The difference between native ads and sponsored content

Everyone is trying to navigate the tricky execution of paid content in the form of native ads or sponsored content. The excitement in the publishing and advertising world for paid content has led to a lot of publishers, brands, commentators, and bloggers throwing out terms like “native ads” and “sponsored content” and “content marketing” with no real differentiation. Do they really demand differentiation? Or is it just drawing lines in the sand?

Well, a little of both. Native ads, content marketing, and sponsored content all need to comply with ethical concerns and best practices. They also do demand different definitions because they have different intentions.

Defining paid content terms

Native advertising is paid content that blends naturally into the function and form of a site’s user experience whilst producing a call to action. What this means is that, unlike other forms of non-intrusive advertising, its primary objective is to sell a product or service using brand-biased content. Then to offer interesting content.

According to Sharethrough, there are several types of native ads. They could be promoted listings on search engines, content recommendations below an article, or in-feed ads. In-feed ads often pop up as advertorials, where a brand mimics the host publication’s tone or site by creating a blog or article to convince the audience of the product or brand.

This is where native ads and sponsored content can split off from one another. Native ads are “disguised” advertisements there to sell a product or brand (though the FTC does state that they need to have an identification tag on them somewhere).

Sponsored content, on the other hand, is a form of content marketing, where the focus is informing rather than convincing an audience. It is not brand-biased and is purely editorial with the hope that audiences will enjoy the content and gain further awareness of the brand. With content marketing the brand becomes the publisher by informing, educating, or entertaining the potential user.

Let’s study a few case examples.

The Onion joined in the paid content game with an article by H&R Block about filing taxes. It maintains the culture and humorous tone of the satirical newspaper. Is it a native ad or sponsored post?

Photo: (Disclosure: I grabbed this picture from CopyBlogger as I couldn’t grab the best image of it)

This is an effective sponsored post as the article does not have a call to action to go use the product. Rather, it is a blended sponsored content post created for better brand goodwill all the while keeping with The Onion’s satirical tone.

Promoted social media like Facebook’s sponsored posts and Twitter’s promoted tweets are a tricky subject. Is there a call to action within the message? Is the paid content asking you to click on it?

Screenshot of The Hollywood Reporter's Facebook post

This Facebook post promoting The Hollywood Reporter says “sponsored” but is there a call to action? No, there is not. In fact, the advertiser wants you to enjoy the content The Hollywood Reporter has created for you. Thus, this is a sponsored post. Let’s talk about Twitter, though. Some of these promoted tweets are actually promoting a product.

Screenshot from Twitter

There is a call to action here, and it’s blended into the Twitter experience. It’s a native ad. The Atlantic has taken some heat for past butchered paid content experiments but they are still firmly in the paid content game. In a recent sponsored post for the Lincoln Motor Company about sound, the article tackles the innovations and designs in uncovering good sounds. Yet towards the end of the article, it directly mentions the company and its innovation.

Source: Screenshot

Is it a native ad or sponsored post? This definitely leans toward being a native ad because of the selling language used to promote the brand. But I’d also argue that it is a bad native ad because it doesn’t really fit in with the culture or visual presence of the publication. Again, this is a bit of a blunder for The Atlantic’s native ad track record.

It’s important to know the differences between these forms of paid content in order to have content that reflects the brand, publication and also message. Want to make the content have a call to action? Tailor it to be a native ad. Want to offer good content for good will? Employ good content marketing techniques.

Now that you can tell the difference between native ads and sponsored content, here are the best practices to employ for paid content.

Image credit: See-ming Lee

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