16 Differences Between Traditional Media and Social Networking [Updated]

differences between traditional media and social networkingMajor Differences Between Traditional Media and Social Networking

These differences between traditional media and social networking aren’t just interesting — understanding how social media is different from traditional media has a major impact on whether you’re successful with social media.  Run your social media campaign like your traditional media campaign and you’re likely to see more damage to your brand reputation than benefit and you’ll waste a lot of money doing it.

A lot has changed since I originally wrote this post way back in 2012, so it makes sense to update it now with some new understandings of the two communication channels and how to use each one successfully. In fact, so many changes impacted this post, we republished it to reflect the changes.

Differences between traditional media and social networking

To summarize the differences between these two communication channels, check out the table below that I think outlines key differences in the way to succeed with each particular channel. When I originally wrote this content, I identified 16 differences, although, over time, new operational and functional differences emerged and some differences disappeared. For instance, social networking is no longer truly free as organic reach declined with changes in the algorithms determining how messages spread across social platforms. Hence, I removed this element from the table.

Social Media

Two-way conversation

Open system


One-on-one marketing

About you

Brand and User-generated Content

Authentic content

FREE platform

Metric: Engagement

Actors: Users/ Influencers

Community decision-making

Unstructured communication

Real-time creation

Bottom-up strategy

Informal language

Active involvement

Deep Analytics

Paid, Owned, Earned

Traditional Media

One-way conversation

Closed system


Mass marketing

About ME

Professional content

Polished content

Paid platform

Metric: Reach/ frequency

Actors/ Celebrities

Economic decision-making

Controlled communication

Pre-produced/ scheduled

Top-down strategy

Formal language

Passive involvement

Poor analytics


Highlights: How Traditional Media and Social Networking Differ

How traditional media supports content

If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that there are vast differences between traditional media and social networking, like those listed in the table above. Traditional media provides value through subsidizing content — free TV and radio programs, lower-cost magazines, and chances to win prizes.  In exchange for this content we want to see, we ALLOW advertisers to interrupt our day to tell us about their products. In fact, soap operas get their name from historic trends in sponsorship that were overwhelmingly cleaning products.

Of course, technological changes now allow us to avoid much of the advertising paid for by content sponsors. Streaming services offer ad-free content on both TV and radio, while more and more users record programs for later viewing, which allows them to fast-forward past commercials. Increasingly, consumers prefer to pay for content rather than subject themselves to advertising. In part, at least, this preference comes from advertising that’s termed “spray and pray” meaning ads are shown to wide audiences in hopes of reaching a target market without a clear targeting strategy. That’s the nature of traditional media.

Sports sponsorship offers an opportunity for brands to capitalize on content to ensure viewers see their commercials because, for the most part, viewers choose to watch sporting events in real-time, eliminating opportunities to screen out commercials and, since streaming services don’t carry sporting events, sports enthusiasts have limited opportunities to avoid commercials.

The value difference between traditional media and social networking

The difference between traditional media and social networking is that social platforms — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc — are already FREE and the content is provided by other users, hence content doesn’t require sponsorship to ensure continued content is available to users.

So, advertisers can’t expect us to allow them to interrupt us with commercial messages since they provide no value in exchange. I mean, face it, no one really LIKES commercials!

So, the key to making social media work is to provide some other type of value — be it entertainment, information, support, or other types of rewards — in exchange for exposure to your commercial message.  And, the ratio can’t be 1:1.  You HAVE to provide about 90% value to 10% commercial messages. A good example is Taylor Swift. She shares cuts from her albums before they’re available in stores as well as insider information about music and bands in exchange for joining her network. Hence, you sometimes get messaging about buying her album or tickets to a concert (at least in the pre-pandemic world where concerts existed), but you remain a Facebook fan because you get value in other ways through your relationship with her page.

On social networks, we should see something called native advertising. According to Outbrain:

Native advertising is the use of paid ads that match the look, feel and function of the media format in which they appear.

Native ads are often found in social media feeds, or as recommended content on a web page. Unlike display ads or banner ads, native ads don’t really look like ads. They look like part of the editorial flow of the page. The key to native advertising is that it is non-disruptive – it exposes the reader to advertising content without sticking out like a sore thumb

In a social world, social media provides value through targeted advertising that fits our interests. Hence, after visiting a website, I might see a discount code shared with me on Facebook [this is implemented through Pixels linking your website with your Facebook profile]. That’s value and I don’t mind getting such offers.

How has social media value changed since 2012

Since 2012, there’s been a movement transitioning conversations to digital media, instead of social media or social networking. This change, rather than just reflecting semantics, celebrates the integration of digital strategies including blogging, social media, and email marketing with a stronger commitment to driving ROI, including strategies involving lead generation, tracking movement through a website, etc. These changes further enhance the difference between traditional media and social networking by creating metrics to measure results and provide insights focused on improving market performance. Metrics are woefully absent from traditional media due to the nature of the communication channels.

In the intervening years since this article was originally published, social platforms, like Facebook, placed a more significant effort into monetizing their platforms so users see more ads. Although Facebook and other social platforms enhanced their targeting to ensure users saw mostly relevant ads, users still don’t like advertising, hence the growth of ad-free platforms such as Snapchat, which grew rapidly, especially among younger users.

Paid, earned, and owned media on digital

The notion of paid, versus earned, versus owned media drew marketers’ attention in recent years. In the past, marketers focused on owned media — posts to social networks on their own pages, profiles, etc. Now, they must integrate across owned media, paid media (Facebook ads, Ads, affiliate links), and earned media (sharing behavior that amplifies the brand message). As highlighted in the graphic below, this amplification offers a more profound increase in ROI from digital strategies than a focus on building platforms of owned media. In this example, we follow a message through 3 “generations” of engagement to see how quickly the message’s reach expands as the message moves from user to user through the network of connections created by the user.

roi of social media
The integration of email marketing into your digital strategy means more effort spent on collecting subscribers and managing your email marketing through platforms such as Salesforce, as well as using email marketing autoresponders to alleviate the workload.

Social media is ALL about community

Social networks increasingly replace more traditional communities (with individual activities crowding out team and group activities even before the pandemic shut down entire swaths of people) and the ease of communication in these virtual communities draws billions of people into social networks and convinces them to spend significant time engaging in the social network, especially during the pandemic.

time spent on digital platforms
Time spent on social media. Image courtesy of Smart Insights

The trick of social media marketing success is to JOIN this community and harness its power rather than engage in traditional marketing communication.

So, rather than disrupting the conversation, join the conversation. Become an integral part of the community — someone everyone recognizes and welcomes because you share fun and interesting things with them.  Guy Kawasaki is a master of this and employs a staff to find and share interesting images, videos, and news at Alltop, and really interesting stuff is posted as “Holy Kaw” across several social platforms and websites.

Use the community. Studies and experience show people engage more when they’re a part of something.  So, ask the community to contribute content such as a cool video or suggestions for a brand name. This crowdsourced content draws new members to your community. For instance, I built a brand community on Facebook called my Social Media Marketing Tribe. Anyone can join and we share interesting tips we find, ask questions, get support for projects we’re working on, etc.

One-on-one marketing

While most advertising (traditional media) is designed for mass consumption, social media involves one-on-one marketing. That means messages are highly targeted at specific groups, often called personas that offer rich insights into your various target markets.

crafting personas
Image courtesy of Buffer

Hence, marketers need to understand their target market ON EACH NETWORK so that messages appear tailored to the individual. While you may have a broad target market, the ones on Facebook may be entirely different from the ones on YouTube, and adapting your approach in each network is key to your success.

Neal Taparia, who runs FreeCell Challenge, explains, “When we promote our FreeCell games, our messages are always different across channels. For instance, with TikTok, you have to have unique short-form video content that is catchy and quirky to work well. That same video might not work as well on Facebook or Instagram.”

Real-time marketing

One aspect I didn’t focus on in the post from 2012 is the role of real-time marketing on digital media. When I worked with a big-time advertising agency, we’d spend months preparing a campaign — crafting a message, shooting footage, editing images, carefully planning our media spend, etc. There’s no time for that in today’s rapidly changing digital landscape where you have to produce fresh content on a consistent basis, not a few times a year.

And, that changes how a campaign comes together. No longer do you have an art department, a music department, and a post-production department. You need folks who bring multiple skills to the campaign. That means content marketers need not only writing skills, but the ability to craft images on the fly (edit existing images or create images using Photoshop, Canva, or other tools) and they need a little HTML/CSS so they can make the content look awesome online.

Video is the same way. You create a number of videos without the benefit of scriptwriters, storyboarding, and editing. There’s no time for that. Instead, you need folks who can create videos on a tight budget and upload them to YouTube, which might require some HTML/CSS.

Managing the process of crafting unique content on a consistent basis is challenging since speed and flexibility are essential. At the same time, you need an approval process to ensure your content fits your brand in terms of style and messaging, while not offending or damaging your brand image. For instance, check out this Tweet from ASUS that brought the wrong type of attention to their brand. An appropriate approval process would have caught this blatant mistake.

sexism on social networks

Digital marketing is visual marketing

When I worked with an ad agency on Madison Avenue (the NY mecca for advertising), graphic designers spent days editing photographs taken by some of the world’s best photographers and producers with Hollywood credits made commercials with award-winning actors. I once watched a designer use Photoshop to painstakingly remove every pixel of the full body tattoo on a model from a photo shoot when the client decided they didn’t want a woman with a tattoo in their ad. It took nearly a week of work!

Digital marketing has a similar need for visuals but this type of media moves at a speed that ad agencies could never match — it’s like a race between the tortoise and the hare only in this version the hare wins. A social media manager might need something in 20 minutes to take advantage of an opportunity or to counter a complaint voiced on a social platform. There’s no time for highly skilled designers to create the images and videos that the manager needs NOW. That means marketers need to create needed visuals and they don’t have time to get a second major in design and a third in filmmaking. They also don’t have time to gain years of experience.

So, what’s the solution?


Canva is an online tool that helps even those without inherent design expertise create great images and, now, videos. Using templates and pre-built image sizes that match various marketing needs along with thousands of images, anyone can create visual products in minutes not weeks. There’s a free version of the tool or you can get a pro version for around $120/ year that includes more templates and images. All the content you produce is easily shared on social platforms or available for download to use in any format needed.

Here’s what you see in the tool:

  • Hundreds of templates that you can personalize for all your ideas
  • Millions of FREE images and illustrations to choose from
  • An option to have your videos exported, scheduled, and published anywhere 😌 💯
  • An array of video type options: TikTok Video, Video Slideshow, Video Collage, YouTube Video, Instagram Stories, and many more
  • The opportunity to collaboratively design your images with your friends and family all at the same time


Probably the biggest change from 2012 is the emphasis on analytics, which reflects a major difference between traditional media and social networking. With traditional media, we know next to nothing about how successful our campaign was because the tools for tracking performance, with the exception of direct media, are inferential. With digital media, the marketer is inundated with data. Now, the challenge is making sense of it all.

Here are just a few of the metrics available:

  • vanity metrics such as reach, frequency, likes, shares, etc
  • deep customer insights such as demographics (age, gender), geographics (mobile, country, city), and, importantly, psychographics (personality, lifestyle, groups)
  • success insights such as conversion rates, average order size, and loyalty (which we can segregate by source, demographics, etc)
  • source analytics such as the source of visits, source of conversions, movement through the website, etc
  • Competitor analysis in much more depth

What Do YOU Think?

  1. Do you see other differences between traditional media and social networking?
  2. How are you achieving social media marketing success?

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