Online Advertorial Still an Ugly Duckling in 2009

Is Advertorial a Four-Letter Word?” That’s a question I tackled in a two-part column in 2005. Why? Although we saw quite strong results from our online advertorial placements, many publishers eschewed discussing them. Advertorial, in case you aren’t acquainted with it, is paid editorial content provided by an advertiser.

Back in 2005, I also busted five typical myths about advertorial that still hold true today. At that time, online advertising’s resurgence was in full swing and publishers weren’t as desperate for ad dollars as they once had been — and might find themselves yet again today.

Today in 2009, the competitive landscape for publishers is quite different than it was four years ago. Many have lost eyeballs to consumer-generated media and social networking sites where consumers could be getting paid to write about an advertiser’s product without ever even disclosing it.

Given the passage of time and the growth of social media, now is an appropriate time to revisit the topic of advertorial. Let’s see where we’re at four years later.

Advertorial Still Hush-Hush

Like 2005, most publishers don’t want to promote their advertorial opportunities. Those who publicly offer advertorial often still couch it by alternative names; those that don’t publicize advertorial might still sell it but you have to ask for it. In other words, the word “advertorial” still holds a negative connotation.

But as blogger Steve Spalding, writing about advertorial opportunities from a publisher’s perspective so eloquently put it, “I think everyone would do well to realize that advertorial has been in media since the invention of the newsstand — it might be time for us to get over ourselves just a little.”

Advertorial-as-Editorial Networks

Perhaps publishers can comfortably ease into advertorial by working with an advertorial network. These networks typically work by subtly weaving advertising messages and links into real editorial content about a focused subject matter. How these articles appear then depends upon the network.

The oldest among these solutions, AdFusion (which I covered in “The Value of Content-Related Text Advertising“), places custom-written articles out on its network for publishers to elect to pick up. Because publishers aren’t forced to take AdFusion articles, AdFusion has had to really focus on writing valuable content. The company’s longevity and growth speaks to its success.

AdFusion just released results from a research survey in which 51 percent of respondents preferred article-based advertising over banner ads, pop-up ads, e-mail offers, or sponsored links, saying they’re “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to read and act upon the material.

Another network, Newsforce Network tweaks pre-written advertiser content and then places it with editorial partners, much like contextual ad networks do. Newsforce also adds an SEO (define) twist so that the content has more lasting value to the advertiser. Headlines are purchased in 30-day blocks, but articles are hosted for up to one year.

Other advertorial solutions, like ASN, work the SEO spin/advertorial angle — predominantly for direct response advertisers with continuity products — but don’t syndicate their content. Instead, ASN is both the content author and publisher.

When Consumers Get Paid for Advertorial

The most controversial component of advertorial these days centers on the social media sphere. Aggressive advertisers, seeing millions of users flocking to social media and wanting to capitalize on this migration, have started to put their ad offers up for sale.

The case that has probably the most garnered the most attention revolved around top social media guru and blogger Chris Brogan, who wrote a post sponsored by Kmart in his blog. Brogan confronted his dissenters head on with an intelligent, rational response, “Advertising & Trust.” It’s a good read for anyone thinking about entering this space from either side.

Brogan received compensation for his paid post from IZEA, which owns both Social Spark and the even more controversial PayPerPost. Another network offering a similar payment model for reviewing and promoting products is ReviewMe.

Disclosure and transparency seem to be at the root of the controversy. These sites, at best, have best practices guidelines; at worst, they require no disclosure. So, in the world of social media readership, the motto should be “Reader beware!”

Perspective for Planners

Obviously, the route you choose to take as an online media planner depends upon what you think is right for your advertiser. Still, if you’re an agency tasked by your client to generate results, the siren’s call of advertorial can be strong. Just be sure to weigh your advertiser’s risk tolerance first.

Meet Hollis at Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27, 2009 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus more than 150 exhibitors, networking events, parties, and training days.

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