As I meet with brands and agencies, I still come across people who are totally unfamiliar with the term “content marketing.” And as I begin to explain it, they often respond, “Oh, brands publishing content? You mean social media marketing.”
Indeed, content marketing heavily involves social media. And, of course, in social media, marketers use content to get their messages across. But although there is plenty of overlap between content marketing and social media marketing, they are actually two distinct entities, with different focal points, goals, and processes. To help clear the confusion, let’s look at the major ways in which they differ:
Center of gravity
In social media marketing, the center of gravity — the focus of the marketing activity — is located within the social networks themselves. When marketers operate social media campaigns, they are operating inside of Facebook, inside of Twitter, inside of Google+, etc. As they produce content, they place it inside of these networks.
In contrast, the center of gravity for content marketing is a brand website — whether it be a branded URL like AmericanExpress.com or a microsite for a brand’s specific product, like Amex’s Open Forum. Social networks are vital to the success of content marketing efforts, but here, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ are used primarily as a distributor of links back to the content on the brand’s website — not as containers of the content itself.
Types of content
In social media marketing, content is built to fit the context of the chosen social platform: short messages in the 140 characters range for Twitter; contests, quizzes, and games for Facebook, etc. Here, brands model their behavior after that of the individuals using the social networks.
On the other hand, in content marketing, the context of websites permits much longer forms of content. Brands can publish blog posts, videos, infographics, and eBooks, just to name a few formats. Here, brands model their behavior after that of media publishers.
While both social media marketing and content marketing can be used for a multitude of purposes, social media marketing generally tends to focus on two main objectives. First, it is used for brand awareness — generating activity and discussion around the brand. Secondly, it is used for customer retention/ satisfaction — brands can use social channels as an open forum for direct dialogues with customers, often around issues or questions that consumers have.
In contrast, content marketing’s website-based center of gravity enables it to focus more on demand generation. As quality content brings prospects to a brand’s site, brands can develop a relationship with the prospects and nurture them towards a lead conversion or purchase.
Evolution of online marketing
While I don’t know the ratio of brands that practice social media marketing compared to those that practice content marketing, I’d imagine it has to be somewhere around one thousand to one. Social media marketing is top-of-mind for most every marketing department, while content marketing is a (relatively) new term, and a new practice for many.
Yet, I think of the two strategies less as two isolated options and more as interrelated parts of marketing’s ongoing evolution. The internet has unleashed a revolutionary ability for every brand to communicate directly with its customers — without the need for a media industry intermediary.
Social media marketing is the natural first step in this process: Access to users is direct (users spend tons of time on social networks), and content is generally formatted into shorter chunks, which makes the publishing process relatively easy.
But as brands become more familiar with their new role as publisher, the natural progression will be to move toward content marketing. Yes, the bar here is higher: In content marketing, brands must produce longer-form, higher-quality content and build audiences on their own site — they must become true media publishers. But the rewards and results are, arguably, more powerful. Brands can engage more deeply with their customers through content marketing efforts. And by driving consumers to its own website, the brand has a greater opportunity to gain leads and move them down the conversion funnel.
As we all pioneer this new strategy of content marketing, a shared definition of what we do relative to approaches like social media marketing is invaluable. So now your turn: In the comments, feel free to discuss your thoughts. Is this a definition you would use to distinguish the two disciplines? What’s missing?