In 2016, Allstate partnered with The Atlantic on an ambitious branded-content initiative known as the Renewal Project, an online newsroom featuring stories and videos of social enterprise and innovation. Supported with grassroots local events, sponsored editorial on, and extensive ongoing social media, the Renewal Project is an example of a recent trend toward the use of branded content in support of corporate social responsibility efforts. Being good corporate citizens and agents of constructive social change is its own reward, but there is the added benefit of positive brand association.

The use of branded content has soared in recent years, and—because it has morphed into several forms on multiple platforms—its definition, the intent of its use, and the proper ways to measure its effectiveness all are in question. Among digital advertisers, the surge in branded content coincides with an industry backlash to programmatic advertising’s commoditization of inventory. One popular manifestation of branded content is native advertising, which consists of advertisements that exist in a format that is native to the publisher or platform. MediaRadar’s 2016 Consumer Advertising Report indicated that the number of native advertisers in digital grew 74 percent in 2017’s first quarter, compared with the prior-year period. That growth coincided with a 12 percent decline in the number of programmatic advertisers, which MediaRadar’s chief executive officer, Todd Krizelman, attributed to a “flight to quality” among advertisers.1