In a Nutshell: What is The Difference Between Online, Inbound, Social Media, and Content Marketing?

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Online Marketer

There might be some confusion as to what the differences are between online, inbound, social media, and content marketing. Let me tell you briefly what these four marketing efforts are not, then I will let a “friend” explain what they are and illustrate how they are related.

Online marketing is not being a sleazy dude who tries to sell stuff on the web.

Inbound marketing is not scheduling trains, planes, and other public forms of transportation.

Social media marketing is not hanging out with kids on Facebook and retweeting stuff I think is cool.

And  content marketing is not driving traffic to people’s sites.

Meet Wilby. Wilby is a character created by a one-time animator in Japan for and of me. I wish he had made him slimmer but considering what he had to work with, what can I say?

The Wilby matryoshka doll can illustrate the difference between online, inbound, social media and content marketing efforts:

Online Marketing

The all-inclusive activity that happens on the Internet with the intent of bringing visibility to a website and making a connection with the searcher and product/s or service. The goal can be sales, visibility, branding, or maybe just buzz. Sometimes called Internet Marketing.

Inbound Marketing

The science of pull versus push marketing. The intent of inbound marketing is to attract readers or buyers to a target site by hook or by crook … but indeed preferably by legitimate hook. Inbound marketing happens within the sphere of online marketing.

Rule of Thumb – it is cheaper, more time efficient for would-be buyers to find you than it is for you to find them.

Social Media Marketing

When the efforts of the marketer take on legs or a life of its own in social networks. Sometimes referred to as “going viral”. Or when the social media marketer does his/her darndest to make their content go viral. The best way, however, is for the social networks to be attracted to the content/website of the marketer so much so that there is a natural (organic) grass-roots like compulsion to share the information with others in their online networks.

Content Marketing

NOT the smallest nor the least significant component. Content is at the core of all great marketing efforts. Quality content is the soul of all effective marketing campaigns. Excellent content begs to be shared. Social networkers do not need to be asked, coerced, prodded or even poked. In fact pushing content, driving content is contrary to getting best results. Rather social networkers who find something really cool race to be the first to let someone know what it is they have come upon. The result being the sharer and those in their network are intrigued and attracted to what else this content creator has to offer. That’s not good marketing, that’s SUPER marketing.

All of this happens online.


Do your content right and your content will be the little piggy that goes to market for you.

Too often there is an attempt to manipulate search results, which equal shady SEO efforts. Sometimes over-emphasis is placed on the perfect page with the thinking ‘if I build it they will come.’ Good luck with that. One ideal landing page still has a 1 in a trillion possibility of being found. A poor inbound strategy indeed. A better strategy is to churn out as much good quality content as possible, consistently over a long period of time. It really is that straight forward.

For more on niche content, see my last SEJ post, 4 Strategies to Beat Anybody in Any Niche in Content Marketing.

Content is king. Always was. Always will be.

Next article – How Long Does It Take to See Organic Search Results – From Zero to 3,000 Uniques in 3 Months – Case Study

Image: Property of author.

Bill Belew
Professor, Speaker, Author, blogger, all-around old man. Having taught a full 48-hour MBA course in Marketing with Social Media at a graduate school in Silicon Valley, Bill delivers insights from recent, real and relevant case studies. Bill has been working in social media for more than 8 years and has more than 90 million unique visitors from organic search to his network of sites and in a variety of niches. He knows what works, what doesn't, what can kill a site, and what can cause it to grow. Bill has a network of 5000+ Meetup followers in the heart of Silicon Valley. He is a paid, professional, international, in-demand speaker.
Bill Belew
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  • Nadav

    Well written post!

    There is a common misconception revolving these 4 terms, and even a bigger misconception regarding the price of content marketing and inbound marketing . Lately Matt Cutts “deemed” guest posting so most people stopped that practice before it’s forbidden by Google and doesn’t work anymore… WRONG

    This is exactly the difference between high quality content marketing and a spammy guest post. As Bill said good content is the key to everything. If you’re doing guest posting make sure you write high quality content, targeting for PEOPLE (that will actually help the reader), choose a natural anchor instead a money anchor, make sure not to just stick it in the post but rather blend it exactly where it should be, even if it means its in the bottom and consider linking to blog posts which are directly tied to the topic at hand.

    At so Inbound Marketing, consider setting up a great blog with top notch quality that gives valuable information to your readers. That’s the hook. People will link and share your post, and your customers will come organically

    Go for the long term, quality over quantity..

    • Bill Belew


      Thanks for these encouraging words. I will discuss the quantity versus quality debate in an upcoming article. I have the rough draft already save and have been tweaking it.

      Thanks for reading.


  • Nadav

    Please correct my spelling errors :
    regarding the price of content marketing and inbound marketing -> regarding the practice of..

    At so Inbound Marketing, consider setting -> As for Inbound…

  • Aqiyl Aniys

    Content is the key, and lots of good content! Google loves content. Inbound Marketing is the next big thing. We need those inbound links coming into our sites. This helps a lot with higher search rankings.

  • Bill Belew


    Inbound is not the NEXT big thing. It is big now, always has been. Content is king again.

    Thanks for reading.


  • Bill Belew


    You certainly have grasped the point. If we please the readers, the searches will find us, sharing will happen because it is worthy of it, not because we want it to.

    Writer for real people and real people will do what real people really do.

    Thanks for reading.


  • Vince T.

    Nice post. The more that we share and distribute the idea that quality content (like this) rules.. the higher we will raise the bar on SEO as both a function and an industry. For those in the industry, implementing a good content strategy only enhances the use of inbound, social media & online marketing.

    Most in the industry don’t want to be bothered with a good content strategy since it requires a little more work and engagement. Everyone wants a quick fix. But at the end of the day content that helps, engages and informs will always win out.

    • Bill Belew

      @ Vince,

      We do indeed reap what we sow. Lots of good content will pay dividends long term.

      Thanks for reading.


  • Rick

    The whole viral thing is not what I want…What will I do with 2 Million viewers who have nothing to do but watch dogs do tricks? No, I want to provide good content to attract MY target market. —> People who are looking for help on how to sail for free on a cruise ship. … by giving talks. That group will SEARCH for my niche and will not see my 6 pound Yorkie jump over a bar.

    Thanks – good blog.

  • Bill Belew


    Spot on … your dog named Spot?

    Write for your readers, not the masses and you will get much better results long term.

    Thanks for reading.


  • Steve Maitland

    Just found your site, love the topics on search engine optimization,I agree with all this said within your article
    the penguin update hit anchor text, The next one hit duplicate content by keeping your website within the Google regulations and not becoming a spammer
    Websites will rank

    Seo Rescue

    • Bill Belew

      @ Steve,

      Original content that is meaningful to the reader will always win out.

      Thanks for reading.


  • Ritu Kumari

    thanks for sharing your though and I love your thing about Inbound marketing and i agree with you

  • Sunday

    Looking at these in certain way, it is important to note that a thin line divides all of these marketing tactics. Internet marketing or online marketing is the larger part that encapsulate all other marketing!

    • Bill Belew

      Internet and online marketing is no good if it doesn’t have a solid core = good content.

      Thanks for reading.


  • Bill Belew


    Thank you for reading! I have much more to share. Plz subscribe to follow so you don’t miss out.


  • Time Clock Software

    You say that content creation is the whole game, not “building the site”. Are you suggesting that content published outside of your site that points users to it is the whole game, or are you distinguishing publishing content on the site from building the site?

    • Bill Belew

      On your site. Content published outside the site that ‘points’ is push marketing, not inbound marketing. Build your own site, not somebody else’s.

      Does this answer your question?

      Thanks for reading.


  • Keller Tiemann

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the great post. This is something I wanted my readers to see, so I shared it in my “roundup” blog post today, I linked my name if you’re interested.

    Thanks for sharing,

    • Bill Belew

      @ Keller
      Thanks for your kind words. I hope your readers have a clearer understanding now.

      Thanks for reading.


      • Keller

        Thank YOU, Bill!

  • Joe Simmonds

    Content is king! Ideally, a site with the most informative rich content that is genuinely helpful for the visitor should be ranking in Google but it seems like we’re still a long way from that being enough to rank in competitive niches.

    • Bill Belew

      @Joe, I maintain that there are people sitting in a room trying to figure out what Google wants while Google has people sitting in a room trying to figure out what real people want. Keep writing good stuff and sooner or later the Search Engines AND real people will find it.

      Thanks for reading,


  • Subodh Rkr

    Hello Bill

    Thank you for the Post.This article cleared out some of my confusions but i want to learn bit more about the Inbound Marketing.Is it possible??

    Thank you for the article.

    • Bill Belew

      @subodh You can reach out to me at my website … or email me at wcbelew at gmail dot com

      Happy to help.

  • Ozair Akhtar

    Bill Belew, I have enjoyed it reading as it had cleared our concepts of knowing the difference between all of these efforts. Also, I would love to see some posts regarding SEO methods on On-Off Page along with SMM and SEM strategies which we should adopt.

    • Bill Belew

      @Ozair, Thanks for the suggestions. In the meantime, get your content marketing strategy right and the rest will become non-consequential. Thanks for reading!


  • Ben U.

    Hey Bill,
    Great post. I have found that there is a lot of confusion over the role/definition of these four disciplines. You’d laid it all out there in an easy to understand and informative manner for anyone who had questions. Anyway, I thought this would be useful for our blog readers, so I included your post in my roundup of February’s best social media, SEO, and content marketing articles. Nice job.


    • Bill Belew


      Thanks for your kind words. Kindness is not always easy to come by on the Internet.

      And thanks for reading.


  • michael ng

    Thanks for explaining, sometimes we get confuse and in Malaysia the awareness is still not there yet. 🙂 We seems to jumble up everything.

    I can’t deny today to bring marketing to the next level, we not only write good content but having a clear content strategy writing your content creatively and with great quality. The best is when your content is engaging and adds lots of value.

    Many more to learn.

    Thank you bill once again.

    • Bill Belew


      I am going to be in Singapore in May/June. Want to meet up?


      • Michael Ng

        keep in touch. Yes that will be good. 🙂