What is Digital Marketing?

Digital marketing can make or break your small business. A strong strategy can help you set yourself apart from your competitors, but a weak—or nonexistent—strategy can leave you falling behind. Whether you use one channel or many, digital marketing is essential to capture the attention of today’s online audience.

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What is digital marketing?

Digital marketing includes all internet-based marketing strategies that help you reach your target audience and drive revenue goals. It’s hard to exist on the internet without seeing or interacting with some form of digital marketing, and it’s easy to see why. Online content shapes most of how we go about daily life—from the products we buy to the places we go to the activities we do. Your business can leverage this impact by strategizing effective digital marketing channels and campaigns.

Consider the examples below:

Screenshot of SEM ads under the search term "birthday cake" on Google.

Example of search engine marketing for the search term “birthday cake”

Screenshot of social media marketing ad on LinkedIn.

Example of social media marketing on LinkedIn

The opposite of digital marketing is traditional marketing, which consists of mass advertising strategies across radio, television, and print media. These approaches are ideal for marketing your business to a very large audience, which can help with brand recognition long-term. However, traditional advertising campaigns are usually more expensive and time consuming to produce, and their impact is harder to quantify. Digital marketing is a better way for small businesses like yours to stretch marketing dollars further and make a bigger impact.

Why is digital marketing important?

Digital marketing is essential for small businesses that want to stay competitive in today’s digital world. Consider, for example, a small business called The Sports Store that sells athletic equipment. In addition to taking out an ad in the local newspaper or creating a commercial to run during the evening news, leveraging digital marketing channels offers a number of advantages.

Digital marketing is cost-effective and scalable

First and foremost, it’s supremely cost-effective and scalable—regardless of how big or small the business’s budget is, a digital marketing campaign can help generate brand awareness and traffic. A campaign promoting a pre-season sale on baseball bats, for example, doesn’t require a ton of money or effort to reach people who want to find the best bat for hitting home runs. The Sports Store can invest a little bit of money at first and add more later on if the campaign is performing really well.

Digital marketing is analytics-driven 

Second, digital marketing tactics are ideal for analytics. This means The Sports Store can track its return on investment (ROI) in real time and uncover new details about its audience. There might be a large number of prospective customers looking for a particular brand the store doesn’t carry, or a certain demographic of customers that make larger purchases than others. Digital marketing provides concrete data that supports these theories.

Digital marketing creates a level playing field

Additionally, digital marketing makes it easier for The Sports Store to compete with bigger companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods or Academy Sports. That’s because it’s all about delivering the right content to the right people at the right time. Sure, larger corporations might have a bigger budget or more staff, but when it comes to a soccer player scrolling through social media or searching for the best type of cleats, the only thing that matters is whose content they see first. 

Digital marketing offers limitless growth opportunities

Digital marketing also enables small businesses to expand their reach beyond their geographic area. The Sports Store can market its products to people who would otherwise never know it existed with traditional advertising methods alone. With the right ecommerce tools in place, The Sports Store can sell to someone on the other side of the country who can’t find what they need locally. This opens up limitless opportunities for audience and revenue growth.

Digital marketing is tailored

Last but not least, digital marketing allows businesses of all sizes to personalize their marketing message to different segments of customers. Instead of broadcasting the same message to all customers, The Sports Store can use digital marketing tools to craft different campaigns for coaches, players, and parents of young players. Each segment of the business’s audience has a different motivation when shopping for sports equipment, and tapping into those differences will help drive conversions and build brand loyalty.

Types of digital marketing

Digital marketing comes in a wide range of forms. The following modes of digital marketing are some of the most popular, but new digital marketing channels are gaining traction every day.

Content marketing

Content marketing is an indirect form of digital marketing through which a business creates and distributes valuable, relevant content to attract customers. An effective content strategy is the foundation of any digital marketing strategy, but it doesn’t need to be limited to just blog posts and white papers. The right type of content depends on the type of business. For example, website content might make sense for a B2B company, but a restaurant might find more value in prioritizing social media or even video content. 

Before you start planning your business’s content, it’s important to determine what will be most relevant and valuable to your target audience. The most effective content will draw new customers by answering their questions or solving their problems. This will also help establish credibility for your business by positioning you as an expert in your field. 

Engagement is another important ingredient in effective content marketing. Regardless of the shape it takes, your content should invite your audience to take some kind of action. This could be commenting, sharing, clicking, signing up, purchasing, or reviewing. If the goal of your content stops at awareness, you could be missing out on an opportunity to grow your audience and revenue.

Content marketing is tightly woven into other types of digital marketing, so there are many tools that can do double duty depending on your approach. For example, a content management system like Square can support both your website-based content marketing and ecommerce strategies. Or, a social media management platform like Hootsuite can manage your organic and paid social media content all in one place. For robust content marketing strategies, a project management software might be the best tool to get a bird’s eye view of all the moving pieces.

Search engine optimization (SEO)

In its simplest form, search engine optimization (SEO) is the ongoing process of adjusting a webpage’s content to make it more likely to appear higher in organic search results for specific keywords. It’s more of a tool than a specific type of digital marketing, but it’s one of the most common ways customers find businesses online. 

For example, a hair salon specializing in curly hair services would want to make sure the content on its website makes it obvious to search engines that that’s the case. Doing so increases the chances that the salon’s website will be at the top of the list when prospective customers search for “curly hair salon” or related keywords. Effective SEO can impact customers at every stage of your sales funnel, so under-prioritizing SEO could mean you fall behind your competitors.

The criteria for “good SEO” is constantly evolving as search engines update their algorithms. However, SEO best practices generally revolve around connecting the overall goals of your website—and by extension, your business—to your customers’ specific needs. Some of the top considerations for search engine optimization include:

  • How often you mention the keywords in the page content
  • Whether the technical details of the page (called the metadata) include references to the keywords
  • How easy it is to navigate your website from a mobile device
  • Whether other quality sites link to yours
  • How quickly your site loads from various browsers

Unlike other types of digital marketing, SEO strategies don’t usually involve a formal campaign. Instead, search engine optimization is an ongoing process that should be considered with every website change and algorithm update. There are, however, tools that can help you understand what keywords you should be targeting and how your site is performing against them. These tools include Moz, Ahrefs, and Google Data Studio.

Search engine marketing (SEM)

Search engine marketing (SEM) is running paid ad campaigns on search engines like Google or Bing. It’s similar to SEO, but the general goal of SEM is to serve ads to people who are searching for the keywords that are most relevant to your business. This is why SEM is also sometimes referred to as paid search or pay-per-click (PPC). Search engines make money when users click on ads, so they usually place the ads prominently above the organic search results.

Successful SEM campaigns depend on a number of variables. The keyword(s) you choose to target should strike a balance between search volume, bid range, competition, and relevance to your business. The targeting criteria and content of the ad can also impact the campaign’s success. If the targeting is too narrow, the ad won’t be served to people who might be likely to click on it, but if it’s too broad, the ad might be served to the wrong kinds of people or the search engine might not show the ad at all. Likewise, if the content of the ad isn’t specific or relevant enough to the keyword, users will be less likely to engage.

One thing to consider is that not all SEM platforms are created equal. Because Google dominates the search engine market, you should expect to pay more for highly competitive keywords than you would pay with Yahoo or Bing, for example. However, opting for a less popular ad network to save money might not be the best decision because you’ll likely eclipse the majority of the population using Google. It makes sense, then, that a holistic approach to SEM would include all of the major search engines in some capacity.

Regardless of which search engine(s) you choose, SEM is a valuable type of digital marketing because it’s relatively agile and scalable. Most search engines make it easy to adjust campaign parameters based on historical data—if a campaign isn’t performing well, you can make small changes to improve performance, but if it’s outperforming expectations, you can put more money behind the campaign to keep it running for longer. Similarly, you can dip your toes into the SEM waters with a very small budget and scale up your campaigns as your business grows.

Most search engines offer their own platform to manage SEM campaigns, but you might benefit from a third-party tool like AdRoll or SharpSpring. These tools can manage ads across multiple search engines and other types of display advertising publishers.

Social media marketing

Social media marketing is advertising on social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, TikTok, and YouTube. Some networks are better for reaching specific audiences than others. LinkedIn, for example, is better for targeting business professionals in specific industries or roles, whereas TikTok boasts a younger, more trend-focused audience. Some networks like Facebook and Instagram also have more robust marketing tools than others.

There are different best practices to keep in mind depending on which networks you choose, but this type of digital marketing is usually tightly woven into your broader content marketing strategy. This is primarily because there is a fine line between organic content and paid ads with social media marketing. It’s common for businesses to “boost” organic posts that are performing well to increase visibility and engagement alongside dedicated advertisements. Even if you’re just starting out with social media or have a small budget, you can create a social media marketing strategy that can grow with you.

Like SEM, social media marketing is a powerful tool for generating traffic and conversions to your website. Unlike SEM, however, social media marketing serves a dual purpose of driving in-platform engagement and audience building at the same time. When a user sees your advertisement in their social media timeline, they may not follow the specific call to action in that ad, but they might respond to the post or follow your account and remember your company in the future. The same cannot necessarily be said for SEM.

All social media networks offer tools to manage paid ad campaigns, but a third-party social media management tool like Hootsuite can help you manage your ads alongside your organic content. Alternatively, some of the SEM tools listed above also support social media marketing.

Email marketing

Email marketing is a direct marketing channel that reaches customers directly in their email inboxes. It’s perhaps the most unique type of digital marketing on this list. Instead of marketing to a wide audience of loyal customers, prospective customers, and people who are just being introduced to your brand, email marketing is limited to a list of contacts who already know about your company and have signed up to receive emails from you. However, you “own” this audience, which makes your email marketing strategy resistant to algorithm changes from social media or SEM. 

What’s more, email marketing has a long-standing reputation as the most effective marketing tool of all. According to Campaign Monitor’s guide, The New Rules of Email Marketing, email delivers the highest ROI for marketers, and segmented email campaigns drive a 760% increase in revenue.

Email segmentation is easiest when you connect an email marketing platform like Mailchimp or Emma to a customer relationship management (CRM) software, or choose a tool like Salesforce or HubSpot that have email marketing tools baked in. This allows you to target specific customers according to specific actions they have taken. For example, you can send an “abandoned cart” email to a logged in customer who left your website without checking out. Or, you can segment customers based on their purchase history to make recommendations, offer discounts, or announce new offerings.

Personalization and automation are other unique elements of email marketing. Unlike organic content or digital ads, marketing emails can be tailored to the individual recipient. Even basic personalizations like first name, contact information, or rewards status can create a memorable experience for your customers, which is something you can’t accomplish through social media or search engines. You can also automate multiple emails to send based on certain triggers like clicking a link or taking another action.

One downside, however, is that email marketing campaigns are relatively difficult to scale. It will take some time to create a campaign strategy, develop compelling email content, and build a contact list. But, email marketing can be one of the most powerful revenue generators once you have the right pieces in place.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing, also known as influencer marketing, is a type of digital marketing that involves coordinating with content creators who are willing to promote your business to their audience. It can span a wide range of platforms, including social media, email, and website content. Some high-profile influencers may charge more than you’re willing to spend on a campaign, but micro-influencers—those who have a smaller but highly engaged audience—might be friendlier to your budget.

Related: Is Micro-Influencer Marketing Right for You?

To launch an affiliate marketing campaign, you first need to research the influencers who have the most engaged audience and fit naturally with your company’s goals. Ideally, the right influencer is an existing customer who can speak to your brand and promote your products or services to followers who will trust their recommendations. Start by looking for established customers who have a large following. Then, reach out to them to learn more about their audience, how often they post, and what a potential campaign would look like.

You should be willing to give up some creative control to ensure the influencer’s message is authentic to their brand identity. Otherwise, their followers won’t feel that the promotion is genuine, and they won’t be likely to take any further action. However, a strong relationship with the right influencer can lead to strong revenue and audience growth for the long-term. 

The most impactful affiliate marketing tools are those that help discover new influencers and others who are already talking about your brand. Some platforms like Carro and Izea were designed to connect businesses like yours with established influencers. Social listening tools like Buffer help you monitor what people are saying about your company and identify those who might be interested in working with you on an affiliate campaign.

Successful digital marketing requires the right tools

A strong digital marketing strategy is essential in today’s modern world. A traditional marketing approach alone will all but ensure you’ll lose business to your competitors, so it’s important to prioritize the digital marketing tactics that make the most sense for your business and budget. Once you’ve created a solid strategy to reach your target audience online, review our list of the Best Digital Marketing Tools for Small Businesses to support all of your efforts.

Kaiti Norton
Kaiti Norton is a Nashville-based Content Writer for eSecurity Planet, Webopedia, and Small Business Computing. She is passionate about creating relatable, research-based content that helps small businesses thrive. When she's not writing about small business technology, she's sharing her musings about fashion, cats, books, and skincare on her blog.

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