Decades on from the launch of the World Wide Web, “What’s the most effective way to advertise online?” is still an open question. Early websites relied on banner ads and pop-ups, which between them were so ineffective they inspired some famous last words from Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, who in 1997 explained “Why Advertising Doesn’t Work on the Web.”

Although search engine ads in particular would prove that advertising did work as a business model, the rise of ad blockers paired with the ongoing phenomenon of banner blindness has kept overall engagement rates low – as in, if more than 2% of people click through a Google AdWords ad, that’s considered above-average! While brands have hardly given up on running display and banner ads, they’ve also explored other modes of engagement.

The cognitive web and the rise of branded content and content marketing

Nielsen ultimately had a point in arguing that the web is a cognitive medium, unlike the emotional medium of TV. In other words, when you go online, you’re usually looking for information and willing to tune out anything that gets in your way. Engaging with a web ad requires conscious effort that’s the polar opposite of letting a TV ad wash over you during a commercial break.

The struggles of traditional advertising in this paradigm created an opening for branded content and content marketing, both of which add the storytelling and context that readers look for online. Seventy percent of consumers prefer learning about products via content to seeing ads about them, and 68% read blog posts from brands they’re interested in.

But while they both qualify as sophisticated and effective ways to reach an audience, branded content and content marketing are not the same. The latter is a strategy while the former is a tactic, so it’s common for branded content to be part of a content marketing campaign, alongside other forms of content including programmatic ads, social media updates and thought leadership.

branded content vs content marketing

The PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) model of integrated marketing also offers a useful framework for understanding how branded content – which often qualifies as owned or paid media – fits into a larger effort and how it differs from content marketing as a whole. Let’s explore some of the key distinctions between these two content buzzwords.

Branded content: Cultivating awareness through personality

The word “brand” originates from the use of hot irons (brands) to clearly mark the ownership of products such as casks. Modern branded content – which we have defined as any content clearly associated with a specific brand – serves a similar purpose, but do so with much less heat and much more subtlety.

Branded content may take the form of an article, video or podcast, to name just three possibilities. The form is less important than the function, which is to communicate a message with levels of personality, sophistication and overall entertainment value that consumers don’t expect from conventional marketing. At its best, branded content avoids being skipped or ignored and leaves an impression – just like a literal brand.

Netflix and The New York Times

When you see the words “paid post” or “sponsored content,” what’s your reaction? You might feel tempted to close the page or scroll on, but with the right design and content, this type of branded content can hold many readers’ attention, as it did for Netflix after the debut of the second season of its hit series “Orange is the New Black.”

To promote the show, the streaming giant created a custom feature that ran in The New York Times’ Brand Studio vertical under the tite “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” Complete with interactive graphics, inline videos, and an impressive list of sources, it looks, reads and feels like an actual NYT piece, with all of the gravitas that comes with it.

Via The New York Times.

Neither Netflix nor “Orange is the New Black” is mentioned in the body, only on the periphery of the page. This technique is common in branded content. The story takes center stage while the brand call-outs of traditional advertising play only a supporting role. And it works!

According to Nielsen, brand recall for branded content is 86%, compared to only 68% for pre-roll ads (the spots that play before a video, usually). Sponsored content is more than just a fun, engaging experience for consumers – it’s also a powerful engine of lead generation.

GEICO and unskippable video ads

Over the years, GEICO has been all over the place in its marketing strategy, enough to prompt Matt Damon’s character in “30 Rock” to wonder why they used “the caveman, the lizard, and the stack of money with the eyeballs” – and he was actually forgetting another mascot, the “fake Rod Serling guy” as Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon immediately pointed out.

It didn’t need any of these memorable characters to create engaging content for its video spots, though. Called the unskippable campaign, these videos were designed for YouTube, which allows viewers to skip most pre-roll ads after only 5 seconds. Impressively, the entire message of each video is delivered under that time limit, meaning that you wouldn’t miss anything by skipping.

One such video included a mother saying “Don’t thank me, thank the savings,” followed by a narrator intoning “You can’t skip this GEICO ad because it’s already over.” It actually continues past that point, with the characters staying comically frozen in the same poses they held at the 5-second mark while a dog enters the picture and begins messing up the dinner table.

It’s marketing, sure, but it’s also fun enough to not seem like a traditional promo – and that’s the real value proposition of branded content.

‘The LEGO Movie’

This is a canonical example of branded content, as it’s so well-crafted that it doesn’t feel like marketing at all. The LEGO license has been used in so many video games and movies that it’s easy to forget that LEGO is a toy line and not just an entertainment franchise.

With “The LEGO Movie,” audiences got a 100-minute paean to the power of interlocking plastic building bricks, complete with a pivotal reveal that [SPOILER ALERT] the events in the LEGO universe are being played out in a basement by a kid with LEGOs.

It’s a strong combination of brand storytelling and product placement, one with enough entertainment value to make you almost forget about real-life LEGOs. The brand messaging is there, yet it doesn’t hit you over the head or beg you to skip it. On the contrary, you are volunteering to see it and probably expecting to enjoy it.

Content marketing: A strategy for creation and distribution

Producing branded content is one of many tactics that may slot into a content marketing strategy. So what is content marketing?

Definitions vary but they usually highlight how it entails the creation and distribution of relevant information to an audience, typically without the direct, heavy-handed promotion of traditional advertising. Think an email newsletter from a brokerage informing investors of current financial trends, or an infographic from an online help-desk software vendor highlighting broader trends in customer service.

In these cases and others, brands pursue content marketing to establish themselves as trusted resources with truly differentiated products and services. Effective content marketing builds authority. Toward that end, it might incorporate branded content in addition to assets that don’t mention the company at all (e.g., a tweet on current events, or a speaking appearance on a panel discussing a topic of general interest) or fit somewhere else within the aforementioned PESO model. In general, content marketing focuses more on educational content than promotional materials, although they can still fit under its umbrella.

Indeed, the most important difference between branded content and content marketing is that the latter is a much broader category. As such, it encompasses tasks other than just the production of content, most notably distribution. A content marketing specialist might analyze which channels are ideal for different types of content and determine which of their professional relationships can also be leveraged for earned and shared media coverage.

HubSpot and inbound marketing

When it comes to finding statistics to use in almost any article about software, there are few more reliable resources than HubSpot. This company has produced many useful, in-depth and free reports about everything from what it feels like to be overwhelmed by marketing tools, to how a service-level agreement works in practice. That’s range.

HubSpot’s success as a go-to authority means that even before knowing what it is selling or hearing a single sales pitch, potential customers feel like they can trust the organization. Moreover, they’ll regularly see HubSpot content high in search engine results pages, reinforcing the perception of authority. This effective form of content marketing builds relationships that ultimately convert into sales of HubSpot’s software platform.

Intelligentsia and brew guides

Coffee chain Intelligentsia might not be a household name like Starbucks or Dunkin’, but it doesn’t have to be. The company’s audience is looking for a different experience than they would get with either of those two other establishments, and Intelligentsia knows it.

To connect with its particular audience, Intelligentsia published a series of guides to various types of coffee brewing, such as Chemex, and pulled no punches when it came to detail and design quality. The result was a trove of free information for anyone who brews their own coffee, from a high-profile source they could trust.

Via Intelligentsia.

Via Intellgentsia

Star Wars Legends and backstories

Commercial mass media can sometimes qualify as content marketing. During the 16-year gap between the “Star Wars” films “The Return of the Jedi” and “The Phantom Menace,” there was consistent publication of comic books and graphic novels fleshing out the backstory of various characters, creatures and locations, some of which had only been mentioned in passing in the original film trilogy.

It was effective content marketing because it drove demand for more of the “Star Wars” universe and kept the franchise alive in the public consciousness. Even after Disney deemed all non-mainline “Star Wars” content non-canonical in 2012 – retconning it as “Star War Legends” – subsequent “Star Wars” creations such as the anthology films and licensed video games have continued in the old vein. The trailer for “The Rise of Skywalker” actually contains a subtle reference to an Emperor Palpatine storyline that originated in 1991’s “Dark Empire” comics.

Piecing together the content puzzle

Both branded content and content marketing have their places within a modern marketing strategy. Like LEGO pieces, they each have a distinct shape but can be assembled in a variety of ways. With the right craftsmanship, the final creation will hold an audience’s attention much better than any simple ad.

Alex Cox is a senior writer at Brafton. Originally from Kentucky, he now lives in Chicago with his husband Marvin and an orange cat named Athena. When he's not writing for Brafton or creative projects, he enjoys painting, going for walks, and collecting vintage Nintendo games and controllers.