Marketing vs. Advertising vs. Communications

Marketing vs. Advertising vs. Communications

Contributed by: Mary-Liz Murray – Owner/Principal, Streamix Consulting

As a consultant I meet with lots of business owners and managers who want to be doing more to get the word out about their services and products. Most of the time they have answers to questions I ask about their work – questions like, “Who is your typical customer?” or “What have you learned people value about your service?” or “What is your best selling product?”

But when I ask questions like “What are your strongest platforms for marketing?” or “What’s your advertising budget?” or “When did you write your latest communications plan?” I usually don’t get as a clear a picture. Most folks I meet with aren’t clear about how their marketing program is working, they buy ads when it “seems like a good deal”, and they’re not really sure what I’m talking about when I ask about the communications plan. And more often than not, they use the three terms interchangeably.

From my experience just getting clear on the differences between marketing, advertising, and communications is a big step forward in improving the effectiveness of your efforts to sell more or gain new clients. So – here’s a crash course.


In its simplest form communications is the umbrella term used for any efforts to talk to people about your business.

This includes ‘internal communications’ which is the way you talk to employees, board-members, contractors, and other stakeholders about what’s happening in the company. This means being forthright about  how you expect these people to talk to each other. This can include things like outlining expectations for how to communicate about what issues (i.e. what can be sent through email vs. what should be a phone call), a social media use policy, and a guide as to what’s considered offensive or unacceptable workplace conversation and what the consequences are for violating these policies.

It also offers a set of guidelines for how employees are expected to talk to the public about your business.

This is where we switch to ‘external communications’. Effective external communications includes clear concise brand messaging and a communications plan. The communications plan is developed to help guide the people in your company tasked with creating any customer-facing material (sales people, marketing staff, social media managers, copywriters etc) on how to implement your brand messaging. When I help a business create a communications plan the main pieces we flesh out are: Goals, Timelines, Brand Awareness; Marketing; Advertising; and Media/Press Relations.

Equipping your business with a clear internal communications policy and an external communications plan is the foundation for success. Many small business owners operate without either of these, which can lead to “crisis mode” when an issue (internal or external) pops up. Which is a position no business owner likes to be in. Being prepared with a strong communications strategy will save you headaches later on, so if you’re operating without one – make it a goal for this year to start working on putting one together.


As you can see from above, marketing is only a piece of the communications puzzle. But “Marketing” is in and of itself is another big umbrella term. It encompasses every way that you touch a client or potential customer. This can include things like: signage in your window, your website, your email newsletter, bumper stickers with your logo, print postcards announcing a sale, and building and maintaining a social media presence.  

Effective marketing is the result of a multi-faceted process that includes:

  • Analyzing your product and sales information and choosing target audiences for you.
  • Identifying opportunities for you to reach new or different audiences.
  • Setting the pricing and sales strategy for your product or service.
  • Deciding on which platforms (digital and non-digital) will help you best connect your products and services to your target audiences in the marketplace.
  • Designing and creating visual and text assets to distribute via your chosen platforms.
  • Tracking how customers and potential customers are interacting with those assets and how they are impacting their decisions to purchase.
  • Offering support and answering questions about your products and services to customers and potential buyers.


So where does advertising fit in? And how is it different than marketing? Well, the dictionary definition of an advertisement is, “a paid form of a non-personal message communicated through various media. Designed to be  persuasive, informations and meant to influence the purchasing behavior and/or thought patterns of the audience.”

See that word paid in there? That is the key to understanding how advertising separates from marketing.

Advertising is a very specific part of your marketing – and is defined by the fact that your business pays for placement (hopefully in front of your target audience) in exchange for the ability to directly promote your products and services.

Traditionally advertising placements were things like radio spots, television commercials, magazine and newspaper pages, and billboards. Many of these options were cost prohibitive to small businesses. But today’s advertising landscape is constantly shifting. Of course those traditional outlets are still available but now you also have things like paid email placement, Google and search-engine ads, sponsored social media content, influencer promotions, in-app advertising and more. An upside of this expanded advertising landscape is that many of the newer, digital options, are less expensive to try. They also can offer much clearer tracking on the effectiveness of your ads (things like getting reports on cost per impression, cost per click, and even cost per conversion (sale)!) and much more specific targeting options that your traditional outlets.

But be careful – without a set advertising budget and an understanding of your overall communications and marketing strategy it’s easy to throw money at things that seem like they will get the word out, but you won’t have the tools to be able to track how effective your efforts have been and what impact they’re having on your bottom line.

So, now that you, a savvy and ambitious business owner, are equipped with the distinctive definitions of communications, marketing, and advertising – what do you notice about how you can improve your efforts to grow your business? Do you need help fleshing out the communications plan and brand messaging? Or do you need to re-evaluate your target audiences and marketing platforms? Maybe you’re ready to look at your paid advertising strategy and set a budget to support your overall marketing? Or perhaps you just have a couple questions you need feedback on to get all three of these pieces working together? Whatever your communications or marketing challenge, feel free to get in touch with me to see how Streamix may be able to help you build the business you dream about.

Streamix Consulting is a boutique Digital Communications and Social Media Marketing firm specializing in serving businesses and organizations that want to integrate cohesive messaging, communications strategy, and a variety of digital tactics to build a multi-dimensional marketing framework. Their combination of creativity and experience will help tie your business goals to your digital marketing and communications goals in order to deepen effectiveness and ROI.