Native Advertising Vs. Content Marketing: Do You Understand Their Differences?

Andrew Stark

February 20, 2016


Sometime in early 2013, native advertising started to gain steam as one of the hottest buzzwords in the marketing community. Fueled in large part by the extraordinary rise of BuzzFeed and its signature brand posts, advertising and marketing professionals suddenly felt as if they needed to use native advertising immediately or risk being left behind by their peers. Of course there was one problem: Many of these people didn’t (and still don’t) know what, exactly, “native advertising” actually means.

While there’s been a general consensus that native advertising is more organic and less disruptive than traditional marketing formats, there remains a great deal of confusion over the term’s exact definition. I frequently see people use the phrase “native advertising” when they’re actually talking about content marketing, or vice versa. By conflating native and content marketing, digital marketers make it difficult to understand each other when they discuss best practices and unintentionally diminish the importance of two of our most effective tools for engaging consumers

While there’s clear overlap between the two, there are also clear differences that all marketers need to understand in order to get the best results from each strategy.

Content marketing refers to the type of messages brands send to consumers.

Content marketing is a type of advertisement in which a brand attempts to entertain or inform consumers with a relevant article, story, video, or graphic similar to those produced by news and entertainment media companies. This can be anything from a list of office etiquette tips from a B2B consulting firm to an infographic on social media adoption from a marketing firm, or even a funny cat video produced by a pet food brand.

Whereas a traditional ad is created by a marketer for a product they are trying to sell, a piece of content marketing is geared primarily toward serving the viewer’s interests in the hopes of building trust and loyalty for the future. Instead of saying “Here’s a product you might like to buy,” content marketing tells potential customers, “Here’s something else you might like. Please do think of us the next time you’re shopping.”

The important thing to remember is that content marketing is content marketing no matter where consumers find it. And that’s where “native advertising” comes into the picture.

Native advertising refers to a method brands use to distribute their content marketing messages to consumers.

One of the most persistent myths about native advertising is that it is a mutually exclusive and different type of advertising from content marketing. Indeed, even the “content marketing solution” company, Skyword made this mistake in a blog post earlier this year. In fact, native advertising is simply a way of distributing content marketing material that a brand has already created. Native advertising is a strategy that lets brands post links to their content in the story feeds of popular websites like Yahoo, Forbes, and Bloomberg so that they are able to reach consumers in an organic place that doesn’t interrupt the reading experience. Sometimes, the media organization in question will help the brand create the content and/or host it on its website. Other times, the brand creates the content itself and hosts it on its own website, with the media partner merely providing space for the brand to link to that content. Either way, the brand is using native advertising to distribute its content marketing.

Of course, native advertising is just one of three main methods for distributing content marketing. The other options are via a sponsored post on social media or a sponsored link inside the content discovery widgets that sit at the bottom of the page on news sites like Business Insider and the Huffington Post.

Choosing the right mix for you.

Now that you understand that native advertising as a subset of content marketing, it’s a lot easier to determine the right content and selected the right distribution tactics. Maybe you want to do content marketing, but your plan is to distribute it on social media instead of with native advertising units. Or perhaps you want to do native advertising, but you’d like to promote your work with content discovery, as well. These are always going to be difficult choices for any marketer to make, but they’re virtually impossible without the clear, well-defined vocabulary necessary to think them through.

Subscribe to blog updates: