Surely you’ve heard the online chatter about “digital marketing.” There are a million platforms, channels, systems, software programs, “strategies” and agencies that are guaranteed to make you a million bucks.
Every month it’s something new. (You using Facebook Messenger as an ad platform yet?)
If you’re a business owner you have better things to do than follow the scuttlebutt about the shifting landscape within various specialties that fall under the banner of digital marketing.
It’ll make your head spin.
So here’s a little advice… If you’re choosing a digital marketing firm, or thinking of hiring an in-house “digital marketing specialist,” read this post all the way through.
At least you’ll get a handle on the definition of digital marketing. That’s the bare minimum you need to know before diving in. You can’t manage their work effectively if you don’t know the basics:
1. Know the definition of “Digital Marketing.”
You have to understand that the term itself varies dramatically from one firm to the next. Depends on their niche… Some say it’s SEO. Some say it’s web development. Some says it’s pay per click. Some say it’s lead-gen. Some say it’s all of the above.
Here’s a definition used by one of the big players in that business:
“Digital marketing is data driven and targeted brand promotion through technology.”
“Data Driven” and “Targeted” are popular buzzwords these days. But guess what… Marketing consultants, direct response agencies, media-buying specialists and market research firms have been “data driven” since the early 1950’s.
Even Advertising Agencies… They use hard market research data to devise creative campaigns, and then they use sophisticated media targeting to deliver the message to the right people.
This is NOT a new concept in the marketing world.
Digital marketing firms are just using new tools to do the work. And for the most part, it’s good, valuable work that should be part of every marketing plan. But it’s just a part.
Note the use of the word “promotion”.
By definition, promotions are transactional, tactical tools that can boost short term sales. But they do not build brand loyalty. Don’t confuse promotional tactics with marketing strategy or brand building.
And wait a minute… That same firm also claims: “We have the means to take over your marketing from top to bottom, evaluate your brand’s needs and develop a powerful strategy that maximizes profits.”
That’s where they begin to overpromise.
I don’t know any small digital firms that have account planners, market researchers or brand managers on staff who can help you with a brand strategy. Digital marketing people are detail-oriented, technology-minded specialists. They’re not trained — nor wired — to see the big picture.
For that, you need a real a marketing consultant or a strategic branding firm. Even an ad agency would be a better choice for strategy work than a digital marketing firm. Let the digital guys stick to their own definition of digital marketing, and use someone else to oversee the strategy.
2. Know where digital marketing firms fit into the overall marketing landscape.
Naturally, all digital marketing firms contend that “digital is the future of marketing.” And a lot of business owners are buying into the idea that a digital marketing firm is all they’ll ever need.
But the world’s greatest brands, and the fastest growing small businesses, recognize one old-fashioned business school fact: The best marketing is a MIX of things.
You need a rich mixture of marketing tactics, marketing perspectives and marketing talent — both generalists and specialists.
You also need a mix of different media outlets to keep your brand visible and relevant. Not just social media posts or paid Instagram ads.
A healthy marketing mix means that some of your marketing efforts will be designed for a short-term bump in sales, while others will be designed for building long-term brand loyalty.
Some will be creative, design-oriented, “feel good” efforts like what you get from design firms and ad agencies.
Other tactics will be analytical and numbers-driven, like what you get from digital marketing firms.
Both can move the needle for your brand, but all those pieces should be aligned under one, coherent, overarching marketing strategy.
Digital Marketing Agencies are constantly promoting themselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. Which is perfectly on-brand, because that’s their wheelhouse. They commonly boast that they “manage $x millions in digital media spending” which tells me they fit squarely in a specialized niche within the bigger niche of media buying services.
They don’t tout their strategic prowess or creative thinking. Just their ability to manage your social media posts and paid ads on all the various digital channels.
The business model that’s taught by all the digital marketing gurus is based on mass scaleability. “Just follow this model and you’re going to crush it,” they all claim.
It’s true. Media planning and buying always has been a highly profitably business model. (That’s how advertising agencies made their millions.) But there’s a dirty little secret in the new model that digital agency owners don’t want clients to know: When they “scale” the clients pay a price.
The mindset is this: We managed a facebook campaign for a natural foods company that worked well, so we’re going to replicate that and run the exact same thing for a bunch of clients in the same category. All we have to do is change out the logos.
It’s an efficient cash-flow generator for the agency owners, but it’s not necessarily good for your brand. Do you really want to be saying, showing, and doing the same thing as your competitors?
Seth Godin posted this recently:
“Online marketing has become a messy mix of direct marketing, seo, tricks, tips, code and guesswork. It’s an always-moving target and it’s mostly focused on tactics, not strategy, because tactics are easy to measure.”
Digital marketing firms will tell you how “strategic” their social media work is, and they’ll claim that everything they do is based on “strategic targeting.” Sure, targeting is important, but do not expect marketing strategy from a digital marketing firm.
Mark Ritson, a world renown brand strategist and Professor of Brand Management puts it bluntly: “‘Digital Strategy’ is a contradiction in terms. What’s happening all the time now is tactics are getting perverted into ‘strategies’. What you really need is a marketing strategy.”
Strategy first, THEN tactics.
I know it’s confusing. And don’t feel bad if all your efforts have been tactical. Ritson says that 80% of all British companies don’t have a coherent marketing strategy. Everyone’s fixated on tactics these days.
Here’s a good post where you can read more about the differences between marketing strategy and tactics.
Strategy first. Tactics second.
The old 4 P’s of Marketing still apply. You should pay attention to all four, not just the one that’s covered by digital marketing firms.
There’s “Place” which has to do with distribution strategy.
There’s Product. (A great product makes all the other elements of marketing much easier.)
And finally, there’s “Promotions” which is a catch-all phrase that includes all marketing communications and tactics, including every specialized facet of Digital Marketing.
So you see, the tactical work that Digital Marketing firms do well — SEO, SEM, SMM, CPM — and all those other confusing acronyms — is really just a small part of the overall tactical marketing picture.
Digital marketing firms like to compare themselves to “traditional advertising agencies” because the old, Mad Men model is an easy target.
But digital agencies are actually more similar to Direct Response agencies than they are to traditional ad agencies. Direct Response firms always have been driven by quantifiable data and measurable ROI.
I believe it won’t be long before the term “digital marketing” is dropped entirely from the industry jargon. Because everything’s digital these days. Even traditional old things like radio advertising and print are delivered digitally. The lines are blurry, and the terminology continues to confound many people. (For a primer on marketing terms, try this post from the AMA.)
4. Know who’s really doing the work.
The business model for many Digital Marketing Firms is pretty simple: Scaled Outsourcing. They exploit and monetize multiple sources of cheap labor such as crowdsourcing websites, freelance markets like Upwork or “white label” firms from Asia. Then they mark it up. Dramatically.
It’s a good business model for them, but it’s not designed with the best interest of the client at heart.
There’s no synergy to those efforts because every little marketing tactic is being executed by a different person who knows nothing about your business. Plus, in most cases there’s no strategy to guide the efforts. The right hand seldom knows what the digital left hand is doing at any given time.
So before choosing a digital marketing firm, just know that they cannot help you with the big picture strategy work that’ll build your brand in the long run.
So you have two choices… Become your own, best brand manager and get really good at strategy, OR hire a brand strategy consultant to map things out before you ever jump on board with a digital marketing firm.
Without it, your digital tactics will not be as effective as everyone would like.
If you’re still confused about the definition of digital marketing, give us a call. We’ll coach you through it, from a strategic perspective. 541-815-0075.