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Updated Oct 20, 2023

Advertising vs. Marketing vs. PR: What’s the Difference?

Do you know the differences between advertising, marketing and public relations?

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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Editor Reviewed
This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Marketing, advertising and public relations (PR) are similar, but each remains a different discipline for identifying consumer needs and promoting products to customers. Each approach offers a business owner specific strategies and tactics for growing their brand. Taken together, all three can help you better communicate with your target audience and establish a consistent brand that sticks out in their minds.

The differences between marketing, advertising and PR

Marketing describes how a company makes its audience aware of its brand and products or services. There are many different approaches to marketing, and it could be considered an umbrella term that encompasses both advertising and PR.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right marketing service for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

Advertising describes the practice of promoting products and services. Advertising campaigns appear in almost every medium, including on television, social media and billboards. Advertising works hand in hand with marketing, utilizing paid platforms to increase awareness. To successfully promote products and build brand awareness, organizations need to have strong marketing strategies with engaging advertisements. 

PR describes the practice of cultivating relationships between brands and the public to organically promote brand awareness and customer loyalty. PR hinges on earned media coverage; businesses never pay for PR coverage, like they would to place an advertisement. It also involves controlling the narrative around news stories or managing brand crises as they arise. [Read related article: Customer Loyalty Programs: A Must-Have Retention Strategy]

What is marketing?

Although marketing encompasses a wide variety of business practices and goals, one simple definition from Merriam-Webster describes marketing as “the activities that are involved in making people aware of a company’s products, making sure that the products are available to be bought, etc.” In short, marketing spans a series of actions that vastly improve the chances that your business reaches its target market and audience.

Types of marketing

If the dictionary definition of “marketing” seems too broad, you may better understand what marketing comprises after familiarizing yourself with these common types of marketing:

  • Content marketing: According to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing is “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content.” In other words, this marketing approach focuses not on your products and services, but on developing and distributing online materials, such as blog posts, that educate your target market about your company and industry.
  • Inbound marketing: Through inbound marketing, your company creates experiences tailored to individual consumers. Such tools may include chat boxes on your company website that direct consumers to your customer service team. An inbound marketing strategy emphasizes attracting, delighting and engaging customers.
  • Social media marketing: Through social media marketing, your company uses social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach your target audience. Paid advertising on social media channels comprises a large portion of a social media marketing plan.
  • Digital marketing: This category includes all online marketing efforts. It includes social media marketing and many inbound marketing and content marketing strategies, not to mention all marketing campaigns focused on search engines, email and other websites.
  • Traditional marketing: Traditional marketing stands in direct contrast to digital marketing. Traditional marketing describes marketing campaigns executed through channels other than the internet. Print, broadcast, phone, postal mail and billboards are examples of types of traditional marketing.
  • Marketing communication: Marketing communication comprises many activities included in the other types of marketing. All marketing messages and media that your company uses, whether branding or advertising, are included in marketing communication.
  • Visual marketing: The images associated with your company, from your colors and fonts to your logo and photos, make up your visual branding. These visual elements are a key part of any marketing campaign. This instant communication makes visual marketing one of the most powerful tools for a business to connect with customers.
  • SMS marketing: Businesses use text message marketing, or short message service (SMS) marketing, to deliver promotional messages directly to their customers’ cell phones. Text message marketing is often used to increase brand awareness, generate returning sales, provide news updates, increase web traffic and run promotions.
  • Email marketing: Email marketing is a cost-effective way to market your products or services and reach your customers. Email marketing campaigns help businesses build trust with customers, increase website visits and ultimately draw more hot leads and sales.
SMS and email campaigns are important parts of a complete marketing strategy, but they’re a lot to handle on your own. Check out our reviews of the best text message marketing services and the best email marketing software to see if they can streamline your processes.

What is advertising?

Advertising is a marketing subsector that involves your business paying for space on a billboard, on a website, in a magazine or elsewhere to promote your products and services. Although many companies will turn to an advertising agency to oversee their advertising strategy, you can successfully advertise your business without hiring an advertising agency as long as you understand the types of advertising and decide which methods might be best for your company. 

Types of advertising

As you’ll notice, there are many types of advertising whenever you go online, drive down the highway or simply step outside.

  • Digital advertising: Digital advertising includes paying for ad space on social media, internet publications, mobile apps or other online spaces. The vast majority, if not all, of digital advertising is paid.
  • Traditional advertising: Traditional advertising includes advertisements your company purchases in print publications, on billboards or other outdoor surfaces, such as bus stops, or via broadcast or postal mail. Like digital advertising, most traditional advertising is paid.
  • Ambient media: While digital and traditional advertising are the two dominant forms of advertising, ambient media has provided an interesting alternative for many businesses. Any unorthodox advertising method, especially one that encourages consumer participation or interaction, falls under this category.
  • Product placement: Many brands pay for their products to be emphasized in TV shows and films. If you’ve ever watched a TV show or movie and seen a character use a heavily branded product, you’ve experienced product placement. 
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Product placement might sound like a lofty form of advertising that’s out of your reach, but there are cheap ways to make your product famous. If you play it smart, you could even get your product into a celebrity’s hands.

Implementing advertising and marketing into your business

If you’re still familiarizing yourself with marketing versus advertising, the starting place for any advertising and marketing plan should be a marketing communication plan. You should cover all of these areas in your plan:

  • Budget
  • Mission statement
  • Branding and brand messaging
  • Objective
  • Short- and long-term goals
  • Target market and audience
If you’re not sure what to put for these areas of your plan, learn how to develop a marketing budget and write the perfect mission statement.

Not all advertising and marketing methods are equally effective, because all businesses and their target audiences are unique. For example, if your goal is to sell more furniture to senior citizens in Alabama, Facebook ad data may point to a lack of market. However, the local newspaper may have a high readership of senior citizens; therefore, the choice is obvious in this case. [Learn more about creating an effective marketing plan for your business.]

Advertising and marketing channel ideas

After you have your marketing communication plan in place, you’re able to make informed decisions about which areas of advertising versus marketing you’ll do best to explore further.

Advertising channel ideas

  • Facebook advertising: Facebook’s ad platform is a powerful tool. A digital ad can easily be tracked, so you’ll know quickly if your efforts are working. Facebook ads can be powerful when targeted correctly and created with engaging graphics and copy.
  • Google Ads: Google offers a measurable and flexible form of advertising through its Ads program. Google Ads is one of the digital advertising types that produce the most relevant search results and ads possible.
  • Local publications: Don’t discount traditional advertising routes such as posting on a church bulletin, in a high school football ad journal, or on a local newspaper’s website if you’re trying to expand awareness of your small business in your local community. 

Marketing channel ideas

  • Your website: Having a company website is more important than ever. Customers Google businesses and expect to learn about them on the web. Your company website is essentially one massive digital ad for your business.
  • Email marketing: Despite the growing number of emails that flood consumers’ inboxes every day, email marketing remains one of the most effective marketing channels. An email marketing service makes email campaigns easy and measurable. Read our Constant Contact review to see some examples of how this works.

Marketing and advertising go hand in hand. Often, businesses need to invest in an integrated approach to close the deal using several marketing and advertising channels – and content needs to run through trial and error to find out which medium works best.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
The medium through which you advertise matters as much as the message. The best way to connect with your target customers is to find out where your audience congregates and meet them there.

What is PR?

PR remains a key part of the marketing process and is often far more cost-effective than traditional advertising. PR professionals build strategic relationships between organizations and their target audiences to build or enhance their reputation and create partnerships with the media to get more exposure for their clients. 

Deanna Simonian, president and CEO of Mediafy Communications, told us that many small businesses are still confused about what PR is and why they need it.

“One of the most important things about starting a campaign is that having PR helps define the message of your company,” she said. “The first question we ask is, ‘Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why do people care?’ … It helps fine-tune the message and keep it consistent.”

Without consistency, customers won’t understand or trust what your brand represents. A strong PR campaign creates a recognizable message across multiple media platforms. This is important for small businesses, which lack the name recognition of larger companies and corporations.

“When small businesses don’t have PR, things are all over the place,” Simonian said. “PR keeps things consistent.”

For actionable tips on how to improve your public persona, read our guide to PR for small businesses.

How does PR differ from advertising and marketing?

Paid advertisements are the way a company represents itself. A PR campaign, on the other hand, creates unpaid, organic contact between a business and its audience to build brand awareness. 

“PR is about third-party credibility,” Simonian said. “This person is an unbiased person genuinely saying, ‘I love this brand.’”

The goals of public relations campaigns differ by company, industry and initiative, but all rely on partnerships with journalists, influencers or community leaders. 

While organizations can control their own marketing and advertising messages, PR cultivates genuine, authentic reactions to the brand. A successful PR campaign accomplishes its goal when the public receives the message from a third-party organization, not the brand itself.

A sponsored post on Instagram, for example, is advertising. But when a company sends a blogger a product to use and the blogger likes it and posts about it, that is PR. Being quoted as a source in a newspaper, being featured in a magazine and being a guest on a talk show are other common forms of PR. Sending press releases for company announcements counts as PR as well. 

“I think PR is creating the most positive image of your company that you can then share with the public,” Simonian said. “Whether that’s through traditional media or social media … PR means getting your name out there and building your business’s image.”

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
You don’t need a large budget for successful PR. Instead of hiring an agency, focus on creating relationships with local journalists, pitching stories that matter to your customers and writing press releases that people will actually read.

Implementing PR into your business

1. Work with media outlets.

Small businesses often wonder if media outlets will be interested in covering them or mentioning their products when big brands are much better known. Many times, though, that lack of previous exposure works in their favor.

“I’ve worked on IBM, Toshiba, Coca-Cola; and I’ve worked with really small brands too,” Simonian said. “I think media outlets find small business more interesting … they’re big fans of the ‘uniquenesses.’ For bigger clients, PR is more a matter of managing the press they’re already getting.”

Small businesses, by contrast, don’t already have a narrative or perception attached to their brand, which gives media outlets and influencers the opportunity to shape the story.

“It’s a lot more fun to help create that image and share it,” Simonian said.

2. Build relationships.

Whether you’re working with a firm or handling your PR on your own, focus your efforts on people who are already influencing your target customer.

“PR is figuring out ways to build relationships, whether it’s with a reporter or social media influencer,” Simonian said. “Look for people who have a lot of clout, and build that relationship. Help them to understand your message and how their followers can relate to you.”

Successful PR builds trust between your company and its customers. Building positive relationships with the right media outlets is essential to creating that trust. If that relationship isn’t already there, you won’t reach the right audience, no matter how many places feature you. Learn how to build healthy business relationships that will be mutually beneficial.

3. Enhance your social media presence.

By engaging with followers and creating content that resonates with them, organizations can generate positive publicity without hiring a marketing or PR agency. Through social media, you can directly communicate with your target audience and build a following by engaging in conversation and providing unique solutions. For additional buzz, you can send products or host giveaways on your social pages. 

Use advertising, marketing and PR together for business success

Although advertising, marketing and PR are distinct, it’s important to devise a cohesive strategy that includes each in order to get your brand message across to your target audience. While your PR team may work independently from your marketing team and your advertising team, they should all share information and communicate about upcoming campaigns and events. That way, you can use every opportunity to impress your target audience and keep your brand consistent and top of mind, all the time.

Tejas Vemparala and Sean Peek contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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