What is digital marketing?

One thing I’ve heard and read about constantly since moving back to my native Scotland, is the general lack of understanding of what digital marketing is. It’s no wonder then, that businesses struggle to see the value in it.

Let’s rewind a little. The phrase “digital marketing” has become a bit of bugbear of mine, as I’m aware it has for many of our contemporaries, clients and various innocent bystanders (like my mates when I start going on about it, again). This is especially frustrating having spent more than a decade preaching the value of online communications.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe as much as I ever did in the work and the impact it has on a company’s bottom line, I just cringe a little every time I hear someone use it out of context, or in the wrong way, because they read it on a blog somewhere but didn’t really get it...

It’s become an excuse for sloppy marketing. Lazy practices and short-term goals. It’s become a way for snake-oil salesmen to con unaware business owners into parting with cash, to fund the growth of the consultant’s business, not the client’s.

And now I find myself, as I often do in life, thinking: “there must be more”.

Well, there is. And in this post I’m going to explain to you in simple language what digital marketing is and frankly, why you should give a damn.

A definition

Put simply, digital marketing is the combination of strategies, channels and tactics that a business uses to help them engage with their past, present and potential customers. That tends to mean any communication that is delivered “online” (or via the internet) and involves electronic devices like desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones and an increasing number of “smart” devices, from the television in your home, to the watch on your wrist, to that new white board in your office that no-one has shown you how to use.

But Adam, you’ve already lost me…

Ok, let’s break this down and explore what I’ve written in the above paragraph. I hope that by the end of this post you’ll have a better understanding of what digital marketing is and why it’s important for your business.

Strategies, channels and tactics

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference in these terms. Part of the problem with using the word “digital” is that it is so broad. No wonder it’s confusing! By its very nature it has disrupted traditional marketing and advertising fields and created new ones all of its own. If you think PR isn’t digital, think again! If you think SEO is just a part of building a website, you’re unfortunately misguided.

If you want to drive the most engagement with your customers in the modern day, to win more business, you need to take advantage of many of the practices you are already familiar with, in combination with some of those born in the brave new world of digital.

Strategies (model)

A strategy is the overarching approach to your marketing plan, that incorporates both digital and non-digital elements. It’s the fundamental model around which all of your communications are built, from how you define the members of your target audience, to the messages you create to tell your brand story, to the mediums on which you share your creative work.

There are many, many strategies out there and I’d argue that whichever model you use, it’s less important which one it is than how you implement it. Whilst failure to prepare is indeed preparing to fail, I’d argue that a plan until it’s deployed, is just a plan.

Finally, I would also urge caution to the marketers who have studied marketing or taken advanced courses from the likes of the Chartered Institute of Marketing: while there is nothing wrong with these courses in principal, the theory will never will be as current as the practice. You’re far better to pick a model that broadly represents the customer journey and get to work!

We use a very simple “4M” strategy that describes how a brand will meet their past, present or potential customers in the moments that matter, mature their relationships with those customers, monetise those engagements profitably and finally, matter to their customers in the long-term to encourage loyalty and therefore repeat business and referrals.

Channels (medium)

Channels are the mediums through which you share your marketing messages with your audience members.

There are traditional channels of which you’ll be well aware: television, radio, billboards, newspapers, magazines and so on. As for digital channels, these would include the likes of: your website, your emails, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat...this list goes on, too.

What’s important is that the channel mix is forever changing. But hasn’t it always? Hasn’t each one always served a discrete, yet meaningful purpose? The debate to place your media spend on the TV vs the radio, or in a newspaper vs a magazine is the same as the decision to invest in Google over Facebook, or LinkedIn over Instagram. It’s a marketing challenge that’s as old as time and yet, timeless. What’s changed is the opportunity to measure the impact of each channel in relation to the others and make meaningful decisions on where you’ll get the most bang for your marketing buck.

Tactics (method)

Still with me? Ok, here’s where it gets tricky. Tactics are the exact methods through which you can share your marketing message across digital channels. Some of these you’ll have heard of, some of which you may not have encountered. I’ll give a summary just now and we’ll be diving into each in more depth in future posts.

Digital marketing tactics include:

  • Search engine marketing

This is among the best known digital marketing tactic and includes other practices with which you may be familiar. Search engine optimisation, or “SEO”, is how you can help search engines like Google to better understand the content and purpose of your website, so that they can deliver the right content, to the right audience, at the right time. Paid search, or “PPC” - which stands for “pay-per-click” - is a method of advertising that originated within search and allows you to pay for your message to appear when people search for specific terms, versus waiting until Google “ranks” your website naturally.

  • Social media marketing

Another well-known but often misunderstood (and sold) tactic is social media marketing. These practices concern how to most effectively share your messages in a way that will engage your target audience members in the places they spend so much of their time, like Facebook for many “consumers” and LinkedIn for many “professionals”. (The quote marks here indicate likely audience stereotypes for each platform, although this may cause some debate!)

Social Media practices include the scheduling of “organic” or non-promoted posts to reach your followers at a time they are most likely to engage with your content, community management which is how you respond to both positive and negative comments from users and advertising or “paid social”, which is the ability to pay to show certain types of content to an audience outwith your existing network.

  • Email marketing

Frequently overlooked, email marketing is a fundamental tactic to get right if you want to maximise your conversion rates and encourage advocacy from your customers. Practices here go all the way back to how you store and manage your customer information (customer relationship management), to how to effectively schedule different types of message to engage customers in key moments. Examples include “basket abandonment” emails for websites that sell goods online, or “birthday reminder” emails to encourage gifting.

  • And many more…

There are other tactics of course, such as content marketing, display and native advertising, affiliate marketing and marketing automation - but these blend in and out what I think are the “core” digital marketing activities, outlined above. They will thus be topics for another day.


The devices involved in digital marketing change almost as quickly as the ads that cross your TV screen. If it’s not the new iPhone it’s the latest tablet, or the latest fitness watch that can also play funny cat videos right there on your wrist...

The truth is, there are going to be even more, crazier experiences coming your way in the very near future. In fact, some are already here. Have you seen the augmented reality (AR) technology embedded in the latest IKEA Place app? This type of tech is no longer hidden in labs or the minds of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it’s the new Gold Standard of communication.


One thing that digital marketing has given us, over and above anything that has existed before, is the ability to accurately measure the effectiveness of various channels and tactics in relation to one another.

This has often be used poorly, to focus only on channels that deliver an immediate “return on investment” (ROI) - perhaps quite incongruously by companies that have specialised in that particular method.

However, by using the measurement tools now at our disposal, to look at performance across the entire marketing mix, we can make informed decisions on where best to spend our budgets over meaningful periods of time.

And there you have it: an overview of what “digital marketing” actually is and some ideas as to how it can help your business

Hopefully this post serves to start unpacking the big, confusing world of digital, so that you can realise the opportunities such strategies, channels and tactics will afford you in the months and years to come.