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Sponsored Content vs. Branded Content: What’s the Difference?

The terms branded content and sponsored content are often (mistakenly) used interchangeably, so today our goal is to draw a clear distinction between the two.

1. Branded Content

As more brands embrace content marketing as a valuable channel to reach their customers, a new trend is emerging: brands are becoming publishers. What this means is that many progressive brands are beginning to create their own content hubs and micro-sites to publish relevant, educational content that’s produced in-house. The overall effect: brands are able to build and engage with their target audience by providing them with content that they find useful or interesting.

Here’s an example of branded content from American Express’s digital content hub, OPEN Forum:

branded content

American Express treats their content hub as a true publisher. It refrains from sales pitches and instead, focuses on offering value-adding information to its visitors. This is a great example of branded content.

2. Sponsored Content

Sponsored content differs from branded content in two important ways: who the content is produced by and where the content is published.

While branded content tends to be produced in-house by the brand, sponsored content is usually a collaborative effort between the publisher’s editorial staff and the brand. Similarly, while branded content lives on brand-owned properties such as micro-sites or content hubs (like the one you’re on right now!), sponsored content is hosted on the publisher’s site, and therefore reaches the publisher’s audience. Think of it this way: When a brand wants to build sponsored content, they commission a publisher to both produce the content and to publish it on their website.

Since content strategy is often focused on building brand awareness, brands and publishers typically avoid a ‘salesy’ tone. Rather, they focus on delivering educational or entertaining content to readers. Brands value this because associations with a publication and exposure to its audience can drive awareness, traffic, conversions, and leads.

Here’s a great example of sponsored content that comes from a collaboration between fashion label Cole Haan and The New York Times:

sponsored content

In the above example, Cole Hann partnered with The New York Times’s advertising unit, T Brand Studio, to produce an impressive piece of sponsored content called ‘Grit and Grace’. Cole Haan commissioned T Brand Studio to promote its new collection of ballet flats. The result: a multimedia feature on three dancers from the New York City Ballet.

To summarize: Branded content ‘lives’ on brand-owned properties, while sponsored content is integrated into the publisher’s site; Branded content is produced in-house. Sponsored content is produced together with the publisher’s editorial team; Branded content reaches the brand’s audience. Sponsored content reaches the publisher’s audience.

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