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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

May 20th, 2021 min read

There are words we use interchangeably without any noticeable difference, like chair and seat, and then there are words we sometimes interchange but shouldn’t. Although marketing and advertising are closely related, they are not synonyms. 

Marketing is the much broader of the two terms. It describes a vast range of efforts designed to bring a product, service, or event to market. Advertising, by contrast, is a subset of marketing that involves actively putting a certain message in front of an audience. 

Of the two, marketing is often the less visible, although it’s hard to escape advertisements that interrupt our YouTube videos, shout at us from roadside billboards and even tell us what to buy once we’re in a store.

Those are all advertisements, but it is marketing that coordinates those ads, determines the right messaging to use, discount to give, or audience to target — and evaluates the results.

Organizations allocate significant resources to marketing (and, by extension, advertising). 

As a general rule of thumb, businesses spend around 10% of their annual revenue on marketing and advertising. According to LegalZoom, “The average [marketing] allocation usually ranges between 9-12% of the annual budget, while the smallest businesses may go as low as 2%.”

For larger businesses, we’re talking about a lot of money — all of which is focused on providing the right message to the right customers. 

What is advertising?

Advertising, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, is the activity of describing or drawing attention to a product, service, or event in a public medium in order to promote sales or attendance.

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

As consumers, we are all familiar with many of the most common types of digital advertisements today, but advertising can take many forms, including: 

  • Print ads
  • Internet display ads
  • Search and social media ads
  • Radio and podcast ads
  • Billboards and outdoor ads
  • Retail ads
  • Product placements
  • Direct mailings

Marketing, by contrast, is much broader. 

What is marketing?

Marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.”

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

Kathleen Booth, VP of marketing at Maryland-based clean.io, believes that “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.”

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

By contrast, marketing can be done without any payment whatsoever. 

Digital and inbound marketing

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.

Here’s a young and prescient Brian Halligan explaining inbound way back in 2007:

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.

📚 Related free IMPACT+ course: Digital Sales & Marketing Framework for Today’s Modern Buyer

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 has reported that the US has likely already passed the peak of TV ad spend

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 says.  

But how do you set up your website so you can get found by Google? 

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?

At first glance, it’s easy to imagine advertisements as incompatible with inbound marketing.

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

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

Rather than blasting out an advertisement to everyone watching the 6 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 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 whom 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 targeted advertising as well, using this same content in targeted social advertising.  

IMPACT’s Director of Demand Generation Kristen Pecka explains 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 services here at IMPACT, we’re now retargeting those prospects with some of our most valuable articles and content. 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.

Give your team everything they need to experience inbound marketing success.

IMPACT teaches companies the most essential sales and marketing functions through an intensive 12-24 month program of coaching, training, and strategy — resulting in better leads and more closed sales.

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