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Social Marketing versus Social Media Marketing

By Nicole Twohig on 4/7/11 12:00 AM

Graph of US interactive marketing spend from 2009 to 2014


There is a Difference

Social marketing and social media marketing: Two very similar phrases with completely different meanings, applications and histories. Unfortunately, as the public, the media and even marketing and advertising professionals started to use these terms interchangeably, considerable confusion has resulted. Working at a firm that specializes in social marketing, I’ve become increasingly aware of the problem.

The Problem

I may think it’s critical for the public to know the difference between these two very different marketing approaches, and especially important for those in our industry to use the correct terminology, but why should clients or the general public care? One way to think of it is like talking about the difference between fine champagne and sparkling apple juice. It is misleading to imply these two beverages are the same.

The Sparkling Apple Juice

These days nearly everyone has been exposed to social media in one way or another. Whether or not you have chosen to actively participate through an account on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, the likelihood is you have been touched by social media marketing. But what is it? Social media marketing refers to marketing, advertising or public relations campaigns that use social media — such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, RSS feeds or blogs — to achieve their objectives. It is about the choice of media channels. Such campaigns may or may not also use traditional media such as television or print magazines and newspapers, or digital media such as websites and games. (See Paid, Owned or Earned Media: Are You in the Right Place? for more on the various media channels.) Over the past five years, social media marketing budgets have been on the rise and are projected to grow at an annual rate of 34% to $3.1 billion in 2014, according to Forrester Research.

The Champagne

Now, how does this differ from social marketing? Social marketing is an overarching framework, or approach, to achieving a a social good. It includes the systematic application of commercial marketing techniques to achieve that social good — and most important, it is an approach that benefits the people who are adopting the behaviors or society as a whole, rather than the organization doing the marketing.

Social marketing was formalized in 1971 with the publication of "Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change" in the Journal of Marketing by marketing experts Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman. A key premise of social marketing is formative research with the target audience. After years of proven efficacy, social marketing is regularly used in the public health sector, but wherever there is a need for behavior change and an overarching public good -- think protecting the environment, or preventing violence, or safe driving -- then social marketing is an appropriate choice.

The Differences?

The core differences between the two terms are in the scope of the approach, and the purpose of the marketer. The two are no more alike than a sparkling apple juice and fine champagne are. Though entire dissertations have been written on both social marketing and social media marketing, I hope this short post has begun to explain how the two differ, and why it is important to use the terms correctly when speaking with the public and clients.

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