Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?


  • By Kayla Knudson
  • September 11, 2019
Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

Content director Kayla Knudson’s guide to understanding the differences and similarities between advertising and content marketing, plus the secret to multi-agency collaboration she swears by.

If I could build my college coursework looking backward, here’s what it would look like:

Freshman year

  • Marketing 101: So There’s This Thing Called the Purchase Funnel…
  • Advertising 101: Making People Care with Pictures and Videos (Now in :15 or Less)
  • Journalism 101: Reporting on What People Care About Using Entire Paragraphs
  • Copywriting 101: Making People Care Using 25-Character Headlines

Sophomore year

  • Content Marketing: Playing the Long Game and Building Consumer Trust
  • Social Media for Brands: Ads Aren’t Content
  • Deck Building: Do Tell a Story. Do Not Put Every Word on Every Slide.
  • Collaborating: Work Hard, Play Hard and the Importance of Team Happy Hours

Junior year

  • Consumer Ethnographies: You Are Not Your Consumer
  • Understanding Client Briefs: Objectives, Strategies and the Perils of Confusing the Two
  • Measuring Success: Know Your Whys and KPIs

Senior year

  • Brainstorming with Agencies Partners: The Power of a Consumer-First POV
  • Presenting and Pitching: We’re Just Going to Watch Mad Men and Discuss Don Draper
  • How to Give Feedback: Separating Facts from Feelings
 

Instead, I learned most of the above on the job. Specifically, by being a copywriter at an ad agency for five years, then being an editor at a content marketing agency for another seven. I’ve worked on the same account for both jobs. As in, for 1,825 days, I was a copywriter, and on day 1,826 I showed up as an editor. And now, on day roughly 4,385 as content director, here’s what I’ve figured out about the differences and similarities between advertising and content marketing, plus the secret to multi-agency collaboration.

The Difference Between Content Marketing and Advertising

There’s content marketing and there’s advertising. You can use content as advertising, but rarely can you use advertising as content. Why the bleep not, you ask? Because advertising is about what marketers want you to feel, and content shows up in the areas you care or are curious about, naturally.

Telling someone how to feel isn’t natural, which is why you shouldn’t try to pawn advertising off as content. Put another way, content marketing is a long game built on trust; advertising is in-the-moment inspiration. Both take craft and both play important roles.

Advertising vs. Content Marketing Examples

In advertising there are TV commercials. You’ve very familiar with the concept and that they’re usually :60 or :30 seconds. If you haven’t seen Nike’s spot celebrating the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s World Cup win, take a moment here and now. In a word: powerful. Switching gears to content marketing, the format is much longer, like in Deluxe’s Small Business Revolution Main Street video series, or in the case of LEGOs, an entire movie. Yes, that counts as content marketing. It’s a 1 hour, 40-minute indirect ad for its product. Wild, right?

In advertising, there are also radio commercials. Jimmy John’s Fire spot holds a special place in my copywriting heart. In content marketing, you guessed it, the format is much longer. Launched in early August, season two of Sephora’s podcast #LIPSTORIES explores how beauty is highly personal, empowering, inherently diverse and connected to key memories that hold special meaning for each of us—each of which is about 45 minutes.

Last example: print ads. We know them, we love them and some of us still have their collection of “Got Milk?” ads carefully preserved in their Trapper Keeper. (Or at least one of us does.) On the content marketing end of the spectrum, there’s Airbnb. It went one (giant) step further and created Airbnb Magazine. It’s written for both hosts and guests and fueled by insights from its online platform. Published six times a year, it’s sent to all Airbnb home hosts in the U.S. and has a total distribution of 1 million. It’s also what we’d call a gold standard in using content as advertising.

Content Marketing and Advertising Agency Collaboration

For any brand worth its followers on social media, it’s not a question of content marketing versus advertising. It’s a “yes, and,” plus there’s public relations, media and in-store marketing and events that also have roles to play in bringing a brand to life. And here, dear reader, is where I draw on my combined experiences as a copywriter and content director to share with you a trick that transformed the way our multi-agency team works together:

Turn the brand brief into a consumer-first point of view statement. Better yet, a consumer-first manifesto or call to arms.

When written well, and from the perspective of a real human experiencing real-world problems (not a brand selling a product, no matter how awesome it is), a POV gives every member of an integrated agency team something to draw from and add to. Find the issue that your brand uniquely answers and give voice to it. Paint a picture. Put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. When you feel a problem, you can’t help but try to fix it. (Ahem, anyone who has ever listened to a partner, spouse or child describe a situation they’re experiencing…). Then use the POV as your North Star, no matter which form of marketing you practice—advertising, public relations, content marketing, you name it.

If the brand brief is the problem and your execution is the solution, then the POV is like showing your work. It explains how you got there when it comes time to present as an integrated agency team (hashtag synergy). Finally, when you read the POV you’ve all worked from at the start the presentation, be sure to channel your inner Don Draper. It’s the magic every client is looking for.

*Note: the actual consumer-facing work has to deliver on the masterfully crafted POV. Duh.

Read next: How to Be a Great Digital Content Marketer: 9 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice

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