By Toby Murdock published February 27, 2012

Content Marketing vs. Social Media Marketing: What’s the Difference?

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 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?

Not sure which social networks will help bring you closer to your content marketing goals? Find the answers you need in our Social Media Survival Guide.

Image Credit:  RockfingrzviaFlickr

Author: Toby Murdock

Toby Murdock is co-founder and CEO of Kapost, which provides a content marketing platform that enables marketers to become publishers and win at the new game of marketing. Kapost customers include TripAdvisor, Mashable, Intel and Verizon. Toby lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and three daughters. Find him on Twitter @tobymurdock / @kapost.

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  • Andrew Hanelly

    A well-stated, necessary explanation. Great post.

    • tobymurdock

      thanks Andrew. love what you guys are doing at TMG. would you be available for us to interview you for The Content Marketeer

      • Mihaela

        Very nicely explained, Toby. Social media and Content marketing are just a great leap forward from the traditional marketing that most companies were/are overusing. It is indeed interesting to learn about products and services of a company from a single click. I was wonderring how do companies get to learn about those who access the information and about their needs at that moment; and how could companies track users’ behaviour in order to create long term successful strategies.

        • tobymurdock

          tracking the behavior of site visitors is what marketing automation software does. see eloqua, marketo, pardot, etc. 

          it is critical for content marketing and marketing automation operations to work hand-in-hand. 

          • Laetitiagilbert

            Thank you for this great article. Just a quick question regarding brand content: is brand content should be integrated within SEO fonctions and/or social media / social shopping initiatives? is that it is a complementary role of the SEO manager, who is very “technical oriented” so far? have you a kind of best practices / best opinions?

          • tobymurdock

            yes, i think all of those functions should be coordinated. they are no longer silos

          • Rich

            Toby Great stuff – Content is the product, Social Media is a tool.

      • melindatjasa

        Hi Toby! great post and explanation! may I know when was content marketing first used and by whom/which company?

  • santiagorios

    I believe that either if you take the content marketing approach or social media approach, content always has to be decided before distribution in social media channels. What relevance will it have a brand in social media if it does not have valuable content to offer?

    • tobymurdock

      yes, i think that’s what social media marketers are coming to realize

  • Mary Ellen Slayter

    Great distinction. My company is focused on the content side, but I consider social media an essential tool in getting the content in front of the right people.

  • Kerry Carnahan Ellis

    I like this distinction and think it has real merit – thank you for an excellent post. For me, it immediately brings up the question of  measurement.. How do you recommend that KPI’s differ across social media vs content marketing campaigns, especially when you are leaning heavily on social channels for a content campaign?  And what are the most effective ways to connect distinct social media and content marketing KPI’s to provide the best overall view of customer movement through the purchase funnel?

    • tobymurdock

      wow. great question. 

      first, i would say there are 3 big categories of content marketing KPIs: 1) operational – what content are you publishing, who is publishing it, for what persona, what purchase stage, etc.; 2) promotional – how are you getting traffic to your content, how many social shares, how many inbound links; 3) performance – how many people are viewing your content and how is it moving prospects through the purchase funnel. 

      to answer your second (great) question, they key is having systems that integrate your content operation with your marketing automation operation. this is cutting edge stuff. in fact, i know a company (mine) that is the only who does such a process. let me know if you’d like to discuss (toby at kapost). 

      • kerryca

        Thanks for the offer, Toby! I’ll touch base separately.

  • Rachel Agheyisi

    Very helpful distinction, Toby. I will share it!

    • tobymurdock

      thanks Rachel! 

  • Abhimanyu Singh

    Nice demarcation with words. Only last yr, i had a similar confusion about social media and viral marketing – that was the time of Rebecca Black and our viral videos doing the rounds. Where Social media marketing stands its ground as a medium centered marketing, Viral was the super charged content flowing through the veins of SM. Content marketing is again, partially flowing through social media landscape but is ending someplace else, unless viral which dies down in social media itself.

    Content is for website & thought leadership. True. 

  • Holly McKie

    Great post Toby!  The synergy of having both disciplines active is always my preference, but in reality your comment on starting with SMM is more workable. Thanks.  

  • Red Rocket Media

    Interesting post Toby! For us content marketing is at the very heart of the business and what sets companies apart as thought leaders whereas social media marketing is a channel to drive people to that content and offer a platform for engagement. Companies that do one without the other are missing out on such a huge opportunity as when the 2 work together, the results can be tremendous!

    Thanks for the post – I enjoyed it!


    • tobymurdock

      thanks Michelle. as my post mentions, i think that the two together is the more powerful option, as you say. all brands, in my opinion, are evolving to this combination. it is just a matter of time and prioritization. 

  •!/HennekeD Henneke

    Toby, You’ve provided a great overview of the differences between social media marketing and content marketing. I’d like to add this: Content marketing is like organising a party in your own house. It’s your own real estate and you can party as long as you wish (and decide the music and drinks). 
    Social media marketing is more like organising a party in the local pub. If the pub owner (or Mark Zuckerberg) decides that tonight is alcohol free, what can you do? If the pub owner shuts the pub you have nowhere to go. Content marketing may be a longer term investment in high-quality content, but at least it’s your own house!

    • tobymurdock

      hi henneke–

      good point. no booze at your party would be a bummer!

      furthermore, having the user at your house makes them that much closer to learning more about your products and converting down your acquisition funnel. that’s the key! 

  • kadeeirene

    This is a great article and really helps me break down the broad term ‘social media marketing’ and what it should encompass. I do have a question, if a professional is doing social media marketing AND helping a client develop a content marketing strategy, their title as a Social Media Marketing Manager does not do their job just. What is a better title that encompasses both in definition? 

    • tobymurdock

      great question. the nomenclature is changing and isn’t so fixed. 

      but i think someone who does a bit of everything–some social, some search, some content–that is all about pulling the customer in rather than pushing ad messages at the customer . . . that person might be an “inbound marketer.” i think that’s a pretty umbrella term. 

  • Stephen Bateman

    I knew this would be an interesting and engaging topic and it’s great to see it being dealt with so thoroughly. 

    I echo your point Toby that SM and CM are interdependent, the former acting as the channel for the container from which customers and prospects come to drink. The big DIFFERENCE as you say is in the number of businesses that practise the two interconnected facets of what is overall: marketing. In my work, I see lots of brands tinkering around on the periphery of digital marketing on social networks, mostly in response to trend but without any real plan, in an unjoined-up kind of way. Conversely, few brands in the UK are practising or have any real understanding of content marketing (online) because content marketing is not “tools” but “discipline” that requires long term detailed planning, process and a deep understanding of customers and the connective tissue between them and the company’s core expertise. That for me is the difference: social media has few barriers to entry, anyone can start a FB page or Twitter account, it is easy to get going, child’s play.Conversely. content marketing is hard graft discipline, detailed planning, attention to editorial quality, long term sustainable marketing that is not coniferous but evergreen. This point about barrier to entry is very much demonstrated in the UK where very few businesses have any idea they will need to flex stronger content assets if they are to connect with customers and be relevant in the next 3 year period Here’s an infographic which demonstrates why UK businesses are struggling with social media: not because the channels are tricky but because they have no water in their drink troughs and bowls to pour into the channels

    • Andrew Boer

      Quick botanical quibble.  Coniferous trees like pines are in fact evergreens — as they are generally resistant to freezing.  The word you are looking for is deciduous, which  shed their leaves–but it should be mentioned, their leaves grow back each year. A Valentine’s day article, say,  is not evergreen — but it could be considered deciduous.   News, on the other hand, might be considered monocarpic or semelparous — since it flowers once, and forever dies.

      • Stephen Bateman

        @Andrew, botanical distinction duly noted and appreciated, I must make a note of the other terms you use – now much wiser going into Spring (capital needed or not, never sure and too lazy to Google it! Cheers 

      • Jay Perkins

        Now thats a comment I would like to applaud. Bravo, sir! Love the use of ‘coniferous’ and ‘deciduous’ for content.

    • Juan Carlos Luján

      Totally true. Social Media Guru´s usually focus on the tools, but not in the discipline. That’s why they like to have a million of fans on Facebook

  • Stephen Bateman

    Actually, I have a  question for you Toby: at what stage of the content marketing adoption cycle do you think that companies ought to consider content marketing automation and what would the cost of that automation be? 

    • tobymurdock

      it should happen after the experimentation phase and before the results phase. 

      many brands start by dipping a toe in content marketing with experimentation. that’s great. 

      but it’s only once they are convinced that content marketing can be a real channel that delivers real results that they need a system to manage the process. at that point they need to manage content marketing as a structured business process. 

  • Josh Burns

    This is a great post and I think breaks down the two areas of marketing very well! The only thing that I was confused with was when you said that content marketing is a newer avenue…isn’t it actually an older avenue since writing blog posts, and longer form content have been around for longer than tools like Facebook and Twitter? Or did I just misunderstand that statement? 

    Great post either way!


  • Brian Clark

    Great article Toby. We’ve built out entire business via content distributed by social media channels. Based on your distinction, however, we’ve only been doing content marketing.

    What you call social media marketing, we call digital sharecropping. Not a smart way to go about things when you don’t own or even control the land you’re working on.

    • tobymurdock

      Thanks Brian for the comment. 

      Not sure if my distinctions are right. You’re more qualified than I am to make the definition. 

      But I do hear the two terms thrown around, and I’m trying to clarify what folks here at CMI and Copyblogger are doing versus what the majority of “social media marketing” involves today as currently practiced. 

      And I agree with you, “social” is sharecropping. Not only might the terms of your lease change at any moment, but it is too many steps from the end goal: conversion. That’s why you want to cultivate your own land. 

  • Blackboard

    My company is in the process of expanding from a sole-person focused on social media/channel management to a team building a social media and content marketing strategy. As the individual charged with outlining that strategy, I found this article to be extremely helpful and just what I needed to streamline some of my incongruous thoughts. Great post!

    • tobymurdock

      thank you. a very nice comment! 

      let me know if you’d ever want to chat content marketing. i happen to be in San Fran next week and seems like some of your marketing team is there. 

      glad i was helpful. 🙂

  • Arjun_Basu

    And once again the “content” people paint themselves into the digital silo. It’s as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. 

  • Andrew Boer

    Really liked this post Toby.  I think you are right on point; one interesting question we deal with as  content marketers is whose budget to target, since in large companies there is often a search budget, an advertising budget (online), and a growing social media budget, but rarely a content marketing budget.  So at Movable Media we sometimes decide to pigeon-hole ourselves as social media even though, you are right, we are quite a different beast.

    • tobymurdock

      yeah, sometimes that is the place to be. def more money there

  • Mick Dickinson

    Good post, thanks. Time and time again, I meet marketers who set up on Twitter and quickly run out of ideas and energy. For me content sits behind a successful social marketing strategy. It is the fuel that powers the social engine. And that is why content marketing and social media marketing overlap when done properly as you so rightly point out. 

    • tobymurdock

      thanks mick 🙂

  • Enrique Coll

    Thanks for the article. I can understand much better the difference between.

  • Emma Mary

    I could not agree more. I recently graduated from a masters in Marketing & subsequently set up my own business (Integral Marketing) and I have to say that when networking for new business etc I meet a phenomenal amount of people who position themselves as social media gurus without any idea of the most basic marketing principles including content marketing! In fact most seem hell bent on acquiring as many facebook ‘likes’ etc with little idea how to retain these customers i.e with quality content marketing. 

  • Phil Stone- Internet Marketer

    I use my content for personal branding so fall into a little different category than someone marketing a product. The Social Media platform keeps changing too. For example, I found this post through Pinterest. One week ago I had not heard of it. Tough for marketers to keep up.

  • Sherry Chen

    i always want to use original high value content, but in business, when you need tons of content, especially for SEO purpose, i find it’s hard to keep doing it. 

  • Bernie

    More than once I’ve given a presentation on “social media marketing” and spoke about content marketing instead. I position social media channels as outposts to spread relevant content and engage with people about the content.

    I’ve never had anyone ever push back. In fact I’ve been thanked for this perspective. I’ll use your post to support this point of view.

  • Christina Damiano

    Great article! For someone new to this industry, you made it easy for me to understand the difference. Now I feel more confident knowing where I fit in and how I can help my clients. Thank you.

  • Jim Bannon

    I found small businesses floundering when they wanted to get better Google ranking and when they wanted to attract new clients, because they did not know how.  My company, BudgetVideo4BIZ, has focused on helping them create a FOCUS on Video Marketing Strategy.  On my home page, I show them an OPTIN form similar to one I can create for them — which takes the visitor to Page 2 where there is a FREE GIFT – A complete Video Marketing Strategy Guideline.

  • Jon Milenthal

    YES YES YES…I actually have found that when you relegate social media to its proper place – media, distribution, a vehicle – it actually sparks something within the client I am conversing with.   I often say “Hey, you can tweet and facebook post all day long, and a lot of brands. But you need to have engaging content for these tools to be effective. Otherwise, you won’t break through.”

    Good post.

  • Jim Bannon

    WOW.  There are so many good thoughts here.  Obviously this post attracted people who have tried alternative ways and found out what is e-FEECTIVE!

    To add some more fodder to think about…
    You can’t get your MESSAGE out, until you have a receptive AUDIENCE —  and this is the FIRST STEP in successful Video Marketing — creating an audience among interested followers.

    Having a You-Vee(tm) – A 60 second “Elevator Speech” for your business IN VIDEO, highlighting your “Unique Value Proposition” — is the absolute minimum requirement.

    You wouldn’t go to a network meeting without business cards; why create a web page that does not have a You-Vee(tm)?

    OPT-IN forms are the next key at Step 1.  You simply MUST know who is visiting your web site!  Providing VALUE that encourages folks to
    identify themselves and TRUST that you won’t hammer them with SPAM is all part of this all-important FIRST step.

    AND, you only have a very few seconds to do all that!  WOW!  Ureka! That’s where the video comes in.  Your face, your words, your sincerity… it ALL comes thru – with VIDEO!

    Here is where the whole Video Marketing Solutions STARTS…. knowing who visits your website, and getting THEIR PERMISSION to be able to automatically market to them in the future! You can’t deliver a MESSAGE, if you don’t have an AUDIENCE!

    The next step is “DYNAMITE, COMPELLING CONTENT”.  The kind of content that has such VALUE, folks want to invite you into their world – time and time again.  That is CREDIBILITY, and that builds REAL $$$ over the long haul… That’s when you go “Viral”… i.e. when you are doing REAL “Referral Marketing”.

    FINALLY (and don’t forget this to KEEP the RELATIONSHIP MOVING FORWARD, and the referrals happening via “Word of Mouth”), you simply MUST HAVE other videos – documenting highly satisfied customer experiences – my branded trade mark is Vid-eMonials(tm).

    I firmly believe, EVERY web page should have:
    – Home

    – About US (If your You-Vee(tm) doesn’t automatically play as soon as they enter your site, it should be placed HERE!

    – Contact Us

    – Testimonials


    Nothing Communicates Your Message Better Than Creative, Engaging & Compelling Video!

    The Key to Gaining TRUST – Demonstrating Integrity w/ Credibility
    “People don’t want to hear, and do not TRUST, what you say about YOU…
    RATHER, they base their decisions – and their actions – on the thoughts and opinions of others; WHAT THEY SAY about you.”

    From: Lessons your mother taught you

    Hope this helps prompt some additional thoughts!

  • Russell Sparkman

    Late to the conversation here, but here’s my thoughts:

    Content Marketing as a concept is a much bigger umbrella under which all the other flavors of marketing tactics – including social, inbound, mobile, agile, SEO, exerential, etc. –  can be planned,  deployed, utilized, etc..

    It’s simply based on that fact that “content”  is that fundamental to everything else and none of the other tactics are worth a plug nickel without it.

    When your focus is first on the audience, and what they WANT or NEED from you, and you focus first on addressing those wants and needs with quality, strategically aligned content assets, your other decisions flow more easily, naturally and organically, re social media distribution, mobile app development, and so on ….

    • Rebecca Bredholt

       Your last graph is exactly what magazine editors have been doing all along. If more marketers thought like magazine editors, we’d see an increase in the quality of the content and content marketing.

      • Juan Carlos Luján

        Good point of view Rebecca. Im going to translate in my Fan Page

  • Raman Dua

     i am grateful to you. Thanks for increasing my knowledge.

  • Harry Reczek

    Right on Toby! You’re on center with this. And you got the Sociology correct. We are Media Publishers in a digital world that can choose Content Marketing or Social Media channels. You’ve shifted the thinking from social media as platform to social media as a viral channel. GREAT job. ~H.

  • Nick

    As the content marketing landscape evolves how do you see the future roles of the corporate blog versus corporate website in determining overall inbound marketing objectives. Do you still segment the two or look to the hybrid option.

  • lawnbagsignscom

    This article is trully well-written.There are a lot of interesting things to take into consideration. well done!

  • Bill

    Great post!! I have been searching for a place in the integrated digital communication ecosystem where our company fits and this content marketing seems to be the place. I wonder what the difference between Inbound Marketing and Content Marketing is. I would greatly appreciate a explanation of the difference between the two.

  • Nick

    Great Post, very informative, thank you

  • marketechinteractive

    Thank you, Great information… now to put it to good use!

  • marlies

    what would be in your expert opinion, the
    first starting point as a small (one person) company with high ambitions (and wanting to do it right the first time)?

    • PepitaBos

      Good question. I would like to hear the answer to that one as well…

    • jud

      It would all depend on your business, your customer base, and your budget.

    • Erin Currin

      I don’t think you can go wrong with Content marketing – especially if your business is service related. For the one-person-show, content may be your greatest sales person…

      With original content, people can get related to you by understanding what you know, what you value, and how you operate.

      And original content isn’t necessarily difficult to produce anymore. Just grab your smart phone and talk. So many phones do talk to text, most of your work to create a blog is now done… 🙂

  • Sminzak

    Great article! Thank you! How does email marketing play into the picture?

    • thomaskim

      Just my 2cents: I would say that after the electronic BBS (bulletin board system), email is the next oldest electronic social media network 🙂 That said, I think email is still integral to both Social Media and Content marketing campaigns as a critical channel for prospecting and engagement.

  • Sameer Bille

    There is no doubt as your risen points are true but some time social engagement can destroy our creativity and unique thinking boundaries. Specially branding purpose needs special care of social engagement with online community.

  • Kayla

    It’s great to hear someone differentiating the two! Good information!

  • Biko

    Hello, I like the aspect of bringing audiences to the company’s site as it is in content marketing. I was interested in targeting specific publics with varied approaches and that is also catered for. I can embrace it. Just clarify on identifying the media habits of your audiences. Is it necessary?

    • aboer

      Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
      If your customers are in a small niche or B2B, you surely want to take a close look at their media habits. Not only at the kind of content your potential audience and customers are already consuming, but also how they consume it. (mobile, web, etc.)
      You could even recruit the bloggers or writers who already have those audiences to write for you. (We help brands with recruiting influencers with audiences at Movable Media, and often in conjunction with platforms like Kapost).
      But if your company is a lifestyle brand or a consumer good or a huge company that touches nearly everyone (say Google), knowing your audience’s current media habits and developing narrow personas might lead you down a bland path of “me too” content.