Content is key to successful marketing on the web. The web is a content-based network, and although traditional advertising has been hugely successful on the web, it’s content marketing that has proven itself to be the most web-like way of building an audience, generating engagement, and increasing reach.
However, that doesn’t mean all content publishing for marketing purposes is content marketing. If we exclude advertising, social media marketing, and email, the latter two of which it could be argued aren’t really “web”, we’re left with two broad swaths of content strategy applicable to online marketing: content marketing and native advertising.
I’ve had numerous conversations with people who aren’t clear on the differences between the two, or who tend to subsume native advertising within the content marketing category. In many ways, that’s understandable; the lines are not entirely clear. There is, however, a difference worth maintaining if we want to think accurately about the current state of online marketing.
Most of us have a good idea what content marketing is: the creation and publication of content of value to a specific audience. We publish content in the hope that some proportion of that audience will convert to become buyers or users, or share the content to people who will become buyers or users. Content marketing can involve everything from a simple business blog, to an eBook that is only released once the user submits an email address, to a video or podcast and beyond.
Native advertising is a different beast. In a nutshell, native advertising is the publication of content on an established platform in exchange for money. That content is usually styled to look something like the publisher’s standard content, with an indication — more or less prominent — that is sponsored copy. A typical example of native advertising can be found on BuzzFeed — the BuzzFeed team write and publish content that has been paid for by a company.
Here’s the crucial difference: In native advertising, the advertiser pays the publisher to publish the content and that content is included in the normal flow of content on the publisher’s platform — that’s why it’s called native advertising. Publishing native advertising is a financial and business decision. Publishing content marketing is an editorial decision, although the the ultimate goal is to benefit a business.
As I said earlier, the line between content marketing and native advertising is blurred. Consider guest blogging, long a staple of content marketers seeking to leverage the audience of an established publication. Personally, I’d say that if you pay the publisher to have your content published, it’s not guest blogging, it’s native advertising. If the publisher pays you, or you do it for free, then it’s guest blogging, but that distinction is often muddied by the nature of the content and the techniques used to find publication channels.
Consider this blog article. It’s published on our blog, but it could just as easily have been offered to an outside publisher, like this one. Both can be considered content marketing. It’s (hopefully) interesting and useful information for its intended audience — bloggers, business site owners, and publishers; the sort of people who might want web hosting. But, if we’d paid to have this article published elsewhere on the web, within the flow of a publication’s other content, that would be native advertising.