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Content marketing vs Social media marketing – what's the difference?

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2 March 2012

Social vs content marketing
The term content marketing has cropped up ever more frequently this last year. But what exactly is it, and how is it different from social media? Is the term of any use at all?

They are in fact flip sides of the same coin – the ever democratisation of media. Both speaks of media, that can be produced by everyone, and is distributed by everyone. These two terms can however also capture a distinction in approach to democratised media. How so?

Let me explain. Please note that for the sake of clarity, I am going to generalise. The distinction between different forms of media has never been absolutely clear cut. (Some forms of social media are over a century old.) And the distinctions are even less so now. But here goes my little polemic.

  • First, they both have something important in common. They are increasingly distributed and shared by the public at large.
  • But they differ in important respects:

  • Social media is built around relationships.
  • Content marketing is built around communication that has substance, significance and meaning to a wide audience – (content for lack of a better word).
  • Because social media is built on relationships, meritocracy is not that important. Your mom is your mom, even if she is a bad mom. Most people seek out people that are similar to themselves. You are often friends with a person because of proximity (you worked together), and they liked you. Not because they are pure genius. You share the stuff of friends, not always because they are great, but because they are your friends. And everybody tends to have friends.
  • Because content marketing is built on content, and because there’s so much of it, we seek out better content. And we look to share the best content. The result is that it is kind of meritocratic (or money is poured into making it so). The most interesting Twitter users get the most followers (unless they have been manufactured by MSM). But while everybody has friends, not everybody has something interesting to say.
  • Because social media is built on reciprocal relationships they are per definition two way connections. This is the world of conversations.
  • Content marketing is often not two way. It is more often one to many.
  • As a result of the two way relationships, social media often involves communities. These are very human warm fuzzy, messy and authentic places.
  • Content marketing has audiences, or audiences with audiences. Often members of audiences don’t know each other at all.
  • Communities don’t scale very well. The bigger they are the less of a community and the more noise. Which is why so many social media gurus (like Chris Brogan) suddenly realised they were doing Twitter wrong and unfollowed thousands. They could not see through the noise.
  • Audiences scale amazingly well. They are not cozy villages however. See Gina Trapini’s excelent post on the flip side of a big audience.
  • Social vs contentmarketing

    How to make sense of all this?

    Here at RAAK we like to think before we do. If you are a regular reader of our newsletter you’d have noticed that we are rather skeptical of some of the central tenets of the social media dogma. Like the ridiculous one that was so big until quite recently amongst the likes of gurus like Chris Brogan: Following somebody back when they follow you as a matter of course.

    Don’t get me wrong. We do think its pretty obvious that the continuous drop in the cost of publishing – the democratisation of media, is revolutionary. But we don’t think that the basic rules of media or how people behave have changed. It’s just that the rules now apply to everybody – because we all can be media.

    That means, for example, that attention remains finite. And it is silly to pretend you can meaningfully follow 20,000 people. That means Stephen Frye might be a person, but he is also a broadcaster.

    So what does all this mean for organisations in practise?

    In most instances, what companies and organisations should do when using media for getting their message out (note – a very specific part of marketing), is ‘content’ and not ‘social’. It fits their goals much better. Most companies want to achieve some kind of scale – an audience and not a community.

    You often hear social media consultants say to companies, just join this or that service – it’s not rocket science. Yeah, that might be fine for Joe Blogs who has 130 friends and no need to communicate at scale.

    Companies and organisations tend to want to excel and stand out. Create a brand. The only way to do this (besides the obvious one of having a great product) is to produce quality content that’s remarkable. And that is freaking hard. It requires a combination of talent and graft. You often need to throw money at the problem – At companies like RAAK ;) They need to hire journalists, creative programmers, film makers – not marketeers or community managers.

    Unfortunately doing things at scale cause more noise (See Gina’s post above). Many blogs have started to switch off their comnents. (I’m not necessarily suggesting you do that). But look at hyper successful Burberry and what they do on their Facebook page. They never reply to customers. They are broadcasting.

    Click to enlarge – the most important digital skills 2012 – Econsultancy.

    To reiterate – I am not saying that relationships and two way interaction with your audience is of no import when getting your message out. It has always been. Just look at how much radio has made use of the phone-ins over the years. And now this interaction is even easier.

    So depending of the company, the brand they are trying to project (aloof, part of the crowd), and their size, the answer to how one-to-one a company should be, will vary.

    And social media still has a direct roll in other sphere’s of the company operations. For market research social media is gold dust. It has a massive roll to play in informing product development. Creating forums where customers can help themselves is yet another example where social is king.

    It’s earned media, that’s earned through blood sweat and tears

    AND it’s hard to do content marketing itself well, without listening what’s going on at the coal face of social media – because that’s where it will be distributed. AND even when creating content, you can harness the power of the crowd. (See our logo and logo crowd sourcing experiment). So this is not an argument against social media per se. But it is an argument for a shift in emphasis to take it far more seriously. A few Tweets, and a few replies won’t cut it.

    Bottom-line: There are many more media channels today (we all are), and they vary tremendously in size. And so the scope of these media channels for behaving as broadcasters (Stephen Frye) or conversationalists (The Hackney Gazette) vary greatly too.

    But really, if your serious about communicating far and wide, you know which one you want to be.

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    • Posted by Peter Sigrist
      March 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure drawing this distinction is helpful. Content is a core part of any social media strategy – it’s the bit you use to start conversations. The distinction you draw here also leads you to a conclusion about how to handle large communities or, as you call these, audiences. Surely the point is that social media does more than open a one-way channel. The job for companies and brands is to find new, efficient ways to engage with their customers, investors, journalists etc. in two-way conversation. This means decentralising responsibility for messaging and communication. A far wider set of people need to be empowered to own segments of the corporate story, to engage with those who engage in that part of the story, and to be human. Less control will entail mistakes, which feels alien to traditional marketers, but is very human and therefore – much as I hate the word – authentic.

    • March 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Peter. Yes, content is a core part of a social media strategy – in fact I’d say for marketing purposes its the most important part. (It can of course be used for many other things too).

      I made the distinction because you see the phrase content marketing crop up more and more. And its important to explain why this term is used and not social media. To stand out in social you need to excel in content.

    • March 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Peter, just read your comment again. What you propose is that the responsibility for being media becomes far more widespread inside an organisation. Kind of the Zappos model.

      But what about the Burberry model, where professional and remarkable content is push out by a central team?

    • Posted by Dirk Singer
      March 3, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      Hi Wessel,

      Really interesting and from personal experience you could actually give them different labels – community engagement and online PR.

      We have two clients that have the divide you mention. For the first social media management is handled by marketing while online PR is handled by….PR.

      I think that’s not unusual as a lot of traditional PR always included content development – by-lined articles in trade magazines, speaker opportunities, videos, white papers and so on.

      And of course the idea in the PR world was always to get some willing journalists to lavish your client’s conference speech or white paper with praise…and so it is in the world you are talking about now, though its no longer just about journalists.

      I think that divide and way of thinking is increasingly common, with communities increasingly being handled by marketing departments and by extension very often advertising and media agencies.

      But I do agree they should work together rather than for the divide to be this absolute. Another client also has a communities and a content function but groups them both under social media with one reporting structure.

      ‘Content’ produces editorial that is then given to communities to adapt – that’s obviously not one way communication, but the client’s communities’ are given the opportunity to build on and enhance that content.

      That to me seems a logical way of looking at things. Unfortunately as yet, few brands do

    • March 4, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Dirk. Yes, its always more messy that the theory – not a neat delineation.

    • Posted by Jeff Bowman
      July 9, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

      Great article. It’s important for brands to focus on developing “quality” content in order to stay relevant among the multitude of competing “voices” online.

      Note: could you attend to 2 small, typos that are driving me bonkers [correction in brackets]: 1. Final Paragraph: “But really, if your [you're] serious about communicating far and wide, you know which one you want to be.” [big pet peeve of mine! ;-) ]
      2. Paragraph before last chart: ” switch off their comnents [comments].”

      ;-) Thanks! Jeff

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