The rise of sponsored content or is it content marketing or is it native advertising?

Oct 19, 2016

The New York Times recently reported on sponsored content becoming King in a Facebook World. Advertisers have discovered that traditional digital advertising, such as banner ads, are too easy to ignore. So instead they are focusing on delivering information not only to the right audience at the right time rules the day, but in a way that blends in with the rest of the content.

If you’re a Facebook user, think about the “posts” with headlines such as “19 things the producers of the Beverly Hillbillies hid from fans.” It sounds like a fun article, and there are some interesting tidbits if you decide to go there. But the editorial is really just an excuse to get you to look at ads.

The issue I had with The Times’ article is the reporter, like many in the marketing world, sometimes bleeds the meaning of the term “sponsored content” in almost a synonymous manner with what those in the marketing world may also define as content marketing or native advertising.

These terms have some subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions  they are anything but one and the same. It’s important to understand the difference to ensure your execution of your digital marketing program follows your strategy.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is somewhat of a catch-all phrase used to describe the idea of informing customers and prospects about industry issues and other topics to generate interest in your organization and its products rather than overtly “selling” them.

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience  and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” Really, it’s a great way to build your brand as well as sales leads.

Yes, content marketing can and often does incorporate native advertising and sponsored content which is where the confusion regarding the three strategies comes in. But you don’t have to incorporate either native advertising or sponsored content within your overall content marketing strategy if your budget doesn’t allow for it, or if you have other priorities.

The key factor required for executing a “free” content marketing strategy is having subject matter experts who can provide compelling, authoritative content on a regular basis. Editors for leading media outlets are often in search of such thought leadership, especially now as their content needs continue to grow and their in-house staff shrinks. If your subject matter experts don’t have the time to develop the materials themselves, a PR agency with a strong background in journalism can help with the writing.

As long as the content is vendor-neutral (i.e., not overtly promoting your products or services) and focuses on the challenges their readers are facing or will soon face in the market, you are likely to find media outlets interested in these contributed pieces. These types of pieces have high credibility because they appear as regular content, and they can’t be bought. The content must meet the content standards of the publication.

But content marketing isn’t just about the media. Your organization’s self-generated and published content can be distributed through complimentary channels such as webinars, white papers, e-books, and case studies. It can also be published as thought leadership articles, videos and infographics either on your own blog or elsewhere on your website.

You may also want to measure the lead generation impact of your proprietary and complimentary content marketing programs, whether they are self-published or published on a third-party content distribution platform. Various metrics you can and should evaluate are subscribers to your self-published content, requests for information from webinars, and leads generated as a result of thought leadership articles, infographics or videos published on third-party media distribution platforms.

Native Advertising

The Native Advertising Institute describes native advertising as “paid advertising where the ad matches the form, feel and function of the content of the media on which it appears.” It’s similar to an advertorial, but with much more care taken to create a more seamless appearance. And without the overt self-promotion that normally characterizes advertorials.

Native advertising is an area of rapid growth. Business Intelligence Insider reports that spending on native ads will reach $7.9 billion this year and grow to $21 billion in 2018.

Native advertising is actually a subset of content marketing  a pure pay-to-play brand awareness strategy that offers useful and engaging content targeted at building trust with a specific audience your organization is trying to influence higher up in the sales funnel. (Steve Olenski, a contributor to the Forbes CMO blog, breaks down the key characteristics of the six types of native advertising in this post.)

Studies have found that a good, useful piece of authoritative content distributed on a paid platform is more likely to be shared with other purchasing influencers and decision makers, helping accelerate the sales cycle. Native ads can also gain more traction via promoted Facebook posts and sponsored Twitter feeds, ideal for today’s mobile sharing world. They are also oblivious to the ad blocking technology that users increasingly rely on to escape the tyranny of banner ads and pop-ups.

Native advertising is not published with the heavy hand of traditional digital advertisements of yesteryear that directly promoted your company, products or services through a call to action (i.e., banner ads)  CTAs that interrupt the natural flow of the user experience within the content distribution channel. Instead, brand marketers are finding that the friendly, helpful and consultative design of the content makes it more likely that users will engage with the content provider.

So when may you want to consider native advertising? If you have the budget from the get-go, native advertising is a great marketing asset to incorporate into your content marketing program. The IPG Media Lab, in conjunction with Sharethrough, the native advertising platform company that hosts the NATIVE conferences, found that consumers looked at native ads 52% more frequently than banner ads.

Sponsored Content

A word of caution here about sponsored content, which is often confused with native advertising. The difference is that the content for native advertising is usually developed by the vendor or their PR or ad agency; in the case of sponsored content, the platform publisher creates the relevant content in its own voice, and then fits the brand into it. This is content is usually created by writers hired by the publisher, not writers you or your agency may have recruited.

A good example of sponsored content is what The Onion did for H&R Block in April 2014 using its sarcastic humorous tone to raise brand awareness for the tax-filing company. The post, although looking much like any other Onion post, ended up being surrounded by H&R Block advertising, which can also put off some readers. (For more examples of sponsored content and native advertising, check out this Copyblogger post.)

However, sponsored content, if used properly, can help raise brand awareness by aligning your brand with content being distributed through an authoritative publishing platform. For instance, it can take the form of an advertorial, featuring a case study of one of your customers, with your brand more prominently featured within the context of a traditional ad layout. Or an executive byline, such as those that appear in digital health supplements to USA Today.

Making content work

Content remains King, but today there are many more options within that kingdom. By understanding the differences between content marketing, native advertising and sponsored content you can develop the program that best suits your goals and audience, and delivers the best ROI.

Sponsored content is available through media buys that Amendola Communications can help your organization negotiate with leading publishing platforms. The Content Marketing Institute also offers a great toolkit of checklists, templates and guides to help you think through your content marketing strategies. For more information on Amendola’s content marketing and media buying capabilities  including thought leadership and sponsored content campaigns please contact Jodi Amendola at

Tim Boivin

Tim Boivin is a seasoned PR strategist with experience across a dozen vertical markets including healthcare, technology and supply chain. Tim's diverse skill set includes leading accounts, managing teams and budgets, developing and implementing communications strategies, as well as hands-on, results-oriented public relations and social media programs. Tim's career in media and public relations began in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning journalist and public affairs professional. Prior to joining Amendola, Tim spent 12 years at Tech Image, Chicago's leading independent high-tech public relations firm, where he managed agency operations and led an award-winning team.