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Email marketing vs. social media: Choose the right channel for your goals

by Kate Lindemann  |  December 9, 2020

8 min. read
Email inbox and social media ad displayed on phone screens.

Email marketing and social media are two of the most important channels in a digital marketer’s tool belt. But with two great options to choose from, it can be hard to know where to focus your resources.

In this article, we’ll go over the pros and cons of email marketing vs. social media. Once you understand their relative advantages, you can decide which channel is the best fit for your marketing goals.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is a digital marketing strategy in which brands use email to:

  • Promote products and services
  • Engage customers and leads
  • Reinforce brand identity

Because it requires having someone’s email address, email marketing is best for reaching people a company already has a relationship with, like existing customers.

What is social media marketing?

Social media marketing is a broad category of digital marketing. Types of marketing under the social media umbrella include:

Organic social media marketing

Brands reach people organically when they attract social media followers and engage them by posting content and interacting with them.

Canto's LinkedIn feed displayed on a phone screen.

Organic social media marketing is similar to email marketing in many ways. Followers usually already have some type of connection to a brand. They must opt in by following the brand’s social media accounts, just like email subscribers join a mailing list by purchasing a product or signing up to a newsletter.

Paid ads and promoted posts

Some people consider digital ads a different category from social media, even when they appear on social media networks. However, the rise of promoted posts and ads that blend into news feeds have blurred the lines.

Because they reach beyond your following, paid ads and promoted posts are the best way to reach new customers, who might not know about your brand and products.

Screenshot of Guinness ad on a Facebook feed.

Viral content

It’s something of a cliche among marketing consultants: The customer wants content that’ll ‘go viral.’ Yeah, right. It’s impossible to engineer a viral moment, but when luck strikes, the payoff is huge.

User-generated content

User-generated content is content created by a brand’s customers, users and followers. Because it taps into a brand’s community, it’s a great fit for social media. A classic example is a photo contest, in which contestants share their submissions using a hashtag on social media.

Screenshots of an Instagram photo competition and winning photo of a mug.

Email marketing vs. social media: Key differences and how to decide

No marketing team’s resources are endless, so should you focus your efforts on email marketing or social media? The answers to the following key questions will help you decide.

Who am I trying to reach?

Current customers

Email marketing is for people your brand already has a relationship with. That means current customers and leads who gave you their contact information.

New leads

Social media is the best place to reach top-of-funnel leads and help people discover your brand. Promoted posts put your brand in front of new eyes, and targeted ads strengthen your brand’s relationship with leads after they visit your website. Even organic activity can reach new people if followers share your posts.

Phone showing Facebook app open next to laptop.


Email is a natural channel for business communications. Someone scrolling through their personal Instagram doesn’t want to think about work right now. Work email is a ‘strictly business’ zone, where the problem your products or services solve is already on people’s minds.

That doesn’t mean B2B social media ads are never a good idea. New customers have to discover you somewhere. LinkedIn ads offer the best of both worlds, since you’ll reach people in a work mindset there too. Plus, someone scrolling through LinkedIn at work might have more time to engage with your ad than someone checking their email in a rush between meetings.


If you’re marketing to consumers, you have lots of choices. Both email marketing and social media allows you to reach people when they’ve got leisure time on their hands.

Graphic illustration of statistic: 91% of people say they want to receive promotional emails.

Some marketers worry that email marketing feels inherently spammy. However, as long as you’re thoughtful about your campaigns, you needn’t worry. Most customers don’t mind a reasonable amount of email marketing. In one survey, a whopping 91% of respondents said they want to receive promotional emails from brands. Now there’s a reassuring email marketing statistic!

What audience do I already have?

Both email marketing and organic social media require putting effort into building an audience. That takes time, so if you need to get a message out quickly, it makes sense to do so on whichever channel you already have contacts or a following.

What audience can I build?

Long-term, it’s worth investing in building an audience on whichever platform you plan to use most. For social media, that means encouraging customers to follow your accounts, creating sharable content and engaging with people and other brands.

Screenshot of knog website with pop-up email sign-up form.

If you collect customers’ email addresses, you may already have an email mailing list. If not, you can easily start making email part of how you do business. Use an online appointment booking system, or offer to email customers their receipts.

One of the best ways to build up an email mailing list is by converting your web traffic to email subscribers. Email sign-up forms on your website make it easy for your web visitors to sign up for your email updates.

How much am I willing to pay?

Email marketing is relatively inexpensive. Decent email marketing tools start around $10-20 a month, and email marketing is especially efficient at scale. Unlike digital ads, where you pay per click, you don’t have to pay more for better email performance. As you build a bigger list and optimize your campaigns, you can get more conversions at no additional cost.

Screenshot of Facebook's ad bidding form.

Organic social media is also essentially free, but most social media platforms will limit your organic reach. To cast a wider net, you’ll need to use sponsored posts and ads. Social media companies are selling you access to their audience. That means you’ll reach people you otherwise wouldn’t, but it also means the platform takes a cut.

How important are order and timing?

If you want to create an intricate and perfectly timed campaign, email marketing is the right tool for the job. You can set up an email cadence that nurtures leads through a free trial or keeps customers engaged after a specific purchase.

With organic social media, you have much less control over order and timing. Content appears in followers’ feeds based on complex algorithms. They might not see everything you post, or they might see posts out of order.

Illustration of marketer sitting on laptop planning email cadence.

Paid social media gives you a little more control, allowing you to schedule ads for certain times or target certain types of users. But email remains the more precise tool for both timing and targeting.

How visual is my content?

HTML emails can be a true work of art, but there’s a catch: All that beautiful email design is hidden behind a subject line. It only pays off after someone opens the email.

The opposite is true for social media, where newsfeeds are designed to showcase images and video. Beautiful infographics, photographs and video clips jump out at social media users and draw them in.

Plus, when people can view the content right in their feed, the barrier to doing so is lower than having to click through in an email.

National Geographic Photography Facebook post featuring plastic pollution artwork.

Does the content have broad appeal? Would personalization help?

Email is the most personalizable type of digital marketing. You can address each recipient by name, creating a more intimate connection. Plus, email segmentation makes it easy to send different emails to different groups according to their customer status, purchase history and more.

Social media ads can be targeted too, but not as precisely. Facebook, for example, won’t know as well as you do if someone is your customer or a lead, or which product they purchased most recently.

Overall, your content on social media will need to work for a broad audience.

Let’s recap

Here’s a quick overview of which marketing goals each channel can help you meet:

Email marketing Social media
B2B Yes

Email is a natural channel for business correspondence.


Especially for reaching new leads on channels like LinkedIn.

B2C Yes

91% of people say they want promotional emails from brands they do business with.


Social media reaches customers and new leads when they have lots of time and attention.

Brand discovery No

You can’t reach people unless you already have their email address.


Social media ads are the perfect way to reach people who don’t already know your brand.

Lead nurturing Yes

You control the cadence of lead-nurturing emails and can design campaigns with specific triggers.


Targeted ads reactivate social media users who visited your website, but the cadence isn’t precise.

Customer retention Yes

Informational content keeps customers engaged between sales and reminds them of your brand.


Content types designed for customer engagement usually works well on social media too.

Visual content Maybe

Customers don’t see the visuals unless they open the email.


Social media is optimized for images and video. Eye-catching visuals will stand out in newsfeeds.

Segmentation and personalization Yes

Emails are extremely personalizable.


Content must work for a broad audience.

Community building Yes

Subscribers feel like insiders with deals and updates delivered directly to their inboxes.


Customers can interact with your brand, and each other. User-generated content taps into customer engagement.

Make both channels work for your brand

The question of email marketing vs. social media isn’t cut and dry. Both channels produce promising leads and meaningful brand interactions.

However, they aren’t interchangeable. Most brands will need both an email marketing strategy and a social media strategy.

As for which you should prioritize, consider each channel’s relative benefits and let your marketing goals be your guide.