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To describe media, we as marketers and communicators have used multiple, mixed-up terms. Here are just a few ways we’ve described the media landscape in recent years:

  • Old media
  • Traditional media
  • New media
  • Social media
  • Social networking
  • Citizen journalism

Of these, the differences between old media, new media, and social media are probably the most common — and the most confusion stems from the difference between new media and social media.

The Media Landscape

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What’s the difference between old media and new media?

Old media is characterized mostly by cost – because it tends to be physical, rather than digital, its costs of production and distribution are high. It’s traditional media like books, TV, radio, and newspapers. Note that this isn’t specific to brands or organization sizes – the New York Times is old media, but so is the Boston University Daily Free Press or NPR.

New media is characterized by its digital nature and its low physical costs of production and distribution. New media relies on the Internet for distribution; as such, new media is far more accessible for the average individual or small organization to produce. Certainly, individuals could have and did produce homemade newsletters, but their distribution was severely limited. In the new media landscape, an individual can have as much reach, engagement, and distribution as a Fortune 10 company.

What’s the difference between new media and social media?

Social media is a subset of new media. What sets social media apart as a distinct category inside new media is its interactive nature, the nature of the social network. We can create text, audio, video, interactive apps, etc. and publish it to the Internet; our content has independent value. Through channels like search, other people can locate our media and derive benefit from it. The new media we create has intrinsic value, regardless of the mechanism of distribution.

Social media is different in that the value of social media is our network of connections. A social network without any connections is inherently useless. You could set up a Twitter account with zero friends or followers and tweet, but that content doesn’t create any value. You could do the same with Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. The value of social media is first in the connections we have, and only then does the media we publish to it matter.

Social media and new media are not currently interchangeable terms. One can create new media without being social, but one cannot create social media without also being new media by definition. This is beginning to change as networks like LinkedIn and Facebook attempt to increase revenues through publishing; when a network permits our content to be visible, reachable, and valuable without requiring connections or interactivity, then it’s become new media instead of just social media.

Why does the distinction matter?

If our marketing and communications strategy is centered around new media, our focus must be on the creation of valuable content first, distribution second.

If our marketing and communications strategy is centered around social media, our focus must be on the creation of a valuable network first, content second.

We will allocate budget, resources, and people differently based on whether we have a new media strategy or a social media strategy.

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