30 October 2009
There’s a growing number of advertorials being published in Hong Kong and Asian media – sometimes in controversial circumstances – so when Marketing magazine asked me to write a piece for their own blog this topic immediately suggested itself. Marketing’s blog is Chui Sui Central, Cantonese for “blowing water” which means ”casually chatting”. Read on…
Is it time to “blow water” all over advertorials as the literal English translation of this column title would suggest, to pour water and leave a mess of soggy newsprint? Or shall we, as the Chinese meaning suggests, explore their potential role in strategic communications to inform the public?
There’s already a bit of talk around Hong Kong about an advertorial which has popped up on p4 of the South China Morning Post (Friday October 23 2009). Promoting the proposed cross-border express rail link between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, its headline promised “Express Rail Link to Put Hong Kong on Fast Track to Greater Prosperity”. With a small “Sponsored Feature” in the top right hand corner, it’s not immediately clear who has paid for or written the article, but there are a couple of references to “a government paper” and “the government”.
It’s not in the Chui Shui Central column’s brief to discuss the advertorial’s political points. The Big Lychee (formerly known as Hemlock) has commented in prose which lives up to the promise of the blog’s tagline “Watching the sun set, little by little, on Asia’s greatest city”. There’s also another critical blog piece on the satirical (and highly amusing) The Dark Side
What is clear is that there’s a growing trend among corporations and government to turn to advertorials as they seek to gain ‘cut through’ in cluttered communications, advertising and editorial environments. Whether it’s a government trying to bolster support for policies and projects or companies raising awareness of programmes or promotions, this is a tactic which is gaining increasing traction with advertisers.
And media outlets, faced with declining spends on traditional advertising and dwindling audiences, are encouraging the trend. However there’s some news to report here – in some cases media proprietors are encouraging the blurring of advertising and editorial spaces by putting increased pressure and requirements on journalists to write positively about advertisers or devote column space when they usually wouldn’t have covered them. This is a trend occurring from London to New York and right here in Hong Kong.
The key question is whether advertorials are effective in winning support or persuading stakeholders?
Research indicates that advertorials sit somewhere in the middle of readers’ trust levels when consuming print media. People reading magazines most appreciated theme features, those editorial features where brands are presented in small segments of text, according to Peter Neijens, Eva Van Reijmersdal and Erik Do Vos in a paper presented to the International Communication Association. Readers then more appreciated and accepted advertorials than advertisements.
In this new age of conversations digitally and offline consumers are also becoming more demanding in their expectations and interactions from advertising. As a result, greater value and impact is being delivered via other channels – editorial, social media and word of mouth. The key to success with these channels is the credibility, confidence and connections to convince third party influencers who are willing to speak convincingly about a brand, company or government project they support.
There is no doubt though advertorials have a role to play in communications programmes; they are one of many channels to be deployed in the right circumstances. What really matters though is execution – targeted, informative and authentic writing are crucial, together with excellent production.
Put another way, advertisers (shall we say) ‘blowing water’ or spouting on about how wonderful they are in a manner which lacks objectivity in advertorials are wasting their precious marketing budgets and credibility. It’s when advertorials are poorly conceived and produced, providing little value to readers that they grate the most with media consumers – and other, more critical, stakeholders.
Some considerations for communication with audiences via advertorials include:
- Engage –Deliver information that is helpful, practical or will stimulate the audience to want to know more.
- Connect – Build connections with the audience by tapping into their motivations. What are their desires, concerns, expectations or fears? Address those. If there are concerns in media counteract those with your most compelling arguments.
- Integrate – An advertorial that is one-off or part of a limited number is not a good investment, audiences need repeated exposure to messages and concepts. The piece should be integrated with and cross-reference other communications materials, and ideally stimulate the reader so that they want to know more eg online.
- Transparency – Be up front about who you are and what you are trying to communicate. Obfuscation merely raises suspicion. Readers these days are very adept at ‘reading between the lines’.
- Innovate – Don’t fall into the same trap of advertisers who try to imitate the style and layout of the publication, which is merely your vehicle. Provide readers with a better and more interesting experience – they will remember you for that and be open to obtaining more information in future.