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Digital marketing, to many small business owners and B2B leaders, is still something of an enigma. They acknowledge its existence and importance but often do not understand how the digital communication channel, and all that it offers, functions to their benefit. These leaders understand terms such as SEO, analytics, PPC, and social media. However, they but fall short of understanding how each digital channel operates independently and together to deliver customers and profits at a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing channels like direct mail, print advertising, and television advertisement, to name just a few.
Without overwhelming the reader with elaborate details, this article addresses the most common digital marketing channels and how they are primarily used to communicate a company’s brand value and engage customers. The list is not exhaustive, but a primer for business leaders looking better to understand the digital landscape and the types of information and content typically communicated to their audiences.
The Digital Marketing Channels Advantage
Digital channels, more commonly known as digital marketing, is marketing that uses digital technology or digital media. The medium has revolutionized marketing due to its unique ability that allows the marketer to target online customers precisely. Before the digital marketing revolution, marketers would create advertisements that broadcasted to large target audiences. The firms would distribute their marketing campaign through print advertisements, radio, and television. In other words, marketers engaged in undifferentiated marketing — or marketing where the firm created a single message for their entire target audience.
The commercial advertisement below demonstrates a typical ad that firms would broadcast to millions of viewers with the hopes of increasing brand recognition or increasing sales. However, the single message ad to their entire audience was challenging to track. Companies did not have an easy way to track their audience reaction or target specific demographic groups like they do today with digital media.
The following commercial for Friskies Cat Food from 1969 aired over television to a broad audience with the hopes of capturing cat owners with little to no control for specific targeting based on precise demographics or psychographics.
Now, imagine the above commercial advertisement distributed through digital channels. Marketers would have greater control over who, where, when, and how viewers watched the ad through advanced analytics and online targeting tools, like google analytics—the ability to target and track customers with precision results from the rise in popularity of the internet.
As online expenditures increased, more customers turned to online retailers for their purchases. According to Statistica.com, There were nearly 228 million online shoppers in 2020, with a steady yearly rise in new online shoppers, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People turned to online retailers to avoid going out to physical stores for fear of exposing themselves to the virus.
With digital technology and online shoppers, digital marketing implementation gives marketing managers access to tools that specifically target online customers. Furthermore, marketers can target specific customer segments with digital targeting tools based on personal interests and affinity groups (groups of people with similar interests). The precise targeting and analytics allow marketers to measure their campaigns, often in real-time, and determine the success or failures of those campaigns. In other words, marketers can determine what’s working and what is not working, saving the marketing department resources while fine-tuning low performing campaigns or duplicating their successful ones.
Popular Digital Marketing Channels
While digital marketing is an umbrella term for all digital marketing functions and technologies, people often categorize digital marketing into a few popular categories. These categories include:
- Search engine optimization/search engine marketing (or SEO/SEM).
- Social media marketing.
- Display advertising.
- Email marketing.
- Content marketing.
Each of these digital marketing categories provides a different way to communicate through their respective digital channels.
Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing (SEO and SEM)
Purpose: SEO helps drive organic traffic to your owned digital assets, while SEM helps make your products and services discoverable to customers.
Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are often confused by people that do not fully understand the contrast between the two digital marketing strategies. While SEM includes SEO, SEO focuses on driving traffic to your website organically. In other words, SEO is the practice of using keywords and different strategies to improve your company website’s chance of showing up on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
However, SEM does include SEO as part of its strategy and has paid and non-paid activities. As an example, purchasing ads through Google Pay-Per-Click (PPC) campaigns is part of SEM. So is developing engaging video content for your YouTube channel and creating a social media influencer strategy.
In short, SEM is the practice of making your products discoverable through the SERPs and other digital channels.
The example below shows Google’s search engine results for the keyword bookshelves. Notice the images in the upper Google Ads feed? Five different ads for bookshelves appear followed by the organic listing for websites that offer bookshelves. The ad images result from deliberate ad placement (or paid advertisement), and the information below the ads are organic results, a product of SEO. Together, the ads and organic results are part of a firm’s SEM strategy.
Social Media Marketing Digital Channels
Purpose: Helps brands connect with their audience in a non-sales way to better understand their audiences’ likes and dislikes and provide solutions through content to their pain points.
As its name implies, social media are social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, to name the more popular ones. Social media channels help brands connect and engage with their customers. Social channels like Facebook are excellent places for the brand to interact and “listen” to their customers.
What is meant by social “listening”?
Social media platforms allow customers to comment and brands to ” listen” or read their comments and respond to understand customers’ likes and dislikes better.
The example below shows the Facebook feed for Nordstrom’s department stores. In their news feed, customers leave comments, likes, and dislikes about Nordstroms as a social media specialist responds, allowing a two-way dialogue between the retailer and customers.
Social media platforms are more for engagement and less for selling. The social channels are ideal for delivering content that helps solve customer’s problems without a hard sell. The example below comes from Southwest Airlines Facebook page. Southwest Airlines’ social media marketing team shares research from a Harvard University study on mask usage and the spread of COVID-19. This concern weighs heavy on almost every passenger’s mind when flying during the pandemic.
You can look at social media as a friend’s backyard barbeque social gathering. Friends and family attend the event and socialize, sharing stories, ideas, and helpful solutions to problems they may openly discuss. Rarely do you see or hear a guest delivering a sales pitch to people at such social gatherings. They may share their places of employments and discuss what they do, but people generally do not attend a friend and family gathering to conduct hard sales.
Purpose: Display advertising helps build brand recognition and target specific customer segments online to deliver your product offerings.
Display advertising is advertising represented and broadcast through websites, apps, and social media. Display ad formats may include text advertisements, images, flash, video, and audio.
Distribution of display ads occurs through websites that partner with ad platforms, such as Google. They may also appear in your email inbox or through apps on your phone. The example below shows display advertising through the Google Partner website.
As part of a search engine marketing strategy, the primary purpose of display advertising is to deliver your brand message or product offerings to website visitors.
Purpose: To stay connected with your customer base or help potential customers move along the marketing funnel toward conversion.
Email marketing is one of the oldest and most cost-effective forms of digital marketing. Early on, Email marketers would purchase or harvest email addresses and broadcast product messages, filling millions of recipients’ inboxes. Later, legislation passed prohibiting marketers from sending unsolicited Emails.
Today, marketers are leveraging email to customers who sign-up to receive information about your company, products, or helpful solutions to their problems. Marketers use Email to connect to customers, keep them informed about new products and specials, and better their lives with the products.
The newsletter below is one example of email marketing. Petco sends the newsletter to current customers. Petco is a popular pet store (in the USA) selling a variety of items for pets. The newsletter keeps their customers informed about new or on-sale products and helpful information about keeping their pets safe and healthy.
Purpose: To provide valuable information to customers or potential customers about how products and services may solve their pain points. Content is more informative than sales oriented.
The fifth popular form of digital marketing is content marketing. It has been the buzzword in digital marketing for several years now. However, content marketing is not new. Companies like Coca-Cola have been content marketing for over a century.
Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach where content is created and distributed, intending to attract customers to a product or service. The key to content marketing success is that the message does not overtly advertise the product or service. Instead, content marketers focus their message on delivering informational or educational content to increase interest in a product.
Content may be in the form of a written article, video tutorial, infographic, case studies, or any communication that helps inform or solve a customer pain point.
The advertisement for Carnation Milk below is an example of content marketing in 1943. During World War II, food was in short supply in Europe. To help send food to their allies, the USA launched a program promoting gardening at home, which encouraged Americans to plant food for their use while the government sent food supplies to Europe. The Carnation Milk company was one of many advertisers that took advantage of the Victory Garden campaign by promoting their product using content marketing.
In the example, Carnation discusses the benefits of growing your food along with a helpful recipe using their canned milk. The content addressed how consumers might prepare a meal with the food they grow and a can of milk.
Whether you call it marketing or digital marketing, it is all the same. The only difference is that digital marketing uses digital channels to communicate brand messages. These digital channels are found in various formats across all digital devices yet serve a specific purpose for delivering brand content. Additionally, the digital marketing advantage is that brands can target specific customer segments and get fast analytics to serve their customers better.