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Social Media Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing: 5 Differences

Marketing has been around for a while. Throughout history, it went through drastic changes, and so did the consumer’s attitude. 

Now, it’s a rare thing for someone from over 4 billion internet users not to research a brand or product online. And, the role of social media in product research is significant. 

That being said, one can’t claim that the more traditional form of marketing has perished. We still get TV ads, street billboards, and other “traditional” promotions. 

So, can we say that online marketing, and social media marketing, in particular, are different from traditional marketing? 

Which approach brings more engagement?

Let’s figure out the answers.

What are the Differences Between Social Media Marketing and Traditional Marketing? Comparison Graphic

Traditional marketing has been around for ages, but the invention of the internet has changed its role forever. 

Now, thanks to digital and internet marketing, we have plenty of new strategies to advertise online, and social media marketing is one of them. But due to the fact that both traditional and social media marketing have the same goal, it can be a bit challenging to tell them apart. 

Here’s a graph to help you see the differences more clearly:

Traditional marketing vs. social media marketing

As you can see, both social media and traditional marketing use content to promote a product but utilize different channels. However, the use of media is not the only thing that distinguishes one from the other. 

To get a deeper understanding of the difference in the natures of these two notions, let’s take a look at social media and traditional marketing separately.

What is Social Media Marketing?

Social media marketing focuses on social media websites and platforms to spread the word about the product or service and attract new customers. 

If you’re using social platforms, you’ve probably been the target audience for some brand’s social media campaigns, through an ad, a recommendation from an influencer, or while browsing hashtags. 

To succeed with social media marketing, you need to keep up with its three main requirements:

  • Authenticity
  • Transparency
  • Honesty

Every successful social media marketing strategy starts with building and facilitating the brand-follower relationship. And a long-lasting relationship is built on trust, for which authenticity, transparency, and honesty are essential prerequisites. 

How can you show social media users that they can trust you?

Try to view social media as a two-way communication channel, where your audience’s voice matters as much as your own. It means involving interactivity to a certain degree, allowing your followers to partake in shaping your brand’s online presence.

Here are some ideas on how you can include your audience in your social media marketing strategy:

  • Polls
  • Contests and sweepstakes
  • Streams with live discussions
  • User-generated content
  • Customer service on social media

Sephora is one of the brands that nail all five strategies to boost interactivity. For instance, you can spot plenty of user-generated videos featuring products sold at Sephora stores:

sephora UGC
Credit: Sephora

Sephora’s followers can also leave their reactions to makeup looks and other related content:

Sephora IG interactive stories
Credit: Sephora

Such an approach creates a strong sense of community and builds trust between a brand and a potential customer. 

Now, what about social media marketing ROI? Is it worth your money?

There is no definitive answer. A lot depends on how well you can figure out your target audience and tailor your content to their needs.

If we talk about estimates and averages, the overwhelming majority of CMOs say social media marketing is worth your investment. According to Forbes, most marketers get a 95% ROI from their social media efforts. 

However, DMA and Single Grain are slightly skeptical, reporting that 53% of marketers get positive ROI from organic social media. The resources also emphasize that social media marketing comes in fifth after search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, email marketing, and PPC when it comes to return on investment. 

So, who do you listen to here?

Remember, these are just stats, and social media performance differs from one individual case to another. 

But, if you’re worried, start low and slow – single out a small budget just to test the waters and keep on investing if your marketing efforts show a positive result.

What is Traditional Marketing?

Traditional marketing uses traditional media, such as print, broadcasting, direct mail, and other outbound lead generation techniques to promote and sell a product or service. 

Traditional marketing traces its roots back to Mesopotamia. It originated when civilizations started forming. First, product manufacturers started attaching stone seals to the products to help customers tell them apart. A bit later, stone seals were replaced by clay, giving each product its unique personality.

A more modern traditional advertising, as we know it, appeared during the Renaissance period thanks to the invention of the printing press. When newspapers became a thing, businesses started adding their ads there, and that’s how print advertising was born.

However, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution eras were the ones to give traditional marketing a real push. Back then, the world found out what a product demo, celebrity advertising, and product differentiation were. 

What about traditional marketing today? Is it still relevant?

Even though most of the focus today is on digital marketing, traditional ways of promoting a product can still come in handy. 

Usually, companies combine traditional with digital marketing to drive brand awareness. For instance, Cristine Rotenberg, the owner of the nail polish brand Holo Taco, invested in outdoor print ads just to see if they deliver any ROI:

Later, during a stream, Cristine revealed that there was a slight surge in the Holo Taco website visits several weeks after the billboards were placed, which she attributed to this particular campaign. Although the billboards were only around Ottawa and couldn’t bring more tangible results, some positive return on investment was still there. 

This example brings us to a crucial conclusion: traditional marketing methods are not universal. 

An indie ecommerce nail polish brand that primarily sells online won’t profit much from a billboard campaign. However, it could try its chances at a beauty industry trade show, which is also a traditional marketing tactic. 

So, by all means, give traditional marketing a try but be mindful of the strategies you use. 

Now, as we’ve figured out the peculiarities of social media and traditional marketing, let’s explore the differences between them.

Difference #1: Specific Targeting

In marketing, there are four main audience research methods:

  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Observation

Let’s see how these strategies play out in both social media and traditional marketing. 

As we already mentioned, traditional marketing is more outbound, meaning that you come with a product to a customer who often has no idea about you or what you’re selling.

So, the best way to learn about a customer in traditional marketing is to observe. That’s why traditional marketing campaigns usually focus on specific areas and consider local audiences (like in the Holo Taco example). It’s just easier to observe (survey and interview) a smaller group of people, right?

Observation also involves fewer biases than the focus group method, for example. However, it can bring limited data, making your ICP a bit vague. 

The story is different with social media marketing. Digital media continuously collect social data about the users, making social media management easier and supplying you with information that you would otherwise have to search for manually. 

Take Facebook, for example. If you’re active and have some followers there, you can already track their demographics:

Facebook Insights demographics

It’s also possible to check out how people interact with your content and the times when they are scrolling through their Facebook Feed:

Facebook Insights audience activity

On top of that, all this information gets updated daily, so all you have to do is track these metrics in real-time, analyze and put them to use. 

So, obviously, social media marketing allows for a more specific targeting than traditional marketing. 

The same goes for audience segmentation. When it comes to traditional marketing, segmentation usually focuses on more general aspects such as sex, gender, location, and income since the message is often intended for the bigger masses. 

In social media marketing, you can also add behaviors, purchase patterns, various psychographics, and other specific details to make your campaigns more personalized. 

Thus, it’s a win for social media marketing in the targeting and segmentation category.

Difference #2: Budget

What’s more expensive, a banner ad on the street or a social media ad campaign?

Let’s turn to some real-life data and take Boston, Massachusetts as our location (it’s just easier to analyze prices for a specific location.

According to Fit Small Business, the price for a street ad varies from $4K to $13K a month for a physical billboard. The prices are a bit lower for a digital billboard – $2.5K to 8K a month. The bigger the population of a town/city is, the higher the prices. 

What about social media marketing? Is it more cost-effective?

Since we’ve already used Facebook marketing as an example, let’s check out how much a Facebook ad costs. 
According to Facebook Business, the price for a digital ad depends on two factors:

  • Overall amount spent
  • Cost per result

You are in control of how much you spend on an ad. It can be as low as $5 and as high as $50,000 and more. But expensive doesn’t mean successful. The outcome depends on how well you know your target market and choose the bid strategy to fit your goals.

If you need exact numbers, the analysis by WebFX shares the following averages:

  • $0.97 per click
  • $7.10 per thousand impressions
  • $1.07 per like
  • $5.47 per download

So, what is cheaper?

A social media ad, for sure. Even if you have a minimal marketing budget, you can still run a campaign at a lower cost and see how it plays out for your brand. But we recommend not to enter the social media advertising zone with huge budgets if you don’t know what to do or expect.

Difference #3: Use of Media

Traditional and social media marketing use different channels to reach out to consumers. When we talk about traditional marketing, we usually think of the following channels:

  • Direct sales
  • Direct mail
  • Trade shows
  • Referral marketing 
  • Print advertising (newspaper ads, magazine ads)
  • Radio ads
  • TV commercials

These are all outbound sales channels, too, and deliver a message to a customer who knows nothing or has heard a bit about a brand or product through word-of-mouth. 

In its turn, social media marketing targets all social media websites and platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, LinkedIn, etc. It also includes messengers such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and so on. 

Through social media channels, you can execute the following marketing techniques:

  • Content marketing
  • Digital advertising
  • Influencer marketing
  • Messenger chatbots
  • Live streams
  • User-generated content
  • Community marketing

Here, we can’t say which one is better or worse. The media and channels used by both marketing fields are valid ways to advertise a product. 

Of course, social media marketing involves more organic ways of promotion. Still, if you expect results fast, it’s a smart idea to pair your social media strategies with a few traditional marketing tactics for more exposure.

Difference #4: Customer Engagement

When was the last time a TV commercial influenced you to buy something?

You’re probably smiling right now, thinking that no one really watches TV, so investing in a TV ad is a waste of time. 

However, you’d be surprised (and we were too) to find out that television commercials and similar “traditional” ads have an actual influence on people’s purchase decisions. The 2019 independent study by GfK reveals that 56% of consumers cite TV as a factor bringing awareness about a product. 

Furthermore, the study indicated that TV ads inspired 85% of adults and 91% of millennials to look for a brand/product online. And here’s where social media enters the game. 

A modern consumer involves several channels to investigate a product or service, and checking the brand’s social media accounts is a must. Then, if the brand’s social media content and relationships with followers resonate with them, they will be more likely to buy from this business. 

The study by Sprout Social confirms our thoughts – 76% of respondents said they would choose a brand over its competitors if they feel connected to it. 

So, in terms of engagement, the research tips the scale in favor of social media marketing. 

Even if a TV ad prompts a user to search for a brand online, the business’s social media activity is one of the key difference makers that impact the user’s purchase decision.

Difference #5: Measurability

Let’s be honest – social media marketing is way easier to track. 

If you decide to do social media campaigns on a regular basis, investing in marketing automation is a must. Besides, it’s not that expensive, and most inbound marketing tools are super affordable. 

What do social media trackers allow?

They give you access to a dashboard, where you can connect all your social media accounts and track their performance. They can also generate reports and give your marketing team insights on how you can improve your campaigns. 

Traditional marketing is a bit harder to measure. Companies use call tracking, assign vanity URLs, distribute coupon codes and add QR codes to receive more accurate data. But there is always a chance this information will be incomplete.

4 Benefits of Using Social Media Marketing

Even though traditional marketing has its perks and is a valid strategy to boost sales, social media marketing is better in terms of longevity. 

Traditional marketing campaigns deliver results much quicker. Nevertheless, you will hardly have enough time to form meaningful relationships with the customers since such campaigns are more short-lived. 

Social media marketing is a different story. You’ll have to wait a while for it to bring tangible results but will be more likely to gain returning clients. 

What are other advantages of digital marketing and social media marketing?

Let’s take a look.

Benefit #1: Improve brand awareness

Social media platforms are very diverse. Instagram alone has over 1 billion users. So, imagine how fast you can build an audience there? Given that you create the right strategy, of course. 

The problem is that social media websites are also very competitive, and getting noticed there can turn into a wild race against your rivals. 

So, what can you do to help your brand stand out?

Always bet on storytelling. Even if your story doesn’t seem unique to you, someone will definitely find it relevant. Besides, it’s been proven that storytelling makes you 22 times more memorable precisely because your story resonates with your audience. 

Now, how do you tell your story on social media?

You won’t have any problems with that – social platforms offer various content options to engage people. But try to tie your story to something your followers can relate to. 

Take Zeus+Dione, a Greek clothing brand, as an example. They don’t just publish photos of their apparel; they tell a story behind each of the clothing items, tracing back to the origins of Greek traditional costumes:

Zeus+Dione IG strategy
Credit: Zeus+Dione

Such an approach contributes to your brand’s uniqueness and puts your values forward, making you more noticeable and recognizable.

Benefit #2: Get more exposure

If you are new to your industry, social media can give you a boost in exposure and introduce you to the world. This is possible thanks to hashtags that will help people come across your brand. 

A hashtag is a metadata tag that uses the # sign to cross-reference the content on a social media site and make it shareable. 

All social media platforms use hashtags, but some rely on them more than others. Twitter is the first website that comes to mind when you think of hashtags – all the trending topics there are optimized using hashtags for better tracking:

Twitter trending page

Instagram also relies on hashtags a lot. You can even trace each hashtag’s popularity:

IG hashtags

So, a reasonable conclusion here would be to use the top-performing hashtags to increase your visibility. But it’s not entirely correct. 

First and foremost, the hashtag should be relevant to your content and your audience. You can even coin your own branded hashtag if there is a necessity for it. Popularity is good, but relevance is more important.

Benefit #3: Learn more about your audience

As we’ve mentioned, social media platforms continuously collect social media data, allowing you to understand your audience better. 

Social data usually includes:

  • Demographics (age, gender, location, language)
  • Psychographics (behaviors, needs, challenges)

Some B2B-focused platforms also collect industry-related metrics about your followers. For instance, on LinkedIn, there is data available on your audience’s job function, seniority, industry, and company size:

LinkedIn Analytics audience insights

Thanks to this information, you can run more personalized social media campaigns and build authority in your industry faster, knowing what topics are trending among your followers.

Benefit #4: Build brand authority

Speaking about authority, how do you track social media data to understand what topics are currently the hottest in your niche and industry?

Here, we turn to hashtags once again. 

As you know, on Twitter, there is a trending page with the most discussed topics for each day. The same feature is available on LinkedIn. You can subscribe to a hashtag and get daily content updates:

LinkedIn hashtag tracking

Knowing what’s trending on a given social media platform gives you a competitive advantage. You can use the most popular topics to create original content pieces or join the already existing discussions. 

You can also invite industry influencers to help you spread the word about the burning issues. For instance, UNICEF asked a Yale professor to debunk the most common COVID-19 vaccine myths amid the global disinformation crisis:

UNICEF IG strategy
Credit: UNICEF

All this leads us to the main point – being active on social media means always staying in the know, which allows you to pinpoint the most important discussions and weigh in on them as well. As a result, you build your brand’s authority in the industry and become a respected thought leader.

Now Over to You

So, who wins the battle between social media and traditional marketing? 

Social media definitely has more advantages, although we don’t think it’s fair to put one against the other. Traditional and social media marketing have a place in your business strategy and can help you reach certain goals. 

However, social media marketing is definitely better at helping you achieve the following:

  • Brand awareness
  • Online exposure
  • Stronger brand-customer relationships
  • Brand authority

Thus, in today’s day and age, social media presence is a must for every brand. Meanwhile, traditional marketing is more of an occasional tactic nowadays, though it is still a viable option to help you boost sales. 

Want to get better at social media and digital marketing in general? Read our blog to learn more! 

Mariia is a content strategist and editor at Digital Marketer’s World. She is passionate about educating others on all things marketing and believes in the power of the written word.