This question has vexed me ever since social media began playing a role in digital marketing: What does social marketing entail? I’m dissatisfied with the generally agreed upon answer: Social marketing is anything that occurs on a site where there is user-generated content. By this line, anything on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Google+ falls into the social marketing category. All blogs, posts on LinkedIn, and social media fan pages fall under the umbrella of social marketing. Defining anything that occurs on a social website to be under the social marketing umbrella is overboard.

Three Marketing Categories

Digital marketing falls into three categories: (1) brand, (2) search, and (3) social. Before there was digital, marketing was essentially all brand or—as we call it—display marketing. Companies developed their brand images using banners, newspaper ads, and commercials to market their products.

When digital marketing emerged, marketing categories expanded. Search marketing slowly made a name for itself, but at first the distinction between search and brand marketing was cloudy. Even today, marketers attempt to appraise brand worth using search statistics like pay per click (PPC) and cost per action (CPA). But measuring a brand’s stature by clicks is no way to measure a brand. Brand marketing works to drive brand image in an abstract way, using creative tactics like banners, commercials, and ads to do that. Search marketing attempts to optimize a company’s popularity, click-through rate (CTR), and conversation rates through search engines. So where does social fit into the mix?


There is obviously some overlap, and there always will be. Not all marketing on social sites is social marketing, yet many marketers organize their teams as if it were. You wouldn’t ask a gardener to handle an exterminator’s issue just because you have pests in your garden. So why ask your social team to handle search and brand marketing issues? My hope is that marketers organize their teams per objective and intention rather then realm; that way marketers can focus on their specialized tactics no matter the situation.

The expansion of social media has created new marketing opportunities. Facebook developed a new search tool that allows more complex and inclusive search features. YouTube allows companies to buy video ad space. Google+ is so closely linked to Google that one can barely distinguish the social site from the search engine. It’s clear that social media involves brand and search marketing tactics. Still, the question is, what exactly is social marketing if not everything on social sites?

The Answer

Social media should only include anything that involves customer and brand interaction. It bridges the gap between customer relationship management (CRM), customer service, and marketing. The real benefit to social marketing is that it allows you to talk to your customers.

Social teams should handle tweets to customer bases or individual customers. Display teams should use promotional videos and ads to drive brand recognition, even if these things are on Twitter. Search teams should work within Twitter to optimize search results and drive sales.

Social teams should not handle everything that appears on social sites; they lack the time and skills to do so. Social marketers should work with brand and search marketers. Each marketing team—social, search, and brand—should base its work on a purpose and objective rather than a region or a website.