Social Content? Customized Advertising? Not Display Ads? How Top Publishers Define Sponsored Content

Navigating the sponsored content landscape can be confusing, since one publisher’s “sponsored series” is often another publisher’s “branded content.” The definition will only continue to change as publishers try out new branded products and services, customized to their publications and audiences.

We asked a few major publishers to explain what sponsored content means for their publications. Here’s what they said.

BuzzFeed: “Social content”

Instead of “sponsored content,” BuzzFeed calls its branded posts “social content,” emphasizing the need for the content to be shareable.

The viral darling is also keen to call its social content “native advertising,” since it fits neatly within the BuzzFeed ethos.

“It can really only be native if it’s at the core of your business model—you have to contextualize the brand that’s personalized for the audience,” says Melissa Rosenthal, BuzzFeed’s director of creative services. “Every plan and every program we run is custom created for the brand. We have designers and researchers that look for trends and come up with new types of content, and things that will continue to be shared. If we see something is working on the editorial side, there’s no reason it can’t work for us as well.”

For example, Virgin Mobile partnered with BuzzFeed to bring you “18 Guys Who Totally Have A Girlfriend.”

BuzzFeed social content media content marketing

The Onion: “Customized advertising”

“We define sponsored content as any article/feature/video that is commissioned by an advertiser to further their brands messaging all the while entertaining the audience,” says The Onion President Mike McAvoy. Wrapped into its sponsored content are native advertising units, says McAvoy. “Native advertising means its a customized advertising experience unique—and similar to our editorial content—on The Onion’s platform.”

Here’s one of The Onion’s sponsored videos for Cottonelle:

The Onion customized advertising media content marketing

New York magazine: “Not display ads”

“Most broadly, we refer to anything happening on our sites that is not in pre-determined display ad real estate as sponsored content,” says Ron Stokes, of New York magazine.

Sponsored content, Stokes says, is done by the marketing team, generally only text and visuals, and is approved by editors. But sponsored content isn’t to be confused with its sponsored series, which are written by the editorial team.

“This year we started a series called ‘pop-up blogs’ where editorial will share a multiple of possible topics for a limited time for an advertiser,” says Stokes. “We look for clients that are not in that same business but that have an appreciation for that aesthetic. For example, a recent one was a blog on Paris for 30 days that fragrance house, Chloé, sponsored. The fragrance had no specific connection to the geography, but it had to do with sensibility.”

Here’s what the “pop-up blog” looks like:

New York magazine not display ads media content marketing

The Atlantic: “Sponsor content”

“At The Atlantic, ‘sponsor content,’ as we call it, is any content that either our brand partner creates or that Atlantic Re:think, our in-house creative group, develops with, or on behalf of, a sponsor—and is, therefore, clearly labeled as such,” says Sam Rosen, VP of marketing at The Atlantic.

“We do adapt the presentation of different types of sponsor content, based on the experience we feel the content warrants. If a brand wants to do a more magazine-style, lengthier piece, for example, we’ve developed a new, innovative, more immersive storytelling template, but we’ll still use the same visual cues and language to clearly differentiate it from editorial content.”

For The Atlantic, native advertising isn’t simply content marketing, or even branded content. Rosen says, “‘Native advertising,’ in our world, doesn’t simply mean a brand is creating and then distributing their content. Native, to us, is a sensibility, not a format. It all comes down to a matter of alignment, and whether any one piece of content is truly ‘native’ to how we at The Atlantic serve and engage our readers.”

A look at The Atlantic‘s infographic content for IBM:

The Atlantic sponsor content media content marketing

What’s the deal with The Content Strategist? It’s something we created at Contently because we believe in a world where marketing is helpful, and businesses grow by telling stories that people love. Take advantage of our tools and talent and come build that world with us.

BuzzFeed social content media content marketing

Image by Martin Pettitt

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