Native Advertising vs. Content Marketing: What’s the Difference?

Have you ever been told you look exactly like a family member you knew looked nothing like you?

That’s the mistake too many people still make when they say native advertising and content marketing are different terms for the same practice. While the two belong to the same family, they are very different.

We’ve decided to solve the native advertising vs. content marketing mystery once and for all, point out which one’s which, and try to understand which one has a better impact on your bottom line.

What is Content Marketing?

When Brian Clark launched Copyblogger in 2006, the idea of combining “copy” (as in copywriting or marketing writing) and “blogging” seemed crazy to many people. Companies were used to publish company announcements, and blogging was considered a hobby or an online journal.

Yet Clark had been using blog posts to promote his businesses the previous 8 years. He wrote useful, entertaining blog posts to get the attention of his target audience and convert them into clients.

And he wasn’t the first one to do it.

According to Content Marketing Institute, Benjamin Franklin began publishing his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732 to promote his printing business. In 1801, reports Content Marketing Institute, a Paris bookstore got creative with its marketing. Among others, it published original books and its own newspaper.

These days, the act of companies creating branded content is called content marketing. This branded content isn’t advertising. It doesn’t talk about the company’s great qualities or pushes a hard sale. Content marketing is a long-term game, where companies become consistent publishers of online magazines, radio shows and talk shows, that consist of useful or entertaining content, like blog posts, podcasts and vlogs.

Even though most content isn’t salesy, the intention of content marketing (link to content marketing metrics post) is to create content that drives action – a purchase, an email subscription, a social share, or a simple return visit, to allow you to keep building trust with an audience, who will think of you when it needs your type of product or service.

Want more branded content examples?

If you’re in B2C, look at Always, a company that sells feminine hygiene products. Most of Always’ video content doesn’t mention hygiene products. Instead, it talks about that time in a girl’s life, when she turns into a teenager and social pressure is high, and in too many cases, she stops believing in herself.

Always advocates for girls to own their power. Its message impacts both girls and women, because they identify with the message. It talks about one of their greatest pains, and shows them away out. When they go buy feminine hygiene products next time, they’ll remember that positive feeling toward the brand, and be more inclined to prefer it over brands that haven’t made an impact in their lives.

In the case of girls just getting their first period, it could mean adding new customers that will stick around for decades, and maybe pass the message to the next generation one day.

If you’re in B2B, check out what Adobe is doing to market its Marketing Cloud, a set of tools for marketing teams. Adobe created an entire website, called, where it provides marketing leaders with industry insights and news, as well as marketing best practices.

Even though the articles aren’t salesy and don’t directly promote Adobe’s products, the website’s branding is evident.

When CMOs (chief marketing officers) read this website consistently, it means that Adobe is already answering their needs and providing content they care about. It already gets them and understands the challenges they deal with. Therefore, these CMOs are more likely to trust Adobe as an expert company in the field when it comes to buy some new marketing tools.

Of course, in order for your target audience to get to your site and consume the content, you must practice a range of strategies – including social media marketing, guest posting, and advertising.

What is Native Advertising?

Native advertising is a very special kind of advertising, because it’s advertising that doesn’t look like traditional advertising. Instead, it looks like any other piece of content on the site.

Why Native Ads are Needed

In the past, ads were meant to stand out from a website’s regular content. Advertisers wanted to draw site visitors’ attention. Therefore, advertisers used different colors, different fonts, different tones from the sites their ads appeared on. For a while, it worked.

But with time, audiences became more and more sophisticated. They grew used to the ads. It became tougher to convince them to click through. Then it became worse, because Internet users stopped seeing banner ads altogether.

In an attempt to work faster, human brains developed banner blindness. It sounds like something out of a science fiction book, but it works something like this: People who use the Internet regularly know where ads are usually placed on sites, but they barely notice them when they log into sites. Thanks to that, it’s become easier than ever to concentrate on a site’s actual content.

To fight this, some marketers redesigned their website, moving away from standard design, disrupting the user experience. But when the sidebars weren’t on the top and right, and content was placed in new places on the interface, it required more work from the audience to find what they’re looking for. The audience suffered.

So the marketing industry decided that if you can’t fight them, you might as well join them – and native ads were born.

What Native Ads Look Like

As explained above, native advertising looks like just another piece of content on the publishing site. This way, it doesn’t disturb the user experience, and site visitors are much more open to consuming the content, as it doesn’t appear like someone is trying to hard-sell them something.

But as you’ll see in the following examples, identifying the content as an ad is legally and ethically necessary.

So here we go.

Native ads are the paid placements at the top of your Google search, that look exactly like any other organic search result (except for the ad identification).

They’re the promoted tweets Twitter sprinkles in your feed. Here’s an example from the Twitter profile of Ann Handley, CMO of MarketingProfs.

While Handley didn’t have anything to do with that promoted tweet – these promoted tweets appear in everyone’s profiles – Mashable Business actively posted the following native advertising tweet. See how it looks like any other tweet, but one of the hashtags Mashable Business uses is #ad?

But native advertising is most known for articles that look and feel just like any other article, and that’s where this native advertising vs. content marketing thing gets confusing.

Take this yTravel Blog post, for example. It’s sponsored by American Express, but looks like any other post on the site. It’s native advertising, not content marketing, but it is one of the ways American Express uses content to market its products.

See the disclaimer below the headline and publication date?

In other words, native advertising is one of the distribution channels available to content marketers.

This particular article was written by the publisher – yTravel Blog – but often, brands write their own content and use native advertising tools, to make sure it appears on leading publications as just another piece of content recommendation.

Like this:

Native Advertising vs. Content Marketing: Which One’s More Effective?

Now that we’ve seen native ads and branded content examples, and figured out the differences between the two, let’s get to the most important question in the native advertising vs. content marketing debate: Which one’s better?

We probably won’t shock you when we say… it depends. 

Content marketing is a long-term game. It takes a long time to develop content and build an audience that trusts you. Once you have that targeted audience (link to targeted content marketing article) on a platform you own – meaning, your website and your email list – the sky’s the limit.

But not everybody has the time or willingness to wait for a long time until they build that audience. To get your company operating now and bringing in profits from your content in the foreseeable future, you might decide it’s worth it to you to speed up the process by paying for native advertising.

It’s harder for native advertising to serve you on its own. It’s more expensive in the long run and doesn’t allow you to build long-term connections with prospective customers. In reality, native advertising and content marketing work best together: Native advertising can speed up the audience-building process, and content marketing can nurture the audience toward monetization.

Where do you stand in the native advertising vs. content marketing debate? Which one has worked best for you? How have you combined the two? Share it with us in the comments.

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Written by Ayelet Weisz

Ayelet Weisz is a copywriter who starts every day by dancing, before going on to help companies from four continents increase ROI and make a difference with content.