What is Digital Marketing; A Complete Guide

As a digital consultancy, we’ve seen a lot of things change over time such as the progression of technology, the flux of markets, many digital projects and brands come and go, companies that have completely turned the market on its head, and more.

However, in many cases when it relates to digital marketing, there’s often this fundamental confusion as to what it all means and how it works. Many of the explanations we’ve seen on the internet have made us laugh, some have made us cry, and many others have earned a thumbs up from our team. It’s true - we are digital marketing nerds. However, our feelings aside, we know many people feel a bit confused and a little lost when it comes to digital marketing and if that is how you feel, then don’t worry, please know that you are not alone.

This is your comprehensive guide to who, where, when, why, and what of digital marketing from digital marketers, digital creatives, and digital experts working in the field actively and daily. It’s a great starting point that will answer questions and help you practically understand digital marketing so you can gain valuable insights and apply them to your organization.

What is Digital Marketing

Let’s start with the basics and go from there. Understanding digital marketing provides clarity and removes a lot of the barriers and uncertainty around implementing it. To start, let’s look at the word and language itself as a guide because it has meaning.

What does digital mean?

The word “Digital” in a technology sense is defined as (of signals or data) expressed as a series of the digits 0 and 1, typically represented by values of a physical quantity such as voltage or magnetic polarization.

Why do we care about this definition? It shows us what digital is and demystifies the confusion. Digital is nothing more than a number system of 0’s and 1’s - it is the language that computers and electronics use to function.

Example: your smartphone can only process any request in 0 or 1, yes or no, true or false, on or off… so when you turn it on it's a 1, or if you turn it off it's a zero. Therefore, in a real-world application, digital is the language of software aka the instructions technology follows as programmed by people to function. Hardware on the other hand is comprised of the physical components of technology that we can see, touch, and feel.

Fun Fact: People think digital is all new but it's not, no the advancements in logic processing using that system of 0’s and 1’s is all new but not the actual existence of that number system. In 1679, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz developed the modern binary number system, and in 1703, he published the Explication de l'Arithmétique Binaire which he believed originated in ancient China.

Let’s keep going!

What does marketing mean?

The word “Marketing” is often defined in many ways - people call it so many things but marketing and sales are distinct. Marketing is the position, promotion, placement, and pricing of products and services using certain skills, disciplines, and activities to meet the needs of consumers in any given market so they can become a qualified prospect. Sales on the other hand are the sets of discipline, skills, and activities that it takes to closely form relationships with a qualified prospect and close a deal or desired transaction. Marketing without sales doesn’t complete the relationship cycle. However, sales without marketing results in a failure to generate new relationships so they can become prospects in the first place. Every organization has a version of both by necessity; it's more of a matter of whether the processes in place are poorly performing, acceptable, or high performing.

So when we take all of that in and put it together we get a pretty simple outcome:

“Digital marketing is a set of skills, disciplines, and activities that make use of electronic means or methods to promote and connect people to a product, service, vision, or mission.”

This is a pretty simple explanation with big implications. If we think about it, that means digital marketing includes channels like tv, radio, social media, search, web, email, apps, phone, text, and so much more… Yes, these and so many more all use electronic means to promote and connect. Understanding the background sets the stage to unpack to digital marketing so you can use it and drive value from it.

Why Digital Marketing matters?

So far, we discussed how digital marketing has a tech component (digital) and a people component (marketing). Well today, digital marketers need to be paying attention to the tech that is evolving in the world. As new technologies are invented, tested, and implemented in our world so do new ways to communicate and promote your mission, vision, service, or product to real people. Digital marketing matters because it is the new frontier for businesses and currently provides the most effective ways to give and get value in a market.

Here are some basic ways it makes a difference:

By keeping you present to your audience

First and most importantly, you can’t do business in any sense without connecting to the people who could and would want to engage with your product, service, mission, or vision. Digital marketing today is where the traffic is and where people spend their time for work or play - each platform has its uses in people’s lives. According to research firm Statista, 89% of Americans research a brand or organization online before making any kind of purchase decision. The thing is being on the platforms where people spend their time is about being present and available to the audience that matters to you. If people don’t know you are there or can’t get access to your organization then they certainly can’t engage with you or commit.

Cost to reward ratio is awesome

Digital marketing presents one of the best rewards for the cost, some of the newest technologies such as social media, search, email marketing, and text message marketing provide some of the strongest open rates and best results for the cost. They dominate over older traditional forms of electronic and non-electronic advertising such as radio, tv, print, and provide the best results for the money.

Business momentum

Digital marketing provides a more accelerated sales cycle and therefore a faster business momentum than other forms of marketing. This means effective digital marketing shortens the rate at which customer relationships can form and build trust so that people feel comfortable making an engagement or purchase decision. This shortened length of time per sale means more sales faster as long as it’s appropriate to the use case. Now, there is a caveat here, the skill level of the marketer, the creative being deployed, and the channel being used all matter. But looking at channel speed for delivery, deployment, and relationship building digital usually wins especially when you factor in the ability to get have face to face connection with anyone anywhere across the globe.

After all, a print campaign relies on the mail, billboards rely on a process of installation, digital is already all around us, and makes messaging immediate in many cases.

Personalized outreach at mass scale

Digital marketing allows for a mass outreach of people, many other forms of marketing do as well such as mail-outs and billboards. However, many forms of digital marketing such as email marketing allow people to personalize their efforts to their customers via dynamic tags and data in a way that isn’t possible while performing an outreach on a large scale.

Physical newspaper ads and other older forms of marketing don’t allow you to serve personalized messages with people’s names and a personal greeting at scale simultaneously without manual labor.

Accessible to Anyone

Digital marketing is for every industry and any organization that connects with people to do business. That means, digital marketing can be beneficial to anyone and everyone as long as the right messaging and components are there to appeal to your audience.

How does Digital Marketing work?

Now that we’ve touched on what it is and why it matters, let’s get practical and address the nuts and bolts of digital marketing. A lot of people focus on the channels themselves that distribute the message (the electronic means of communication) and forget entirely that simply putting something out there alone does not mean that you are an effective digital marketer. It’s not about “doing social media” - it is truly about using the channels effectively to build relationships with people that go from online to offline or from impersonal to personal.

There are essential parts and components to success with digital marketing. After all, who wants to deploy something and invest money only to get it wrong. Let’s save you the headaches and go through the components below.

Every digital marketing activity typically involves one or more of the following components and therefore they provide a blueprint as to how to use digital marketing:

Brand - Your corporate identity visual represents who you are to other people - it’s the basis for the first impression of your organization online or offline.

Audience - The people or groups of people you want to reach.

Messaging - The message or content you want to convey and the action you want your audience to make as a result. Every good message should contain a CTA or Call to Action that an audience can act on as a result of listening to your message.

Strategy - A concrete plan put together composed of your knowledge of your brand, your audience’s needs, the effectiveness of a message, the creative appeal, and the effectiveness of reach with certain channels. This strategy or plan should have a method to reach your audience effectively and a method of measuring your outcomes.

Creative - The creative is the content carrying the message in your strategy, it is often an ad, a design, a photo, a video, or text in some combination to deliver the message in a way that is appealing and attractive so your audience will want to engage.

Channel - The electronic method used to implement the strategy. It is the most common and recognizable part of digital marketing (i.e. social media, search, email, text, etc.)

Attribution - The method you will use to trace the audience’s online activity or digital footprint so you can understand the outcomes of your efforts. (i.e. Did the creative reach them? Did they engage with it? Did they take the desired action? How many? Why? What channels did they come from or use? How many purchased? Those who didn’t commit - why? etc.)

Let’s keep it simple and use a practical yet basic example:

Bob owns an ice-cream company that sells clean organic ice-cream that is lower in fat than his competition but high in taste. Bob has a great product, however, his company is new to the ice-cream scene and his competitors are well-known. Bob wants to get the news out there about his ice cream so he can get more customers to buy it and enjoy his product.

Let’s say that Bob hires a digital marketing agency or firm to help him and guide him through this process and that agency decides that they will:

1.) Get to know Bob’s mission and what his company wants to do which is provide people with a novel experience every time they crack open a small box of his ice cream - well then they develop a logo, fonts, pictures, and more that can represent Bob’s ice cream company online and in-person. They develop a brand because, without one, no one will remember Bob’s company especially if they only see it once or twice in passing.

2.) Next, let's say this agency decides to get to know his audience by asking important questions, conducting market research, looking into who eats his ice-cream now, examining who doesn’t eat his ice-cream but would if they knew about it and using the latest digital tools to form a picture together of Bob’s ideal customer. Not everyone eats ice-cream and so selling to people who just won’t connect with the product would be a waste of Bob’s money and time. The agency knows better than to do this so they do their homework. They get to know Bob’s audience so they can reach those people who are most likely to engage first and get results.

3.) Next, let’s say the agency has done its homework. At this point, they craft a message that is compelling and interesting (not to themselves) but to the audience based on all that they know about them online, offline, and through all forms of marketing research conducted. They come with a message and CTA or call-to-action that will be interesting and engaging to Bob’s desired audience(s).

4.) The agency at this point should know who Bob’s ideal audience is, who his secondary audience is, how they like to be contacted, what kind of content would they most enjoy, what kind of value proposition his competitors are offering, what kind of unique selling propositions he offers, and other key details to his marketing efforts that would affect the outcome. This kind of information is critical to forming a successful Strategy and frankly the more information, the better the strategy can be adjusted to Bob’s needs. The agency puts together this plan and runs it by Bob to see if he likes it and it makes sense for his company.

5.) At this point Bob likes the strategy after a few tweaks, he thinks its a good plan but plans have to be implemented and executed well. The agency gets to work making the ads and creative content that will deliver Bob’s messaging to his desired audience effectively. The agency presents their final work to Bob and delivers what they think would be the best and most effective digital channels for strategic communication.

6.) Now comes the most recognizable portion of digital marketing. In the strategy, that Bob approved, they had selected the digital channels that they believe would best suit Bob’s ideal audience (not themselves) and would deliver the message at the most effective cost. The goal here is to get the best results for Bob’s money. To do this the agency must know the channels they have selected very well and must understand them, know how their pay structure works, how their distribution methods work, and their effective rates.

For example: If Bob’s looking to reach young women who like clean organic living and the agency decides to target men’s online magazines or just sprays out marketing and prays. Then we know that would be an incorrect use of a digital channel and would be a waste of Bob’s resources. However, if they were to use a mix of Pinterest, Instagram, and Google Ads to specifically target young women into clean organic living then that would be a great multi-channel approach.

Because each digital marketing channel is different, has a different community it attracts, and reaches different people in different ways, the agency needs to get the information right and the channel right to be successful.

7.) Finally! The fun part… Bob’s campaigns are online and his strategy is in progress with all of his ads and creative currently going out to his desired audience via the channels in his strategy. Now, new customers are signing up via Bob’s campaign. New orders are flying into his e-commerce site for his ice-cream! However, Bob realizes an incredible opportunity here, he realizes that this process is scalable and repeatable. If he can do this once with success, he can do this over and over again with new creative content and strategies to create a reputable and wealthy organization. Bob knows he needs to change and evolve with his audience, so Bob asks his agency about the data through attribution. See, his agency should have been tracking how and when and where the audience is coming from, whether they are buying or not buying, activity from competitors and other important factors to make sure he can re-use this information. All of these key measurements are called KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). KPIs and other measurements of success must be tailored to the goal of each campaign whether that be sales, brand awareness, customer education, donor development, or others. Understanding the correct KPIs for the right activity allows for true measurement of results and better digital marketing decisions.

We can see that Bob and his agency have struck gold with digital marketing as long as they continue to understand their audience, how the strategy has to evolve, put out fresh creative, and appeal to new people continuously to create results for his specific industry.

While this is a basic example any effective digital marketing campaign will vary in scope, size length, creative, strategy, audience, channels, technology, and other details per industry and per company. There is no one size fits all for any industry or organization, however, there is A SIZE for you and your organization that can work for you if you tailor your efforts to get results.

Types of Digital Marketing

Given that tailoring the details are so important, let’s go over the types of Digital marketing out there, as we said before as technology and communications changes evolve so should our methods and channels for reaching people. This kind of change may seem daunting but it really can be successful if we take the time to learn it, foster an internal marketing team’s development, or get a partner agency who can help.

Types of Digital Marketing Activities

All of these activities are forms of digital marketing but some come in different states and forms. The main ones listed here are online (meaning on the internet), integrated (meaning a hybrid of online and integrated into real life), and emerging technologies that are growing and are likely to have an impact in the future.

Online marketing (on the internet)

- Search engine optimization (SEO)

- Search engine marketing (SEM)

- Content marketing

- Social media marketing (SMM)

- Pay-per-click advertising (PPC)

- Affiliate marketing

- Web design & development

- Email marketing

- App Marketing (iOS, Android, Windows, Ubuntu, etc.)

- Marketing Automation

Integrated marketing (a hybrid of online and offline)

- Hybrid marketing

- Electronic billboards

- Digital product demonstrations

- Influencer marketing

- Radio Marketing

- Radio commercials

- Show sponsoring

- TV Marketing

- TV commercials

- Infomercials and Television Shopping

- Smartphone Marketing

- Phone Calls (Cold calling or warm calling)

- Text message marketing (giveaways, coupons, loyalty programs)

- QR codes

Online PR

- Press releases for online publications

- Online professional marketing

- Online Centers of Influence development

- Online Business development

Emerging (will change the marketing landscape in the future)

- Voice Search

- AI Enhanced Marketing

- ML Enhanced Marketing

This is not an exhaustive list but certainly, a good one to watch out for and be aware of as you explore the world of digital marketing. Currently, at the time of writing this article in 2020, it’s projected that Americans spend half of their day (6 hours per day) on digital media of some kind. Digital marketing is certainly here to stay and becoming familiar with these terms and services is a great way to be in the know.

Who should use Digital marketing? What are the roles of digital marketers?

Digital marketing as we discussed above is for everyone and anyone who needs to connect with people, that means all of us. However, these are typical players in digital marketing so you can assess what might make sense to you.

Individual Marketers

The largest group is that of individual marketers. Individual marketers, quite simply are people who use and employ marketing skills, disciplines, and activities to help organizations reach their goals.

Here are a few examples of each and the best use case for each of them:

1.) Freelance marketers - Freelance marketers are individuals who work in various marketing fields and have skills to offer organizations and people who wish to reach others. Freelancing is a great way to begin a marketing career or to get high-skilled individuals for low rates. However, it is common knowledge that freelancers often have a lower capacity for marketing at scale since they don’t have a team and in practice can often represent a mixed bag of professionalism and skill level since professional development is really up to the individual’s level of dedication.

2.) Intrapreneur marketers or employees as marketers - Many marketers are intrapreneurs or work inside of an organization’s internal marketing team looking to move up the ranks over time. These marketers provide marketing activities for a standardized form of compensation within an organization. Internal teams are a great way to cultivate longevity and consistency in your marketing. Oftentimes, these marketers have a higher skill level due to the structure and consistency an internal role provides. However, their knowledge level is bound to what they know through their work experience or resume.

3.) Support Marketers - Support marketers are those engaged not necessarily in direct outreach or creative roles but support the activities of marketing with other business functions such as data analysis and media buying, these marketers are vital to most teams and agencies. They allow internal teams and agencies to produce significant results with key activities that provide clearer decision making. They are typically found primarily within organizations with the budget to support their roles.

Marketing Agencies

Marketing agencies come in many forms and sizes. They often have a wealth of experience since they work on a variety of clients and brands. Their exposure to new ideas and effective methods is typically higher and more frequent, however, they can be more expensive than employees in some cases. Also, each one is different, understanding the differences is key to making sure you have the right partner for you.

1.) Boutique digital marketing agency - A boutique digital marketing agency is the standard format or most common structure for agencies that focus on advertising. It comprises of a small team of people with different marketing specialties and roles that output marketing functions for their clients. Each agency has a different focus or spin on its services but all serve the needs of clients in their chosen disciplines. These agencies often provide a small list of services whose blend is unique to them.

2.) Digital consultancy - A digital consultancy is a focused high skilled group of marketing professionals who specialize in solving marketing problems for organizations. They typically bring a consultant’s methodology but a marketer’s knowledge and creativity to bear for their clients. A digital consultancy typically has a strong acumen in business and/or other backgrounds as well as digital marketing and uses cross-discipline skills to employ smart solutions for its clients. It is common for a digital consultancy to have a few strong areas of expertise but not a full-range like a full-service agency or just one area like a specialized agency.

3.) Production studio - Production studios or Production agencies focus on the creative and digital production aspect of marketing. They focus primarily on the creative deliverables of marketing and leave strategy, implementation, messaging, channel work, and strategy to the client. They are often internet video firms, commercial film studios, photography studios, copywriting agencies, web development firms, and more.

4.) Full-Service advertising agency - Full-service ad agencies are marketing firms who do not specialize in one area of marketing in general but provide a range of services within the umbrella of marketing. They attempt to provide a comprehensive approach for their clients. Depending on the skill level of this type of agency, they often provide a complete solution for their clients under one roof. Other times, they run the risk of becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none. It truly depends on the agency.

5.) Specialized marketing agency - A specialized marketing agency focuses on only one discipline or channel of marketing at a time rather than a set of disciplines like a boutique or consultancy or even a full range of services like a full-service firm. Example: An SEO agency only does one thing well, search engine marketing, all the time. The upside to this kind of firm is that the quality of work tends to be higher in that one area because they focus on one service. The downside to this firm is that they cannot pivot with an organization’s needs if those needs take them outside of their one realm of expertise. These firms also cost can cost a client more money in the long run as they require more agencies (one for each discipline) to deploy an omnichannel or multichannel strategy as is often the case today.

So now we have gone over the different individuals and types of firms that are found in digital marketing, it's good to know that even within these categories there are individual roles to be filled such as SEO Manager, Social Media Specialist, Data Analyst, Graphic Designer, Web Developers, and more.

Now to the real question, with so many options, how do you pick the option that makes the most sense to you? Well, this is a big topic but we recommend making a list of your desired goals and outcomes and their corresponding KPIs (key performance indicators). As you write this list down, make sure you ask yourself the important questions…

- What does success look like for me or my organization?

- Do I have only one goal or multiple?

- Does my market perform best with one channel or perhaps a small focused set?

- Is it best to go solo or do I need a partner?

- Oftentimes, asking the right questions will lead to the right answers.

- Either way, the beauty of it all is that digital marketing can work for anyone; it's just about finding the right solution for the job.

How much does Digital marketing cost?

How much does it all cost? The answer is probably one that won’t surprise you… it depends. For example; If you just need a deliverable like a website from an agency can cost 1,000 dollars to 15,000 dollars depending on the skill level and outcomes you want. On the other hand, a marketing campaign from a freelancer might cost $25-$150 per hour again depending upon where that person is in their ability to provide results. An internal team can 50-60,000 per team member. A social media marketing campaign (a good one) will need a budget in addition to the cost of labor for ad spend, it is more about the outcomes you want to achieve. To help with this question, let’s give you a framework or a reference you can use to make sure you can get a sense of what to expect.

Here are some factors to consider:

- Are you looking for a freelancer, intrapreneur, or an agency? A freelancer will be the least expensive but less experienced. An agency will be more expensive but more experienced and flexible. A small internal team of marketers would be most expensive in terms of annual investment but dedicated to your organization.

- Are you thinking in terms of R.O.I. or Return on Investment? If not then no amount of spending will make sense without adding in the context for what you get out of it. The whole purpose of investing in Marketing is to generate new results and a return on your investment. A generic example: If your cost to implement a campaign for example is $50,000 but your projected return is $150,000 then it makes complete sense to spend the money. However, if you spend 50K and have a projected return of only 20K then it makes little sense to spend the money, right? A big mistake people make is to look at marketing as a fixed cost and not as part of an equation of return. This leads people to not spend on marketing at all (which tanks their organization in the long run as fewer people enter or commit to the organization than their expenses to operate) or to spend in such a way where the results weren’t even worth the effort, which is also frustrating. Believe it or not, there is a cost to doing nothing - nothing is a choice that can cost money as time passes because every organization has expenses to operate so no matter your goals, ask about projected returns not just cost.

- What channel are you looking at to help you achieve said goals? Certain channels such as Search and Social are high value but require dedicated ad budgets set aside for the platforms themselves in addition to labor to deliver results. Other services have a fixed cost that does not require a continuous budget but maybe more moderate in end value. Other services may be based on an hourly rate.

How long does it take to see results from Digital marketing?

The speed at which you or a marketing partner can deploy a marketing campaign or asset varies by the channel used, the objectives you need, the budget, and the skill level of yourself, an individual practitioner, or an agency. However, even more, important than the speed of the project is an understanding of the decision-making process your customers go through in the sales cycle or donation cycle. At the end of the day, marketing is the positive connection between brands and people, it is people or customers that make the final decision but if a marketer has done their job then people should find deciding in your favor an easy decision to make.

A good practice to have in place is to make sure you are working with a partner that understands your customer’s experience and their sales cycle or donation cycle. This means they’ll know and understand what channels, content, and assets will give the end customer or donor what they need to decide to commit promptly which accelerates your sales cycle and the rate at which you gain business momentum. This directly impacts the rate at which you see results. Below are a few common sales cycles in various use cases, there are many more but these are basic sales cycles that apply to many industries:

Simple Cycle common in B2C or Business to Consumer situations:

Awareness - A person or organization becomes aware of a need but not how to address it.

Consideration - A person or organization begins to consider alternatives to address that need, if they are aware of your product or service they may consider it as a solution to that need. It is typical for the person or organization to conduct research and compare solutions during this time.

Decision - A person or organization finally decides upon a solution for that need, if you are the appropriate solution or they perceive that then they select you. If they are not sure or don’t perceive you as the right solution they select a different option.

Intermediate Sales Cycle common in B2B or Business to Business situations:

Awareness - Org #1 becomes aware of a need but not how to address it.

Contact - Org #1 receives contact from a representative of your organization (outbound) or discovers them for themselves online or through other channels (inbound). Org #2 or your organization wants to set up a meeting to discuss the said need and a solution. There are a variety of ways to establish first contact or discovery. The important thing is that decision-makers are brought into the conversation so that details are discussed with those people who can make decisions.

Presentation - A representative of your organization (Org#2) presents a solution to the need in question in the form of a product or service, answering questions and objections along the way.

Consideration - Org #1 considers the offer presented and the effectiveness by which addresses the need, they will consider value given for the price and other factors.

Terms Negotiated - Org #2 reaches out to further discuss and negotiate and if Org #2 finds it agreeable they continue the conversation if they do not then they politely decline further discussion.

Decision - Org #1 (the buyer) comes to a final decision - to commit or not to commit via a purchasing decision.

These are only two of many sales cycles out there, in essence, each industry and sector is going to have a detailed process for how it contacts, connects with, and ultimately assists customers or donors to commit to the desired action. What is important is to understand your industry, understand your customers, and select a marketing solution that addresses your needs.


Thanks for taking the time to read this guide! We hope it’s been helpful and insightful. This is only the tip of the iceberg but if you’re ready to move forward in your marketing journey and you like the information here then please consider getting in contact with us. But if you are simply looking to learn, check out more information from our digital digest to keep learning and growing in your knowledge digital. We never mind contributing to your growth and we wish you the absolute best.

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