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Marketing vs. advertising: What’s the difference? Blog Feature

John Becker

Revenue and Features Editor, Co-host of Content Lab, 15+ Years of Writing and Teaching Experience

January 7th, 2020 min read

Due to the mostly binary roots of the English language, we often have two words that we use interchangeably. 

In most cases, these quasi-synonyms each derive from one of our two ancestral linguistic sources: Latinate (that is, Latin, often coming by way of French) or Germanic (you know, Anglos, Saxons, Vikings, etc.).

That’s why words like "chair" and "seat" are frequently used with liberal swapping. Chair is Latin. Seat is German.

Once you start looking, you find these step-siblings all over our language, and not just in our living rooms (although rug (Germanic) and carpet (Latin) jump to mind). 

We have aches (Germanic) and pains (Latin); we give an answer (G) or a response (L); something is big (G) or large (L), small (G) or petite (L). 

We enter wedlock (G) or marriage (L), which is lawful (G) and legal (L), when we find love (G) and feel amorous (L), hoping we haven’t made a mistake (G) or an error (L), planning to celebrate yearly (G) or annually (L).

Although, marketing and advertising are not from different roots (both are Latin), we often err and use these words interchangeably. However, they are not synonyms. 

In fact, there is much greater difference between marketing and advertising than there is between seat and chair, so it is best not to confuse them.

Marketing vs. advertising

When I seek to understand the nuances of language, I always start with the dictionary.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, advertising is “the activity or profession of producing advertisements for commercial products or services.”

The same source describes marketing as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.”

In other words, advertising involves the creation and distribution of content that seeks to spread awareness about certain products or services.

Marketing, by contrast, is much broader. 

It contains all facets of advertising, but also includes the research needed to serve those ads properly, to price those goods and services competitively, and to monitor the efficacy of all related efforts. 

Simply put, advertising is arguably a function of marketing. 

Kathleen Booth, VP of marketing at Maryland-based Atilla Security, stresses “advertising is a subset of marketing.” 

She sees marketing as focused on “accomplishing some sort of change in your audience,” whether that change is in knowledge, awareness, or belief.

“Advertising,” says Kathleen, “is about paying to get your message in front of your audience in order to bring that change about.”

“Advertising, by definition, requires some form of transaction. It requires a payment to be made.”

By contrast, marketing can be done without advertising. Just ask Brian Halligan.

Inbound marketing and advertising

HubSpot founder and CEO Brian Halligan started HubSpot to focus on inbound marketing. 

Inbound marketing endeavors to naturally attract people to your business by way of content rather than interrupting their lives by inserting your messages, as traditional advertising methods are known to do.

This methodology presents an even more stark division between advertising and marketing.

Here’s a young and prescient Brian Halligan explaining:

Whereas traditional advertising practices put ads into TV programs, on billboards by the highway, and into magazines and newspapers, inbound marketing aims to reach them when they’re ready and looking for the information online; when they’ve already shown an interest or need.  

The fact is, the way people buy has changed. 

Today, we make the majority of our buying decisions long before talking to a salesperson or walking into a store. We use websites and social media to research our every purchase, from where to get lunch to what kind of car to drive.

We’re no longer paying much attention to the billboards we pass as we drive or the commercials that air between our favorite shows (if we’re even using a platform that airs commercials, that is.)

What’s more, people have increasingly come to resent such “outbound” ads, seeing them, as Halligan calls them, “interruption-based.”  

In fact, eMarketer reported in November 2019 that the US has passed the peak of TV ad spend “and a 1.0% bump in 2020 from the presidential election and Summer Olympics will not stave off a long-term decline for ad spending on the biggest traditional channel.”

In Halligan’s view, marketing can be done without resorting to intrusive advertising.

“Google has become a primary way by which people learn and do research,” he notes.  

But “how do you set up your website...so you can get found [by search engines] on important terms people are searching for who might be interested in buying your products?....How do you take advantage of this changing nature of shopping and learning to get found by more potential customers? And fill your funnel in a new way, and really grow the top of your funnel with sales leads, and engage your marketplace in new and interesting ways?”

By creating and publishing content, using search engine optimization (SEO) to get your website found, using landing pages to generate leads, sending marketing emails, and publishing on social media — among other things. These are all proven inbound marketing tactics that do not rely on paid advertising. 

Considering Brian recorded this video in 2007, it’s amazing how accurately he predicted the world today. 

But can advertising be inbound?

If you adhere to a more canonical reading of the inbound philosophy, you probably see advertisements as antithetical to inbound marketing.

However, in the world of 2020, new advances in data and technology allow us to operate traditionally outbound advertising methods in alignment with inbound principles.

Many social media platforms (like Facebook and LinkedIn), for example, allow us to show ads to highly targeted audiences. 

Rather than blasting out an advertisement to everyone watching the six o’clock news, we can show our advertisement only to people who have visited our site before, or only to 25-30-year-old model train enthusiasts in southern Arizona who have a college degree, if that’s exactly who we're after.

If the founding objection to outbound advertising was that companies were interrupting the lives of many uninterested parties in order to reach the few who might buy, this new ability to target ads seems to offer a resolution.

Here at IMPACT, we focus almost all of our efforts on inbound marketing — and we encourage most of our clients to do the same. 

We publish dozens of search-optimized articles each week, including long-form pieces, news reactions, pillar content, podcasts, interviews, and videos, just like the piece you’re reading now.

Together, this content drives hundreds of thousands of visitors to our site each month, some of which turn into leads and eventually clients,

We recognize that not everyone who visits our site will turn into a customer, but we also recognize the value of providing educational and entertaining resources for anyone who needs them.

However, we also engage in some targeted advertising as well, using this same content in targeted social advertising.  

Here’s IMPACT’s Director of Demand Generation Kristen Harold explaining how traditional inbound marketing can be complemented by paid advertising:

Many people think of paid advertising and inbound marketing to be two separate tactics. The reality is they can absolutely be used to complement one another.

For example, After seeing great engagement on a campaign promoting one of our video services here at IMPACT, we’re now retargeting those prospects with some of our most valuable articles and content about video. In this case, we were able to capture a new audience through paid advertising and continue engaging with them through our existing inbound content.

In other words, targeted and retargeted ads, with the specific focus allowed by modern data collection, can enhance and support inbound efforts. In this way, advertising and inbound marketing are not mutually exclusive.

Advertising and marketing in the future

In a commercial landscape that is increasingly digital and on-demand, expect marketing to continue to change and evolve. By extension, the way companies advertise will change, too.

However, what will not change is the breadth of marketing — that it includes any action that seeks to spread awareness about a product or service, or to skillfully bring it to market.  

Consider advertising to be a subset of marketing, and to involve the paid placement of messages in front of an audience, whether that be a traditional ad played during the Super Bowl or a highly-targeted LinkedIn ad that’s aimed just at a small cadre of “lookalikes.” 

And, try to refrain from using advertising and marketing interchangeably. They’re related, for certain, but they’re not twins.

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