By Joe Pulizzi published November 6, 2014

Hey WSJ – Content Marketing Is NOT Native Advertising

14629100863_919cd54697_oDisclaimer: This is one of those “inside baseball” posts. It is also devoid of any helpful how-to information (as we’ve become known for at CMI). I wrote this post because I believe it needs to be said. So there.

Update 11/7/2014 – I had a wonderful chat with the writer from the Wall Street Journal this morning regarding clarification on content marketing versus native advertising.  Just wanted to commend her on following through to try to clarify her definition of content marketing. 

Warning … rant alert!

When Amanda Subler, CMI’s media relations lead, notified us that The Wall Street Journal picked up our latest research findings, I was pretty psyched. I mean, it’s the WSJ. Plus, the research is a content marketing initiative that led directly to earned media.

And then I read the following excerpt:

“Investments in content marketing – in which brands create content that is closely integrated with editorial content on publisher sites – have been on the rise for many advertisers looking to reach consumers in a less intrusive way compared to other online ad formats.”

Please go back and read that middle part again. No, wait … read it here:

“… in which brands create content that is closely integrated with editorial content on publisher sites …”

Oh no, she didn’t. Yes, that’s right, the author of this article used a quasi-native advertising definition and called it content marketing. Why is it that so many traditional publishers and journalists think that brands can’t possibly create their own content that … (wait for it) … could possibly live on a platform not owned by a traditional media company?

This is content marketing

Content marketing is 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.

The purpose of content marketing is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior. It is an ongoing process that is best integrated into your overall marketing strategy, and it focuses on owning media, not renting it.

In content marketing, you own the media. It’s your asset. In native advertising, you are paying someone else to distribute and (ultimately) own your content.

This is native advertising

Note: There are many types of native advertising (you can find them here). For this conversation, I’m talking about the type of native advertising where long-form content is placed on media sites. The Interactive Advertising Bureau created a Native Advertising Playbook that has six categories of consideration. It’s a worthy document, but to simplify its definition, native advertising is:

  • A directly paid opportunity. I hate to bring out the obvious, but native advertising is “pay to play.” If a brand or individual did not pay for the spot, it’s not native advertising. Although brands may choose to promote their content by paying for visibility, content marketing is not advertising. You do not pay to create or curate content to your own platform. If you are, you should stop that right now.
  • Usually content based. The information is useful, interesting, and highly targeted to the specific readership. So, in all likelihood, it’s not an advertisement promoting the company’s product or service directly. This is where native advertising looks a bit like content marketing. The information is usually highly targeted (hopefully) and positioned as valuable, or similar to the value of the “real” content on the publisher’s site. But again, in native advertising, you are renting someone else’s content asset (just like advertising), except that you aren’t pimping a product or service. 
  • Delivered in stream. To truly be a native ad, the user experience is not disrupted. The advertising is delivered in a way that does not impede the normal behavior of the user in that particular channel. The brand that buys the native advertising placement wants its content to look as similar as possible to the site’s content. The media company wants that too (because it’s easier for the salespeople to sell it,) but it also has to put out a multitude of warning labels around the content to make sure there is 100% transparency. The Federal Trade Commission is currently not going to get involved with any native-advertising guidelines in the hope that the industry will self-police.

Again, the goal of native advertising (at least for definition purposes) is to not disrupt the user experience … to offer information that is somewhat helpful and similar to the other information on the site so that users engage with the content at a higher rate than, say, a banner ad (this is good for advertisers, and if the content is truly useful, good for consumers.)

I’m not a native advertising hater. If I was a brand, I’d be jumping into these opportunities to steal audience from publishers. I also believe that for many publishers, native advertising is a short-term offering. Publishers like Buzzfeed can do native advertising all day long, while it’s much harder for brands like The Wall Street Journal.

Can native advertising and content marketing work together?

Actually, the two should work together. As you develop your content marketing program, you’ll get to a portion of the content marketing framework called audience. Simply put, you may not have enough audience to drive your content program. Native advertising is a great way to (legally) steal audience and work to drive it to your owned content marketing platform.

You may also just be using native advertising around traditional advertising goals, like awareness or intent, which is just fine but may not necessarily integrate with your content program.

So, to sum up, native advertising is paid. The content for native advertising occurs on the platform you are paying. We good? WSJ?

If you’d like to learn all about native advertising, see the Ultimate Guide to Native Advertising.

Want to read more insight and helpful information from CMI’s founder? Secure a copy of his book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, & Win More Customers by Marketing Less.

Cover image by George Hodan,, via pixabay

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Justin MacDonald

    I appreciated the distinction making here. I honestly hadn’t thought of how closely related the topics can be, but massively different they are. Thanks for clarifying!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Justin…lots of terms flying around these days, so I have to remember to come back to these things often so we can all speak the same language. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Mike Myers

    Reeeeaaallly disappointing that the Wall Street Journal (the WSJ!) makes this mistake. C’mon people, it’s journalism 101 to make sure you understand something before you write about it. Ugh.

    Oh, sorry Joe, this was your rant, not mine. Thanks for listening.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      We can rant together Mike.

  • Neil Rhein

    Thanks for clarifying the distinctions between content marketing and native advertising. In the WSJ’s defense, I think these terms are confusing, even for those who work in this space!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Totally agree that there is confusion out there Neil…that’s why we all need to do our homework on the issue. One step at a time…

  • Tim

    Joe, thanks for the rant, I enjoyed it! The distinction needs to be made for sure as its a fairly pervasive thought unfortunately. Definitely one of my CM pet peeves, along with content marketing = the new SEO & content marketing = PR/corporate communications. Ughhh….

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Ugh is right my friend.

  • Henry Blaufox


    For publishers like the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Meredith, Time Inc and all the other majors with in house content marketing groups that work with brands, content marketing and native go hand in hand. For them, the purpose is to create the sponsored (paid) content and then distribute it to the target audience in native format, via the online publication (WSJ, NYT, etc.) Thus, content marketing runs in native format. That is the value proposition they present to the brands. Want to see a gorgeous example? look at what the WSJ Custom Studios did for Mercedes Benz at . This originally was placed in .

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Henry…definitely see your point for publishers that run native programs, and I’ve worked on that side (I used to run a content marketing group for a B2B publisher). But it’s VERY different running a program as a “for hire” group and running as part of a paid advertising program. Sometimes the same group in a media company does both…but many times it’s an entirely different group. WSJ could produce a magazine for Mercedez Benz that is delivered to MB customers. That is content marketing. What you showed is part of WSJ’s paid promotion, so it’s closer to native advertising (but I’d call that sponsored content, and not native since it doesn’t run in stream). Thanks so much for the comment.

  • Paul Conley

    Hi Joe, The most offensive part of this is that the WSJ has not corrected or clarified the mistake. That’s quite remarkable given that you posted a comment (and a very polite, rant-free one at that) pointing out the error. Nor did the reporter respond to your comment!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for noticing Paul 🙂

  • Jay Thompson

    “to reach consumers in a less intrusive way compared to other online ad formats” — this later portion of the quoted definition is also troublesome for me. Content marketing’s approach is to provide sought-after content, in contrast to pushed, intrusive content. Native advertising, like all other advertising, is still pushed, and therefore intrusive. It’s got the added problem of being a pushed message in a place where the viewer was probably expecting something else, such as news or other sought after content. This duplicity fails the moral and ethical test for me. Showing my Pollyanna-ish nature, I suppose.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      I hear you Jay…but the hope is that it’s “less” intrusive. But I see your point. It’s a profoundly gray area.

  • Doug Kessler

    You sure it was really Wall Street Journal editorial and not a paid for ‘Partner Content’, ‘Sponsored Update’ or ‘Professional Viewpoint’?

    It’s awfully hard to tell these days…

    • Joe Pulizzi

      It is…it is my friend.

  • Christina

    I am confused by this comment in the ‘Directly Paid Opportunity’ portion of this post: “You do not pay to create or curate content to your own platform. If you are, you should stop that right now.” While we do not pay for placement on our own platform we do pay third-party writers and some contributors to write content for us. There’s no other way to get the work done otherwise. Joe, Can you clarify that comment?

    • Alice Tong

      Yup when I read that I was like… wait a minute… most brands do not have a “content creation team” or editors who are able to create quality content pieces. I do think that a lot of times you need to pay to get that done professionally, that is different from paying for advertising though.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Christina (and Alice) – you are correct…there is a lot of investment made to create compelling content. But what I meant by “paying” means paying for placement (like paying for the honor of having your content on the site). That’s the essence of native advertising…you are paying for placement.

      But yes, you need to invest in design, content, production and distribution as part of content marketing…and even the promotion of that content…but not to have it “exist” on a site.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope this makes it more clear.

  • Larry Kunz

    I agree with you, Joe. Except that’s not inside baseball — it’s actually pretty fundamental. Shame on the WSJ for making such an error. It’s like saying that marketing is the same thing as TV commercials, which is so ridiculous that…oh, wait, I’ve heard people say that too.

    Just goes to show you that a lot of people misunderstand what content marketing is (and marketing, for that matter). Keep fighting the good fight.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thank you sir. You are correct, there IS a lot of confusion out there. We all need to do our part.

  • Daniel Mohn-Reinaas

    I don’t get this, I thought I did until I read what you wrote in the linked in post you referred to “Native advertising is part of the overall bucket of content marketing.”
    I thought your argument was that these two were different. With this comment you are saying we got content marketing as a broad term and within content marketing there are two categories, where one is native advertising and one is content marketing.

    I thought (and was hoping) all your arguments in this post was to say native advertising is not content marketing?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Daniel…thanks for sending this note. I just updated that paragraph for clarification. I’ve changed my stance a bit since I wrote the LinkedIn post. Really appreciate it.

  • J-P De Clerck

    The article is changed but I doubt it matters. This evolution is going on for years now and I believe it’s fair to also say that “the industry” (by which I don’t mean there should be such a thing as a content marketing industry) has been contributing to such confusions by giving content marketing awards to several single formats and creations that in the end often are just advertorials, campaigns, custom magazines etc. where content obviously is playing a key role. Too much has been put into one bucket. Furthermore, failing publishing and advertising models, accompanied by the hyping of content marketing in several domains, obviously have everyone jumping on the bandwagon (we reap what we sow). Native advertising is advertising with a fancy name. And content marketing is taken too serious as a “separate, yet connected” category. We need to be intellectually correct and acknowledge the confusion will continue to reign, certainly as long as we focus on pushing and defending the correctness of the term. It is the same in content marketing strategy and saying companies with a plan do better. Of course they do, just like everything in business with a plan that is more or less followed contributes to better results, whether it’s in IT, marketing or whatever. It is what it is and what is changes. I’m personally rather sad about how sponsored content has poisoned media more than ever, how good journalists become rather rare and how the neutrality in media, as far as it ever existed, has been clearer than ever in a changing geopolitical context where media from several regions across the globe seem to live in different worlds and propaganda is totally back. But that’s another topic.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Great take JP. I’m very concerned myself. I’m not sure most publishers see the issue. It’s going to get bad (in my opinion).

      • J-P De Clerck

        Well, there’s always BuzzFeed for quality content. Long live the crowd 😉

  • Mike Goldberg

    Thank you Joe. I’ve been saying this over and over. The industry clearly needs to make a distinction here, as advertisers are getting these two confused, and by doing so, they are hurting themselves.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Agreed Mike. Thanks for commenting!

  • Nicola Gibbons

    Hi Joe, I definitely take the point you’ve made, but feel there’s still some ambiguity. For example, how would you classify something like Sponsored Updates on LinkedIn; the placement is clearly native (paid for and in stream), however, the content being distributed typically belongs to the brand, and therefore, by your definition is content marketing?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Nicola…as content-based Facebook post, Sponsored Tweet and LinkedIn promotion is all considered native advertising. Could it be part of a larger content marketing approach…sure…but it’s advertising – and native because it’s in stream. Some would call this sponsored content, but it’s all semantics.

  • Ericka Wilcher

    Hi Joe, I love a good rant – so thanks for that. But I am particularly interested in your qualification of owned media for content marketing. How would you categorize paid content syndication? It is pay-to-play distribution of content, but it typically disrupts the experience (with gated registration). The content is brand-owned and designed to influence consumer behavior, and content syndication is an ongoing process. What say you?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Ericka…paid promotion of content is part of the approach of content marketing. Many companies use it and use it well. Could definitely be considered part of the process.

  • Oliver Jaeger

    Hi Joe,
    however it is sliced and diced I think it’s important to note that
    content marketing and advertising should be part of a company’s overall
    marketing strategy. Individual components of your marketing program should not
    be thought of as one-off efforts. According to a survey created earlier this
    year by Zendesk, 67% of online shoppers
    have made purchases in the past six months that have involved multiple
    channels. To implement a truly effective marketing program, and thereby secure
    a competitive advantage, you need to make sure that all of your marketing
    channels (social media, collateral, sales & support) are working
    hand-in-hand to provide customers and potential customers a well-rounded
    customer journey.

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  • Tor Magnus Kolflaath

    Great article.

    Why don’t you update the Wikipedia articles?