The native matrix

Making critical distinctions

Jay Rosen asks, reasonably, that people start drawing useful distinctions between buzzy terms like content marketing, sponsored content, native advertising, and even brand journalism. Here’s my stab at it:


None of these distinctions is hard and fast, of course, but at least it’s a start; basically, it all comes down to who writes the content in question.

Was the material written by a professional journalist, writing a piece for an editorial outlet? In that case, any advertising message embedded within it falls pretty squarely into the realm of public relations. But what happens when the publication in question syndicates that content for use on some brand’s website? In that event, it becomes content marketing: independently-produced material, repurposed by the brand in question.

On the other hand, was the material commissioned by the brand itself, rather than any editor? In that case, it’s sponsored content. It might be written by a group on the ad-sales side of the publisher; such groups have existed for as long as there have been advertorials. Or it might be written by some group within the brand’s ad agency. The distinction between sponsored content and native advertising is a bit squishy, but it you do need to make a distinction, then I’d say that sponsored content is material designed simply to convey information to the readership of the publication in question, while native content tends to aspire more to going viral, and being actively shared by that readership.

Of course, if a brand takes that sponsored content and simply puts it up on its own website, then it’s just marketing. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense to think of all brand-produced content, on brand-produced sites, as marketing. Look at Sun, for instance, which as far back as 2006 was encouraging all of its employees, up to and including the CEO, to blog. We’ve moved on from there: instead of blogging at their own websites, executives more commonly express themselves on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn. But however it’s done, if you’re not paying a publisher for the privilege of expressing your own opinion, I’ve put you in the bottom right-hand corner under the broad rubric of “blogging”.

Which leaves the top-right corner, probably the fuzziest part of the matrix. Sometimes, sponsored content is written by real executives, rather than by people in the marketing or PR departments, and when that happens it feels a little bloggier. And at other times, of course, executives manage to get op-eds published and don’t need to buy any kind of sponsorship product at all. If “brand journalism” means anything, it’s probably this: brand executives doing something which feels a lot like opinion journalism, whether they’re paying for the privilege or not.

And really, trying to draw these distinctions is always going to be a bit silly and futile. Ultimately, they’re all different flavors of the same thing: attempts by companies to get consumers to read things which the company in question, or its executives, wants those consumers to read. There are lots of different ways of trying to skin that particular cat, and none of them is easy. In fact, trying to get consumers to read anything at all, in a world where those consumers are faced with almost infinite choices, has never been harder.

That’s why Twitter and Facebook have multi-billion-dollar valuations: they’ve created an experience where people consume a stream of content, rather than looking for something in particular. And it’s much easier to drop your message into a stream which people are reading anyway than it is to try to persuade those people to stop what they’re doing elsewhere and read your message instead.

The term mainstream media, then, if it wants to compete in a world where ads are going increasingly native, is going to have to become the mainly streams media. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) Look at the best native ads out there, from 30-second TV narratives to long-copy print ads: they are native to the form, yes, but they also live within linearly-consumed streams. We sit back and watch the TV, watching ads along the way; we leaf through the newspaper from front to back, grazing as we go, and reading whatever catches our eye.

If native is really going to take off online, it’s going to do so by appearing in the streams we want to immerse ourselves into anyway, whether they’re the Facebook News Feed or the magazine-style format of Flipboard. It might even work for individual publishers, if they can build attractive enough streams of their own. But I’m not holding my breath.

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Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at