.

Online, the situation is very different, as my colleague Hollis Thomases recently pointed out. Since 2002, when the FTC began recommending search listings provide “clear and conspicuous” disclosure so as not to confuse Internet users (an issue that remains prominent today), marketers have been less inclined to blur the line between content and any sort of advertising.

That isn’t to say examples don’t exist. But compared with other online media, they’re few and far between. Part of the problem is they’re difficult to buy. Not all publishers offer integrated ad placements, and customizing advertorials for each client can be time-consuming and expensive. Ensuring consumers don’t misconstrue ads as editorial content and so develop a negative brand impression can also be challenging.

If you aren’t having any luck securing advertorial-style placements, there’s another solution. Consider employing a kissing cousin: branded content.

Branded content is usually a mainstay in email newsletters, but it has a place online, too. As with advertorials, the goal is to deliver valuable content that encourages use of a company’s products or services, without a hard sell. Williams-Sonoma offers content of this nature, featuring seasonal recipes next to its serving platters. offers resume-building and job-search advice for site users. Those selling beauty products publish profiles of the people behind their most popular brands, and booksellers interview authors to entertain online shoppers and ultimately boost sales.

Such content can appear just as easily in print as online. The difference between branded content and advertorials lies almost exclusively in location. Branded content is generally bound to sites and e-newsletters, while advertorials require a third-party partnership with a publisher.

That’s what makes branded content so appealing. Aside from promotional placements, the only buy involved is the services of an online copywriter or agency specializing in creating it. Marketers can skirt such issues as finding and negotiating with a site publisher. You control how and where branded content appears online — as well as how customers perceive it.

If your client’s product or service doesn’t lend itself to an advertorial placement on one of the few sites offering the opportunity (or if you simply can’t reach a satisfactory agreement), branded content represents an ideal opportunity to create your own. There’s no reason why valuable and memorable online paid content shouldn’t be as sophisticated and effective as those radio spots and magazine clippings.

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