Don’t Confuse ‘Thought Leadership’ With ‘Branded Content’ Or ‘Native Advertising’

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com on Nov. 21, 2013, and is authored by Davia Temin, who writes about reputation matters: crisis, leadership and strategy; and Ian Anderson.  
Thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, and native advertising are all stops along the continuum of how ideas are expressed, and products are marketed, over the Internet. 

Last week, “Google Search: Reunion,” a mesmerizing 3-minute video from Google India, blazed across social media, gaining over 5 million hits in just a few days. Intensely moving, unique, and believable, it tells a story of two friends separated in youth by war and government partition, who found one another in old age through the help of their grandchildren and Google. It brought most people who viewed it – and believed it – to tears.

One reason it is so very effective is that it feels real, and there is certainly nothing in the clip to announce that it is anything but a true story. But of course it is an ad promoting Google in India and features actors, not real people. It blurs the line between truth and fiction, authenticity and acting on social media – masterfully.

And that is just a taste of what is to come.

Church and State

In traditional media, there has always been a bright line between journalism (unsponsored, objective reporting and analysis that purports to uncover the truth, tell true stories, and be dedicated to the “public good”) and advertising (sponsored messages that have a point of view and benefit an organization, its products, or services). In fact, the Association of Magazine Media used to monitor the line between “church” and “state” closely – making sure that readers always understood which was which.

But this line has gotten mightily blurred in the world of social media. And that is not necessarily a good thing for a credulous, but trust-averse, public.

Unbiased, non-commercial research, commentary, stories, recommendations and reporting still are accorded more value – and trust – than marketing messages. But that does assume the public can tell the difference.

Have the reviews of the book you’re interested in on Amazon been commissioned, or are they authentic? Have the news stories you are reading on a website been written by a reporter, or a sponsored “news aggregator” somewhere overseas? Is that photo that touches you so much real, or Photoshopped?

On social media, most participants are looking for authenticity, but swimming in a sea of ambiguity.

What does content really mean?

And so, how does this affect corporate social media? Content has been proclaimed the coin of the realm in social media, but is that content church, state, or somewhere in-between? How do your viewers react now, and how will that change in the future?

Is the content your company produces, and posts on social media, thought leadership, branded content, content marketing or native advertising? And what is the most effective for your corporate needs?

Perhaps some definitions (and they are not easy to come by) can help illuminate the differences among thought leadership, branded content, content marketing, native advertising, and straight online marketing:

Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is the platinum standard of content-based reputation enhancement. In its pure form, it is information, research, ideas, expert commentary, and opinion that exist for their own sake, not to prove a direct commercial point.

Thought leadership is best for professional services firms, investment managers, consultants, colleges and universities, and any institution looking to build intellectual capital and create relationships because people find them intelligent, expert, and impressive. It is the most powerful kind of content, and examples include research from Deloitte, the Korn/Ferry InstituteMcKinsey Quarterly,BCG Perspectives, and Stanford Business Magazine.

Thought leadership can also be “viral” in that it provides new and interesting insights that can spark industry change. It can be used to raise brand awareness through sharing articles, white papers, and other thought leadership content with a broad audience.

Branded Content

Branded content is less platinum-standard, but arguably more fun, and effective with larger audiences. According to Wikipedia, it’s a fusion of advertising and entertainment, “intended to be distributed as entertainment content, albeit with a highly branded quality.”

This content might be humorous, entertaining, or interesting. While it doesn’t create the same kind of lasting, game-changing intellectual impression that thought leadership aspires to, it can be innovative in other ways. Much of what we see in online marketing is branded content: from videos, to contests, to hybrid campaigns that involve many different elements.

Branded content is often a bit more subtle than straight advertising – sometimes the content doesn’t have any images of the product itself, but is still trying to sell you something, or sell you the brand. This is the case with many YouTube campaigns that produce highly entertaining videos for marketing purposes.

Content Marketing 

Content marketing is the broadest category of all, encompassing “any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers.” It includes everything from thought leadership to branded content, but is more direct in its commercial intent.

It is a broad type of marketing that includes the “sponsored  or promoted post” advertising found on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Content marketing is often the means by which you “push” the branded content or thought leadership you wish to promote, and try to get your followers to interact. This can come in the form of poststweets, and even videos (like the Old Spice Channel, for example).

Straight Online Marketing

Straight online marketing comes in the form of the most basic online advertisement. This is a step below ‘content marketing’ and includes the sidebar ads we see all the time, as well as banner ads, pop-ups, advertisements before videos, and other kinds of online content that we usually consider junk. This kind of marketing can be successful when done very well – much like ads on billboards or commercials on television. However, the public is building up resistance to this kind of content.

Native Advertising

Native advertising is a subset of branded content, and the most problematic: it is advertising that masquerades as independently created content.

For example, on BuzzFeed, articles that are sponsored sit side by side articles that are not, and they look almost the same. These are articles that look as though they have been independently written, but were produced to market something. So, the Google Reunion video ad would qualify as native advertising.

As with Reunion, native advertising is often highly successful, with many “articles” gaining thousands of shares and millions of views. But much of the success may be a function of people not looking carefully to see that they are sharing  product or brand promotions. Often, people will retweet BuzzFeed’s lists with only a glance at the article, so even if the content is labeled as from a “partner,” folks on social media might not be aware that they’re effectively sharing an advertisement.

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