The effectiveness of ramming your product down people’s throats through direct print promotions and online ads is dwindling as consumers become wiser to advertisers clamoring for their attention and hard-earned cash.

Enter the advertorial: a portmanteau of the words “advertisement” and “editorial”. Also known as a native advertising, sponsored content or branded content, the advertorial aims to engage the reader and convince them to use a product or service while not scaring them away with a more traditional “salesy” ad.

Today, savvy readers can spot an ad from a mile-away and they don’t like to be sold to. For this reason, using advertorials as part of your content marketing strategy must be approached as more of a slow seduction. It’s more like buying the reader a drink and chatting (valuable content) rather than sending them running to the hills with an instant marriage proposal (“Buy now!”).

Advertisers are well-aware of the impact of advertorials as sponsored posts are expected to earn a whopping $21 billion in 2018, a huge upsurge compared to 2013’s $4.7 billion.

Publishers like BuzzFeed, Wall Street Journal and Mashable are all cashing in on the custom content bandwagon, while Condé Nast launched its branded content studio 23 Stories on the back of its long history of advertorial success. 

But what makes a good advertorial, why is it more effective than traditional advertising and how can you convert more readers into customers?

1. Focus on good content

The key selling point of the advertorial is the credibility it has “borrowed” from the publication it appears in. Readers will effortlessly buy into a good advertorial with a strong focus on valuable content that dedicates only 20-30% to promoting the product or brand (they shouldn’t mind this if they just got a decent amount of good content for free).

When an advertorial offers really useful content, it has a much bigger potential to be shared or perhaps cut out/printed and put on display. You don’t see people doing that with standard ads. Creating content this good increases the chances of your content being read the whole way through and ultimately the likelihood of the reader responding to your call to action.

Take BuzzFeed. Their fun advertorials fit seamlessly into their editorial style and don’t sell without offering easily accessible value.

Image source:

There’s actually a lot of content on this page promoting Discovery Channel, but none of it looks out of place in terms of BuzzFeed’s style. In fact, if it weren’t for the byline referring to the client, you might be forgiven for not even noticing it’s sponsored. It could easily be posted on Buzzfeed’s social media channels and still not look like an ad.

2. Write an engaging headline

Remember the aim here is to position your advertorial alongside the rest of the high-value content in the newspaper, magazine or website. Your headline needs to hook the reader in the same way any other article on the page would.

Image source:

The advertorial above has gone to great lengths to look like a news article, but its desperate attempt to sell makes it about as effective as a standard promo. An article with a headline like, “CleanCo’s latest product is blowing consumers away” screams advertisement. While it might look newsworthy with its mention of the “latest” product, it’s clearly been written for the benefit of the client and not the reader. Something like, “Nine DIY stain removers that’ll probably work (and one that definitely will)” grabs the reader’s attention and may even see them skip straight to No. 10, which just so happens to be the client…

Like any good sales strategy, your headline should instantly create a need to find out more by eliciting an emotional response; just make sure you follow through in the content. 

3. Understand the client’s product

Good advertorial copywriter swill be able to sound knowledgeable on the subject they’re writing about, even though they may be new to it. Great advertorial copywriters will know their client’s product inside out and will have conducted interviews to add further credibility and color.

When researching what the advertorial is selling, ask every “stupid” question that crosses your mind. These will probably be questions you might feel uncomfortable asking the client such as, “Wouldn’t it be simpler if your product just did X” or “Doesn’t X product already solve that problem?” If the questions occur to you, you can be sure they will occur to a decent percentage of your readers as well.

Get in front of these doubts and inoculate your client’s credibility within your content.

4. Study the publication

If your advertorial is to blend seamlessly with the publication, you’re going to have to do your homework and learn how to mimic the style. A newspaper might call for a standard editorial style, while a listicle or guide could be a better fit for web content. It might be one-page long or six. It could also include a short video.

Image source:

This advertorial for Simple offers an easily digestible read with tons of useful info for skincare (it just so happens that those tips involve Simple products). It’s style wouldn’t be out of place in a women’s health or fashion magazine and it in no way attempts to hide the fact that it’s an advert with a clear logo and call to action at the end.

Once you’ve got the style down, also consider that every publication will have different policies when it comes to advertorials, such as the obligation to include the word “Advertisement” or “Sponsored” at the top of the page. 

If you get all this right and have a proven track record of producing high-quality advertorials, some smaller publications might even offer you cheap or free space in exchange for valuable content.

5. Use a byline and photos

Making it clear that the piece was written by a bona fide journalist or expert in the field will give your advertorial credibility, particularly if the name is recognized by readers. Original photos with captions will also help your article blend into a standard news style.

Some media channels will have a policy of using the client’s name as the byline to distinguish it from genuine editorial content. Try to negotiate the all-important human-being angle, but understand the publisher’s objective to maintain its integrity.

6. Make it digestible

According to a Microsoft Corporation study, the average person today has an attention span of just eight seconds. That’s lower than a goldfish.

With that in mind, don’t present the reader with a huge block of text that would require them to consider whether or not they want to invest time in reading it. Use subheaders throughout the content and break it up with good-looking images and side boxes that make it easy to eat up every word you dish out.

Listicles are a great way to do this as readers can still scan through the salient points and get to the call to action even if they can’t be bothered to read it all.

7. Tell a story

Story is perhaps the most fundamental reason why we might choose to sell through an advertorial rather than a standard full-color ad. While great marketers are able to successfully use storytelling in their advertising creatives, taking the time to really engage with the reader and get them to buy into you is what sets an advertorial apart.

Telling a story allows you to tap into human emotions in a way that simple facts and figures tend not to. This is why the advertorial has often been the preferred marketing strategy for weight-loss and insurance companies, as it’s very easy for them to sell a feeling and not a product.

Image source:

Weight-loss companies never directly sell a program or milkshake; they’re selling self-esteem, lifestyle and physical beauty. They tap into the reader’s emotional pain in these areas and agitate it, creating villains in the form of confectioners and fast-food restaurants, then offer a solution while firmly establishing you as the hero of the tale.

The above example may be a little in your face, but it immediately addresses all the obstacles most people face when trying to get into shape and agitates the problem with hurtful insults many overweight people will have heard before. It makes the reader feel understood and keen to read on for the solution.

8. Sprinkle with quotes

Quotes are a great way to tell the reader how great the product is without screaming it at them directly. Aim to get second opinions through interviews with experts in the field and not just happy customers, because for all the readers knows they were paid to say nice things about it.

Also, be sure to ask questions that elicit color and engage the reader emotionally. If you’re interviewing the chemist that designed the new wonderdrug your client wants to market, bear in mind they might find the list of ingredients fascinating and won’t consider that all your average consumer cares about is results. Instead, ask questions like, “What does this drug mean for your average person suffering from X,” or “What was the most mind-blowing result of your clinical trials.” 

9. Open and close with a bang

Advertorials must give the reader a compelling reason to read past the headline; there’s your first big challenge. But on top of that, your piece must finish with an even more compelling argument for them to go out and spend money on something they might not have even been aware they wanted five minutes previously.

Hooking your audience and developing a narrative that keeps them reading until the end is imperative if they’re going to get to the call to action at the bottom. And it goes without saying your call to action must be clear, simple and contain any necessary contact details or webpages.

If you take one thing away from this guide, let it be the focus on offering value to the reader. Avoid any sneaky tactics you think people won’t notice like cramming web content with so many keywords it’s a chore to read or ignoring best practices in terms of titling the piece as an “advertorial” where necessary. Hell hath no fury like a reader scorned. They’ll flag you as spam, post negative comments or even write in to complain. On the flip side, a happy reader will share the article with their friends, put it up in their bar or help to build an online community around it.

At VeraContent, we know which one we’d prefer.