Where does the line blur between content and advertising?

Over the past couple of years, a new buzzword has been doing the rounds in the world of digital that’s still relatively unknown among content marketers.

Programmatic is the latest digital trend that’s fundamentally changing the way brands connect with their audiences. In essence, programmatic is the practice of using software and algorithms to place targeted content in front of defined groups in highly specific and relevant situations.

At first glance, that sounds like the holy grail of content marketing.

Except that the other word often attached to programmatic is advertising, and it’s this definition and association that’s causing some content marketers to overlook the value of these new techniques.

Don’t mention the A word

Many content practitioners take pride in delivering a ‘purer’ form of marketing. For some, content is everything that traditional marketing, and in particular advertising, are not.

Content should be non-intrusive. It’s a ‘pull’ technique that draws customers in by offering something of value, rather than overtly ‘pushing’ a product or service. It’s honest, helpful and designed to illuminate an issue or topic.

All of those things may be true, but content still needs to be visible to the target audience, otherwise it’s nothing more than a waste of time, effort and budget.

Which is where amplification comes into play. To amplify a piece of content is to ensure it’s seen by as many of the right people as possible. And how do content marketers achieve that goal? Increasingly, it’s through the use of paid advertising to boost their reach beyond their owned and earned audiences, whether that’s Promoted Tweets, Facebook Promoted Posts, LinkedIn ads, Outbrain or even Google Adwords.

Suddenly, that line between advertising and content, which once seemed so clear, is looking rather blurred.

Native advertising is another term that’s made an appearance recently and further muddied the waters.

In a report published at the end of last year, Citrix described native as “online advertising content that mimics the tropes of editorial – whether that be a 1,000 word article, a video or an animated GIF”. That sounds suspiciously like the kind of stuff we content marketers spend our time producing, but we don’t call it advertising.

Confused yet?

Let’s make things a little clearer with a few simple definitions, provided by industry thought leader Joe Pullizi. He describes content marketing as “a strategic marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action by changing or enhancing consumer behaviour.” The key here is that the brand owns the asset.

Native advertising, on the other hand, is a paid-for opportunity to deliver useful, interesting and targeted content ‘in stream’ i.e. in a way that “does not impede the user’s normal behaviour in that particular channel”.

In a nutshell, native advertising can be a tactic for distributing the material produced as part of a content marketing strategy.

To pay or not to pay?

If you’re still unsure about the idea of paying to distribute your content, then it’s useful to look at how other marketers are approaching this issue. Earlier this year, technology media company IDG worked with the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs to find out how tech marketers have changed their content marketing practices over the past year.

The research investigated which paid advertising methods respondents use to promote content, and found that 75% employ search engine marketing, 64% use traditional banner advertising, 59% make use of social ads and promoted posts and 49% engage in print or offline advertising.

So it’s apparent that paying for carefully crafted marketing materials to be published or promoted is an accepted aspect of modern content marketing.

Does that turn it into something less ‘pure’? Not in my mind. It’s all about intention. If a piece of marketing collateral has been created with the positive purpose discussed earlier – i.e. it’s designed to offer value and provide useful insights – then it’s still just as honest and helpful if you happen to find it because someone has paid for you to see it in a relevant place.

Programmatic and content marketing

As technology evolves, we’re presented with ever more sophisticated ways in which to communicate with our target audience, and programmatic has taken that to the next level.

With programmatic, brands can set triggers that will display content to a targeted audience at specific times, in specific places or in the event of particular external factors. The same Citrix report describes a Kronenbourg campaign that delivered mobile ads for a range of fruity beers to people in certain locations when the temperature was above 25 degrees.

While that may be pure advertising – it’s highly disruptive and designed with the simple intention of boosting product sales – it’s still an interesting example of the technology that’s available to today’s marketers.

Programmatic can also be used to create a dynamic website experience where the information on display is directly related to the referral source. For example, if someone has visited a site after engaging with an article or video, the site owner can create a seamless user experience through associated content and messaging.

What’s to stop content marketers using similar techniques to provide people with something of genuine value at a time when it’s most needed? I’m not suggesting that we start bombarding people via their mobiles, but I see an opportunity for a subtler approach that blends the power of technology with the values of true content marketing.

It’s a fine line, and content marketers will have to tread carefully to ensure they’re not compromising their strategy or stepping into territory that could impact how trusted their brand is and damage their reputation among their target audience.

But when we find that balance, then programmatic offers new opportunities to share information and build relationships in ever more complex and valuable ways.

Definitely one to watch.