Sponsored content and native advertising… what exactly is the difference? Digital marketers are often unsure what the difference is between these terms, and it’s not surprising when the two are used interchangeably across the web.

If you were to spend some time reading various articles you’d found after searching on ‘What is the difference between native advertising and sponsored content?’, you would find a few different explanations…

Explanation 1: Native advertising is created by the publisher, while sponsored content is created by the brand.

Explanation 2: Native advertising is more promotional in nature; sponsored content is not at all.

Explanation 3: They’re the same thing.

Explanation 4: Sponsored content is a type of native advertising.


Confused yet…? I’ve been there!


Hopefully I can alleviate your confusion, and not add to it. In fact, explanation four is accurate. Native advertising is an umbrella term for many different methods of advertising. Sponsored content is a type of in-feed, native advertising.

Now for some evidence to back up my claim – let’s start by fully understanding what native advertising means.



Native advertising is, in a nutshell, paid advertising that fits the form and function of other content around it. They’re adverts which are indistinguishable from generic content on the same platform, i.e. in-stream advertising.

This paid for in-stream advertising usually takes the form of valuable, informative, content. There are multiple forms: even Facebook and paid search ads are considered native – they are in-stream and they fit the form and function of the page.

Recognising confusion within the industry, the International Advertising Bureau (IAB) formulated a list of the six native ad categories:

  • In-Feed
  • Paid Search
  • Recommendation Widgets
  • Promoted Listings
  • In-Ad With Native Elements
  • Other

I don’t want to get bogged down with explanations of each, as I want to remain focused on sponsored content and how this fits in. If you’re interested in all aspects of native advertising, and want to research further, I highly recommend going straight to the IAB’s Native Advertising Playbook.

I previously referred to sponsored content as in-feed native advertising. In-feed covers a wide variety of ad types – stories, videos, app downloads – which can be placed in different feeds. You will find these native ads in social feeds, product feeds, and content feeds. The last of which will contain your sponsored content.

Sponsored content is hosted on the publisher’s site, where the reader remains while digesting the details. It is most often in story form to match the surrounding content style but will be clearly marked as ‘sponsored’. See this example from Much Morocco below which I just found on The Independent website.

The thumbnail…




…and the full page article:




Recommendation Widgets

I imagine when most people think of sponsored content, they are in fact thinking of recommendation widgets. These are usually found at the bottom of an article suggesting other items from external sources that may be of interest. The difference is that these link out to the external brand’s website – they are not hosted on the publisher’s site.

Though these are in-stream, they do not match the site function, nor do they mirror the design or behaviour of the host site’s editorial feed. You will, however, find this method easier to implement. You can use content delivery platforms and services such as Taboola and get your content promoted across the web.


From the Web


In-Feed Native Ads Vs Banner Ads

I don’t need to tell you that native advertising is booming; you won’t be browsing for long before you encounter sponsored content and promoted stories

(recommendation widgets). And that’s not to mention the wider native advertising methods such as paid search ads.

News sites have embraced sponsored content and recommendation widgets so dramatically that an INMA report predicted that native advertising will provide a quarter of news media revenue by 2018.

So how do these in-feed, native ads compare to traditional banner advertising? Opting to place banner ads as part of your marketing campaign presents one major hurdle: banner blindness. This term was coined to identify the phenomenon of a web user’s ability to, whether consciously or not, ignore banners on the page.

Unlike banners, native adverts attract and retain attention from the user. In fact users spend an equal amount of time looking at native adverts as they do editorial content.

According to Sharethrough and Nielsen’s study: A Neuroscience Perspective: Assessing Visual Focus, Message Processing and the Ability to Strengthen Associations Through Mobile Native Advertising, consumers focused their attention on native adverts and specifically on the text, rather than the thumbnail image. The opposite was true of banners where there was little to no visual attention on the text.

This makes complete sense of course; the very reason native advertising and advertorials exist is to imitate the style of editorial content. Consumers of native advertising are seeking editorial: they’re wanting to be told a story. Banner text would therefore not capture their attention as fully as the headline of a potential piece of editorial content (the native advert).

How often do you see banner adverts shared by your friends on social media platforms? (I don’t mean your digital advertiser friends, just the average Joes!) It’s not something that happens, whereas sharing an article, story, video or other piece of engaging content is commonplace. This is another reason to consider sponsored content over banner ads.



The Much Morocco and The Independent example, which I used previously, is a perfect example of classic sponsored content; it is essentially an advertorial. As a digital marketer you will surely be confident creating something like this.

There are brands, however, which go above and beyond with standout content that’s just begging to be shared. These are the sponsored content masters. One brand that crops up again and again when looking for best examples is Netflix. Alongside the launch of some of their most popular series, Netflix has teamed up with America’s most popular news corporations.



Brand: Narcos, Netflix

Publisher: The Wall Street Journal

This is a monster piece of content with text, video, interactivity, animated diagrams, a quiz – it has so much it requires its own menu!




Check out the full Cocainenomics experience here.


Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work

Brand: Orange Is The New Black, Netflix

Publisher: The New York Times


Orange is the New Black


A genuinely engaging and thought-provoking combination of text, illustration and video. This piece of content fabulously mirrors the issues raised by Netflix’s hit prison-based drama.

Have a flick through the full Women Inmates item here.


The Ascent: Political Destiny and the Makings of a First Couple

Brand: House Of Cards

Publisher: The Atlantic




Another great mix of formats in one superb piece of content, this time in conjunction with my favourite Netflix show: House Of Cards. It’s topical, interactive and delves into the most interesting topic of the show by discussing real-life examples of the President and First Lady dynamic.

Take a look at the full page here.

Hopefully you now have a much clearer idea of what sponsored content is and how it fits under the native advertising umbrella. More importantly, you should now see the advantages of this method and have some exciting creative ideas brewing for your own brand.


We’d love to take a look at any exceptional pieces of sponsored content that have inspired you, so please share them in the comments section below.