By Lucy Siegel | August 11, 2020

The amount of content online keeps growing exponentially. Digital marketing distribution channels, such as blog posts, are packed with new content daily, supplementing rather than replacing existing online content. According to WordPress, on their platform alone every month there are over 70.5 million new blog posts, and more than 409 million people view 21 billion pages. The overwhelming amount of content makes it hard for a marketer to stand out.

That is the back story behind the development of many paid tools to maximize the visibility of marketing messages online. Advertorials, sponsored content, sponsored social media, native advertising…there’s a wide spectrum of digital marketing agency communication methods to promote a brand or company that lies in between traditional PR (media relations) and traditional advertising.

This post will lay out the differences among a few of the most important forms of paid digital content and explain how they fit into public relations and social media. With this social media marketing agency los angeles your business will be able to have the best customer service online.

Unfortunately, these terms mean different things to different people. We will provide common definitions that are most relevant to PR.


Advertorials are paid advertising in the form of articles or other editorial content. They have the look of the surrounding content. They were traditionally used in print newspapers and magazines but are now on TV and radio (called infomercials) and used in online publishing as well. Their marketing advantages include:

  • The ability to place them in trusted media outlets that reach the target audience.
  • The ability to control the content, as opposed to relying on journalists to deliver the message the advertiser wants to send.
  • They can tout all the attributes the advertiser would love to have communicated about the brand but that journalists feel are too promotional!
Sponsored Content

Sponsored content is defined by Hubspot as “a type of promotional media that’s paid for by an advertiser, but created and shared by another brand, influencer, or publisher.” Whereas ads and advertorials are developed by, and overtly promote, the advertiser, sponsored content is a partnership between the advertiser and the publisher. The content is usually developed by the publisher with the agreement of the brand. It may not even mention the brand.

Why would a brand pay for content that does not overtly promote it? Because research has shown there is much greater acceptance of this type of paid content than of ads or advertorials. In a Reuters survey, 75% of respondents claimed to be interested in content as long as it is “relevant to them,” whether it is sponsored or not.

Good sponsored content does not come across as advertising, but rather puts the target audience’s interests up front by providing thought-provoking, educational or entertaining material. The promotion of the brand is subtle, not aggressive, making it more acceptable to the target audience. There is an opportunity to provide some key messaging that promotes the brand while blending into the non-sponsored content offered by the publisher. iT’s really important for you business to grow with Business VoIP for easier customer service.

The use of sponsored content in social media has grown quickly because it offers some important marketing advantages:

  • Studies have shown that consumers are less trusting of traditional advertising than in the past. This is particularly true of younger consumers. Because it isn’t overtly promotional, this type of paid content is more credible to consumers than advertising and therefore more engaging.
  • According to the Reuters survey, 45% of consumers use an ad blocker. The younger consumers are, the more likely they will use ad blocking. Even if they don’t use ad blockers, people are much more likely to view sponsored content than ads because it offers something of interest.
  • It is a form of digital content marketing, which can be measured for its effectiveness.
Sponsored Social Media Content (Influencers)

Sponsored social media content means payment by a brand or organization to people with large numbers of followers on social media (called influencers) to create and distribute content favorable to  the brand. The advantage of paying influencers for positive content is that they already have a big following and their posts are not only widely viewed, but also widely shared.

The key to success of all the above forms of promotion is to have a clear understanding of the target audience and to cater to the needs and interests of that audience. Understanding where and how to reach the brand’s target audience is also vital. The context in which the content appears is also very important. This means placing it in media that not only reaches the target audience but is considered trustworthy by that audience. For sponsored social media, the choice of the right influencers who hold sway over their followers is tantamount.

In the Reuters survey mentioned above, 86% of respondents said they could tell the difference between branded content and editorial. However, it is not always as obvious as it should be that a piece of content is paid. The United States has regulations that require paid content to be labeled as such. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a very helpful and detailed guide that provides the regulations and suggested language for labeling. The guidelines stipulate, “The financial arrangements [between brands and bloggers, influencers and paid content publishers] may be apparent to industry insiders, but not to everyone else who reads a particular blog. Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads ‘a significant minority’ of consumers.”

Influencers are required by these regulations to say they are speaking on behalf of the product or company that has paid them. Even if they don’t get paid but are given free product, they must reveal that fact. The payment must be clearly revealed and cannot be buried; for example, it can’t be placed in small type at the end of a long article.

The Role of PR in Paid Content

All the above forms of promotion lend themselves to development and execution by public relations professionals. PR people are experts at shaping ideas for editorial content and developing materials for journalists who produce news and editorial content. PR agencies are accustomed to sourcing and working with opinion leaders, also.

The American Press Institute’s definition of sponsored content includes the following explanation: “It’s higher up the marketing funnel — establishing relationships and awareness. Display ads by contrast are for reminders or point-of-purchase decisions.” Relationships and awareness are the meat and potatoes of public relations.

Even when sponsored content will be developed by a publisher or other media partner, PR firms should be involved to assure that both their clients’ and the publishers’ needs are met. A PR firm can steer a careful course between the client’s desire for an effective promotional boost, for which they are paying, and the media outlet’s goal of making the sponsored content blend in well with surrounding content and not appear too promotional.

Native Advertising

Native advertising is defined by the Native Advertising Institute as “… paid advertising where the ad matches the form, feel and function of the content of the media on which it appears.” An example of native ads are posts on social media that look like unpaid posts but are ads selling a product. Google sponsored search results are another example. They generally appear at the top of the search results, and look like those that are not sponsored. Because they appear on top, many people click on them.

While some PR agencies do handle clients’ needs for native advertising, it lies closer to advertising than PR on the marketing spectrum.

Content Marketing

Just to be clear, the term “content marketing” does not refer to paid content, it is “owned content,” produced and distributed by the company or brand itself. This includes blog posts; e-newsletters; podcasts; downloadable white papers and brochures; articles, videos or SlideShare presentations on social media platforms such as LinkedIn or YouTube; and other such marketing and public relations materials.

In this era of ever-shrinking newsrooms and editorial staffs, public relations can no longer concentrate only on media outreach to journalists to get across brands’ messages. Owned content is one way to meet this need, but overwhelming competition for visibility makes it hard to depend only on that to fill the gap. It is therefore vital for marketers to assess how new paid formats for communicating promotional messages will best fit into their communications mix.