Way back when, before I became a content marketer, I thought I had a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of content marketing vs. traditional marketing: content marketing referred to “blogs,” and traditional marketing referred to TV or print ads.

I basically thought that companies created blog content to draw customers to their business, and that’s where content marketing efforts started and stopped. Now that I’ve been doing this for years, I’ve learned that while “blogs” (like this one!) are certainly one of the most critical components of content marketing – they only represent a slice of the content marketing pie.

While content marketing is rapidly growing in scope, popularity, and importance, there is still evidence that people don’t quite get it what it is or how to use it.

  • According to a study by Altimeter, 70% of marketers lack a consistent content marketing strategy. (source)
  • Only 5% of content marketers think they are very effective at content marketing. (source)
  • 42% of marketers call content marketing one of their most difficult marketing tactics. (source)

Because content marketing is a multifaceted approach to marketing,  analyzing the similarities and differences between content marketing vs. traditional marketing can help e. Since I’ve spent the past few years educating myself about content marketing beyond-the-blog – what it is, how it works, and why it works – here’s some of my wisdom about content marketing vs. traditional marketing, and why you should choose one or the other (or both!).

What is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is a marketing strategy in which companies create valuable content to educate potential customers and draw them in. Content marketing can take many shapes, from blogging, to podcasts, to videos, to quizzes, to email newsletters (and much, much more).

The point of content marketing is to add value to your potential customers’ life – to make them appreciate your existence, which may turn them into loyal, paying advocates. The content marketing experts at Content Marketing Institute sum up the definition of content marketing and its purpose really well:

“Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.”

Here are a couple of good examples of content marketing:

  • Cycling brand Rapha created a beautiful and educational magazine, Mondial, that focuses on the culture of riding, as well as travel, adventure, and fitness. Mondial does not directly promote their brand – but it educates their audience about the general industry. mondial content marketing vs traditional marketing example
  • Airline WestJet made a video around the holidays documenting their attempt to perform 12,000 mini miracles across the world. The heartwarming video paints the company in a generous, positive light – and it entertains and uplifts, without directly promoting anything specific about the airline.westjet examples of successful content marketing vs. traditional marketing

(Check out more great examples we included in our blog about innovative content marketing examples.)

What is Traditional Marketing?

Traditional marketing is the marketing you grew up with. It is an interruptive marketing strategy in which advertisements or promotions for products or services reach consumers whenever and wherever companies want them to. Traditional marketing, like content marketing, comes in a wide variety of forms; it can occur in print (magazine ads, billboards), broadcast (television ads, radio ads), and a slew of other formats (e.g. direct mailings, telemarketing, etc.). Traditional marketers push information about what they’re trying to sell in front of a wide audience of people — even when they haven’t necessarily asked to see it.

Here are some good examples of traditional marketing:

  • Etihad Airways places ads on Facebook with information about sales and flights their company is currently offering. (This one comes from my own personal Facebook feed – and no, I did not ask to see it.)etihad airlines content marketing vs. traditional marketing efforts
  • This iPhone 5 billboard from Sprint showcases a product beautifully, and drivers and pedestrians encounter it when they are out on the road. content marketing vs traditional marketing efforts by Apple

Content Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing: the Crucial Differences

Now that you’ve gotten an idea about what content marketing and traditional marketing really are, here are the most important differences between the two (sometimes overlapping, but often distinct) strategies:

  • Permission vs. Interruption

As mentioned above, one of the key differences between content marketing vs. traditional marketing is that content marketing is a permissive marketing technique, while traditional marketing is an interruptive one. Content marketing content is sought out and discovered by customers, and it is consumed when they want to consume it; they’ve given their permission to be marketed to.

television ads are part of content marketing vs. traditional marketing debateTraditional marketing comes at consumers when they’re doing something else (watching television, driving, listening to the radio), and it can interrupt whatever they’re currently experiencing. Interruptive marketing tactics are also sometimes digital marketing efforts, like pop-ups, pre-roll videos, and social media ads, like that Etihad Airlines sidebar ad above.

Marketing guru Seth Godin explains permission marketing tactics, like content marketing, and why they work:


“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.”

  • Earned Audience vs. Rented Audience

Content marketing earns its audience by offering something of value. The people who discover and consume your content choose to do so because they want to. This means that you own them – they are your audience.

On the other hand, traditional marketing tactics are seen by a “rented” audience. Traditional marketers pay money to platforms that already have an audience to get their own message seen by that particular set of eyes (which is actually there to see something else). Rented billboard space, purchased radio airtime, and bought PPC ads are good examples of how traditional marketers get their message out to a rented audience.

The downside of paying to rent an audience? When you rent something, it isn’t yours – and eventually, you have to give it back. When traditional marketing campaigns are complete, “rented” eyes are no longer on your message – and besides the people you’ve converted to customers — you no longer have a crowd of potential consumers or brand loyalists. One other benefit of earning your audience? It is more effective at building trust. According to a study done by Marketing Land, 60 percent of Millennials like to choose the content they see, and 63 percent of Millennials are more trusting of content that they find on their own vs. what’s shown to them via advertising.

  • Conversation vs. One-Sided

Traditional marketing strategies, like commercials, don’t ask for any immediate response from customers. They put info about a product or service in front of consumers’ eyes, and they hope some of them will eventually buy. In contrast, content marketing is meant to start a conversation with consumers. It gets them engaged with your brand so they like and trust you – and ultimately, eventually, decide they want to buy. According to the experts at Content Marketing Institute,

“Your content is now a conversation. It’s a story that needs an audience to respond. So, yes, go out and create great content. Be the leader in your industry because you consistently share value. BUT, share it.”  

Content efforts that inherently spark a conversation with potential customers include things like webinars, in-person events, opportunities for user-generated content, and more.

One great example of a content marketing campaign intended to start conversations is Our Food. Your Questions by McDonald’s Canada.

mcdonalds shows conversation aspect of content marketing vs. traditional marketing This ongoing campaign allows consumers to write in questions about McDonald’s foods and restaurants — then have the questions answered by reps from the company. In order to have questions answered, users must share their question on their own social media pages.

  • Hone-able vs. Static

One of the key differences in content marketing vs. traditional marketing is that content marketing offers marketers the opportunity to hone their marketing campaigns in real time. This allows them to make sure they are focused on the strategies that work, and that their marketing investments are paying off. Analytics programs allow marketers to look at the effectiveness of campaigns as they are happening (by clicks, links, purchases, etc.), then reallocate time, money, or energy as needed.

Traditional marketing efforts are more static. Campaigns are unleashed into the world, and then their results are analyzed once they’re completed (or well underway). Marketing efforts can then be adjusted for the next campaign – but especially for traditional marketing tactics like television advertisements and print ads, it’s difficult to tweak ads to be more effective once they’re already out in the world.

To understand what numbers you should be focused on in your content marketing efforts, check out this helpful list of essential content metrics put together by Kapost.

  • Cost 

more money made in content marketing vs. traditional marketingEvery marketer is concerned about money (that’s what it’s all about, after all) – and research has shown that when you weigh content marketing vs. traditional marketing – content marketing is a more affordable marketing strategy.

According to a report on the current state of content marketing by Demand Metric, content marketing efforts cost 62% less than traditional marketing efforts, and they generate 3x as many leads. This means more bang for your marketing buck.

  • Valuable Information vs. Sales-Specific Information 

The meat of content marketing material offers something of value to those who consume it. It can educate a reader about a particular industry, teach them about how to buy, or simply entertain. (Hubspot’s Pamela Vaughan argues that entertainment value alone can make your content extremely valuable if done right.)

A stellar content marketing example that provides valuable information is the Marketo Big marketo coloring book shows entertainment value of content marketing vs traditional marketingMarketing Activity Coloring Book, which is a free downloadable ebook.

The coloring book is packed full of informative and interesting facts about marketing – and marketers can color it while they read and learn, which means it also provides entertainment value. This is a piece of content marketing; consumers are connected with the brand, and they’ve even given up their email address in order to acquire the book. However, Marketo isn’t pushing their marketing products on consumers (yet) – but simply allowing them to enjoy the value offered by their company.

In contrast to the nature of content marketing, traditional advertising tends to include only information about the product it intends to sell. While some traditional advertisements also content elements of entertainment (Super Bowl commercials!) – their main point is to educate an audience about something that is being sold, and give them the information about how any why to buy it.

A good example of an ad that entertains, but also focuses on pushing a product is the original Budweiser “Wassup” commercial:


We watch some guys have a funny conversation, but in the end, it’s all about how they’re all drinkin’ a Budweiser. Demian Farnworth of Coppyblogger explains, “Because of their expensive production and short shelf life, advertising campaigns put the product front and center.”

  • Momentum-Building vs. Steady

Content marketing is a momentum building marketing strategy. It’s hard at first, but as efforts start to get off the ground, they become easier and more successful — and visitor loyalty starts to help build your brand. Blog followings grow; social media numbers tick up, and newsletter subscribers multiply. Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, explains that content marketing is a flywheel marketing strategy – it’s hard to turn the wheel at the get-go, but once it’s already rolling, it’s fast and powerful.

“Your early efforts are incredibly challenging. Earning those first few links, getting those first few rankings, getting that content that actually works to approach the market, getting your first few email subscribers, getting the first few people to follow you on Twitter, on Facebook, it’s just so hard. It feels like it’s almost not worthwhile. It feels like, “Hey you know what, let me just throw some money at paid search and at ads, and screw this whole inbound channel thing.”

But a weird thing starts to happen. As you earn links and build visitor loyalty, and increase your reputation and influence on the web, your SEO starts to get easier. Suddenly you put out a blog post, you hit publish, and wow, I’m already ranking on the first page. I publish a new product in my e-commerce shop, and wow, I’m already on page two, like all of a sudden, just by adding it to our products section.

This is really interesting. This is the concept of the flywheel, and it works in all of these channels.”

flywheel of content marketing vs. traditional marketingIn contrast, traditional marketing campaigns are much steadier than content marketing campaigns. Each campaign is released and finished, with a set level of effectiveness. Traditional marketing efforts do not inherently build upon themselves, and each inherent campaign isn’t necessarily “easier” than the one before it.

  • Appreciated vs. Tolerated (or ignored)

Content marketing isn’t just easier and more affordable than traditional marketing – it’s also more appreciated and better-liked by its audience:

  • According to a study by Fleishman Hillard, 89% of B2B marketing decision makers turn to search engines to seek out information and make purchasing decisions.
  • 70% of consumers say they’d rather get to know a company through articles, rather than advertisements.
  • 85% of B2B buyers believe that companies should share useful information via social networks.
  • 90% of people say that informative or instructional videos are helpful in the purchasing process.
  • 44% of direct mail is never even opened.
  • The average click-through rate of display ads across-the-board is only .06%
  • 54% of people won’t click on banner ads because they don’t trust them.
  • 33% of people on the Internet find digital display ads “completely intolerable.”

Content Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing: Which Do You Choose?

When it comes down to crafting a marketing strategy for your business, there’s no doubt that you should incorporate content marketing. It’s cheaper, more effective, easier to accomplish than traditional outbound marketing — and it’s also better liked by your audience.

However, that does not mean you should scrap traditional marketing efforts entirely. Marketing experts now believe that the best marketers are the ones that can blend their inbound and outbound marketing efforts seamlessly. Those marketers create an omnichannel marketing plan that uses content and technology to narrow down potential customers to a targeted, specialized group – then they employ traditional marketing techniques to get info about products and services out in front of that audience so that they can make a purchase. Marketing expert John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing explains, “I’m not suggesting a return to the “shout from the rooftops to anyone that will listen days,” those days are gone forever. What I am suggesting is that you use the tools at your disposal to narrowly target prospects and invite them to find your valuable, education based content.”