First there was advertising, which promoted messages brands paid for, then there was PR, which got a business "free" coverage in the press. Now, there is a hybrid of the two, where companies are writing their own stories, creating their own TV programs and putting "native" posts on social media. These are all labeled as being paid for by a brand, but they look like editorial content.
Companies in the U.S. are so keen on this type of marketing that 73 percent of marketers said creating more engaging content was a top priority for 2016, according to statistics from the Content Marketing Institute, which surveyed more than 260 people online. And they are spending big too; consultancy BCG expects US marketers to spend $25 billion on branded content in 2019.
But the one problem with branded content is that it can be hard to understand how consumers feel about it and what competitors are doing. Enter Knowledge, a new search engine for branded content, from technology company Knotch, which counts GE and JP Morgan Chase among its clients.
"The question is: How much content is too much content?" said Knotch founder and Chief Executive Anda Gansca, speaking to CNBC by phone.
"Especially in an age where we are all oversaturated with entertainment and information, branded content is just adding to that. So we started thinking what type of product could we build to answer that question."
The new tool recognizes pieces of branded content on publishers' websites, collects them together and lets marketers search through them.
"You can actually create a competitive group - here are the brands competing for the same demographic that I'm after, I'm going to follow them and see how much content are they pushing out a day, a week, a month, who are they working with, what creative themes are they focused on, and what is the cadence of content," Gansca added.
Businesses will also be able to tell which publishers brands prefer to work with, as well as whether the articles are part of a syndication deal or have been written specifically for a particular site.
But the issue of measurement goes beyond comparing a business to its competitors. How does a brand know whether its content is being read or enjoyed? Publishers may produce figures, but this isn't enough, according to Gansca.
"There are a lot of transparency issues around data reporting, namely that a lot of the distribution channels are basically grading their own homework, the data reporting was less up to them. So there was a need around data [marketers] can trust," she said.
Reporting and transparency are currently big issues in the marketing industry, with online ad fraud (where bots, rather than humans "see" or click on ads) estimated to cost businesses $16.4 billion this year. Procter and Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard has been particularly outspoken about how the company had sometimes been distracted by new digital marketing methods which didn't always work, and has told media suppliers they have until the end of the year to become "transparent, clean and productive."
To help companies understand the impact of their content online, Knotch created a product called Measurement, a research method to understand how people reading articles respond to them, so brands can collect "sentiment data".
One company using Knotch's tools is GE, a business that has invested in its own content platform, GE Reports (a recent post from @GE_Reports is below), which includes articles both about what the company is doing ("Lettuce see the future: LED lighting helps farming go high-tech in Japan," was read by more than a million people, according to agency Contently), as well as pieces such as "Five coolest things on earth this week."
Chief creative officer Andy Goldberg says this investment in content is part of GE's long-term plan. "GE is investing in branded content because we believe storytelling around innovation is one of the most meaningful and relatable ways to convey our leadership. This is especially important as GE transforms into a digital industrial company.
"And, as this transformation is our critical mission, overall sentiment and understanding is what we are most curious to measure," he told CNBC via email.
It is using Knotch's technology to "understand the value of paid content and make smarter, more informed investment decisions," he added.