Content, or social media? Deciding where to put your investment—of money, time, and effort—isn't easy. And the ROI of both is notoriously difficult to measure.

Moreover, social media and content marketing are often presented as the same thing, which muddies the matter even more.

So how do you decide where to put your efforts? And once you decide, how do you go about it?

What's the Difference and Why?

At first glance, content marketing and social media seem to overlap so much that it sounds like a distinction without a difference. If I do a tweet storm or a LinkedIn post, is that social media or content marketing?

Actually the difference is clear.

Social media is an umbrella term for a type of marketing channel. Instagram is way different from Facebook, true, but then TV is way different from radio; both are broadcast media—a type of channel. Same with print media: The New Yorker isn't the Watlingsburg Gazette and Mail, or Trout Quarterly—but they're the same type of channel. It's social's social nature, in which every contributor is an equal (more or less—we'll get to the caveats) publisher and consumer, that defines social media as a type of channel. But that's what it is.

Content is what goes out on channels. Take a Shakespeare play—Romeo and Juliet, for example. There's a film version, stage versions, radio plays, TV shows, and probably millions of versions of the play published in print and online as PDF and other text files. That's the same piece of content, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, adapted for different channels. Content is what is published. Channel is how.

Content marketing is content that's structured and created for marketing purposes. Its aim is to move leads along a buyer process toward (re)purchase, one conversion at a time. It might look like I'm writing a dictionary here, but it's important that we could get to this point: If you don't know what action you want a lead to take after they read your blog post or watch your video, and you don't structure your content to achieve that goal, you certainly made some content, but you didn't do content marketing.

Convince and Convert's Jay Baer talks about the difference in terms of goals: "The goals of content marketing are consumption, then behavior. The goals of social media are participation, then behavior."

With that in mind, we need to talk about how to take a limited budget—even if you're the marketing department of Global Mega Corp, your budget is always going to be limited in comparison with your aims—and figure out how to make it work as hard as possible.

When budget has to be divided between content and social, where should the split be?

Creation or Promotion?

You've heard the saying "Content is king." Over the years, that's evolved to sound more and more like "Great content is king," reflecting the worlds of difference that lie between, say, industry-leading original research that commands a price tag of thousands of dollars and knock-off 400-word blog posts rattled out to fill the page and include 20 keywords. But you knew that...

The thing is, how much great content do you need to be producing, and how much time and energy (and money) do you want to spend promoting it? After all, the best content in the world isn't going to do you any good if nobody sees it; but you won't keep a big readership long if your content adds no value. It's a big Internet, and the business content part of it is growing exponentially, so if you're looking at an "If you build it, they will come" approach, well, good luck with that.

Both activities are necessary, both need to be done well, but what should be the proportion?

One person who thinks he has the answer is Derek Halpern of Social Triggers. But his answer may surprise you. Derek thinks the ratio should be something like 80/20. That's already a long way from the middle of the road. Derek thinks that should be 80% promoting and 20% creating.

What's his rationale?

What Derek calls the "content, content, and more content" mindset has been successful for a lot of big blogs. But those, he observes, were mostly built "when there was little competition... back in 2005/2006," when "search engines were giving websites preferential treatment for fresh and new content." He adds, "back then, if you'd update your blog once a day, it was IMPOSSIBLE to NOT build a blog with a raving fan base."

Cool—except, things are different now. There's a lot more content and clickbait on the Web, competition is fiercer than ever, and you're up against B2B content creators in particular who are often guided by sophisticated data produced from multiple sources and intelligently segmented. These guys have gone way beyond "write a bunch of stuff," and if you don't, you're going to be left behind.

The best advice? Produce the very, very best content you can—best, not most—and then promote it like crazy.

How Should You Promote Your Content?

You should be spending probably the majority of your time and money promoting content. What are the best ways to do that?


Everyone you work with, everyone you get an idea or a quote from, everyone you get a stat or a thought from... they all have their own following. So when you use someone as a source, drop them an email or tweet them and thank them—and ask them if their audience would be interested in your post, video, whitepaper, or infographic. Send your email from a named work email account—not ""—and keep it brief.

On social networks, look at reducing your blog post's main points to a few words. You've seen "Tweet this" options in blog posts? Tweet yours yourself, and do the same for whitepapers, webinars, and everything else. When you do, if the point you're making owes anything to a source, point to the source on Twitter when you tweet, referring to them by their Twitter handle.

Best-case scenario? They'll join the conversation—or even retweet you, giving you the ultimate endorsement and access to their following, too.


Another underexplored content promotion avenue is Quora. If you're not familiar, it's a question-and-answer site like Yahoo Answers for people who actually know what they're talking about. If you have a great piece of content you'd like to share, find a relevant question, post a brief answer, and suggest that interested readers follow a link out to your site to find out more.

Twitter is a noisy channel: The lifespan of a tweet is about 20 minutes. But it's also a searchable and hugely popular one. Tag your content with appropriate hashtags, and don't be afraid to post it more than once: Most people won't notice, and you'll pick up more clicks. A sharing schedule can work wonders here, though you'll probably want to introduce some form of automation into the mix (see below).

Some folks use the same blog post ideas and write on something similar, treading over old ground in a new way; others post the same content several times over a couple days; and some will tag tweets #1yearago or something similar. When they do that, they're getting more mileage out of the content they've already created.

Twitter is also an excellent place to combine the personal and the broader social approaches. Social posting—appropriately tagged posts that you're just sending out there—can be sent out using tools like Hootsuite that let you schedule tweets for maximal impact, posting when your best audience is up and active. Others, like Tweet Jukebox, go further. Tweet Jukebox will store separate groups of tweets, like records in a jukebox—hence the name. It will tweet them out automatically, and even automate replies to favorites and follows. Old tweets can be automatically revisited and retweeted with a fresh twist, taking the spadework out of the busiest channel on the Web. That leaves you with more time and space to pursue the personal aspects of content promotion on Twitter.

Facebook is getting increasingly difficult to build respectable organic reach on. In effect, it's becoming a two-tier service in which people see material posted by family and friends interspersed with posts that have been paid for or promoted by Facebook, usually from big content providers like BuzzFeed. Google Plus is still worth cross-posting to, but it shouldn't be a main plank in your strategy.

What Do You Get When You Pay for Content Promotion?

So, organic content promotion through social media can be effective. What about paying for your content to be seen?

The tradeoff is obvious: If you're paying out time and effort, you're effectively paying out money, so it might actually be cheaper to go via the paid ads in Facebook or Twitter and get more eyes on your content that way.

Yet, paid social media seems like coughing up for something that's free. Somehow, we're happy to buy bottled water, but offer us tailored access to our ideal audiences on multimillion-user social networks, and many of us just can't bring ourselves to pay up. But we should.

Paid Facebook advertising cuts through the increasingly difficult barriers that reduce organic reach on the channel, giving you access to the biggest social media channel in the world. So you should look there. It also gives you access to Facebook's Custom Audiences feature, which lets you focus your ads tightly based on variables like age, gender, location, employment, and not a few others. That is as tight an ad as you're likely to get, so if you're doing B2C and segmentation is key for you, you just hit pay dirt.

What about Twitter? Here, your best option is to look at Promoted Tweets. Neil Patel and Aaron Agius recommend looking at your most popular tweets—not your best or most popular content. This is about promotion! Which tweets do well with your audience? Figure that out, and target by audience or keywords in timeline. Yes, you can pay for retweets, too, but it's a questionable idea at best: your audience will probably appreciate it more if your retweets are organic. Once your Twitter Ads campaign is off the ground, you should figure out how to manage your Twitter Ads Score to get the best out of your Twitter Ads dollars.

LinkedIn offers paid content promotion too. That's primarily of interest to B2B content marketers, but if that's you, LinkedIn is going to be one of your primary channels for reaching other professionals, so forking out a little for better results makes sense. You can use LinkedIn's sidebar ads, but its Sponsored Updates feature is more effective by far. Like Twitter's Sponsored Tweets, it's based on promoting updates that are already scoring well with your target audience: reinforce success. It also has one of the lowest costs per click of any paid social promotion, at about $1-2. Considering the high deal value of B2B transactions, the case for its use is even more compelling.

Scoring Success

How do you know whether what you're doing is working? That's an important question, but you can answer it only if you know what success looks like. Are you looking for online purchases? Signups? Content downloads? Time spent on your website or landing page? (There's a great look at this issue here, courtesy of Kevan Lee of Buffer Social.) Once you've selected which conversions you want to focus on, assign them a monetary value to track ROI.

At the heart of your ROI tracking efforts will be analytics tools. There's usually some analytics functionality built into the channels you're using to promote your content: Twitter has internal analytics and Facebook has some excellent internal analytics. Google Analytics will track website traffic. It will even track social acquisitions, so if that fits your choice of key conversion metric, you're covered. (David Meerman Scott thinks you can track content ROI with Google AdWords.) If you want to, you can connect the dots yourself. At the other extreme is Kissmetrics, a tool that tracks individual users via randomly assigned ID numbers through their journeys across your channels to give a clear picture of your content promotion success.

You can track the reach of your posts and your content using a tool like Mention, which alerts you to conversations that involve your brand, your content and your space across the Web. Engagement data for individual posts (even historical ones) can be picked up and examined courtesy of TalkWalker, which uses search-engine-like functionality to find your posts by search term and then combine these insights into visual charts that help in decision-making.

Wrapping Up

Although the ROI of both content marketing and social media is tough to gauge, it can be done. And the weight of your efforts clearly belongs with promotion, allowing you to deliver your content to more people and get more mileage out of your content.

Content creation can be expensive and time consuming; building a campaign that emphasizes content promotion can help leave you free to create better content, because it doesn't force you onto a treadmill of producing content.

And promotion lets you build the networks that ensure not only wider distribution but also a truly attentive readership.

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Social Media vs. Content: Where Should You Invest?

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image of Rohan  Ayyar

Rohan Ayyar is a project manager at E2M solutions, a digital marketing firm.

LinkedIn: Rohan Ayyar

Twitter: @searchrook