You Say Sponsored; I Say Native. What's the Difference, and Does it Matter?

May 26, 2015

If you haven’t heard the terms native advertising and sponsored content used interchangeably, you’re probably not talking enough about either. We all do it, and while most will argue that technically, they are two different things, the question is, does it matter?

It would be one thing if there existed a universally understood distinction between the two, but there doesn’t seem to be one among publishers. However, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an effort to clarify that distinction or that we should just ignore the fact that it’s a matter of debate.

Some would argue that sponsored content and native advertising are clearly different revenue streams—and that’s not entirely untrue. Others would argue that native advertising is way more exciting than sponsored content. That’s not entirely untrue either. By virtue of both of these arguments, the two are, in fact, distinctly different. But is that really helpful?

Here’s the way we like to look at it, based somewhat on a recent report from IAB

Sponsored content is a form of native advertising.

There are so many forms of native advertising and the fact is, its definition is in the eye of the beholder. But, the bottom line is: native advertising is meant to fit into editorial content and become a seamless part of the reader’s experience. That’s true for anything that falls into the native advertising spectrum and it is true for sponsored content. The difference comes along when you start messing with how overtly branded the content is and where you draw the line between informative vs. promotional. Oh, that line can be so blurry. Especially when you take the stance that all native advertising should be clearly disclosed as an ad—whether sponsored, promoted—or whatever. 

Again: does it matter? Only in so far as how you, as a publisher, decide how to offer native advertising and sponsored content. In order to effectively offer a comprehensive selection of advertising opportunities, you need to be able to articulate clearly what each selection is and what you call it. Of course, it makes sense that in order to be competitive, your offerings need to fall in the realm of typical offerings across the industry—but there is wiggle room, based on what you are comfortable calling something. Do your research and come up with a few differentiating factors. Here’s one to get you going:

Start with the word, “exciting.” If an ad offering falls in the category of a new format, a different approach or adventurous and highly entertaining—it’s likely something a little more than sponsored. Think about Chipotle’s Farmed and Dangerous. The series on Hulu addresses the core values that comprise Chipotle’s foundation, but its primary aim is to entertain. Sponsored content, on the other hand, may be useful and it may engage your audience, but it’s likely a little lower key.

When you begin to compare the multiple forms of native advertising, you will see patterns emerge that help you find a comfort zone with your offerings. Your opinion is as valid as the next publisher’s—especially when you do your research. Don’t forget to look at industry leaders in native advertising, and then adjust your offerings to suit your audience and your business. Because at the end of the day, it’s not what you call it, it’s whether or not it works.