The Difference Between Content Marketing, Social Media Marketing and SEO

If the title of this post doesn’t sound very original to you – that’s because it’s not. There are many posts about this topic. But I am still surprised on a daily basis by the ignorance with which the differences between these different areas of online marketing are met by various people… even members of the online marketing community.

So I decided to write my own post about this. And here we go.

Let’s make one thing very clear right from the start: Social Media Marketing does not equal Content Marketing and Content Marketing does not equal SEO.

If you think that: Online Marketing and even anything related to online business is simply not for you. The reason why I decided to write this post is that there are too many so called marketers running around in our industry that not only mix these up – they are mixing these up on purpose.

Their purpose is to rip off those who don’t know about the differences between these areas and sell one-stop solutions to victims that don’t know better. If this post can prevent even one of these sales from happening I have achieved my goal.

Yes, these three areas are related but no, they are not the same!

Let’s start with Social Media Marketing…

What Is Social Media Marketing?

Social Media Marketing is the art of tapping into the conversations that happen on social networks for marketing purposes. Every social network provides its own tools specially designed for marketing purposes. Facebook for instance provides Fanpages that allow companies to have their own presence and interact with people via their page. They can post just like a normal user would and people can like either the page itself or the specific posts. This way, marketers can induce their own messages into the social streams of people, therefore creating and reaching an audience for the company or brand.

Don’t get me wrong though – Marketers should use the tools provided only as part of their toolset. It is completely legitimate and often also encouraged to use the whole functionality of the platforms and not just the specific tools for marketers. Many marketers use their personal social media accounts to create an audience for their companies.

What Is Content Marketing?

Content Marketing is the marketing strategy that uses helpful, entertaining or at least content that is interesting to the target audience in order to increase brand awareness and perception. The goal is to become a partner to future consumers or clients instead of being the annoying brand that screams it’s advertising message as loud as it can.

Content in Content Marketing can be anything and there are heated debates on the web as to what is actually content and what is not. Blog articles are content as well as infographics and videos. Social Media posts can be content but don’t get me wrong: Not every tweet is a highly valuable piece of content.

In my opinion, a content piece needs to provide value on its own (instead of just linking to a piece that provides that value). But maybe that is just me.

What The Heck Is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and describes the process of optimizing a website and it’s content in a way so that it hopefully will receive more website traffic from search engine result pages. Here is how that works (in theory at least):

Search engines decide how to rank website content based on the amount of links from other websites to the actual website and a number of related keywords in the copy on the website.

(Before anyone else starts pointing this out: Yes, this is very simplified.)

As a result, of this, you can improve the ranking of the website by improving keyword density for specific keywords, by providing more content for specific keywords and by generating backlinks to your site. The problem is: Backlinks to your page are rated as well and if you only produce spammy backlinks from article directories and hundreds of links that you bought for a couple of bucks on Fiverr you are more likely to take a traffic hit than see any improvement.

What Search Engines are after are organic link profiles. This means that these links should be created by people who found your page genuinely interesting enough to place a link to it on their own site.

According to Google even guest posting is now a crime… well, at least what they define as Black Hat SEO. This means it is against their guidelines and may result in a site that gets downranked.

But: As said before – that is just the theory. What works and what doesn’t is pretty much down to guesswork. Like it or not.

How Are These Related?

Now that we have the differences between these three areas of online marketing out of the way let’s get a better understanding of how they are related. Because this is where things get interesting! I am sorry though that I will only be able to scratch the surface of the topic in this article.

One side effect of the rise of social networks was that they allowed us to discover and consume a hell of a lot more content than ever before. The rise of the blogosphere (the community of bloggers that read and share each other’s blog articles) was in a large part empowered by sharing their content around with the help of social networks

In return Content Marketing became a hyped strategy because as people started to consume more content it also meant that producing more marketing content made a lot more sense. But this also meant that to increase the audience for the content Social Media Marketing techniques became a must.

But content marketing itself existed long before Social Media and even long before the WWW. One example of content marketing was magazines sent out via traditional mail to clients by companies. It’s first rise actually came to pass when every company suddenly needed a presence on the web – and on this website they needed to provide content (at least in a way).

SEO was the main technique for generating consumers for content before the Social Media revolution.

Back in the early days of SEO it actually used to be quite easy as the main focus was on how the content would be presented on Search Result Pages. But when Google revolutionized web search things became complicated – and today SEO is the billion dollar industry that resulted from this.

An Example to Make Things Clearer – Hopefully…

So you are just starting out online - and aren't clear about the differences between Social Media Marketing, Content Marketing, and SEO? I wasn't either when I started out - but back then there weren't many resources to get me going. Let's clear up some confusion and let's get you started on all three! #ContentMarketing #SocialMediaMarketing #SEO #SMMImagine you are working for a business that has a website. So far so normal. For SEO purposes you propose starting a blog, which will provide helpful articles to your audience. This will add to the amount of content on the page, therefore, the aim is to generate more traffic and as a result more leads.

The content on the blog needs to be keyword optimized but it also needs to be helpful to readers. And to generate more backlinks it also needs to be read by an audience first. Because why should anyone ever place a backlink if no one ever reads your content. (Until now the SEO effect is most probably close to zero.)

So you start sharing your content around on Social Media platforms – you probably start a fanpage on Facebook, and a Twitter profile. Maybe even something slightly more exotic like a Pinterest account. And you start growing those accounts.

And suddenly you are already engaged in all three strategies/activities while all you wanted to do in the beginning was a little bit of SEO.

I hope this illustrated the tight relationships between the three aspects of Online Marketing. At least a bit. Did I miss an important point? Let me know in the comments!

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Social Media Marketing (SMM) is not Content Marketing and Content Marketing is not SEO. Here is where they are similar and what makes them different. What is the difference between content marketing and SEO? How does social media fit into content marketing? How does social media help seo and how important is social media for content marketing? seo and social media,

  • veepopat

    Great summary of the three pillars of digital marketing. Nice work, Jonathan!

    • TheSocialMarketers

      Thank you – and welcome on The Social Ms 🙂

      – Jonathan

    • free printable calendar

      Depending on who you ask some will be rated more important than others.

  • Mike DeFelice

    It’s amazing how easy it is to neglect one critical element along the marketing path for some businesses. When a true strategy is put in place, I think there is room for social media, content marketing and of course SEO. The one sad thing I have realized on Twitter is that most brands only share their own links and truly never engage with their followers.

    Great article Jonathan. I am going to direct some of my clients here to help them realize the need for all the pillars of online marketing.

    • TheSocialMarketers

      Mike, I agree – when real strategy is in place most of the time there is not just room for all three – implementing all of them is a must 🙂

      Thank you for the warm words – and welcome!

      – Jonathan

  • Rene de Vries

    I would argue there’s a fourth pilar, Marketing Automation. I found it helpful to show customers how it can tie together the three others, makes it also easier to position.

    • TheSocialMarketers

      Hi – I agree completely on the importance of automation. The idea of the article describing the “three pillars of online marketing” originated here in the comments. It was never my intention to describe these as the three exclusive techniques. There are many more pillars of online marketing – automation, advertising, affiliate marketing, …

      Depending on who you ask some will be rated more important than others.

      – Jonathan

  • Colby Phillips

    This is a good overview of these distinctions, though I would argue that SEO has become much more complex in that the focus of SEO is less on keywords due to Google’s Hummingbird algorithm update and their efforts to understand keyword synonyms and the meaning of text, etc. Rather SEO has become more about Search Experience Optimization, and providing a good “experience” (broadly defined) from when a searcher sees your listing on the SERP all the way through taking some kind of conversion action on your website. There is a lot of content (at different levels in the conversion funnel) in between a search and a conversion, and skilled SEOs are working to drive the development content that converts, and not just attracts site traffic.

    • TheSocialMarketers

      Absolutely correct!

      It wasn’t my intention to give an advanced overview over SEO – I’m also not sure whether that would have been possible in the limited space of one article.

      The description above is for newcomers trying to get a general understanding of the topic.

      – Jonathan

    • Molly Chen

      well said Colby! I think not a lot of people know that and are still stuck in the “more share more SEO” mindset, rather than the experience of the visitor.

  • searchism

    I agree with this article and recently published something similar on our site at Many are misconstruing content marketing AS the new seo..which it is not, and you have pointed out as well. Is there crossover? Heck yeah- but they are not always intertwined..

  • Shamontiel

    I was going to read this post (although I knew the answer), but the tacky and condescending way you started it off made me close the post: “But I am still surprised on a daily basis
    by the ignorance with which the differences between these different
    areas of online marketing are met by various people.” (You catch more flies with honey, sir. Instead of insulting those who do not know the difference, you might want to just do like those other posts and inform. Until then I’m surprised by the ignorance you showed in your opening. That opener is also too wordy.)

    • Scott Hicks

      Also this: “If you think that: Online Marketing and even anything related to online business is simply not for you.” If that is the case, why bother to go ahead and explain the difference?

  • Frank Gainaford

    Thanx for a simple explanation from your perspective discussing the links between SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) CM (Content Marketing) and SMM (Socal media marketing)


    SEO or Search Engine marketing has three primary objectives that need to be met. they are
    1) a search engine must index your online content
    2) your content must be displayed within the search engines SERP’s (Search Engine results Pages)
    3) Your intended target market must select your result within the SERP, than act on a XCA (Call To action within the clicked link.

    failure in any one is thus a falure of your SEO.

    That being said, social media marketing must be seen as one of the primary link building tactics within your OPSEO process. OPSEO = Off Page Search Engine Optimisation

    Content marketing is also a subset of the SEO campaign and is in place to market the content of your web pages or blog posts to both your target audience and search engines

    SEO or search engine optimisation has two components the first is the #IPSEO or in page search engine optimisation and the second is the OPSEO or Off Page search engine optimisation. You need to do both with great care, and even more so simce the introduction of the Google Humming Bird algorithm which introduced many new SEOVI or Search Engine Optimization Value Indicators, mostly in the form of #STFSEOVI or Semantic Trust Factor Search Engine Optimisation Value Indicators.

    having online content is one issue, but getting a return on investment (ROI) is another ball game altogether… getting a return on you online marketing can only happen once eyeballs have been exposed to your online content. these eyballs are as a result of your SEO which surfaces your online content within the search engines, so you need to do SEO in many different ways both online and off line.

    off line SEO is the techniques you use in radio, print and other off line spaces that influence your target audience to use specific keywords and language when searching for your content online. SEO is thus a very pervasive issue and needs to be better understood as all the work done by your entire marketing team to get visitors to your web pages through search.

  • Zac

    This is definitely an interesting post with great insights into the disparity between the three similar fields. However, might I suggest reading a piece on the difference between “it’s” and “its”. I find it difficult to trust the information in an article when it’s riddled with such basic-level errors.

  • John

    It is one of the best article which differentiate the exact meaning of SEO, SMM & content marketing.

  • Gail Gardner

    Good to see someone who understands why I must continually explain to people why I am NOT an SEO. If you look at my LinkedIn profile you’ll see many endorsements for SEO because as a small business strategist who produces a lot of content on tier 2-3 sites, I do write and promote content in ways intended to attract inbound links. That does NOT make me an SEO.

    Most people claiming they are SEOs are not really SEOs – they are simply link-builders using their chosen methods (often the worst methods) – or people generating a lot of content with little regard to what the link profile they are creating looks like. These are likely to get a site penalized – possibly a lot of sites.

    They are likely to be sending massive numbers of cold inquiries asking to buy links via gmail. (Let’s inform Google about what we’re doing that we’re not supposed to be doing directly – and increase the chances of someone turning you in! Matt Cutts mentioned it was one of these emails that triggered his infamous “guest blogging is dead – stick a fork in it” post.)

    They still want anchor text and if they wrote the content it would only contain their client’s link – and they don’t understand why quality content writers they pitch tell them flat out that is never going to happen because if they do get that kind of content published they are likely to not only get their own clients penalized, but also get the writer’s author access deleted along with everything they ever wrote on that site.

    An SEO at a minimum should know how to monitor incoming links, ensure a client’s link profile looks natural, and be experienced in on-page SEO. A true marketer with SEO skills first does keyword and competitive research, then creates a wireframe to design the entire website showing all the navigation, buttons, and calls-to-action – has graphics, visuals, and videos created for many landing pages – and then drives highly targeted traffic from many sources to this website and the many landing pages, continually testing to improve conversions.

    They ensure they have a lead capture form on the home page from day one, offering an incentive that triggers an autoresponder series and segments those subscribers based on their actions and interests. Each segment receives regular messages targeted to those interests.

    They would create local citations, set up all major social profiles, and ensure someone is updating them regularly and interacting with clients. They configure analytics to measure goals and use some kind of marketing system to track leads. (While Infusionsoft, Marketo, etc. are pricey, others such as PowerLeadSystem are around $30/mo.)

    I personally only know one person I am certain is doing this, although it is possible others I know do, but haven’t shown me. Obviously, this requires a lot of specialized expertise and time. I would suggest it is best done by a small team working together rather than by one person trying to wear all hats and keep up with continual changes in technology and their chosen solutions.

  • Newton

    (Before anyone else starts pointing this out: Yes, this is very simplified.) too good!

  • tracysestili

    I think what John’s point in this whole article is that he’s had the experience of marketers (probably well established) mixing up these terms and it’s not apples to apples, nor is it all fruit, as some make it out to be.

    In fact, I’d argue that Social, Content Marketing and SEO are very different things. Let me break it down into food:
    – SEO allows you to find the yummy treats.
    – Social media delivers the yummy treats.
    – Content marketing pieces ARE the yummy treats, which when consumed makes us feel relieved, smarter, or all warm and happy inside (which I call the ‘HIE’ Principle – all content should be helpful, informative, or entertaining and if it’s not then it’s not worth posting.)

    This article was geared toward beginners, the comments seem to be from more seasoned marketers, yet there have been more than 2.9K shares (presumably less experienced marketers), so it seems that John has a mix of readers. 🙂 And you can’t please everyone all the time…right? Cheers.

  • SmartGuy2B

    I look at social media as the vehicle to deliver my content. The content is packaged -SEO”d and ready for delivery. The vehicle and delivery process is a bit of art. Imagery and short crisp, captivating expressions to capture the audience. That being said the vehicle needs to be optimized. A tune up or using social media optimization will help to maximize the results. Similar to SEO, SMO also needs to be employed in a social media strategy. You can read about solid social media optimization practices here –

  • Ryan Baker

    Nice points. So I guess we can just boil it all down to “find the person you can help the most effectively, build a relationship with them, and give them what they want.” Then just repeat on a mass scale. I feel too many people take the relationship aspect out of digital marketing, and that can diminish the returns in the long run.

  • Judy Caroll

    Great job! You stated clearly the definitions of each and I must say that you did well. You’re correct that Social Media Marketing does not equal Content Marketing and Content Marketing does not equal SEO. I found it as an useful article and you summarize it in a way that it is easy to be understood. Thank you!

  • Hitesh Parekh

    If you combine content marketing and social media, it can help you to communicate better with your customers and prospects. Both are important to get your business website to rank higher in search engines and different social media platforms.

  • Ajay Mishra

    Great article. You digged out each difference very well and really made it easy to understand.

  • Leela

    Very good- thank you!!

  • Taylor Thomas

    Thanks for this awesome post, which helped me to gather some impotant information regarding Digital Marketing.Moreover I like to share an idea where you guys get some more blog on digital marketing and SEO and if require more help please contact for free consultation.

  • Karim Memon

    Great job! You stated clearly the definitions of each and I must say that you did well.

  • Priyank Pandey

    Very nice artical easy to read and understand. You write it very informational and easy to understand . I hope it will help me on the future uses .

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  • Amit Sharma

    it off made me close the post: “But I am still surprised on a daily basis
    by the ignorance with which the differences between these different
    areas of online marketing are met by various people.” (You catch more flies with

  • DassRach

    Exactly. I was offered an SEO position recently. The position included content marketing, social media marketing, and SEO. I explained that those are three separate categories (and positions).

  • Amit Sharma

    nonyms and the meaning of text, etc. Rather SEO has become more about Search Experience Optimization, and providing a good “experience” (broadly defined) from when a searcher sees your listing on the SERP