Native Advertising vs Sponsored Content: What’s The Difference?

Still scratching your head trying to figure out the difference between native advertising and sponsored content? What if we told you they look more alike than you think. Find out why.
native advertising vs sponsored content

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Still scratching your head trying to figure out the difference between native advertising and sponsored content?

You’re not alone. Even industry experts get confused.

Truthfully, there are more similarities than you might think. In this article, we’ll show you what each means, the common misconceptions, and the real difference.

Plus, we’ll give you the pros and cons, and when to consider one vs the other.

Read along.

What Is Native Advertising?

By definition, native advertising is any type that matches the look and feel of the content surrounding it.

From here, things start to get a bit confusing.

Let me explain.

The industry says that social media feeds are considered a native format. However, most seasoned native advertisers would disagree.

For simplicity, here we’re just talking about ads that show up on publishers’ sites. Where do they show up exactly? That depends on the ad formats accepted by the publisher.

Recommendation widgets are the most common native format, and also typically the least expensive for advertisers.

What Does Native Advertising Look Like?

Recommendation widgets are the most popular native format. Some advertisers also call these ad feeds.

widgets native advertising vs sponsored content
Recommendation widget ads on Vanity Fair, a premium publisher

These widgets are mostly set up by publishers at the end of their articles. In this case, you’re seeing 4 ads. But it’s not uncommon to see many more displayed within one ad feed.

The number of ads in the widget and their placement is up to the publisher.

Recommendation widgets are quite similar though, from publisher to publisher with a few small differences. Here, your competition is mostly other advertisers in the widget.

Taboola ad feed below the article on NBC News

Depending on variables such as ad quality, engagement, or bidding, your native ads can go up or down in terms of priority in the feed.

You can think of the native ad feed as a ranking system, identical to a search engine.

But the story doesn’t end with recommendation widgets.

Other native ad formats include in-feed or in-content and branded content.

in feed native advertising vs sponsored content
In-feed native ad, in between the organic content on Yahoo’s homepage

In-feed native and in-content ads are part of the list of the most expensive formats. The homepage of a premium publisher is considered a high-impact placement.

Some native ad networks such as Outbrain, allow you to only target those high-impact placements in a campaign.

Outbrain‘s high-impact placement targeting option

Targeting options like these come with high viewability and of course, higher ad costs.

Contrarily to widgets, with in-feed and in-content ad formats, you’re competing more with the organic content around them.

In-feed native and in-content ads are part of the list of the most expensive formats for advertisers due to high viewability.

Native Advertising Pros & Cons



Consumers trust native ads on publishers more than social media

Copying and pasting funnels or landing pages from other channels won't work

Reach engaged audiences who are in the mindset of discovering interesting content

Need higher budgets to make it work compared to search or social

Higher level of control when it comes to brand safety

Takes longer to see results and even longer if you keep tinkering campaigns

Very effective for branding, especially when combined with other channels

Difficult to hire the right staff because there aren't that many native experts

There's more scaling potential than "walled garden" platforms

ROI can be tricky to measure if your main goals are awareness and engagement

Less cookie dependent, some ad networks don't even use them for targeting

Harder to justify to executives, some simply don't know how native works

Traffic can be very cost effective, especially for products with mass appeal

Choosing the right ad network can be a bit overwhelming with so many choices

A lot more ad inventory and networks to choose from, including from DSPs

Need to test a lot of campaigns to find the "gold nuggets"

Proven to generate higher engagement and purchase intent than display

Ad fraud can become a big issue without proper management and tools

When To Use Native Advertising

If native was an animal, it would be a chameleon. It’s versatile with the ability to blend in and grab attention at the same time.

Here are the top reasons to use native advertising:

  • want run ads in brand-safe environments
  • need to diversify your media mix with other channels outside “walled gardens” (Facebook, Google, TikTok)
  • are in regulated markets where native can be more flexible (for example, CBD products)
  • looking to automate native inventory buying through DSPs and scale more efficiently

What Is Sponsored Content?

This is where things start to get blurry.

Here’s the biggest reason. Some publishers call native recommendation widgets sponsored content, which is true, they are sponsored or paid.

However, they’re really not the sponsored content we’re talking about.

native sponsored content
Recommendation widgets as sponsored business content on Entrepreneur

Others call branded content, which is a native ad format, sponsored content.

What Does Sponsored Content Look Like?

All the different ways the industry has to get to the same destination sometimes make advertisers, brands, and agencies confused.

sponsored content
Branded content as sponsored content
branded content
Branded content article on Politico

Let’s not overcomplicate it.

Sponsored content is any content piece an advertiser negotiates and promotes directly on a publisher’s site.

But the different terminology used by publishers can leave you scratching your head.

Essentially, sponsored content and branded content are the same thing.

Sponsored or branded content is the most expensive native format and appeals to a smaller group of advertisers, typically more established brands.

Sponsored Content Pros & Cons



Better user experience as it's just another piece of content on the publisher's site

Considered a premium format, costs can get out of range for most brands to justify

Perfect to target audiences who might not be aware of a certain issue or problem

Resources to produce high-quality content that meets the publisher's standards

Can leverage existing relationships with publishers to get "sweeter" deals

Might run the risk of confusing users as they see it as just another typical article

One of the best native formats for branding and awareness goals

Deals are negotiated directly with publishers, can bring a lot of back and forth

Higher engagement, users don't have to leave the publisher's site to see the content

Harder for small brands to get content approved on premium publishers

When To Use Sponsored Content

Sponsored or branded content appeals to a smaller group of advertisers, typically more established brands.

Here are the top reasons to use sponsored content:

  • storytelling is a big part of your content strategy
  • already have relationships with publishers as that can “make your deals sweeter”
  • have the resources to produce high-quality content
  • you’re looking to mainly create awareness around an issue or topic

So What’s The Damn Difference?

I think you’re starting to see where this is going.

In reality, there is no difference. Sponsored content is a form of native advertising.

Conor Mckenna Fah GIF by FoilArmsandHog via Giphy

The way both formats are presented makes it look like they’re totally different.

So, are you less confused at this point? Or still scratching your head big time? Let us know in the comments below.


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