Is Social Media Marketing and Social Marketing the Same?

A first-year student in an introductory communication planning class recently described how she would use Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to promote an event. She called this kind of promotion social marketing. Having taught social marketing at the CARIMAC for more than 10 years and knowing that this is not what I teach in my class, I asked her what she meant by “social marketing”. Her definition was: the use of social media to market or promote anything. I corrected her suggesting that what she described would be more correctly labelled as “social media marketing”.

In today’s world of short messaging where words are abbreviated for sake of convenient instant communication, we risk losing the essential meaning of long-standing labels. I figured this student, along with many others, assumed “social marketing” is a shortened version of “social media marketing” – but it is not.

Social marketing is a particular approach to planning communication campaigns which uses principles typically applied in commercial marketing to promote issues that are of benefit to society – planting a tree, wearing your seatbelt, avoiding texting while driving, exercising daily, eating healthy meals, or practising safer sex. The social marketing approach emphasises adopting new beneficial actions, changing bad behaviours or simply maintaining an existing positive practice.

Social marketers utilise various tactics to convey messages,  including personal selling, special events, traditional ‘mass’ media as well as new media – a term which became popular at the turn of the 20th century. It is used to describe digital communication technologies which have formed the basis of many internet-based applications which we now call ‘social media’. One of the distinguishing characteristics of social media is the focus on the users and their generating and sharing content- much of which is created by the users themselves, hence the label ‘user-generated content’.

If we agree that marketing allows individuals to acquire what they need by exchanging products or services of value with each other, then social media marketing would imply that the activity of marketing can be done via social media.

A marketer can use social media to create exchanges of value between individuals. Others have put social media to other uses such as social networking where the intent is to maintain relationships in an online community. But the essence of social media marketing is the strategic design of content (sometimes deliberately made to resemble user-generated content) that will capture the attention of other users who will share it within their social networks.

Relying on users to disseminate content on your behalf means that you have earned media exposure without having to pay for placement as you would normally do in traditional media advertising slots. The message distributed through social media goes from user to user, gains momentum, and even goes viral if it spreads among many users in a short space of time. Social media marketing has been incorporated into most profit-making ventures. What if those of us practising social marketing start borrowing some of the social media marketing practices used by our commercial-minded colleagues?

There is a difference between social marketing and social media marketing. But do not be surprised if you begin to hear about “social media social marketing” where social marketers employ social media to promote beneficial and healthy behaviours to users in their various online networks.

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