October 25, 2012 / by Frank Strong

Advertorials blend advertisements and editorial. It’s a concept that’s existed at least since 1946, according to Merriam-Webster.   Wikipedia defines them as advertisements “usually written in the form of an objective article and designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story.”

In the printed world, magazines and newspapers usually boxed advertorials in neat little packages with different fonts and text to clearly delineate what was advertising and what was editorial.  Today however, more and more media is digital. Advertorials have been renamed “sponsored posts” and the distinction between editorial and advertising isn’t always crystal clear.

So say the traditionalists.  For example, Advertising Age called the Business Insider’s new sponsored content a “crazy new strategy to boost ad revenue.”  The criticism comes both from concerns over the appearance of compromised editorial integrity – and the business model.

“Sponsored online content, which blurs some of the traditional boundaries between advertising and editorial, isn’t new,” writes The Wall Street Journal in a story on Buzzfeed’s sponsor post program, adding that “Gawker Media introduced sponsored posts in 2009 in the stream of its regular blog posts. Forbes.com and Huffington Post also have introduced similar advertorials.”

The same Journal article also cites the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s CEO who opined that the demand for content means that sponsored posts cannot gain the “efficiencies of scale that the standardized formats of banner ads can.”

I remember pitching a trade publication for a niche start-up company a decade ago.  I was floored when the editor responded with a pitch for advertising.  At first, I though his implicit message was that the pitch was poor, so I set to work on improving it.  However overtime, I began to realize, what he really meant was that if we advertised…we’d get covered.

The question of blurring media has been percolating for some time. Marketer and PR blogger Cassie Boon recently wrote on her blog Ask A PR Girl, that “bloggers forced advertising and editorial departments to talk to each other.”  In a brainstorming session about this post, Geoff Livingston, who we have hired as a consultant, described the blurring of media as “playing chicken with the FTC.”

While I do not believe accepting sponsored posts is equivalent to selling your editorial soul, I can understand the objections.  Even so, as we have watched the state of the media fall victim to shrinking print advertising revenue, newsroom staff and closures, I think digital publications are smart to experiment with new models.  Arguably, it’s imperative.  As the Journal article points out, the $8.6 billion banner ad market is larger than $1.5 billion sponsored content market, but it’s also shrinking as the latter grows.

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