Sponsored content / native advertising appears in many ways. There is no single form, but rather a continuum from banner ads to social media content to large microsites with articles and videos.

It is better to define sponsored content by what it does than by what it looks like.

The fragmented, inconsistent approaches are actually a feature, not a bug — “native” advertising is native to the specific publication or platform it appears on, mimicking the qualities of the publication or platform.

For example, BuzzFeed’s native advertising content is designed to be socially shared — a quality of BuzzFeed’s original content; whereas native advertising on Facebook or Twitter looks like a post or tweet, respectively. So variation is expected.

It is better to define sponsored content by what it does than by what it looks like:

  • It is generally understood to be content that takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content.
  • It usually serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand.

This falls closer to the category of brand advertising — not necessarily direct-response sales pitches. It’s higher up the marketing funnel — establishing relationships and awareness. Display ads by contrast are for reminders or point-of-purchase decisions.

For example, Ken Ericson, director of content marketing for Xerox, said his company uses sponsored content to alter its public perception from just a copier/printer company and to achieve its branding goals. The point is not to try to sell you a printer.

This flexible definition of purpose rather than form allows for the variation across publishers and platforms.

What sponsored content is not

Sponsored content or native advertising seems at first glance to be closely related to other forms of advertising and company-driven messaging. But there are important distinctions.

Sponsored content, for instance, is different from these sister-models:

Advertorial: Advertorials seek to present advertising as editorial content to convey claims and messages the reader wouldn’t otherwise find credible. By contrast, sponsored content (done well) is properly labeled and clearly associates the brand with the content — the goal is to have the reader know and appreciate the brand’s involvement, not to hide it.

Content marketing: This is content that brands produce and distribute on their own, without the skills, time or distribution platform of a publisher. Sponsored content, by contrast, while the brand may still be involved in shaping it, generally requires a publisher to distribute and often to help plan and or produce.

Press releases: Press releases announce something that is important to the brand, which may or may not be considered important by the public. Sponsored content (done well) puts the readers’ interests first and seeks to be useful, entertaining and authentic. Often, it is not explicitly about the brand at all, but about a subject that intersects with the brand and is not explicitly promotional.

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