The hierarchy of branded content: defining sponsored content, native ads, and advertorials

There’s no longer any dispute regarding the importance of content marketing. Brands have adopted and incorporated content marketing into their regular marketing activities. Blog posts, infographics, videos, podcasts—brands get the idea. However, as content marketing becomes more sophisticated with new channels, tools, and methods, it’s becoming more and more difficult to understand the differences between sponsored content and native ads, advertorials and paid content distribution, and every other buzzword. Now, the lines are blurred more than ever.

And make no mistake—it’s important that we distinguish what sponsored content is from native ads and advertorials and so on and so forth. Why? Because our audiences need to know. According to a study by Contently, when asked whether a piece of content was an ad or article, the general consensus amongst consumers was “I don’t know.” This is especially problematic as consumers often feel deceived upon realizing that a story was sponsored by a brand.

So we must classify and distinguish the nuances of branded content. The most common classifications of content (both paid and unpaid) associated with content marketing include branded and sponsored content, advertorials, and native ads.

How do advertorials and branded content fit into the picture? What makes a piece of content more of an ad than an article? Where does sponsored content fit in this web? Working backward, we’ve decided what makes a piece of branded content distinctly brandedregardless of the way it’s presented where proper classification becomes more difficult to determine. Here are our definitions and the key differences between sponsored content, native ads, and advertorials.

Defining branded content

What is branded content? What defines branded content? While there’s much debate about the most accurate definition of “branded content,” one of the most functional definitions comes from the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA), as commissioned in their “Defining Branded Content for the Digital Age” study: “branded content is any content that can be associated with a brand in the eye of the beholder.”

Although this definition places the burden on the consumer to pick out the brand association, it does not exclude classifications like sponsored, advertorial, or native—but is all encompassing. What we like most about this definition, however, is that it suggests that branded content sits on top of all other content classifications, so long as a brand can be distinctly associated with a piece of content.

In other words branded content is at the top of the food chain.

Defining native advertising

Though native advertising has the word “advertising” in its name, you often won’t be able to mistake it as such from the look and feel of it. That’s by design. StackAdapt defines native advertising as “a form of advertising that integrates high-quality content into the organic experience of a given platform through native ad units that conform to the design and feel of the sites on which they display.” 

Once a user clicks on a native ad unit, they may be led to a story page on the publisher’s site, or off site to a third-party property. Regardless of where the ultimate destination is, the defining characteristic of native ads is that they should seamlessly blend into the natural user experience of a site. They are never disruptive in the manner that traditional banner and display advertisements would be.

However, when it comes to the actual content itself, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between what’s sponsored content vs. advertorial vs. pure native. Some would argue that native ads are more akin to advertorials than sponsored content (i.e. native ads should be more product/service and brand-biased). However, others argue that sponsored content and native ads are one and the same. It depends on your perspective.

We would argue that native ads should be classified on a case-by-case basis. Publishers, brands, and branded publications regularly use native advertising platforms to amplify their content’s reach, regardless of whether the promoted pieces read more like editorial or an advertorial. Since native advertising is at the top of the branded content hierarchy, it really depends on how a piece of content is being specifically used for us to define it.

Defining sponsored content

We previously defined sponsored content as “a form of content marketing, where the focus is informing rather than convincing an audience.” Sponsored content should be developed using editorial best practices, with its primary purpose being to inform, educate, or entertain a reader.

However, what makes a piece of content “sponsored” is that a brand or company has paid to make the production of the content possible. The brand does not necessarily see content production from beginning to end but helps contribute in some form (usually financially). In doing so, a brand is typically associated with the finished product and disclosed as having “sponsored” the article in some way by the publisher. Think of a professional soccer team being sponsored by Nike. While the team runs independently, Nike gets their logo on the jerseys.

Defining advertorials

An advertorial, as the name would suggest, is a blend of an “advertisement” and “editorial.” Unlike sponsored content, which became popularized during the late 2000’s, advertorials date back to the late 1940s before the invention of the internet.

Advertorials are similar to sponsored content in the sense that they are designed to look like traditional articles that would appear in a publication; they are also paid for by a brand to appear on a third-party publisher’s site. However, unlike sponsored content, advertorials retain the overt brand product/service-bias of traditional advertisements.

A general rule of thumb to distinguish between the two: see whether the content is shaped around a product or service and if the general tone tries to convince and/or persuade. If so, then you’re most likely looking at an advertorial than a true piece of sponsored content, even if the article is disclosed as having been “sponsored”.

The hierarchy of branded content

What ties all the types of branded content together? One common thread is that a piece of content—either through production or distribution—were all made possible by a brand’s dollars. As such, they must be labeled correctly (but not necessarily identified). Publishers are legally required to disclose when a piece of content was paid for. Hence, the common “sponsored by” or “brought to you by” labels attributed to content.

These labels absolutely make a piece of content branded. Whether a brand is mentioned in passing or explicitly within the body of the content, or even simply acknowledged as a sponsor, if a publisher disclosure is present, then the content is branded content. Whether the piece is realized as sponsored content, an advertorial, or native ad is up to the editorial managers and content creators to decide. But make no mistake—they are branded to some extent.

branded content

Not every piece of branded content is out to promote a brand and its products and services. In fact, great branded content should read no different than great editorial content. The key takeaway is to not think of sponsored content, advertorials, or native ads as independent from branded content, but as labels only serving to further classify branded content, which still falls under the larger umbrella of content marketing.

Image: everything possible/Shutterstock

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