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Native advertising vs branded content: What, if anything, is the difference?

By Ray Weaver on April 24, 2023
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At the Native Advertising Institute, we market our signature event as the world’s biggest meetup for the native advertising and branded content industry. Although we know that’s a bit of a mouthful, we think it’s important to remember that there are subtle but important differences between native advertising and branded content.

This article aims to address those differences and explain why not making the distinction can be a critical mistake. Let’s get to it.

Native vs branded

Native advertising and branded content are both forms of advertising designed to promote a brand’s products and services. But there are differences between the two formats that need to be taken into consideration before deciding which one to use. 

Native advertising is a form of paid content distribution in which a brand’s content appears in a third-party outlet (typically a news website or social media network) alongside the publication’s editorial content. It’s designed to blend in by matching the form, feel, function, and quality of the publication’s other content.

→ READ MORE: The ultimate guide to native advertising 

Branded content, on the other hand, is content developed for a brand or business with the intention of promoting the brand’s product or service, usually in a much more subtle way than traditional advertising. It is usually created by an in-house marketing team or by a third-party content creator. Branded content tends to focus on providing interesting and useful information to the audience rather than just overtly promoting the brand. It is content that is created and owned by a brand and is meant to entertain or educate the audience.

One key difference: Where it goes

Branded content can be published on the brand's own platforms, like its website and/or social media channels, but can also be published on news sites, magazines, or other websites that produce content.

Creators of branded content should think carefully about where it gets published. When using their own website or social channels, brands will have more control over the content, both in substance and in regard to where and how the branded content is presented. The trade-off for that control can often be a smaller audience, however, since branded content published directly to owned channels is likely to only reach audiences that are already interested in what the brand has to offer.

Branded content created for a publisher’s site is likely to require more collaboration between the brand and publisher and the brand will have to give up some degree of control over what surrounds the branded content. The upside, however, is that placing branded content on a publisher's site means that it can reach a new and wider audience that may not be familiar with the brand.

Native advertising, on the other hand, is usually created with the sole intention of placing it with a publisher, either online, in physical form, or both. While native advertising is designed to blend in seamlessly with the publisher’s regular offerings, advertisers are unlikely to have much say in the editorial content that surrounds it.

With both types of advertising, it's important to present it in an ethical and transparent way to avoid confusion and mistrust. All native advertising and branded content should be clearly labelled when placed on a publisher’s site. The labels typically used – “sponsored”, “promoted”, “advertisement”, etc – are the same for both types of advertising.

→ READ MORE: What is an advertorial?

Going native

Native advertising is typically used to promote a product or service. Native advertising is often a one-time campaign, while branded content can be ongoing.

Pros of native advertising:

  • Blends in with the surrounding content, making it less intrusive and more likely to be perceived as useful by the audience
  • Can be tailored to certain demographics and interests, increasing the likelihood of reaching the intended audience
  • Exposes a brand’s message to a wider audience than branded content that is published on the company’s own channels
  • Can generate higher levels of engagement and click-throughs than traditional advertising
  • Can aid in the development of brand recognition and reputation
  • Sharethrough/IPG Media reports that native ads earn 53% more views than traditional ads because they blend more seamlessly into the customer experience and fit in with the surrounding content

Cons of native advertising

  • The effectiveness of native advertising can be difficult to measure
  • Limited control over placement and surrounding editorial content
  • Potential for ‘ad blindness’: As native becomes more and more popular, there is a risk that audiences may begin to tune it out as they largely have with banner ads
  • Even though native advertising is becoming more common, some consumers may still view it as deceptive

→ READ MORE: Disadvantages and advantages of native advertising

Getting branded

Branded content employs a narrative strategy and prioritises useful and value-added information over sales in order to establish an emotional connection with the audience.

Traditionally, branded content is published in a variety of formats on a brand's blog or social media channels, including infographics, podcasts, articles, and videos.  Research shows that 66 percent of consumers want brands to take public stands on social and political issues, and 52 percent will be more loyal if they agree with a brand on any given issue. Branded content can be an effective way for businesses to highlight their values.

Branded content can be an effective strategy for enhancing a company's reputation and image, but in order to increase engagement and brand loyalty, the content must be of a high calibre and relevant to the target audience. Additionally, it's important to specify and take into account the metrics used to gauge the effectiveness of branded content campaigns.

→ READ MORE: Native advertising on social media – How do you get started?

Pros of branded content

  • Can help to build a brand's image and reputation by providing valuable or entertaining content to the audience
  • Can drive higher engagement and brand loyalty than traditional advertising
  • Can reach and engage a specific target audience
  • Can be used to create ongoing relationships with the audience
  • Presenting branded content on owned channels typically gives brands more control than native advertising

Cons of Branded Content

  • Creating and publishing branded content can be more costly than traditional content marketing strategies, particularly if it involves influencers
  • Results can be hard to measure, and it can take longer to realise them
  • It can be difficult to determine the ROI since branded content does not always lead directly to a conversion.
  • Branded content requires highly skilled people to make it work. You may need to add more experienced and skilled people to your team to publish branded content.
  • Potential negative feedback: Branded content can be seen as inauthentic, out of touch or just downright cheesy if it is not done well.

→ READ MORE: How to create branded content that converts 

Same same but different

While branded content and native advertising do differ in the ways outlined above, they share more similarities than differences. Some might even argue that the minute branded content is published outside of the brand’s own channels, it becomes native advertising. Similarly, a piece of content that was originally conceived as native advertising could become branded content if the brand uses it on its own channels after the native campaign concludes.

Knowing the subtleties between the two isn’t necessarily about choosing one over the other. It's crucial to think about how native advertising and branded content each fit into the broader marketing plan. Both can be used to reach and engage audiences, and they can complement one another and help to achieve better outcomes.