Social Marketing vs. Social Media: What’s the Difference and Why It Matters

The terms “social media” and “social marketing” are often used interchangeably, and while it’s easy to see how it happens, it’s important to understand that these two terms mean very different things. Certainly, social media and social marketing can work together, but grasping their differences will save you from having egg on your face in any marketing discussion.

The Differences Between Social Media and Social Marketing

Social media, by its simplest definition, is a communications platform. The most popular are Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It’s where you converse and network with friends, family, and others. It’s a common tactic used by marketers – and can also be used to help execute social marketing campaigns. But in and of itself, social media is simply a tool – one that requires a strategy behind it to be used effectively. That’s where social marketing comes in.

Also referred to as behavior change marketing, social marketing aims to change or maintain a person’s behavior for the benefit of the individual or community as a whole. Most people will remember “click it or ticket” campaigns for seatbelt use. Believe it or not there was a time when using a seat belt was not automatic. A national social marketing campaign conducted in the late 70s helped encourage generations of car drivers and riders to “buckle up”. That campaign used television, billboards, and the potential for a costly ticket as interventions. Today, social marketing campaigns continue to use a variety of communication channels that now include social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others.

Creating Social Marketing Campaigns

Social marketing campaigns are typically organized into four stages: (1) deepening the understanding of the target audience including the barriers to change behavior and the motivations that can encourage behavior change; (2) message development and testing; (3) outreach and interventions; and (4) evaluation. During the target audience understanding phase, the goal is to identify with as much specificity as possible the demographic and psychographic characteristics of the target audience. Where do they live? What do they buy? How do they consume news, or media? What stands in the way of the behavior change? What might be motivational to change behavior? This information (whether inferred, or determined through research and focus groups) is used to build personas, or fictional character representations of the target audience. Often, these personas are given a name – like “Social Smoker Sally” or “Trying to Quit Tricia.”

After the personas have been developed, the next step is to create and test messaging so you know what is going to resonate with the target audience. To make sure the messaging you use is on target and also appeals to your audience, focus groups are critical. When creating the messaging consider the barriers your target audience faces when trying to make the desired change. Your messaging should help them to lower those barriers. Another approach we use to develop campaign messaging is to frame the desired change as fun, easy and popular. Research in human psychology shows that people are more likely to adopt behaviors that they perceive to be fun (i.e. beneficial to them – what’s in it for me?), easy to accomplish (break it down into smaller steps) and popular (other people are doing it too). Using this information, we can create messaging that is more likely to change behavior.

Once the messaging has been tested and approved, it’s time to develop a plan to get the word out. Different audiences are reached in different ways. Tactics we commonly use are social media, traditional media (radio, television, print ads), environmental or experiential advertising, as well as events, media relations or public relations, and influencers.

While the final step in campaign development is evaluation – the evaluation process should really be ongoing throughout the entire campaign. Ultimately, you will evaluate overall performance (i.e. how many people took the desired action) after the campaign concludes, or has had time to make an impact but you should measure smaller milestones as you go. For example, how many impressions and engagements are you getting on social media? Are people signing up for email or calling to inquire about services? Evaluating these intermediary steps or actions early and often will help you to further fine tune messaging and outreach methods and allow you to optimize your overall results.

Social Media for Social Marketing

While social media and social marketing sound the same, the tools and processes they refer to are distinctly different. However, by using social media to create effective social marketing campaigns your brand or organization can make a big difference in people’s lives, and the communities in which they live.


About Ethos

Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that develops and executes integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels for companies inside and outside of Maine.

At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its ethos. We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives.

With Ethos, you get more than a behavior change marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals.

Learn more about the Ethos approach and the work we’ve done for our clients. Want to have a conversation about your brand’s core truth? Contact us!