Content Marketing vs Digital Marketing: Is There Really a Difference?

Ellie Diamond
Published: Apr 15, 2024
Last Updated:
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Content marketing and digital marketing have evolved over the years, to say the least. But the line between the two concepts has gotten blurry, leaving many marketers trying to determine the difference.

The basic answer to digital marketing vs. content marketing is this: All content marketing is digital marketing, but not all digital marketing is content marketing. A skilled digital marketer knows a bit about content, but an experienced content marketer zeroes in even further.

Let's look closer to see what that means.

What Is Digital Marketing?

Digital marketing promotes products, services, and brands using web-based media and electronic communications. Common digital marketing channels include:

  • Email 
  • Text messages (SMS)
  • Social media
  • Online advertising
  • Influencer and affiliate marketing
  • Content marketing

The benefits of digital marketing range from personalized ads to multichannel communications. A skilled digital marketer can create campaigns with unmatched personalization and buyer relevance levels. Plus, because it's all digital, you can make changes based on results.

What Is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is a digital marketing tactic that uses media to educate and connect with audiences. 

Content marketing encompasses different forms of media, but media and content aren't synonyms. For a piece of media to qualify as content marketing, it should provide valuable information that addresses a problem or meets a need. Common examples include:

  • Blog posts
  • Social media posts
  • White papers
  • Webinars
  • Newsletters

An effective content marketing strategy focuses on attracting the attention of potential customers and providing value to current customers. The goal is to position the business as an expert in its field while offering information the audience will appreciate and remember.

Content Marketing vs. Digital Marketing: 4 Key Differences

So, now you know: Content marketing is the least explicitly promotional of the digital marketing approaches. Let's look at how this manifests in the real world.

1. Marketing Objectives: Audience-Centric vs. Conversion-Centric

Digital marketing as a whole is conversion-centric. Its primary goal is to convert leads into customers or prospects into leads.

That's not to say that content never asks for a conversion. Most high-quality content pieces have a call to action (CTA) that asks the reader to take action, such as signing up for a free demo or clicking a link to learn more. 

Ultimately, however, content marketing goals focus on audiences and relationships. Examples include:

  • Stronger brand awareness
  • More website traffic 
  • Higher search rankings
  • More leads
  • Stronger brand reputation and loyalty

All of these improvements ultimately lead to more sales. Content sets the stage for those sales, but lets other strategies make the final push.

2. Search Engine Presence: SEO vs. PPC

You must rank highly in search results to stay competitive in today's digital-first world. Getting there requires solid search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) strategies.

There are a few differences between SEO and SEM, the most basic being content and advertising. SEO uses content to attract Google's algorithm, which prioritizes "helpful, reliable, people-first content." If your pages are full of informative material, you're more likely to rank higher — and every position counts.

The top-ranking organic result on Google currently gets almost 40% of clicks. The second gets about 19%. By spot number four, you're down to just 7.4%. 

High-quality content can boost your organic ranking by showcasing valuable, trustworthy, and current information. But organic SEO takes time, and that's where SEM comes in.

SEM is a digital marketing tactic that focuses primarily on paid digital advertising, also known as pay-per-click (PPC). PPC advertising lets you advertise on search engine results pages (SERPs) for keywords. You pick the keywords and the bid, and if you win, you'll appear at the top of the page.

PPC ads, also called sponsored results, get you to the top of a SERP faster than organic SEO. If you make it there, you can expect to get about one in every 50 clicks.

This is where content marketing and digital marketing collaborate most closely. Digital marketing experts run SEM, while content marketers shine at SEO.

3. Sales Marketing Strategies: Direct vs. Indirect

Digital marketing uses direct approaches to drive sales. It advertises, promotes, and asks for the purchase. However, a more indirect approach is essential for customers who are further up the sales funnel. That's where content marketing comes in.

For example, suppose a business needs a digital marketing campaign to promote a new product line. Ads and promotions will reach warmer leads, but they also want to reach colder prospects.

These customers don't know about the brand yet, so they're not ready for a "Buy now!" approach. A blog post will introduce them slowly and indirectly by discussing the problem and offering a few potential solutions — including one that includes the product line. A subtle CTA encourages the reader to learn more. 

This indirect approach also serves an essential role in inbound marketing, which catches potential customers who look for you on their own. Strong content marketing gives these active, potential customers something valuable to find.

4. Key Performance Indicators: Engagement vs. Conversion Metrics

Because content marketing and digital marketing have different goals and approaches, we measure their success differently. 

Digital marketing metrics examine conversion rates — how often someone commits to the brand after encountering its marketing. A conversion may be a sale, subscription, free trial signup, or resource download. 

Content teams focus on audience engagement. The more an audience interacts with a piece of content, the more successful it is. For example, in social media and content marketing assets like blogs, lots of shares means the content is achieving its goal.

Content marketing metrics measure engagement in various ways, including:

  • Click-through rate: What ratio of content viewers click on your CTA
  • Page views: How many of your web pages people look at after viewing your content
  • Session-to-contact rate: What percentage of people join your contact list after visiting your website
  • Backlink count: How many other websites link to your content

Backlinks are essential for content because they prove its value. Every backlink from a reputable website improves your credibility in Google's "eyes."

What Digital Marketing Tactics Fall Outside of Content Marketing?

Digital marketing is a promotional approach, but it's not just "content marketing plus ads." There are many other non-content digital marketing tactics, including:

  • Affiliate marketing: A third-party entity promotes your project in exchange for pay, discounts, or freebies
  • Influencer marketing: Popular creators promote your business 
  • Retargeting campaigns: Marketing messages geared to people who have viewed your website or marketing materials
  • Conversion rate optimization: Tweaking a webpage or advertisement so more people click to convert
  • Branding: Developing a business's public-facing identity to make it more recognizable and appealing
  • SMS marketing: Sending promotional messages via text to customers on your contact list

These tactics can function in combination with each other — and with a strong content marketing strategy.

How Do Both Forms of Marketing Work Together?

Ultimately, content marketing vs. digital marketing is a misnomer. The two are collaborators more than competitors, working toward the end goal of a strong revenue pipeline.

In fact, most businesses use content for digital marketing. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 73% of business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) marketers have an online content marketing strategy for their brands.

These marketers say that content enhances their digital marketing strategies in multiple ways. The most popular outcomes include:

  • Enhancing brand awareness
  • Building trust and credibility
  • Educating audiences
  • Strengthening loyalty with existing clients
  • Building a subscriber base

All of these outcomes enhance the effectiveness of other digital marketing tactics. They set the stage for closing a sale and help to retain customers long-term.

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