It’s hard to go 5 minutes in today’s marketing and media world without hearing the words “Sponsored Content”, “Native Advertising” and their frequent companion “Content Marketing”. Unfortunately, most of the folks slinging around these terms have very little idea what they actually mean, and tend to mix them up in one fuzzy pool of cool sounding words. So here, in the interest of clarity, are some definitions.

Native Advertising

This term has rocketing out of nowhere to hit the top 40 of buzzy marketing lingo (in fact a check of Google Trends shows the term taking off in roughly August of last year and still rising rapidly in interest).

Native Advertising Sponsored Content Google TrendsThe challenge is that many in the industry are using this as a catch-all term to describe anything that’s not a standard ad unit (and any ad concept that they’ve come up with that they want to sound cutting edge). Further confusing things– as Digiday has pointed out– is that the media is using Native Ads and related terms like Sponsored Content, Advertorial Content, and Custom Content– “interchangeably”.

Author and Digital Marketing expert Mitch Joel gave an excellent description of Native Advertising in his recent Harvard Business Review article on the topic:

“I define native advertising as an ad format that must be created specifically for one media channel in terms of the technical format and the content- (ie the creative that is placed within that format). Both must be native to the channel on which they appear and unable to be used in another context.”

The translation? Native advertising is by definition an ad format that only exists on one site or platform. It can be bought and viewed only on that platform- like a Facebook Sponsored Story unit appears only on Facebook, and Twitter’s Promoted Tweets only show up in a Twitter stream. They fit so naturally into the already existing flow of that site, that they “blend”—and are ideally seen as being as useful as the content. Joel takes a more conservative stance in arguing that while many use the term “Native” to typically describe efforts like this one created by Atlantic for Porsche called “Where Design Meets Technology”, these are in reality just Sponsored Content. They are not truly unique, and can be replicated in many places. Deep Focus CEO Ian Shafer agreed in a Mashable article last fall that this type of Sponsored Content/Advertorial approaches do not fall under the Native umbrella, defining it more narrowly as “Advertising that takes advantage of a platform in the ways consumers are actually using it.” The current reality is, however, that there is a lot of confusion and debate in the industry, reflected by IAB Chairman Randall Rothenberg’s comment– after a recent IAB leadership summit debate on the topic– that “this (definition) is evolving”.

Below, an example of what most would agree is a Native ad- a Facebook Suggested Post unit that appears in-stream in a user’s news feed:

Facebook Sponsored Story

Sponsored Content

On the whole I agree with Josh Sternberg’s definition on Digiday of Sponsored Content:

When a brand pays a publisher to have its name and/or message associated with a particular story….You’ll see phrases like “brought to you by,” “presented by,” or “sponsored by.” This is not content produced by the brand. The marketer is given a broad topic area that it can choose to associate its brand with.

There are debates– under this definition– about how much influence the advertiser has over the content creation process. Joel argues that “The marketer does not get a say in what will be produced, at least not in the type of sponsored content programs run by sites like Mashable, Business Insider and Digiday.” Jeff Sonderman of Poynter agrees, pointing out that content created for the a certain media platform must “fit” the voice of that platform, and not cross the line of over-sell (which pushes it into Advertorial land). He writes:

It’s important that sponsored content still primarily serve the reader. That can be easier said than done; when sponsors are paying for the content, they want it to promote their interests. But a sponsor is unlikely to benefit by trying to make a “hard sell” of products and services. Nobody likes to sit through aggressive sales pitches. They’ll stop reading an article that feels like one, and they certainly won’t be sharing it with their friends.

Sonderman also advocates that a good rule of thumb to guide your standards related to publishing Sponsored Content is to essentially ask yourself the question- “would we publish this content if we weren’t being paid to”? If the answer isn’t yes, then you may be crossing into the zone of The Atlantic’s Scientology piece controversy.

Content Marketing

As mentioned above, the word “Content Marketing” also seems to be used interchangeably with Sponsored Content and Native Advertising. The issue with this is it’s a little like using the word “life form” when you’re describing a squirrel. Technically it’s correct, but the word Content Marketing refers to a whole universe of Marketing strategies and tactics far beyond just the narrow practices people are using it to describe. Content Marketing includes tactics like blogs, e-books, photos, video, webinars, infographics, events, Facebook posts, Twitter posts, Google+ posts, etc.– a whole range of channels that could fill a page by itself. It also– as I described in an earlier post on Content Marketing– represents a foundational philosophy and approach that most are clueless about when they sling around the word. One of the founders of the Content Marketing movement Joe Pulizzi described it best when he posted this definition on his blog:

Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.

So there, hopefully, is a little more clarity on the subject of cool-sounding marketing words. Obviously this debate is not over, and these terms will continue to be the subject of heated discussions as individuals stretch the boundaries of what these words mean. But at least you won’t sound like a rookie when you join the conversation.