Broadly speaking, native advertising is said to be any advertising that matches its environment.  On a social network, this often comes in the form of a brand-promoted post appearing alongside organic posts from users that person follows.

On a publisher’s site where the norm is written content, videos, infographics or other multimedia, native advertising takes on those formats, allowing advertisers to create branded content to tell stories and deliver information with the same tools.

In their Native Advertising Playbook, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) places these two types of native advertising in separate categories: Promoted Tweets and Facebook Sponsored Stories fall into “In-Feed Units,” which appear nestled between organic posts in a list of some sort.  At the same time, what most of us mean when we say “native advertising” – that is, branded content created in partnership with an advertiser and living on a publisher’s site – is not seen as an “ad unit” at all.  Or it’s relegated to the sixth bucket, amorphously and self-awarely named “Custom / Cannot Be Contained.”

In practice, social promotion and on-site branded content are quite intricately linked It’s easy to see how people might see branded social posts and branded on-site publishing as entirely independent: just two of the many ways that advertisers and publishers can work together to create more organic branded experiences for readers.  But in practice, social promotion and on-site branded content are quite intricately linked.

In August of 2015, a survey of more than 400 top publisher sites by analytics company Parse.ly showed Facebook as an even larger referral of traffic to news sites than Google, bringing in 43% of page views compared to Google’s 38%.

As a result of this shift toward a social-dominant stream of incoming web traffic, editorial norms now often include dedicated staff who abide by a defined organic social posting strategy and also have the power to deploy paid promotional strategies across social platforms.  Internal financial documents leaked in 2015 indicated that BuzzFeed, a publisher known for its social-first and social-friendly editorial content, may be spending multiple millions per year to drive traffic from social networks.

Because branded content is based on the editorial model – in that it aims to replicate the processes, aesthetics, and function of its host publication – it should come as little surprise that its performance would be just as heavily anchored in social promotion and distribution.

And yet, little is said about the role that social promotion plays in the native advertising offerings at most publishers, or how dependent that content is on social media for its performance.  But the ways in which social media is integrated into branded content programs is as varied as the content itself.

Organic social posts are put out to the follower base of the host publisher’s social media accounts, linking back to the branded content page, without advertising dollars aiding in promotion or targeting.  Sometimes, these posts are put out by editorial social accounts, the same ones used for the publisher’s own content, such as @Buzzfeed on Twitter.  Other times, these posts go out from dedicated social accounts, which exist solely for the purpose of sharing branded content separately from editorial social accounts, such as @TBrandStudio.

And while organic posts aren’t supported by advertiser funds, that doesn’t mean that they come free of charge.  Many publishers layer in a posting fee for such posts – particularly those from editorial social accounts, which have much larger engagement – by charging based on the number of posts or the anticipated reach based on follower counts.  These posts can also be used as added value incentives that come only at certain investment levels, to encourage advertisers to spend more on the content package.

Paid social posts are more prevalent, in part because they’re more clearly linked to revenue for publishers.  As with organic posts, these paid posts linking to branded content can come from either editorial social accounts or dedicated social accounts.  However, the key difference is that these posts have advertiser funds earmarked for promoting them to a larger and more targeted audience than the base of followers those social accounts may have organically.  When that happens, the posts appear similar to organic posts but are generally labeled as “Promoted” or “Sponsored” to help identify them.

Regardless of whether the posts come from editorial or dedicated social accounts, advertisers have an additional option for amplifying them, at least on Twitter: Whitelisting.  With written permission, the advertiser can use their own funds to promote the tweet that was sent out by the publisher.  So a tweet sent out by @HuffingtonPost or @HuffPostPartner might appear in your feed as “Promoted By Purina” or “Promoted By Ford,” further leveraging the name and credibility of the publisher to drive additional exposure and traffic to the branded content piece that the tweet links to.

But how much traffic these posts drive back to branded content pages and how much revenue they are producing for publishers remains a mystery.

That information is co-owned by the advertisers, who have little incentive to share how much of the traffic to their content piece was paid for or how much they paid for it.

But data from BI Intelligence has projected that in-feed social native ads will continue to account for the majority of native ad revenue through 2018, by which point the industry is expected to reach or exceed $21B annually in North America alone.

And if that number is any indication, the conversation about social media’s role in native ad performance will increase, whether we “Like” it or not.

This article originally appeared in the Social Media Special Edition of Brand Quarterly,
produced in association with Sysomos – click HERE to read the full issue