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Sponsored Content Goes Native

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If you’re a content marketer, you’re very likely aware that native advertising is all the rage these days. There are those who praise it as the second coming of publishing, while others decry the rise of native ads as the bloody, tragic, death of journalism. The Atlantic was heavily criticized for publishing a piece of sponsored content from the Church of Scientology, and everyone continues to love/hate Buzzfeed with abandon.

But paid content, advertorials that imitate the format in which they appear, is nothing terribly new. So, what’s the big deal? And more importantly, is there a difference?

In short, yes. There is a distinct difference between the new world of native advertising and the advertorial/sponsored content of the past. It’s important to recognize and highlight the differences, but also significant to note the similarities between the two forms.


  • Both native advertising and sponsored content aim to produce advertorial content that provides value to the reader. In addition to making a campaign more effective, the reader will have a better experience, too.

  • Native advertising and sponsored content must make clear that the content is advertorial — it cannot pose as an unbiased, unbranded product.

Sponsored content is best when it matches the “form and function” of a website, mobile app, magazine, and so on. But it’s not required. This is where the key difference between the two come out.

In order for something to be considered native advertising, it must be created specifically to suit the format in which it will appear — native advertising, in terms of that form and function component, is not multipurpose. Visually, linguistically, and technically, the advertorial has to be (you guessed it!) native to one specific publication.

What’s exciting about going native, and what makes it a win for brands, publications, and readers, is the overall improvement of the reading experience. Because native ads are created specifically to for a publication, to flow seamlessly in terms voice, subject, format, and appearance, the process of digesting information is not disrupted by a clunkily placed ad.

Even more importantly, native ads, unlike a sponsored thought leadership piece, can be designed to generate leads. With a thought leadership piece, you can’t directly promote your brand and often have no opportunity for a call to action. Sponsored content also stands on its own – you can hope that if readers are interested in a particular publication they’ll also take the time to click on your piece. With native advertising, it’s much more specific; your content is strategically placed near other content the reader is already consuming. There are advantages to each, but it’s important to understand these distinctions.

Of course, in a market as new as this one, we’re still figuring things out (actually, the IAB is figuring it out for us). But when it comes down to it, it seems like native advertising is sponsored content, but better. It allows you to reach consumers in a more effective way, one that takes into account their preferences and interests. The ethics of advertising still apply — but now, there’s room for an improved experience.