Ask a Content Strategist

Ask a Content Strategist: What’s the Difference Between Sponsored Content and Native Advertising?

By Joe Lazauskas April 20th, 2016

As Contently’s editor-in-chief, my job is to immerse myself in every intricacy of the content marketing industry. It’d be a waste for other people in the company to spend all day contemplating the subtle differences between branded content, brand journalism, native advertising, and sponsored content—sales bros have better things to do with their time. But it does make sense to hire someone who can geek out on content all day and answer everyone’s questions.

Every day, someone from our company comes to me with a content question—a best practice, a trend, a definition. It makes me feel like the Oracle, except far less cool than Gloria Foster. So we decided to launch “Ask a Content Guy,” a monthly mailbag in which I answer our readers’ most pressing questions.

In a nutshell, what’s just one sentence to describe content marketing?

—Keith, Palatine Bridge, New York

First off, Keith, if you’re stuck in a nutshell, it’s kind of messed up that you’re worrying about the definition of content marketing.

sponsored content native advertising

Now that I’ve set a really low bar for jokes in this mailbag, here’s how we define content marketing:

Content marketing (n.): The use of storytelling to build relationships with consumers by providing them with something entertaining or useful.

Pretty simple. The key here is the focus on the consumer—for something to qualify as content marketing, it has to provide actual value. A lot of what people try to pass off as “content marketing” are just long display ads pasted into an article format. This weird native ad from the NSA is not content marketing.

I am still a little lost with some concepts and their relation. I believe that content marketing has them all inside, but what is the relation and difference between branded content, brand journalism, native advertising, and sponsored content?

—José, Madrid, Spain

José, you are not alone. This stuff is confusing. Going to a marketing conference nowadays can feel like stepping into a Newspeak Orwellian universe, featuring Pepperidge Farm’s keynote on how you need to SoLoMo your roll.

Here’s how I define those four terms:

Branded content: A synonym for content marketing (see above).

Brand journalism: An incredibly confusing term specially designed to piss off Jeff Jarvis, Copyranter, and other industry watchdogs. It’s used—incorrectly—by many brands that start a blog and want to play journalist. The term should be restricted to brands that sponsor editorially independent journalism—think T Mobile’s Electronic Beats or… yeah, that’s the only good example I can think of. And that’s the problem. Right now, brand journalism doesn’t really exist.

Native advertising: An umbrella term for ads that mirror the environment they appear in. Google search ads are the granddaddy of digital native advertising, and in-feed Facebook ads are the most lucrative type of native advertising today.

Sponsored content: In the media industry, native advertising is often used synonymously with sponsored content. However, the two terms are not synonymous. Sponsored content is just one type of native advertising—the brand-sponsored articles and videos that appear on the sites and social platforms of publishers and influencers.

For example, this BuzzFeed listicle of 12 tweets about being hungry, sponsored by Wendy’s, is both sponsored content and a native ad. This search ad for caninestyles.com that shows up when you Google “victorian dog sweater” is a native ad, but it’s not sponsored content.

sponsored content native advertising

Basically, sponsored content is the intersection of native advertising and branded content, while brand journalism is floating off in Gibberish Land. Here’s all of them in a Venn diagram:

sponsored content native advertising

How do you sell newer social media channels into the organization, especially when they have no measurable KPIs associated with them (e.g., Snapchat)?

—Kristen, St. Paul, Minnesota

The first thing you need to figure out is if the new channel is actually worth pursuing.

My first editorial job out of college was as a social media editor at Babble, a Park Slope hipster parenting magazine. After we spammed Google with about 40 blog posts about the Royal Wedding (“Royal Engagement Wedding Cakes: 7 They Might Try!”), our search traffic plummeted and our panicked editor commanded me to make it up by launching our Tumblr presence.

The problem: The only moms on Tumblr at the time were Canadian teens. Not exactly Babble’s audience. I tried to build our presence, but it was a waste of time. Blindly jumping on the next big thing is a very easy way to get fired.

To start, look at your own content. Are you getting shares and referral traffic from social networks that you’re not active on? Showing that data is an easy way to get buy-in. Alternatively, you can also take a deeper look at the sites you aspire to be like. If you want to be the next Refinery29, use tools like BuzzSumo and SimplyMeasured to see where their content gets shared and where their referral traffic comes from. It’s a smart way for you to convince your boss either way.

Snapchat is trickier. Due to its closed nature, it doesn’t have the kind of accessible analytics we see on other sites, which means you’ll have to rely on anecdotal evidence. Find a handful of incredibly compelling case studies of people or companies who are reaching your target audience on the social network. Tell their stories. That’s your best chance at selling a new channel in your organization.

Do you prefer focusing your budget on a special piece of content hoping for lasting impact and traction, or spreading your budget so that you can produce content all year long?

—Matthieu, Montreal, Canada

Ah, the quantity vs. quantity question. It’s the classic “Why are we here?” existential quandary for marketers.

The jerk answer I could give is: Do both! But that’s not very helpful if you’re a marketing manager with 15 hours a week to devote to content, a $631 budget, and a dog intern. (Use the serial comma, Fluffy!) Ultimately, I’d try to follow two rules:

1. Mediocre content isn’t worth it. Not for social. Not for brand building. Not for search. Publishing for the sake of publishing is like throwing a birthday party at Arby’s. You could do it, but why?

2. You need to publish enough to grow an email newsletter. You can only build an audience if you publish enough to get them to keep going back. And the best way to build a dedicated audience is still the email newsletter. That doesn’t mean you need to publish every day, especially if your content is really good. Just look at Wait But Why, the wildly popular blog by Tim Urban and Andrew Finn that has nearly half a million subscribers despite only publishing a few posts each month.

Save your budget for quality work. But think about scaling your content once you get more buy-in.

What does that scaling look like? CHART TIME!

sponsored content native advertising

This is a template of the Crawl → Walk → Run staffing model from the content methodology report I co-wrote with Rebecca Lieb. This chart was a lot uglier when I sent it to our design team, but now that it looks professional, hopefully it’ll help.

Okay, that’s enough for this week. If you have a question for next month’s column, please submit it here! You can also tweet it @JoeLazauskas, because we are all hip, social people here.

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