What is digital marketing?

Digital marketing is a broad term that is generally associated with internet-based marketing efforts — including search marketing, social media marketing, email marketing, and online display advertising. But the term also includes marketing approaches using mobile devices, such as sending text messages to customers and mobile app advertising. For many companies, it is a strategic imperative to embrace digital tactics to acquire, grow, and retain customers to compete in today’s highly competitive markets.

Why is digital marketing important?

At its core, marketing is still about communicating the benefits of your product or service in a way that resonates with customers. Digital marketing approaches provide new ways to go beyond traditional methods and deliver a relevant, personalized, and frictionless experience to better engage audiences. This is why, no matter what type of product or service your company provides, it is essential to interact with your customers where they are — online and on their mobile devices.

Here are a few statistics about digital usage to consider:

  • Over 4.3 billion people were using the internet by the end of 2018, according to data published by the International Telecommunication Union.

  • Pew Research Center reported that 69 percent of American adults use at least one social media platform to connect with one another and share information.

  • Consumers spend three hours and 48 minutes a day on digital media, according to a 2018 Nielson report.

  • A 2017 Gartner survey found that 83 percent of B2B customers use digital channels to inform purchase decisions — even in the late stages of the buying journey.

Digital marketing timeline

The internet has had a deep impact on marketing practices over the last 30 years. During this time, digital marketing tactics have increasingly complemented — if not replaced — traditional marketing methods such as print, television, and radio advertisements.


  • Search engines such as Yahoo! (1994), Ask Jeeves (1996), and Google (1997) were launched, enabling users to quickly find information. In response, companies recognized the need to optimize their websites to achieve higher search rankings.

  • CRM vendors (such as Oracle, SAP, and Siebel) combined database marketing with contact management, providing businesses with a better way to manage customer relationships. Salesforce.com was founded in 1999, pioneering the software-as-a-service model for CRM.

  • Online advertising emerged following the launch of the first banner ad in 1994 by Wired magazine’s digital affiliate HotWired.

  • Cookie technology made it possible for digital marketers to collect user data and target audiences based on previous searches.

In 1991, the world wide web became publicly available. As the number of internet users grew, new digital marketing methods emerged and companies embraced new ways to promote products online.


  • Google released Adwords in 2000, giving marketers the ability to advertise their products on Google and only pay when people click the ads.

  • Social media platforms such as WordPress, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter gained popularity, giving companies new channels to reach target customers, distribute content, and promote products.

  • Smartphones transformed the way people use mobile technology. The release of the Apple iPhone in 2007 and the availability of mobile apps made social media platforms broadly accessible and created mobile advertising opportunities.

  • Email became a commonly used method for sending out mass communications, enabled by marketing automation tools such as Eloqua, Marketo, and Hubspot.

During the 2000s, the internet became increasingly interactive, enabling users to connect directly with other users and businesses.


  • Google Analytics gave marketers a way to analyze website traffic in real time. It continues to be a foundational tool for helping digital marketers understand online audiences and improve the customer experience.

  • Personalized marketing technologies — such as retargeting, contextual advertising, and optimized paid search — help companies communicate the right message to the right audience at the right time.

  • Native advertising options provide an online promotional experience that supplements rather than disrupts the target audience’s online experience. Examples include recommending content on a web page that matches the look of the media format in which it appears.

The 2010s are often described as the “digital marketing age.” Users are now technology dependent, requiring businesses to make effective use of digital advances to refine the customer experience and meet business goals.

Components of digital marketing

There are continually new ways to engage target audiences and communicate your message. Today, nearly all marketing work involves a digital component. Read this guide on the major digital marketing components to learn more about the broad range of online marketing campaign options that are available today.

Here is an overview of the most commonly used digital marketing methods:

  • Advertising: Online advertising involves bidding and buying relevant ad units on third-party sites — such as display ads on blogs, forums, and other relevant websites.

  • Content marketing: Content marketing attracts potential customers through a regular cadence of high-quality, relevant content online that helps establish thought leadership.

  • Email marketing: Email is a direct marketing method that involves sending promotional messages to a segmented group of prospects or customers.

  • Mobile marketing: Mobile marketing is the promotion of products or services specifically via mobile phones and devices.

  • Paid search: Paid search allows companies to bid for keywords and purchase advertising space in the search engine results using a pay per click (PPC) or cost per mille (CPM) model.

  • Programmatic advertising: Programmatic advertising is an automated way of bidding for online advertising space based on the sites you want your ads to be displayed and who you want to see them.

  • Reputation marketing: Reputation marketing focuses on gathering and promoting positive online reviews to influence potential customer buying decisions.

  • Search engine optimization: Search engine optimization (SEO) focuses on increasing organic traffic to your website by improving rankings and increasing awareness in search engines.

  • Social media marketing: Social media marketing combines organic and paid efforts to reach and interact with potential customers via social platforms.

  • Video marketing: Video marketing provides a visually engaging way to advertise your products and share educational content with potential customers.

  • Web analytics: Web analytics provide real-time insights into online customer behavior so you can continuously optimize your digital marketing efforts.

  • Webinars: Webinars are virtual events that allows companies to present relevant content — such as a product demonstration or seminar — to a targeted audience in real time.

Benefits of digital marketing

At the most basic level, digital marketing offers ways to engage your audience in the channels they use and build trust in a way that influences their buying decisions. There are additional benefits to digital marketing, including:


Digital marketing can be more cost effective than traditional marketing methods, giving businesses of all sizes the opportunity to compete for market share.


Marketers can analyze real-time traffic data to get valuable insights into customer behavior and quickly optimize the experience.


Businesses can measure the return on marketing investments by increasing conversion rates and improving the cost per lead.


Marketers can engage with specific customer segments more effectively, delivering personalized messages that meet the need and intent of each customer.


Digital marketing gives companies the ability to reach larger global audiences while applying behavioral and psychographic profiling to target ideal buyers.

Getting started with digital marketing

Digital marketing looks different for every company. This is because every company has a unique vision and set of marketing and product goals. And every company has its own target audience with different needs and wants.

Regardless of what your company does, creating a digital marketing plan is essential to getting started. It ensures your online activities support your overall business strategy and make a positive impact with customers. Regardless of the marketing activities you undertake, what matters most is delivering clear and benefit-centered messages that resonate with customers and drive results.

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