B2B Experts: The Difference Between Social Media and Content Marketing

Many B2B marketing conversations have been focused on content marketing lately, rather than social media and I wanted to understand if this was a real trend and what it might mean. The graph below shows worldwide Google searches for the terms social media and content marketing. The comparison for November 2013 shows 33 times the average search volume for social media versus content marketing. This means that social media is still what people are looking for, compared to content marketing.

With such a large disparity in search interest, and one that doesn’t seem to be changing on a global level, I asked several experts about the difference between social media and content marketing. Below are their answers to this question. The experts also weighed in on if they thought content marketing would ever replace social media.

ann-handleyAnn Handley (@marketingprofs)
Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs and Co-Author of Content Rules
Blog: annhandley.com

I see content marketing as the larger umbrella under which social media lives. I explain how social fits into a content publishing strategy here. (Along with a handy DIY-drawn chart!)

lee-oddenLee Odden (@leeodden)
CEO at TopRank Online Marketing and Author of Optimize
Blog: TopRank Online Marketing Blog

I don’t think social media and content marketing are an apples to apples comparison. Even so, in terms of Google Trends, I think the difference between the phrases “content marketing” and “social media” is that content marketing is entirely a business term.

Your neighbor isn’t going to talk to you about those darn teenagers and their content marketing. But there’s plenty of discussion by businesses and citizens alike about social media. From business publications to gossip magazines, the phrase social media is ubiquitous because it’s part of everyday language for any internet connected human being. Therefore, when it comes to tracking services like Google trends, there’s little chance of content marketing surpassing social media as a popular expression.

jay-baerJay Baer (@jaybaer)
President at Convince and Convert and Author of Youtility

Content marketing is a device used by companies to educate, inform or entertain customers or prospects by creating attention or causing behavior that results in leads, sales or advocacy. Social media is used by customers and prospects to communicate among themselves, and occasionally with companies. This communication can result in leads, sales or advocacy, but is often less structured and conversational, and can be reactive too, as social media is increasingly used as a customer support channel.

From the company perspective, the goal of content marketing is consumption, then behavior. The goal of social media is participation, then behavior.

The confusing thing today is that as social media expands, brands need to create content to populate these channels. Further, many content repositories have rich social media overlays (the new G+ fueled comments on YouTube, for example).

[Jay was inspired by this question and wrote the following post: Here’s the Difference Between Content Marketing and Social Media.]

jason-fallsJason Falls (@jasonfalls)
Vice-President for Digital Strategy at CafePress and founder of Social Media Explorer

Content marketing is creating content for communications channels (blogs, newsletters, social posts, press releases, videos, photographs, interactive media, etc.) that persuade an audience. Social media are some of those channels and are defined by gathering points of an audience that allows open communications to, from and between its members. For businesses, and tactically, social media marketing is leveraging online gathering points and conversations with participants, to persuade an audience.

[Jason was inspired by this question and wrote the following post: Content Marketing Alone will Fail.]

michael-brennerMichael Brenner (@brennermichael)
Vice President of Marketing and Content Strategy at SAP
Blog: B2B Marketing Insider

The difference between content marketing and social media is huge. Social media is a new channel. And it competes with other media channels like TV, radio, print and all the digital channels available to us.

Content marketing and storytelling are as old as human beings. We have always needed to find ways to convey important information in useful and entertaining ways. Social media is just the latest evolution in the way we can tell the stories. I think soon we will drop the “social” and go back to calling it plain old “media.”

doug-kesslerDoug Kessler (@dougkessler)
Creative Director and Co-founder of Velocity

In the early stages of a new phenomenon, people need to know all about it. Everyone’s on the steepest part of the collective learning curve. But that curve starts to flatten out over time, as the new discipline kind of dissolves into the wider discipline (of marketing itself in this case).

Social hit the big time before the new incarnation of content marketing did. Its curve is starting to flatten out.

For me, social media marketing is almost a complete subset of content marketing. You can do content marketing without ever logging in to a social site (your programs would suffer for it, but you could do it).

But to try social media marketing without content… and you become that crazy guy with the megaphone on the street corner. Or the people who post ‘Positive, inspiring quotes every day!” (Even these, are arguably content — just annoying content).

Content marketing is sharing your expertise to help your prospects do their jobs (or live their lives). Social media marketing is using social channels to listen, engage with people, build communities and participate in conversations relevant to your brands.

Social is one of the most important places your content can make an impact. But it’s not the only one. It’s also a powerful source of insight for your content. But it’s not the only one.

chris-moodyChris Moody (@cnmoody)
VP of Marketing at Compendium
Blog: chris-moody.com

You’re definitely right about the trends. But, content marketing stretches across everything. Traditionally, it hasn’t been as sexy or desirable as social media. As individuals, we’re much more concerned with our presences on social networks than our content marketing strategy. Much of that perception has stalled the adoption of successful content marketing execution.

Many marketers focus exclusively on web (websites, blogs, landing pages, optimization, etc.), email and social media. Since Facebook launched, social media has been the most desirable niche for jobs and day-to-day tasks. But, as Marcus Nelson wrote recently – social media missed out on what it was created to do…build and strengthen connections. While we were all busy sharing away, most of us forgot to take a step back and strategically plan out our content marketing strategy. By the way, content is needed for all areas of marketing. Regardless of the execution or distribution channel, you need the right content. That’s the big difference. At the end of the day, social is a distribution channel and a method of communication. It is distributing the content that we need to have a strategy around. We also need lots of it to fulfill the promise of 1:1 personalized marketing.

rene-powerRené Power (@renepower)
Business Development Director at Barrett Dixon Bell and Author of Brilliant B2B Digital Marketing
Blog: Marketing Assassin

There is clear distinction for me. Content, simplistically is the fuel for social media marketing. There are a variety of surveys and data sets (from companies like Hubspot) which point to the majority of relevant social media updates actually containing a clickable link. For social media to engage, these updates and links need to be relevant and action oriented. That’s where content comes in. Content is a way of repacking and republishing content previously created for a sole or different purpose, but with a focus on being helpful to customers (and potentially lead generative for the creator). Consider news releases, blogs, sales presenters, brochures, video, audio etc and think about how with a little work and a calendar, this can be reused. Everyone is talking content, but just try finding good b2b examples.

tom-skotidasTom Skotidas (@tomskotidas)
Founder of Skotidas

The term social media refers to websites and internet-based applications that are used for social networking between users of these websites or applications. For effective social networking to take place, a content exchange is required; that is, the sharing of thoughts and information. So they are interrelated, symbiotic concepts. In the B2B space, content marketing refers to content exchange in which the key objectives are relationship building, brand building, demand generation, and lead generation. Content marketing can benefit either the personal brand, the organisational brand, or both.


  1. says

    Great post. I think Lee’s point about social media being a consumer term as well as a business term does explain a lot of the disparity. I hadn’t thought of that.

  2. says

    I don’t know that you can necessarily compare the two straight up. Content marketing to me a business term as Lee points out. Social media has a business side, but it is in much bigger bucket as many who use social media do simply ofr fun, communicating with friends etc. While in a business sense both content marketing apply and social media apply, however I don’t think there are many teenagers worried about their posts in a content marketing light. Just my two cents…loved all these responses and I will pondering this much more…

  3. says

    An interesting post, thank you. For me, the two play differing if complementary roles in decision-making. Social is principally about dialogue, content marketing about, erm, content. The trick is in getting the two to work together to drive the required results.

  4. says

    My colleague Mike Lieberman on the Square 2 Marketing blog addresses this issue a few times in the last few months – most succinctly in this piece:


    We at Square 2 Marketing see a massive amplification over time if all elements of the online marketing mix are used together over a sustained period – we call it a marketing machine – more of a marketing service than a marketing campaign – lasting 9 months or more. Something that many many clients simply cannot sustain – keeping up meaningful dialogue of a professional PR standard, rather than delegating to junior staff or interns that do not have enough strategic experience, is often too challenging.

  5. Fi Dunphy says

    Really enjoyed reading this posts – great to get views of different experts, thanks! I’ve been thinking a lot about the link between content marketing lately.

    I’ve been discussing with of my clients (one that I consider to be the perfect fit for social media because its products are fun and social) the idea of creating content on its blog that is share-ready. It’s a simple concept, but in my experience, many clients don’t really think of linking up their offline activity with their online.

    They had an event recently that they could have filmed and photographed and made 10-15 blog posts and video tutorials for – great blog posts, great for their YouTube channel, and perfect for sharing on places like Facebook and Google+… But because they didn’t even think to mention it, we missed a big opportunity. But the good thing was that they understood when we told them.

    Anyway – social media is inextricably linked to content marketing in that it’s not only a way of seeding content out to various audiences in different corners of the web (having been tweaked and repackaged to better appeal to those audiences and suit those platforms), but also in that it is also a form of content marketing in itself.

    If you think about it, social media is kind of the next wave of content marketing – instead of a brand writing a blog post or producing a video to help people out or offer their expertise, customers are now able to directly approach the brand for help, and the brand will write a bite-sized, on-point answer to that query, instead of a bigger, broader, more catch-all blog post/video/whatever. Just look at Google+’s relatively new Helpouts feature – that’s a really, really clever move. Bespoke, video-chat content marketing.

    Social media content is still content, and therefore a form of content marketing – it’s just in a different format and produced in different ways and for different reasons to what we’re used to.

    – @fidunfi

  6. says

    This entire article reminds me of a quote I use:

    “Channel is the label, content is the wine”

    Social media is more complex than most channels – it requires a different type of thinking than traditional yell and sell channels, but ultimately it’s just another place for content.

    Great compilation!

  7. says

    Thanks for putting this together Jeff – the difference in content and tone of the answers is really interesting.

    I was thinking about this comparison a bit further, from the buyer perspective. Can you imagine buyers actually thinking: “I’m going to use social media, no wait. I’m going to use content marketing to find a sales force automation platform provider.” It’s funny how marketing organizes itself in ways that are often not connected to the way buyers think :)

  8. says

    Some great insight here. I think this might be better served by framing it up as “social media marketing” vs “content marketing”. While I enjoyed the input from everyone in the article, the comments have been provoking in a good way. Content marketing is just the new term coined to the storytelling (which has to be one of the top marketing buzzwords of 2013). I find cutting this complex thought into manageable bites works best for my clients. Getting them on board with a narrow, strategic and thoughtful plan showing how content can easily be created and currated gets the ball rolling.

    But as with anything, you need to find the advocates/storytellers/evangelists and sometime the best people are not in the C-Suite or other top-level executive. You just might find you have a vibrant person in a junior position that can help share your story or part of your story in a meaningful way. Anyone that has spent hours trying to coax a blog post, video interview or other piece of content from a traveling executive knows how difficult it can be. You might just find it can be easier to coach and edit a raw voice to deliver just as much impact (if not more).

  9. says

    I sometimes think this is all much ado about nothing. Companies have always created “content” only we didn’t call it that. Content is the expression of ideas, and promotion of products and services in written, oral and visual communications. Social media is another channel for content — along with advertising, PR, sales materials, etc. Content marketing has become the new buzz word for something we’ve been doing all along.

  10. says

    Good post Jeff. As a number of commenters have remarked, marketers have always done content marketing. It was always part of marketing communications. Social media is the channel, and it’s given more options for content types and distribution. More importantly, social media has enabled marketers to create content that starts a dialogue.

  11. Gregory Laird says

    Simply changing the term in Google Trends from “social media” to “social media marketing” bring the lines much closer together, which might suggest quite different conclusions.

  12. says

    Hey Jeffrey,
    Thanks for such an awesome article! I really agreed with Doug Kessler when he said “content marketing is sharing your expertise to help your prospects do their jobs.” When I create content, I focus exactly on that. This is something that I do to create content to share my expertise with my prospects.

    I always keep customers in the buying part of their brain. This is essential when using methods of indirect marketing, such as internet sites, a promotional piece, e-mail blast, social networking or an article. Create content material that is so excellent it gets to be ‘forward-able,’ meaning it is so great people will forward it to buddies or business associates who could become potential customers. This will ease several of the stresses a consumer feels when ‘being sold’ on a service or company.

    Thanks again,
    ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

  13. says

    Really interesting discussion thread and most of the points have been covered. I’d just like to emphasize the symbiotic nature of the two, in my opinion. Social Media is indeed a channel just like the more traditional ones of print, TV etc but where it differs is in its ability to help drive a content strategy in real time. Unlike the more one-to-many channels, SoMe has the advantage of being able to talk directly to the brand or at least talk so that the brand if listening can hear. The brand is then able make adjustments to content strategy and content assets that are better able to drive interest, leads and advocacy. Being fleet-of-foot with content creation allowing almost real-time response to what is on the social media ecosystem can be a a big differentiator for a brand.

  14. says

    As I’ve been educated on the semantics of our new terminology, a question for anyone: In the history of all commercial communications, has there ever been an example of “marketing” that has not included “content”?

    “Content Marketing” strikes me as redundant, and perhaps, as the novelty of “social” wears off, so will the novelty of “content” as a qualifying term, and we will be back to referring to these methods as what they are: marketing and media.

  15. says

    Doug Kessler is right.
    I also went to that Google Trends page and replaced “social media” with “social media marketing” and the ratio dropped from 100:3 down to 87:56.
    Moreover, if you replace “social media marketing” with “Facebook marketing,” then “Content Marketing” comes out on top by a large margin: 96:41. “Twitter marketing” and “linkedin marketing” were down in the single digits.

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