What Digital Marketing really is (vs. Traditional Marketing)

Most people know what digital marketing really is, right?

Actually, they don’t. Even though they say things like:

“It’s marketing online.”

“It’s the new marketing.”

“It’s marketing for the modern world.”

“It’s more affordable, more targeted and measurable marketing.”

“It’s being able to advertise or communicate what you want, when you want, and to exactly whom you want, on the budget you want.”

All of these seem right, and if you take each statement at face value, they are.

But face value isn’t enough to bet your business upon. So don’t stop there.

Let’s dig a little deeper to place digital marketing in the context of marketing.

What Digital Marketing isn’t

Rather than explain what digital marketing is, let’s first clarify what it isn’t.

Digital marketing is not the same thing as marketing. Nor is it an alternative.

Instead, digital marketing is actually a component of marketing i.e. it fits within marketing as a whole.

Much of digital marketing is actually related to direct marketing, but only what’s done through the internet, like email, PPC advertising, blogging, etc. These are all valid pieces of the online marketing puzzle.

But there are plenty of digital marketing techniques that have nothing to do with your audience being online at that very moment. Like the digital billboards we see mainly in city centres, demonstration kiosks in stores and shopping centres, iPads in McDonald’s, etc.

So the way I explain it is that digital marketing is about how your message physically reaches your target audience.

Some old techniques are digitised (mail vs. email), and some are completely new techniques that are unique to digital (like social media).

To help explain this further, let’s look at the bigger picture first.

What is Marketing

If digital marketing is a component of marketing, let’s recap what marketing really is.

And when I say marketing, I’m referring to what people call ‘traditional marketing’.

Here’s a definition of marketing according to Dr Philip Kotler (author of many marketing texts I’ve personally learned from):

“Marketing is the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit.”

There’s very little of Dr Philip Kotler’s definition of marketing that can be performed by digital marketing alone.

Let’s break that definition down into its component parts to see why all those statements people make are actually wrong, and how you should be thinking about digital marketing when you’re planning your marketing:

Exploring refers to researching and studying markets, people and their needs. There is no digital marketing in here (other than using digital tools to help with things like survey tools).

Creating refers to making a product or service. Again, digital tools can assist with this creation phase, and it may well be a digital product, but this about the creation of the offering.

Delivering value refers to why anyone would care for your product or service. There is nothing digital in here, even if the product itself is digital. It’s about why a person would pay for a thing.

Satisfy needs is about solving a problem. Light bulb gone? You need a replacement. You can visit the store, or buy online for delivery, or even have someone turn up with exactly the right bulb and fit it for you. Each scenario satisfies different levels of needs for different people. All of these lead to satisfying the core need, which is to be able to see when it’s dark. This core need is not satisfied by digital marketing alone.

Target market refers to the humans. The people. You and me, who mostly have a natural desire to have a good life, be happy and content, and feel good. Pinch yourself. How do you feel? This is about which segments the offering is intended for. So no digital there either.

Profit. Subtracting the few businesses that don’t have profit on the agenda (like charities), sooner or later you’ll struggle to compete, and struggle to service your target audience with the offerings that you set out to deliver (which they may have grown to value). Nothing digital here, except scenarios where digital methods have attributes that deliver efficiencies which boost profitability.

So Kotler defined marketing in terms that strongly relate to thinking, planning, executing. Then you have to optimise, accelerate and grow.

This definition is just as relevant and correct today as it was when he wrote it decades ago.

Digital marketing arrived and fell right into this definition.

Where does Digital Marketing come in?

Digital marketing comes into play primarily when choosing which elements of the execution should use digital methods and tools to deliver your marketing strategy.

But if you consider only digital marketing, exclusively, you’re skipping some key stages, steps, and opportunities in your marketing plan.

Why wouldn’t you want to look at every available tool when deciding which seem best to execute your marketing strategy?

That’s why I like to think about the emergence of digital marketing as having a bigger toolbox.

We have more options and techniques than before and your choices should be based on things like your product, audience, stage of your business, budget, etc.

People think marketing has changed so much over the years.

Marketing hasn’t changed. You still have to think, plan and execute – but now with alternative tools and some shiny new ones.

So why do most people have this wrong?

If you’re starting to see how digital marketing is a component of, not a replacement for marketing, it’s natural to wonder why almost everyone thinks of digital marketing is the shiny new type of marketing.

When speaking about marketing, people often say or ask things like:

“We need some digital marketing.”

“We need to do more on social media.”

“We need more traffic.”

I don’t really know why they’ve got this so wrong, but I have observed the emergence of digital since the 1990’s through to where it is today. I think so many people have got it so wrong because digital marketing can be:

  • Immediate.
  • Highly measurable.
  • Interactive (and social).
  • Direct.
  • Faster at evolving than traditional marketing.

But the dark side of digital marketing is that it can be confusing. Unfortunately, I believe people in the marketing industry have led almost everyone else to believe that digital marketing is something new, better or different than traditional marketing.

And the worst is happening – many of the new age of marketers think only about digital marketing. It’s one of the reasons why I take opportunities to speak at universities and business schools about what marketing really is like when you’ve been doing it for 20+ years, and the big problem with how people perceive digital marketing.

Summary

The role of digital marketing is mostly about execution, which is the very last part of the marketing planning process.

Whereas marketing as a whole encompasses an entire art and science which begins with assessing the situation, setting objectives, planning a strategy of how to achieve those objectives using the right tools from every available marketing tool, and then executing the tactics (i.e. go to market execution).

You still have to build your brand, build your offering, make it all reach and appeal to people, and make money.

Stop thinking about digital marketing as a separate piece of activity, handling it in a silo, or worst of all, as a new kind of marketing that supersedes traditional marketing.

Don’t listen to the digital-only marketers who only recommend individual marketing tactics like email, PPC, SEO, landing pages, blog, social media, or any shiny new object in marketing. Either they’re misguiding you, or they simply don’t know enough about marketing as a whole. Whatever you’re being told, just ask why after each answer. Keep going to see if you can get to the bottom and feel convinced.

The better way is to take a more thoughtful, strategic and holistic approach by thinking about digital as something that integrates into your overall marketing strategy and marketing mix. Your overall marketing, as one, should support your strategy to achieve your business objectives.

If you ever find yourself thinking about digital in the ways mentioned in those quotes, or only thinking you need digital marketing, pinch yourself – you’re human.