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The Difference Between Content Marketing and Advertising

Content marketing has been a buzzword in media for a while now. But that doesn’t mean that everyone knows what it is, how it works, or how it differs from traditional marketing. Much like social media, many marketers have attempted to use content as another vehicle for one-way blasting of marketing messages.

Content marketing, however, is quite different from traditional advertising, and the same rules don’t apply.

Saying vs. Showing

McDonald's MarketingMcDonald’s is attempting to apply the old advertising tricks to content marketing.

Advertising is all about making claims. United’s tagline, “Fly the Friendly Skies,” sounds nice, but the skies don’t sound as friendly when you know that United has the industry’s lowest satisfaction ratings from customers.

There are tons of brands claiming to be “The Most Trusted Name” or “America’s Favorite.” Advertising is all about talking the talk. Content marketing is about walking the walk. 

Subway backs up their “Eat Fresh” tagline with content that supports the brand’s healthy image. Brands like Lowe’s and Colgate provide useful, relevant content that shows their expertise. This content is relevant to their customers (DIYers/contractors and people with teeth respectively) and is more about helping than selling. The content is authentic and pertinent to the brands.

When content is not authentic, it’s easy to tell. However, that hasn’t stopped marketers from trying to hijack the content train. McDonald’s Moms Quality Correspondents content reads like it was written by the company's PR department. I question whether these moms are real people, because I’ve never heard anyone talk like this.

I groaned to myself when I read one “mom’s” assertion that “the family dining concept where the time spent eating with the family is deemed to be an important part of the experience. The PlayPlace and the toy are all designed to help to enrich that experience.” I’ve had a lot of family dinner experiences, and none of them were enhanced by me playing with a plastic Batman toy.

McDonald’s is attempting to apply the old advertising tricks to content marketing. They think, “If we say we are great, they will believe it.” Unfortunately for them, this is not the case.

One-Night Stand vs. Relationship

Advertising is about the quick sale. Advertising is about the quick sale. That's why traditional advertisers have trouble adjusting to social media.

Advertising is about the quick sale. That's why so many traditional advertisers have trouble adjusting to social media and attempt to apply the same broadcast/quick sale model.

Social media and content marketing are intertwined, because both are about building relationships. While advertising is front-loaded, brands can use content to address the customer’s concerns  at every stage of their purchase journey. While an ad can help inspire a purchase, content can keep the customer in touch with the brand before, during and after the purchase.

Mass Market vs. Individualized

Advertising is expensive. When buying a TV or radio ad, it has to appeal to as general an audience as possible. It’s the reason why so many Budweiser commercials feature pretty girls and cute dogs—it’s all aimed at the lowest common denominator. 

With content, you can craft pieces to reach the needs of all of the different segments of your audience. This can be in both tone and medium. The lower cost of content when compared to traditional advertising can allow you to create a piece of content in multiple forms—infographics, video, press releases. By distributing this content to social sites, such as YouTube and Facebook, you can let users consume your content where and how they want, rather than hoping they are watching TV when your ad runs.

Because it can be tailored to specific customer groups, another great feature of content is that it is sharable. When you create useful, non-advertorial content it is much more likely to be shared by bloggers or on social media. Think about it this way: lots of people send you funny or interesting articles to read (think Buzzfeed), but very few people send you a commercial to watch.

Not the End of Traditional Ads

There is still a place for traditional advertising. Companies will still need to launch new products, announce special offers, and drive general awareness. However, content marketing has allowed brands to be more useful to customers when they aren’t looking to buy; to become a useful part of their lives at every stage.

It’s more than marketing, it’s building relationships. It requires a bit of restraint and patience, but the rewards can be much greater in the end.

Join The Conversation

  • rsj8000's picture
    Sep 11 Posted 2 years ago rsj8000

    I agree that the sell is still there, but I think the dynamic has changed. It has actually gone back to the days when you would buy products from teh person who made them. People demand more than just lip service or "buy this." They want a relationship with brands before they jump in bed. If you want proof, check out teh Facebook pages of brands that still don't get it, like McDonald's and Best Buy. 

  • rsj8000's picture
    Sep 11 Posted 2 years ago rsj8000

    Thanks Jamilla,


    This is especially true on social. I recommend reading Gary Vaynerchuck's book "Jab,Jab, Jab, Right Hook." It is all about the fact that social success requires you to "jab" for a while - engaging your audience - before you go for the kill. Content should be the jab, not the right hook.

  • Sep 7 Posted 2 years ago jamilla

    I found the "One-Night Stand vs. Relationship" comparison to be a very interesting way to portray the difference between traditional advertisements and content marketing. It's true: traditional advertisements do seem to be for that quick attention of the consumer while content marketing allows the consumer to socially engage with the brand. 

  • Sep 7 Posted 2 years ago archertc
    Brand locality existed prior to the rise of social media, so I find the assertion that advertising wasn't focused on building relationships between customers and brands to be ahistorical. I see content marketing as having the same goal for messaging, simply using different formulas for the content. Consider the suggested formats for content distribution channels like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, by which marketing professionals have concluded that certain headlines and video content triggers certain responses. It's not "Fly the Friendly Skies" it's "You'll never believe what happened to this United Airlines passenger!"but the content is still intended to invoke certain customer behaviors and, ultimately, latch a brand message positively to the customer's recall. 
    Recognizing the social media landscape calls for a different approach is akin to recognizing  that television demanded a different approach than radio programming. New tools, new content, but the same sell. Try content marketing without contributing to the revenue stream and you'll see that those "relationships" have a cash value. 

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