Digital marketing, also called online marketing, is any technology-aided marketing activity conducted through a digital medium in support of business goals. Digital marketing produces measurable data or facilitates the generation of measurable data for decision-making.
‘Marketing activity’ includes any action relating to promotions (advertising, direct marketing) and systems (platforms, integrations) in pursuit of a marketing goal. ‘Digital medium’ refers to electronic systems where users consume information – smartphones, desktop computers, apps, broadcast television, radio, programmatic LED outdoor boards.
More generally, Marketing Insider Group defines “Marketing” as “the intersection of the business and the customer – the great arbiter of the self-interests of the business and the needs of the buyer.” More succinctly, marketing is business’s vehicle for presenting products or services to customers.
What does digital marketing really mean?
Colloquially, people associate “digital marketing” with familiar channels where interactions with a company might happen. Think social networks like Facebook and Snapchat, text messages, banner ads and emails which bombard us every day. These are only one piece of a larger puzzle, however. Behind the scenes is a vast, obscured infrastructure – technically and creatively – that supports it.
Digital marketing is broad in scope and specific in detail.
Broad in that digital marketing touches every aspect of marketing as a discipline. Almost all marketing programs involve digital elements, and there is no ‘analog marketing’ in that sense. Beyond the colloquial definition of digital marketing as social media, email and online advertising, it also includes analytics, reporting, infrastructure, tagging, tracking, communications, systems, and even the product itself in many cases.
Specific in that as one moves deeper into the marketing discipline, greater specialization in skillset, tools, channels, experience and audiences are required.
For example, building programs for attribution modeling, segmentation, mobile & in-app marketing; channel management (Reddit, Hacker News, paid search, SEO, display), etc. all require unique, highly specialized knowledge, experience and expertise.
Digital marketing is not any time a computer is used in a marketing role.
Graphic designers produce creative but this output is not “digital marketing.” When that creative runs through an ad network to drive paid clicks – that is digital marketing. Setting up conversion tracking in support of a large national campaign is digital marketing; redesigning a website’s graphics is not.
If marketing is where the business and customer intersect, we can draw a Venn diagram to illustrate digital marketing as where business, customers and technology intersect.
Sits within the marketing discipline
Is conducted through a digital medium
Produces measurable data or essential in its analysis
Digital marketing sub-disciplines include: channel management (social media marketing, paid search [SEM/PPC], SEO, email, remarketing, display banners, video, affiliates, etc.), analytics & reporting (tagging, tracking, automation, personalization, segmentation, journeys), systems integrations, optimization (engagement, conversion rate), strategy, branding, sales enablement.
Side note: Because its very nature is digital, everything within digital marketing can be sliced, diced, measured, analyzed, projected, forecast, improved and communicated. Hundreds, if not thousands of metrics are available to judge performance. Since digital marketing is often driven by advertising spend, there are Marketing Technology (Ad Tech) providers with their own motivations trying to create new approaches – “premium” inventory, “viewable” impressions, algorithmic CPA bidding – which can cause confusion in terms of definitions. Terms will overlap and be confusing – but the essential approaches should be similar.
Digital vs Traditional Marketing – What’s the difference?
Digital marketing and traditional marketing overlap in two primary areas:
They are marketing activities
They support marketing’s (and the broader business’s) goals
What sets digital apart from traditional is: 1. the transmission, engagement or support of a digital medium and 2. data is automatically produced.
Digital transmission, engagement or support implies:
An output: measurability, data generation and/or actions
The ability to inform decision-making: data generated through activity can be analyzed for business purposes
Lowering a max bid amount on a mobile paid search campaign or updating a campaign’s demographic targeting to exclude Gen X, for example.
“Traditional” marketing then, is any marketing activity that:
Is not transmitted or engaged through a digital medium AND/OR
Is not measurable AND/OR
Does not generate data
For example, a standard, 30-second broadcast commercial aired on the local news to all viewers is traditional marketing. The same 30-second broadcast commercial, as part of a library of options YouTubeTV shows, targeted to specific views based on viewing habits, demographics, geography, time of day, and other shows watched is digital marketing.
Traditional marketing tactics can also become digital. In one example, a static outdoor board (billboard) – traditional marketing – becomes digital marketing if digitized (an LED board), connected to an ad network and displays messages programmatically based on time of day.
Where does digital marketing fit in the broader “Marketing” universe?
Previously we defined “Marketing” as “the intersection of the business and the customer.” Now, consider digital marketing’s place within it and the broader business organization.
As a discipline, Marketing covers a wide swath of skills, knowledge and expertise. Its list of functional areas includes branding, messaging, product, pricing, acquisition, retention, demand/lead gen, sales enablement, reporting, systems/integrations, etc.
Tools and expertise often overlap and support each other. A graphic designer’s work supports all marketing though sits with the Brand or Creative team; a performance marketer generates new customers for the Acquisition team with support from Operations; the retention team gets support from email channel managers.
Consider marketing’s broad, sub-disciplines as pillars and place individual roles/responsibilities within each. A Marketing team structure might look like:
Understanding the intersection between customer and business along with movement from marketing strategy to action, “Marketing” can also be contextualized as:
B2B vs B2C
Demand Generation/Lead Generation (plus sales enablement) vs. Acquisition
Engagement vs Retention
Inbound vs Outbound
Push vs Pull
Digital vs Traditional
Owned, Earned, Paid, Shared
Every area of marketing (skills and work product) overlaps or supports multiple pillars, disciplines, expertise, knowledge.
Analytics is essential for everything – data, reporting, decision-making, product, UI/UX, operations, acquisition/retention, website
Creative teams work with product, acquisition, brand, communications
Segmentation is used by the product team, retention, acquisition, operations
Marketing is a system and performs best when elements are integrated. If “Marketing” were a human, Operations would be the circulatory system, Acquisition/Demand Generation/Lead Generation the fuel, Product the body, Brand the clothing and styling, Strategy as the brain (we hope!). And, what supports one, supports all.
What is the role of digital marketing? How does it support a company’s business?
Digital Marketing is a business’s modern foundation (Product), expression (Brand), engine (Acquisition/Lead/Demand Generation), oil (Analytics) and everything in between.
A non-exhaustive list of how digital marketing supports a company:
Translates vision into value proposition and action
Aligns value proposition and vision with execution
Defines the brand
Regenerates the company and brand
Fills the revenue and sales pipeline
Captures necessary data
Interprets how customers interact with the business
Communicates with customers
Digital marketing is:
the fabric that connects your marketing CRM and sales CRM
the engine that captures your application’s behavioral data and transforms it into product features and capabilities
the set of tools that allows an SEM channel manager to optimize cost per lead (CPL)
the database of clickstream data that improves website conversion
Digital marketing is the connective tissue between your customer and product engines. Without it, a business will fail.
Considering Marketing’s place at “the intersection of the business and the customer” and digital marketing is now “Marketing,” digital marketing has become the essential pillar of business.
What are some digital marketing tools?
A vast array of tools exist to support digital marketing. Some build infrastructure, others facilitate actions, still more drive performance.
The universe of tools is also complex, specialized and massive with little agreed upon terminology. LUMA Partners prepares a yearly list of digital marketing tools (2019 has over 7,000!) which can be accessed as a free download:
Before going too far, it’s important to note: tools are often classified in multiple ways depending on context and specific work. By way of example, Google Ads is both a media platform and a network platform depending on context.
The following is a condensed list of common tools.
Every tool in a digital marketer’s toolkit is software. Software is eating the world and digital marketing along with it.
Wikipedia defines analytics as: “the discovery, interpretation, and communication of meaningful patterns in data; and the process of applying those patterns towards effective decision making. …analytics [is] the connective tissue between data and effective decision making.”
In digital marketing, analytics systems capture interactions between a website (or product or promotional activity), its users, and its user’s actions then translates it into data. Data can be viewed, compared, adjusted and visualized to aid decision-making. For digital marketing, if data are letters, analytics is the narrative.
Digital marketing platforms are large, foundational ecosystems with robust tools, systems, integrations that provide and facilitate digital marketing functionality.
Platforms are the cornerstone of digital marketing programs, management and optimization. Some platforms are managed directly like analytics, databases and content management systems (CMS) while other platforms, such as media, networks, and publishers, simply offer access to specialized tools.
Examples of digital marketing platform types:
Analytics: Adobe Omniture, Google Analytics, Mixpanel
Media: The New York Times, Google Ads
Networks: Instagram, LinkedIn, MediaMath
Publisher: Bloomberg, Wired
Database: HubSpot, Salesforce
Content Management Systems (CMSs): WordPress, Wix
Which digital marketing platforms are used is based on a company’s business needs and required functionality.
In a basic form, a company might have
A CMS platform to manage the website
An Analytics platform to gather website data
A Database for all customer and lead information
Adding paid search, display, remarketing, video or other pay-per-click (PPC) marketing, a company will engage additional platforms:
Media – inventory (space) through which a message can be displayed to potential customers
Networks – media through specific channels or providers
Publishers – inventory owners
Tag Management – tracking for conversion rate optimization
And, when further sophistication is necessary, even more platforms are available:
Finally, “platform” is also used to differentiate device types (helpful when building a digital marketing plan):
Digital Marketing Networks are two-sided marketplaces that facilitate the buying and selling of advertising inventory. Network platforms match supply (supply-side inventory; publishers) with demand (demand-side; marketers; brands).
Publishers make advertising space available on their properties (websites and apps) to Marketers through networks via real-time auctions, real-time bidding (RTB), private placements and direct deals.
Marketers access media inventory from publishers through digital marketing networks. AdMob, Google, MediaMath, etc. aggregate inventory from thousands of publishers into their platforms where advertisers bid to place their message onto a page of the publisher’s content.
In addition to the bid (cost), marketers can target based by category, keywords within the content, affinity categories, 1st & 3rd party cookies, and more.
Publishers produce and sell access to content for users.
And, like their non-digital counterparts, publishers sell space alongside content to advertisers/marketers who want to reach those audiences.
Ad space can be sold directly to advertisers/marketers or through networks like Google, Facebook, MediaMath, etc.
In digital marketing, publisher platforms are websites with large user bases, tend to have multiple properties and generate a significant number of pageviews each day, week, month and year.
Publishers can be “traditional,” digital or both in a digital marketing context:
Publishers: washingtonpost.com, Walmart (they sell space on their website), Amazon, Yahoo
Not a publisher: The Washington Post print edition, Walmart stores, Cousin Jonny’s blog, Wikipedia (no ads), Facebook or Google. (Stay tuned on those last two though, litigation in process!)
Marketing automation platforms convert users into customers by moving prospects down the funnel. They capture user behavioral and marketing data (how they came to the site and what actions they took while there) then automate further communication based on that data (email sends, website content, messaging).
They do this via predefined rules, aligned to marketing’s broad goal. In a common use case:
A user’s search for a key industry term results in a visit to a landing page and the download of a whitepaper.
Marketing automation software could, based on custom rules and with appropriate integrations, take further action. It might:
Send an email highlighting the downloaded content and include other download offers
Enable remarketing banners that speak to the specific search query
Powerful marketing automation platforms and integrations allow for complex user journeys across multiple marketing channels. In theory, the resulting journeys and messaging cadences highlight the right content to the right person at the right time.
If the promise of digital marketing is the ability to show the right message to the right person at the right time, then marketing automation platforms are the engines of this promise.
In B2B marketing, marketing automation systems are features of a marketing CRM database (customer relationship management databases like Pardot, Marketo and Hubspot) integrated with a “Sales CRM” (like Salesforce) to support the total business. Or, they can be independent like Account-Based marketing platforms like like Rollworks or Demandbase.
B2C marketers, on the other hand, typically use a single database with automation capabilities built in directly. This also means that B2C systems are more customizable and tend to require development support.
Customer Relationship Management Databases (“CRM Database” or “CRM”) are business intelligence platforms that record, store, take action, and report on customer interactions. For most businesses, the CRM is the ‘single source of truth’ for customer data.
Customer records, and the data they represent, are used by nearly every element of business to serve the customer – sales enablement (by SDR and Sales teams), client/partner relationship management, marketing, product design, engineering.
Segmentation, personalization, user journeys, targeting, and all sorts of marketing-use cases are made possible by CRMs.
Depending on the industry, a company might use a single CRM or a marketing CRM paired with a sales CRM to support the different elements of the conversion funnel.
Typical marketing-specific CRMs include HubSpot, Marketo and Pardot while the most common CRM overall is Salesforce (which owns Pardot).
Tag Manager solutions are containers (not the same as in a microservices context) that marketers use to hold, manage and enable tracking codes to understand on-site user behavior and performance.
They simplify the process of adding, removing and editing tags, triggers and variables to analytics systems to capture marketing data from applications (typically a website) in a single, centralized location.
Before Tag Manager solutions, the process of managing tracking tags was difficult. Each event or action to be tracked required placing network-specific (or platform-specific or publisher-specific) code snippets on every page where the event or action takes place. Every implementation, validation and verification plus any edits, additions or removals of the code required developer support. It was time-consuming, expensive, prone to problems, broke frequently and, if too many were on a page, slowed page loading considerably.
Now, the Tag Manager code is added once and never touched again. When a tag needs to be added, adjusted or removed, a marketer simply makes changes in Tag Manager, publishes the updated environment and the change is made in instantly. (No production release necessary!)
There are many options for tag management. Most startups use Google Tag Manager because it’s free. Some basic definitions within Google’s framework include:
Tag: According to Google, tags are “designed to send measurement information from your site to a third party.” Tags “fire” based on user actions (an “event,” in digital marketing speak) and pass that information along to other systems (analytics, networks)
Trigger: The specific element the system looks for to indicate the Tag should fire.
Variable: A value placeholder
Other Tag Manager solutions include Ensighten, Tealium iQ, Oracle BlueKai, Launch and Dynamic Tag Management from Adobe and more.
Owned vs Earned vs Paid Media In Digital Marketing
Earlier, media was defined as “inventory (space) through which a message can be displayed to potential customers.” Digital marketing adds further detail according to how messages are transmitted: “owned,” “earned” and “paid” media.
That is, agnostic of marketing channel, a company’s message can be distributed and amplified through media that is:
Owned Media – blog, organic social media, whitepapers, etc.
Earned Media – news/lifestyle articles, influencer mentions, positive customer reviews, etc.
Paid Media – paid search, display, paid social media, etc.
Many refer to this mix by the acronym ‘POEM’ for Paid, Owned, Earned Media. Some add a fourth – Shared – to distinguish social sharing or community sites.
A balanced digital marketing strategy will find an equilibrium between owned, earned and paid media types in order to reach an optimized marketing mix.
What are digital marketing channels?
Digital marketing channels (sometimes called “marketing vehicles”) are where interaction between a business and humans take place – email offers, promoted posts, InMails, pre-roll video, remarketing banners, etc.
A “marketing channel” describes a type of digital marketing activity – paid search, organic search, display, affiliates, video, social media. Each marketing channel is an independent universe that also works with, influences and is influenced by all others. (Learn a bit about the interaction between marketing channels in our post “A Beginner’s Guide To Marketing Attribution.”)
This ambiguity means tactics often fit within multiple marketing channels. However, they are typically associated with one. Static newsfeed ads on Facebook are technically display banners but, because Facebook is the medium, they are classified as “social media.”
There is an endless and ever-growing list of methods and means to share marketing messages across the world. Wherever people are, a means of reaching them will be found.
The term “marketing vehicle” is sometimes substituted for “marketing channel” or can also describe second-level classifications within marketing channels. If “social media” is the marketing channel, Snap, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, etc. are its marketing vehicles.
Common marketing channels are:
PAID SEARCH (SEM/PPC)
Paid search is the art and science of matching user intent to a business’s value proposition through sponsored results in a search engine results page (SERP). “Sponsored” here means paid. Paid Search is also known as SEM (search engine marketing) and PPC (pay-per-click marketing).
Paid search channel managers (SEM/PPC) bid on keywords and optimize page content, campaigns and ad copy to try to place their ads at the top of the SERP.
Whether and where an ad appears is based on ranking factors including bid, keyword, quality score, expected click-through rate, etc. Paid search is generally the most efficient paid marketing channel.
ORGANIC SEARCH (SEO/SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION)
Organic search (SEO, search engine optimization) is the art and science of being found online organically (and paid search’s older sibling). It is the process of structuring content, markup, attributes, links and technical details to increase a page’s relevance for specific keywords.
The goal of search engine optimization (SEO) is to have pages rank highly in search engine results pages (SERPs) for searches for specific, targeted keywords. The secret, as with paid search, is aligning a user’s search query (intent) to a company’s value proposition (keyword).
As an unpaid channel, organic search is a key, strategic driver of marketing performance and, all things considered, the most efficient channel (financially speaking) in all of marketing.
If and where a page ranks in the SERP for specific keywords is determined by page rank, domain authority, technical and on-page optimizations, backlinks, onsite user behavior and more. The exact influence of each of these factors on rankings is a matter of much discussion among the SEO community, but known only to search engines themselves (Google, Bing etc).
Strategic Note: For businesses working in highly specific or new/emerging markets, organic search can be less of a traffic driver because there are fewer people in the world who know and are searching for those keywords.
The world has pivoted to video (cit.) and it is eating the marketing universe.
Two primary strategic uses of video marketing are:
Pre-roll or mid-roll videos, typically 15 or 30 seconds in length, similar in manner to traditional television commercials
Most effective as a brand awareness tactic
Presented to users before (or while) they watch content which limits its effectiveness in direct response marketing and conversion
Video’s rise mirrors that of download speeds. As bandwidth increases, so does the volume of organic and professional video content produced
Every video uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo adds more advertising inventory and increases the medium’s opportunity for advertising
Webinars, workshops, explainer videos, product walk-throughs, ‘how-to’ videos, etc. for lead generation, engagement and conversion activities
Self-generated content can be anything – including advertising-length video – but generally refers to longer-form, robust types of produced video content
All self-generated video content can be repurposed to support programs and campaigns
Display marketing (also called banner advertising) is used tactically in two ways –
Branding – Top of the funnel, awareness tactic
Remarketing – Noted below as an independent digital marketing channel. (Though primarily associated with display marketing, remarketing is possible with any digital marketing channel.)
Display advertising banners are ubiquitous across the web as standardized boxes of sponsored messages peppered throughout websites and mobile apps.
Display banners are a great branding tool and effective in certain types of remarketing. From a performance marketing perspective, however, display banners do not typically perform well.
As a top of the funnel tactic, display banners offer sophisticated targeting options but scale (i.e. spend) is required. As budgets increase, the number of tools available for a digital marketer to use also increases.
A few targeting types of note: Keyword, contextual, intent, customer match, look-alike (similar audiences), category, etc.
Banners were historically static but, as bandwidth increased, HTML5 developed and technology moved forward, animated banners have become more prominent. Dynamic banners also perform better from a direct-response point of view.
Remarketing is a broad, catch-all term that refers to re-engaging prior visitors of a property (website, blog, store, webinar, etc.) to drive action (conversion).
Remarketing engages people familiar with a brand or product and, therefore, tends to perform well in direct-response, conversion-oriented campaigns.
Remarketing is most commonly associated with display banners (because they follow you around the web; we see those neon green Converse All Stars!). However, any digital marketing channel can employ remarketing if the infrastructure is set up and connected to network/media platforms that can facilitate it (YouTube, Facebook, Google Ads, etc.).
Some common remarketing tactics include:
Email: Abandon cart, make your first purchase, restock
Banners: ‘Buy Now!’ banners for products you’ve already viewed or added to an online cart
Paid search: Increased bids on keywords if you’ve already visited the site
To illustrate, below is a screenshot of remarketing banners (display banners) highlighted by a red border. I viewed printer paper earlier which has now triggered these banners. Since HPs product feed is integrated, the specific products, prices and discounts are also displayed.
Social media is a catch-all term for spaces where people congregate and communicate in multi-directional conversations.
Social media marketing leverages channels/vehicles/platforms to engage audiences, influence purchase decisions and increase awareness.
“Social media” acts as both a marketing channel and individual platform. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Quora, Snapchat and Twitter are marketing vehicles (or platforms, depending on context).
Social media platforms have large volumes of granular detail about users. They also have some of the most robust targeting options in the entire digital marketing universe. As a result, social media marketing is one of the most powerful, cost-effective digital marketing tactics. The effectiveness of any given platform, however, is determined by the target audience, scale, customer knowledge, systems in place to capture/leverage data, industry, manager skills, etc.
Email marketing is an “owned” marketing channel employed throughout marketing for:
Product updates and features
Marketing offers and promotions
Driving conversion, engagement, nurturing
Order confirmations, shipping notifications, etc.
Email lists are built over time – organically or paid – and represent customers, prospects and other interested parties who’ve specifically asked to be contacted.
An important exception is when email marketing is used for lead generation with purchased prospecting lists from third-party data brokers.
Email marketing is high performing (open rates, click through rates, conversion and engagement) because users have specifically provided contact information and asked to receive marketing messages.
Email drives acquisition, retention and engagement regardless of business, industry, customer type. Email marketing campaigns and types include:
Conversion campaigns – register now, sign up, buy!, etc.
Nurture series – onboarding a user to a platform, ‘how to’ explainers for a new product, feature, functionality
Remarketing – abandoned carts, complete your registration
Purchase reminders – hey, you bought this 3-weeks ago and might be running out…order a replacement today!
Registrations, sign-ups, recurring sales, re-engagement, etc.
Every element of an email marketing program is first-party except when using purchased lists to prospect for new customers.
Laws governing email are very strict and getting even more so.
CAN-SPAM laws have governed the use of email by companies in the US for years.
GDPR went into effect in Europe in 2018 which requires end users (recipients of emails) to specifically opt-in to receiving communication.
The greatest benefits of email marketing are:
You own the customer interaction – all data in an email program is first-party (except if/when used as a lead gen tool with third party data brokers). The users are in your database and have raised their hand to say ‘contact me!’
No cost for media
It’s time-based so you can design journeys to communicate in a structured way.
For example, when onboarding users to a complex financial product, send them step-by-step emails to keep them engaged. Or, if you want a registrant to make their first purchase, engage immediately after they sign up, again after 24 hours, another three days later and a final email after seven days after that.
Affiliate marketing platforms are websites that drive users to other websites where they make purchases, register or otherwise convert. Often, there’s some sort of discount or points scheme for the buyer to entice the action. When a purchase is made, the referring site (the affiliate partner) earns a percentage of the sale price, a flat fee per user or similar.
Affiliate marketing is, essentially, a middleman to help drive business goals – revenue, new customers, registrations, etc. Affiliate marketing sites range in size from massive to niche. Examples of Affiliate Marketing sites include Groupon, RetailMeNot, Coupons.com, Nerd Wallet, Mommy bloggers and travel bloggers.
Affiliate marketing works best with high volume, high-velocity consumer-product situations because, at scale, margin compression (buyer offer and affiliate payout) is made up by volume. However, under the right circumstances, it can work in low volume, low-velocity situations too.
Blogs are “owned” marketing channels and vehicles for sharing content.
A blog is the most efficient means of communicating with existing, new, perspective and generally curious customers and sharing exactly what you want in exactly the format you want users to consume it.
Blogs are mostly one-directional (after the downfall of RSS readers) and require users to navigate there from somewhere else. That is, as a digital marketing channel, blogs require users to either visit directly or be pushed from other digital marketing channels.
Blog content can be redeployed across many other digital marketing channels to drive action.
Typical blog content includes thought leadership pieces, whitepapers, product release notes, industry analysis and company updates.
For marketers, if there’s an audience, there’s a marketing channel. So, new digital marketing channels are born all the time. New digital marketing channels can grow organically or be designed specifically for marketing.
A few other digital marketing channels/vehicles that deserve mention:
Twitch – A spinoff of Justin.tv, Twitch is how passionate gamers watch others play. Shortly after its launch it became more popular than the core site and a few years after that it was bought by Amazon. Twitch is the premier live streaming video platform for gamers. Also, the perfect digital marketing channel to reach that specific audience.
Native advertising – Sometimes called sponsored content, native advertising was designed specifically for digital marketing by publishers to 1. Increase the number of ad units and inventory available for sale 2. Improve advertiser performance. It is now an established and essential digital marketing channel where ad space sits adjacent to the publisher’s real, non-advertising content. Because native advertising blends into actual content, it performs well…either users don’t recognize it as paid advertising or, it’s so well placed contextually, users recognize its value.
Content Syndication – Helps marketers reach potential users in a less expensive yet contextually relevant way. Content syndication allows digital marketers to repurpose content through other platforms, publishers and mediums. The most visible content syndication platforms are those of Taboola and Outbrain which place content on most high volume publisher/media platforms. Syndicated content through these marketing vehicles is usually found just after a page’s primary content with sensationalist, provocative or “shocking” headlines and images to drive clicks. For example: