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What is digital marketing?
The retail landscape has been transformed by digital marketing and the likes of Amazon. Billboard design by LittleFox
In the most basic of terms, digital marketing is simply marketing that’s happening on digital channels. (Pretty obvious, right?) But what does that mean? How does digital marketing differ from traditional marketing? And why is it something you should be considering for your business? Here’s everything you need to know.
"Digital marketing" is basically any form of marketing that uses digital tools and channels.

For decades, marketing teams were churning out the same old recipe of TV copies, print ads and billboards to tell customers about their companies' products and services and to convince them to spend their money. Then the internet came along in the 1990s and the number of websites exploded. The new channels that have popped up, like Facebook in 2004 and Google in 2007, have created a whole new arena for marketing.

In the early days, the approach to digital marketing was the same as the traditional marketing approach, just using the new channels: talk about your products on your own website, run some banner ads on other popular websites and online publications (just like print ads in magazines) and then sell your products or services in the same way you’ve always sold them. With time, marketers realized that digital offered a whole new way of interacting with and selling to customers and that demanded a much different approach (more on this in a minute).

Another change is that marketing departments used to have a digital team that was separate from the traditional team working on TV and print. Today, everything in marketing is digital and it needs to be fully integrated into your company’s overall marketing strategy and organization.
Why is digital marketing important for your business?
You don’t need to be a digital expert to know that your customers are spending a lot of time (and money) online these days. Like, a LOT. They’re googling, scrolling through their newsfeeds, posting selfies on Instagram and chatting to friends on WhatsApp. That means your business and your marketing campaigns need to be present during these moments as well.
Digital marketing can help you reach a single Fortune 500 CEO vacationing on Koh Samui, a dog-loving bookworm in the Northwest Territories of Canada, or a silver-haired, free-spirited entrepreneur setting up his online business in Santa Monica. Newsletter images by LittleFox
Digital marketing can be more effective than traditional mass marketing:

  • It lets you focus your time and money on where your customers are spending their time and money. (It also levels the playing field between big and small companies as you can achieve a lot and really stand out against your competitors without a massive advertising budget.)
  • It’s much more targeted and can be ‘hyper-personalized’ to a very specific target.
  • It’s also very fast and flexible. You can easily increase or decrease the amount you’re spending from one day to the next and either run with an idea if it takes off or reel it in if you see that it’s not generating any engagement.
How do you get started with digital marketing?
Let’s face it, a basic website is one of the very first steps in getting started online. Illustration by Spoon Lancer
To get started with digital marketing—if you’re truly starting from scratch—you need to get the not-so-sexy-but-oh-so-important basics in place. That means:
  • Building a website that's optimized for the user (easy to navigate and with a clear message), for different devices (works on all different mobile phones and screen sizes) and for search engines (helping Google and co. find your content).
  • Cultivating a social media presence, which might be a simple company page on LinkedIn to start with, a Facebook page, an Instagram account—or all three.
  • Investing in some paid advertising—a few basic Facebook or Google ads—to get more people seeing what you’re posting.

If you're missing these basics, then go back to the drawing board and spend some time on getting the foundations in place before you move on to the fun stuff. When you’re ready, you can start experimenting with the latest trends in strategy, design and execution.
Digital marketing basics: 4 Ws and an H
1. WHY do you want to use digital marketing?
Let’s face it, a basic website is one of the very first steps in getting started online. Illustration by Spoon Lancer
The first step before you do something is always to understand why you’re doing it. What’s your overall vision for the business? What are your goals for this year? What are your specific objectives when it comes to marketing and what role is digital marketing going to play?

Digital marketing can help you attract a bigger audience to your company and your message; connect and build relationships with those prospects, turning them into fans of your brand; and ultimately sell more of your products and services as you convince people how amazing you are. So what’s your focus going to be? (And no, you can’t do everything—at least not at once!)

Get clear on what you want to get out of your digital marketing before you dive into Facebook or Instagram, videos or articles and this or that ad format.
2. WHO are you targeting?
Getting super clear on your ideal customer will help you design your campaigns to speak to that customer. Game avatars by LittleFox
To reach your potential clients, you need to first know who those clients are! What do you understand about them? What do they want? What problems are they facing? What do they need? More practically: where do they hang out?

The answers to these questions will help you create content and choose channels that put you in front of the right people, at the right time and with a message that’s relevant and meaningful to them.
3. WHAT content will you be creating?
Let’s face it, a basic website is one of the very first steps in getting started online. Illustration by Spoon Lancer
Digital marketing is not about big ad campaigns that tell people to buy your product.

Instead, it’s about content: creating and sharing content that attracts an audience to your brand, adds value and builds trust with your potential clients and then convinces them that your products and services offer the best solution to their problems.

Your content should sit in the magical space where your brand—and what it stands for—overlaps with your clients and what they want to know. That means you’ll be getting your message across. and your client will actually be interested in what you have to say.
The latest digital content trends

  • Video production: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram… All the big platforms are pushing video and that means your videos will automatically be seen by more people than articles and pretty pictures alone. Video is also a great way to engage and emotionally connect with your audience, so you can have a look at how you can start creating video for social media.
  • Live video: Live streaming is growing fast. This form of video is being pushed by the major channels as it gets people not only watching but also commenting and sharing. Going live brings a sense of immediacy (it’s happening right now!) and excitement and narrows the gap between the audience and your company.
  • 'Micro-content' and stories: In an age where attention spans are shorter than ever (“Squirrel!”), short-form content does really well. A good example is the rise of ‘stories’ on Facebook and Instagram—and the good news for you is that shorter posts take less time!
  • Long-form content: Wait, what? Yeah, as well as shorter content we’re also seeing even longer content. Think Netflix bingeing, long YouTube sessions and the new IGTV platform on Instagram where you can upload longer videos to tell more of a story.
  • Interactive content: Your goal is to get a very distracted and passive audience to stop scrolling and spend a moment or two with your brand. Instagram stories are a good example again as they let you use all kinds of stickers, polls and questions to get a response.

Check out this article on 10 ways great design will transform your content marketing strategy.
4. WHERE will you distribute your content online?
You need to get in front of your clients where they are spending their time. Hand-drawn illustration by Naska design
Once you know what content you're going to create, you need to decide where you're going to publish it. It’s not as simple as uploading one video or blog post onto Facebook. It's also not very effective to post the same piece of content on every channel in the exact same format. You need to choose the right channel based on your objective, the type of content you've created and where your target audience is hanging out.

The latest channel trends


  • Facebook groups: With the algorithm changing so that pages and page posts are less impactful, Facebook has been focusing more on groups—and you should do the same. Groups can help you build an engaged community of genuine fans of your brand.
  • Influencer marketing: Partnering with people who are seen as role models or experts for your target audience can be a great way to influence that audience to consider your brand. You just need to make sure you do this transparently and authentically (see #5 below!).
  • Social messaging apps: Your customers are spending more and more time on apps like WhatsApp and Messenger. Most brands haven’t started marketing on those channels so far but if you want to be an innovator, there’s a lot of potential there to build more direct and meaningful relationships with your audiences.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI): No, robots are not taking over the world (yet) but using chatbots to answer customer messages can free up your team to work on bigger priorities. Businesses are also starting to look at how they can optimize their content for voice search and launching brand-specific ‘skills’ on virtual assistants like Alexa.
  • Google My Business: Everyone knows that Google is important and a newer development to consider is creating and optimizing your Google My Business listing. Not as exciting as AI but it will give you a stronger search presence, especially for local search and maps.
5. HOW will you effectively bring your content to life ?
The final step is to find a way to bring all this to life as you build your brand world online. Map design by Suzan yousef
When a channel is new, the businesses that jump on it right away get big results with little effort. Now that digital marketing is quite mature and more and more businesses have woken up to the importance of content, there is quite a lot of content out there.

In a cluttered space, where everyone is being bombarded with marketing messages every day and there are tighter regulations around data privacy, how you execute your strategy is as important as the strategy itself.

Current best practices

  • Distribution over creation: Most businesses are now busy creating content and that means you need to work even harder for that content to be seen. Don’t just post once and think that’s enough—you need to publish, promote and re-publish across all your channels.
  • Engagement over reach: In the early days, you’d have been excited about getting a load of likes on your Facebook page. Today, the number of followers is less important than the number of genuinely active followers, the people who are seeing, engaging with and responding to your content. These are the metrics you should be looking at improving.
  • Personalization: People are sick of mass marketing and want tailored content and messages that speak directly to them. Look at how you can bring the personal touch and engage on a one-to-one basis. (You can even use chatbots to help you scale.)
  • Authenticity: Your customers, especially the famous Millennials and the generations after them, are cynical about businesses over-promising and under-delivering. They prefer honesty and being ‘real’ over perfection and being ‘fake’ so try to embrace that in your marketing.
  • Transparency: Given everyone’s worries about hacking and misuse of their data, customers are increasingly placing more value on an honest and open approach where it’s clear exactly what a business is going to do with their data and why. Make sure you’re complying with all regulations but more than that make sure that you’re putting your customer’s interests first.
Now get creating!
Illustration by OrangeCrush
All marketing is digital now. Even offline activities use digital tools like iPads or mobiles or interactive billboards. Digital marketing gives you the opportunity to be more targeted, more personalized and more interactive in your campaigns. Ultimately, it helps you attract new audiences and turn prospects into customers—or, even better, real fans. Convinced yet? It’s time to start creating and sharing your content.
This article is written by Anna Lundberg on 99designs: What is digital marketing.
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