MANY people get confused about the difference between content marketing and advertising. Both aim to communicate the value of a product or service, with the objective of closing a sale.

However, content marketing is about offering knowledge and expertise (at no cost), in order to build authority and customer loyalty, while advertising relays a message, encouraging people to buy the product or service. Are they the same, but different?


The differences

Let’s first recap what differentiates the two. There are four factors:



Content marketing is about educating the customer, while advertising focuses on getting them to buy the product.



Content marketing is usually a two-way process, where brands provide information and encourage conversations with the target audience. Advertisements, typically, are just meant to be consumed.



Done correctly, content marketing should provide accurate information, which can be taken seriously. This may not be necessarily so with advertisements. In fact, many of them are sensational in order to grab attention.



Using a racing analogy, content marketing is one long, slow burn, while advertising tends to be measured in individual, high-intensity spurts.

A good example of an advertisement is Volvo’s famous “Epic Split” video, featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme doing his signature splits between two Volvo trucks. This ad educates the viewer on the precision, stability and smoothness of Volvo’s trucks. However, the information is not of practical importance. Truck drivers rarely face outrageous balancing acts on top of their moving vehicles.

The advertisement was created to make a great impression, and to be shared via media platforms. It was not created to provide useful advice that could be acted upon, or encourage honest, down-to-earth discussion.

Compare that to American Express’s much-lauded OPEN Forum. By creating an environment for business owners and industry experts to share advice and knowledge, it stands as a classic example of content marketing done right — providing relevant, educational information free of charge, without any hard selling.


Removing the “versus”

Brands often have an either/or mindset when it comes to applying content marketing and advertising — but it does not have to be this way. When you nail down what each can do, they have strong potential to complement each other.

When first approaching a potential customer, it is best to initiate content marketing. Interest the audience by providing information they find useful. Since this is the first step, avoid any signs of self-promotion, as this is likely to turn off any potential customer. Have a “strictly no advertising” policy during the early days. The important thing is to build trust.

To do this, your content should, ideally:

•   Talk about real, practical issues that your potential customer is facing and cover ways to address these issues. For example, a sports brand could give their followers tips on how to achieve that perfect golf swing. 

•   Encourage feedback and response.

•   Be constant. Content marketing is a Never-Ending Story, especially during the early days.

Your content should not mention the product offering or lead them into scenarios that are tailored to mention the product offering. Using the same sports example, the brand should never start off with “Pick up your Brand X golf club…”

It should also not sound as if you are giving a speech to an empty room.

Once you have established yourself as a trusted source, people will have benefited from (and hopefully been entertained by) your shared knowledge. Unless your offering is good enough to reel in the leads by itself, now is the time to start pitching the product. If you have built up the rapport, people are more inclined to listen to your product talk.

And once the advertising commences, do remember that content marketing still needs to carry on. If you simply replace content marketing with your advertising campaign — even temporarily — you risk losing your audience permanently.

For example, Williams-Sonoma is a high -end consumer retail company that sells kitchenware and homeware. The company isn’t taking down its culinary lifestyle blog, Taste, no matter how many ads it runs elsewhere. The blog is still there, regularly sharing recipes, cooking techniques, food trends, and chef interviews — helping the company grow a loyal, interested audience.

What it all boils down to is that there is a time to be helpful (providing useful content) and a time to be clever (advertising to seal the deal). While content marketing and advertising are mutually exclusive in theory, they don’t have to be in application.


Article by Chester Teck, content manager of GetIT Comms, a company that develops and implements marketing programmes, campaigns and projects for B2B organisations. Read more about B2B marketing strategies at