Recently a client asked our agency for a point of view on one of those fuzzy subjects of the ad world: "Are paid advertorials an effective medium in which to share more detailed information from customer success stories?" The perception is that advertorials may not work or that people do not like reading them, but in reality can they be effective in increasing product awareness?
Despite knowing that it wasn't an easy question to answer, we still needed to provide a thorough answer appropriate to our client's business. Using the Web and industry resources, we assembled a good set of articles on the subject, mostly thanks to the ARF library. Most of the articles did not deal with advertorial effectiveness but rather, seemed to assess just how the industry was dealing with the genre since it first appeared. We scoured the articles and at the same time, reviewed some 30 ad recall studies of client ads to determine how good their advertising was on a relative basis.
Our analysis of the recall studies showed that our client's ads stood out more often than not above their competition and above the average ad of the same size and color. Since many recall studies measure the edit in the same issue, we looked to see how the average article in a magazine recalled, believing this would help us make a judgment about ads of a more editorial nature. We found that in most cases, the majority of articles scored pretty well on recall, often doing as well as the average 4-color page ad on the basic measures being studied. From this we surmised that mimicking the edit in a publication alone was not necessarily going to result in greater recall for them. But we also felt that this alone was not reason enough to reject their idea out of hand. The question was really, "Could there be a benefit to pursuing this idea further?"
So, we asked ourselves, "What's the real benefit of an advertorial?" Is it awareness beyond what a client's ad might garner? Possibly. Can we prove it? Not specifically, but we can make a positive empirical judgment. Why did we think this might be the case? Because, if the advertorial is written in a believable, informative and interesting fashion, then the reader will spend more time with it than they potentially would with your ad. Consumers are barraged by so many messages that generally, they can't spend but a few seconds actually reading an ad. Significantly increasing their involvement has to be a big benefit, and people are attracted to real-world examples when making purchase decisions or trying to solve problems.
In a recent issue of Fortune Magazine we could see that many advertisers actually seem to be trying this approach. There were two special advertising sections (the original advertorial format I remember). This issue also had three spreads from well-known companies with one advertorial page labeled as advertising -- all in a case study format. My epiphany was, unlike the advertorial where the advertiser is trying to "borrow" the credibility of the magazine, that many companies are borrowing the credibility of their own clients and using an advertorial to showcase it.
It's clear that magazine publishers started the advertorial trend with the hopes of increasing their revenues, and while their efforts have often complicated the planner's life, it can be said that the publishers have had to deal with many headaches on their own side too. This is not at all surprising when you look at the Webster's Dictionary's definition of the word advertorial -- "An advertisement designed to resemble editorial content." It's no wonder that this has been a very "blurred" area. But that doesn't mean it can't work.