Sponsored content, branded content, and native advertising. Oh my. When it comes to content, we’re not in Kansas anymore. As the worlds of marketing and publishing collide, you might hear such terms thrown around. Let’s take a closer look at these terms and their implications for marketers and media properties.

First Things First: Definitions + Examples

Branded content, sponsored content, and native advertising are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction.

Branded Content

Quite simply, branded content is content that brands publish themselves on their own sites or platforms. For example, American Express publishes Open Forum. A recent example we shared was running research for FootSmart’s The Running Shop.

Sponsored Content and Native Advertising

Sponsored content and native advertising are similar to branded content. A brand publishes content. The main difference from branded content is where the content publishes. Sponsored content and native advertising are released on the publisher’s site or media property. For example, Forbes’ BrandVoice is a native advertising platform that offers articles about useful topics from a slew of brands ranging from Oracle to UPS on Forbes.com.

Why Care About These Kinds of Content?

Branded content, sponsored content, and native advertising have emerged for many reasons. One reason that I mention in “Clout” is that digital advertising (aka blasting banner ads!!!), doesn’t work that well. It never has worked that well and never will for anything more than awareness, but banner ads are ridiculously lucrative for digital advertising agencies. Media buying (buying ad space for those banner ads!!!) is so automated and lacking in accountability even an intern can do it. But, the bottom line is they’re not that effective for marketers. On top of that, they’re not terribly lucrative for publishers. So, marketers and publishers are open to, if not downright looking for, alternatives.

Intrigued? Let’s explore the opportunity for publishers and marketers.

Opportunity Bangs Loudly For Marketers And Publishers

People are spending more time online than ever, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices. People want content, not ads,  online. So, content offers intriguing opportunities for publishers and marketers alike. What are those opportunities, exactly? They depend on your exact company and situation, but here are the broad ones.

Publishers and Media: Reinvention As Platforms

For publishers and media properties, the main opportunity is to become less a server of ads and more a platform for sponsored content and native advertising. If publishers become the platform for brands in the way Forbes has, then they get around the advertising system and open up many lucrative possibilities. Forbes’ new BrandVoice, for example, was responsible for 10% of Forbes 2012 revenue.

Marketers: Reinvention as Niche Publishers + Publishing Partners

For marketers, all three types of content we’ve discussed—branded content, sponsored content, and native advertising—are opportunities to reach customers in a more compelling way than banner ads. The trick is to offer quality content about niche topics without breaking the bank. Another  opportunity with sponsored content and native advertising is to partner your brand closely with a respected media property or publisher. It’s one thing to buy an ad. It’s another thing entirely to collaborate with a publisher on rich content for the publisher’s platform.

The opportunities here are a 10,000-foot view of the upside for branded content, sponsored content, and native advertising. But, there are potential downsides. Let’s take a closer look.

Potential Pitfalls

As you explore the opportunities, watch for pitfalls like these.

Weakened Credibility for Brands and Publishers

In “Clout,” I pointed out a downside that is still true. Implemented poorly, sponsored content and native advertising could weaken the credibility of publishers and brands. Remember the fiasco of Pepsi starting a nutrition blog on Science Blogs—without disclosing Pepsi’s sponsorship? When the sponsorship came to light, Pepsi and the publisher lost the trust of influential scientists (the main audience for the blogs) and suffered a wider backlash of negative attention on social and mainstream media.

To avoid a downside like that, publishers and media properties need three essentials.

  1. A strategy for your particular angle or approach on sponsored content or native advertising, which aligns with your editorial vision.
  2. A well-planned user experience that makes the source of the content clear and compelling.
  3. Strong guidance for brands to ensure the content they provide is high quality and fits the strategy.

Low-Quality, Ineffective Content

Another potential downside is that the content created ultimately isn’t useful, relevant, or compelling because marketers rush to create it or create it on the cheap. In other words, there is a risk that the content will suck and, as a result, not get the results marketers want. For every good example I pointed out above, there are many bad examples.

To avoid a downside like this, publishers and media properties help by providing strong guidance on sponsored content and native advertising (see item three above). When marketers publish branded content themselves, however, the burden is on them to establish high content standards as part of their branding guidelines. For example, we collaborated with FootSmart to establish an editorial framework that helps any internal team member, partner, or agency who might contribute content do so at the right level of quality.

The bottom line? To make the most of your opportunities with branded content, sponsored content, and native advertising, don’t enter into them lightly. You’re not in Kansas anymore. Do your homework to avoid the risks and enjoy many rewards.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in May 2013.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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