What is Digital Marketing?

by Dan Walsh

A more complete definition of an emerging field.

I started teaching a digital marketing class two weeks ago. Actually, I’m the TA. Which in many ways is better because I can sit in the back and soak up info from everyone in the room. It’s been rewarding so far. The topics covered have helped me organize my own thoughts, and the questions from students have given me a novice perspective – which is always useful for creative new ideas. The best question lingering in the air is “what is digital marketing?”

Ironically, I’ve never defined “digital marketing” other than marketing online. I’ve come to realize from my students that this is an incomplete definition, however. When I tell them “digital marketing is just marketing online,” they answer with blank stares.

I’m a firm believer that it is not the student’s responsibility to “get it”, but that it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach it in a way that is understandable. If my definition of digital marketing results in blank stares then it’s my responsibility to come up with a better explanation.

I’m glad the students didn’t accept my definition as it was because it forced me to rethink this shallow explanation. When I tried to explain more thoroughly I came up with “digital marketing is the application of traditional marketing techniques with an emphasis on testing, measuring, and iterating campaigns on internet channels.” This is better, but as I thought about it more, it’s still incomplete. After all, the process of testing-measuring-iterating is nothing new. Claude Hopkins outlined / created this whole process back when he used coupons to A/B test full page text ads in magazines. Very low tech. And hanging digital marketing solely on “internet channels” excludes interesting things like Target’s in-store customer data mining efforts which I would very much include as part of digital marketing. So now what?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few days and I think I’ve come to an answer. The internet and all other digital channels (including Target’s cash registers) do two things much better than traditional marketing ever could. They are 1) faster and 2) more accurate. Hopkins’ magazine A/B tests was beholden to publishing cycles, the speed of the US Postal Service, and the reaction times of his potential customers. I single Hopkins A/B test could easily take up to 6 months. Yes, he could iterate, but maybe only twice year.

He also only had a few data points. Sure, he had circulation numbers, but he had no idea how many people opened the magazine, how many people started reading the ad, how many people finished reading the ad, how many people clipped the coupon, how many people got ready to mail the coupon but never did because they didn’t have a stamp, how many people actually mailed the coupon, and how many got lost in the mail. In short, he had a pretty limited view on his conversion funnel, which made it hard to optimize his conversion rates.

So if speed and scope of information set digital marketing apart from traditional advertising, then it stands to reason that skills related to these two attributes will help a digital marketer succeed. Adwords, Twitter, Facebook, and Mailchimp are all just tools. Sure, they’re powerful, but like all tools they will change over time. Just ask a film maker, graphic designer, architect, or novelist. They’ve all made the leap to working in the digital space, but nobody calls themselves a “digital novelist”. Maybe that’s because all the same concepts and theories still apply. Marketing, however, seems to have changed a lot.