There are lots of reasons why a content marketing strategy may fail — the wrong content, the wrong target audience, the content just wasn’t good enough, insufficient buy-in leading to insufficient resources, and more — but one of the sneaky and all too common reasons is a simple misunderstanding about the distinction between advertising and content marketing. If you’re going to include content marketing as part of your strategy, you have to remember that it’s fundamentally different in some key ways from straight up advertising. When in doubt, run through this checklist of four key differences to see if your content marketing is truly content and not just another ad.

Ads are about driving sales, content is about driving relationships

Obviously some advertisements, especially television commercials, are more like content in this way, but if the primary goal of anything is to encourage sales, it’s advertising and should not be included when you’re considering your content marketing strategy. The primary goal of anything you’re going to consider content should be to inform, to entertain, or to build a relationship. Now a lot of good advertising is also going to attempt to do one or even all of these things, but if you really look at the primary goal, you’ll still see that it’s about driving sales of a specific product or in a specific time frame.

Ad success is measured by sales, content success is measured by interaction

Since an advertisement’s primary goal is to drive sales, it’s only logical that the success (or failure) of an ad is going to be measured ultimately by its ability to increase sales in the relative short term. In contrast, content is designed to drive engagement and sharing, and to build positive associations with a brand. Measuring this using a change in sales is difficult at best and rarely effective, so ROI for true content is typically measured using things like social media sharing, comments, subscriptions, or even email captures. If you find yourself thinking about measurables in terms of specific sales, particularly in the short term, it’s possible that your content is in fact fine but you need to adjust your way of thinking about it, but it bears a careful look to make sure that you’re not dealing with something better classified as advertising.

Advertising is about your product, content is about offering something else of value

Most of the best content marketing only obliquely mentions a specific product or service. It addresses an informational or entertainment need that a particular target audience may have, independent of a sales pitch. Ads, by contrast, are fundamentally focused on a product or service. Take a look at a particular piece, and ask yourself where the value lies. Is it in offering a customer a special deal or encouraging them to purchase a product you think they’d like, or is it in offering them some other information or entertainment? If the customer doesn’t buy your product now, does whatever you’re offering still have value? Good content has value regardless, advertising doesn’t.

Advertising is a campaign, content is a long term strategy

Because advertising has a specific sales goal in mind, it’s typically based on a short term campaign strategy, whether it’s driving a specific new product or a push during a particular time of year like the winter holidays or back to school. Because part of what content is so good at doing is building relationships and credibility, it is by necessity part of a long term strategy. Something like the Charmin “Sit or Squat” app, that (hilariously and maybe a little awkwardly) crowd sources cleanliness ratings of public restrooms, has no particular end date and was never designed to, because it should continue to sustain conversation and build relationships for the foreseeable future. Even the very best advertising, however, is going to have a reasonably short life span.

Advertising and content marketing can and should work hand in hand to help a business accomplish interconnected but separate goals, but it’s important to understand which is which and to develop, track, and evaluate them accordingly. If you have any examples of advertising that should have been content or vice versa, share with us in the comments! As always, thanks for reading and being part of our community.