The concept of content marketing is growing by leaps and bounds; everybody in marketing is talking about it.

But are they talking about the right thing? For instance, social media. Social media has changed the way we do just about everything. It is an incredibly powerful tool that connects businesses and customers, hurricane victims and first responders, and even disparate revolutionaries yearning for democracy. For business looking to engage customers who have become more powerful than ever before, social media is a must-have channel that can help you grow revenue in ways you never thought possible.

However, it is purely a delivery channel. While there is plenty of truth to HL Mencken’s old notion that “the medium is the message,” at the end of the day the medium still needs a message. It still needs content.

And I would argue – and have – that social media is damn close to meaningless without content. It’s been famously said that social media is a cocktail party, and it’s a brilliant analogy. But if you have nothing to say at said cocktail party, no one’s going to be paying attention to you.

If we’re at that cocktail party, content creation is the thinking of what to say and social media is the act of the words coming out of your mouth. And the specific platforms – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. – are your mouth(s).

They obviously go together. But they are not the same.

Any organization can open up a Twitter feed, but not every organization has something to say. Not every organization can fill that Twitter feed with engaging things to say, drawing in curious people and offering up advice and/or comfort. Not every organization can hold its own in a conversation. Not every organization can create original thinking. Not every organization even realizes it needs to think before it speaks.

So it makes me crazy when I see the Content Marketing Institute reporting in its 2013 Benchmarking Study that “social media is now the most popular content marketing tactic.” C’mon CMI! That’s like saying that “TV is now the most popular type of show.” The bigger issue to me is that the marketers surveyed by CMI don’t understand what content marketing is.

Social media is a delivery channel. But like TV, if there’s nothing on worth watching, people aren’t going to pay attention (I know people are going to say have you WATCHED television lately? But you understand my point). Social media is great, but until you fill up the channel with ideas, it’s meaningless.

There’s a bit of a rush to make content marketing seem really big, but there are still plenty of businesspeople who can’t identify it. Just because you type some words on a screen does not make it “content marketing.” For instance, if you write news releases, you do not have a content strategy; that’s a PR strategy.

So let’s define it. Here’s my take:

Content marketing is the creation and distribution of information that delivers value to an identified audience.

So, yes, distribution. Social media is part of the equation. But it is clearly the second part of the equation and without the first part, it is pure vapor.

What do you think? Is my definition too narrow?