What is Digital Marketing? Cutting Through the Confusion

Getting Started

The concept of digital marketing is confusing to many starting out with promoting their website, but it has been a larger influence on not just our shopping behavior, but how we live for a very long time. In fact, I would go so far as to say digital marketing has been around longer than anybody alive today.

Did that last sentence leave you even more confused? Don’t worry, it should be clear soon. But to understand it, we need to dig into the meaning of digital marketing. 

Brand messaging and engagement delivered to personal devices that belong to a defined group of people.

It may sound simple, but that’s really all it is. And chances are, you have been doing it yourself without realizing it.

digital marketing confusing

So Why Is Digital Marketing So Difficult To Grasp?

I believe there are a few reasons for this.

So Many Names

Digital marketing has gone by names like internet marketing, online marketing, website marketing, inbound marketing, the list goes on and on. 

There may be minor differences between all of these, but when it comes down to it, they all mean the same thing. However, the industry has become most comfortable with the term digital marketing.

Digital Marketing Is Made Up Of Many Sub-Disciplines

Exposure to digital marketing is unavoidable. If you are reading this, you have been taken in by website design, search engine optimization (SEO), content marketing, and possibly even social media marketing.

All of these are forms of digital marketing. Here is a full (although the list is always growing) list of these disciplines:

  • Automated marketing
  • Behavioral marketing
  • Content marketing
  • Demand generation
  • Email marketing
  • Conversion rate optimization (CRO)
  • Mobile marketing
  • Pay-per-click
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Social media marketing
  • Video marketing
  • Web analytics
  • Web design
  • Web development

Chances are, you may have little to no understanding of what any of those terms mean either so that only adds to the confusion.

Digital Marketers Are Terrible At Explaining What They Do

Regardless of specialty, most digital marketers (humbly including myself) are not good at explaining their work. In fact, I recently sent a survey out to my trusted friends from the West Orange Chamber of Commerce

Here are the responses:

  • Assistance with websites and messaging branding
  • BACE is the source for a modern web presence coupled with optimized content, marketing, and analytics.
  • Digital support and creation for businesses and nonprofits; all things websites, content messaging, marketing
  • Web-site solutions
  • Digital and Website Consulting
  • Websites, SEO, digital marketing
  • Have no clue!
  • Not sure.
  • Web Design
  • You help people set up and design their websites to give the best possible ROI. You help with SEO and being ADA compliant

Summarized, the tone I see ranges from ‘I don’t know’ to ‘Here’s a list of buzz words I’ve heard Ben mention’.

For the record, I consult on and implement overall digital marketing strategies. But I understand the problem.

I have yet to meet a digital marketer that isn’t incredibly smart. But ironically, we are not good communicators. And that doesn’t help with the confusion.

Digital Marketing Is Constantly Evolving

As long as technology keeps improving, opportunities for digital marketing will improve as well. And it has been this way since the beginning. 

However, because this evolution is so gradual, skillsets within digital marketing have generally aligned with the technology they are associated with.

Although this makes sense on most levels, I believe this has led to an inefficient understanding of the concept.

Now that we’ve discussed the confusion over digital marketing, let’s try to simplify it by looking at it differently.

All of Digital Marketing Can Really Be Broken Into 6 Simple Categories

I created a spreadsheet and listed every typical task performed by every discipline of digital marketing I could think of, and in the column next to it, I assigned each of these tasks with its overall purpose. In the end, I found that digital marketing is defined by a simple acronym: CREATE.

In other words: content, research, engagement, advertising, trust, and experience.

Those words are easier to understand right?

For further clarification, let me define each of these categories.

CREATE infographic
Content is a major part of all digital marketing


Content is the set of visuals and sounds that come together to meets the needs of the visitor. 

These needs can include instructions, entertainment, answers to questions, news and can come in a variety of formats including:

  • Blogs
  • Case studies
  • Downloads
  • e-Newsletters
  • Infographics
  • Images
  • Podcasts
  • Quiz Questions
  • Search engine listings
  • Social media posts
  • Videos
  • White papers

The creation and distribution of content need careful planning and careful consideration of the target audience. Based on data and information collected by digital marketers involved in…

Research is important for consistent improvement.


Research is the gathering of information and data on audience behaviors, the quality of current content, marketing trends, and more. This data is analyzed and turned into opportunities for growth and improvement in support of the other categories.

The research part of digital marketing performs functions including but not limited to:

  • Ad Testing
  • Attribution
  • Competitive analysis
  • Forum monitoring
  • Keyword research
  • Market research
  • Page Rank Tracking
  • Reporting
  • Website audits

Research is essential to a path towards the continuous improvement and optimization of all digital channels, and how they function together.

Connect with visitors through engagement practices like social media and outreach.


Engagement includes anything that drives connection and communication between a brand and the audience. To do this well, digital marketers need to truly understand the needs and pain points of their audience. Engagement tactics include:

  • Calls-to-action
  • Campaigns
  • Chatbots
  • Contests
  • Directory listings
  • Emails
  • Emergency response
  • Events
  • Geolocation
  • Live streams
  • Polls
  • Quizzes
  • SMS
  • Social network management
  • Webinars

There is, of course, some overlap with content, but engagement regards more heavily on how the audience interactions through the content than the content itself.

Advertising is how you intentionally and monetarily influence digital marketing.


Advertising is the exposure of a brand designed to drive a specific action from an audience. Through digital channels, advertising becomes more efficient and cost-effective as it allows for a lot of control for who receives an ad.

Advertising in digital marketing includes tasks such as:

  • Ad placement
  • Audience targetting
  • Automated customer journeys
  • Bidding strategies
  • Campaign management
  • Personalized landing pages
  • Remarketing
  • URL tracking

Advertising becomes the most important at times when your audience is very specific and ready to take a specific action that brings them closer to becoming your customer. This is especially effective when put in coordination with observed user behaviors through digital channels.

Building trust is a function of online marketing.


Digital marketing allows for many opportunities to build trust from your target audience. It is important to build and manage your reputation in order to grow your business. Digital marketers do this in many ways:

  • Backlink outreach
  • Customer relation management (CRM)
  • Phone notifications
  • Ratings
  • Reviews
  • Sharing strategy
  • Social likes and comment management
  • Social listening

These tasks fall into the realm of digital public relations and are very important for branding and appearing in search engine results.

A good experience is the sign of a good business.


The experience delivered to your target audience is as important as any other category. It impacts them all too.

 For example, a web page that takes 5 seconds to load can be a world of difference compared to a page that takes 2 seconds.

Audiences prefer different digital experiences so it is important to be considerate of that. Digital marketing tasks that fall under experience include:

  • Accessibility compliance
  • Content styling (CSS)
  • Domain registration
  • Image optimization
  • Linking, both internal and external
  • Geolocation
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Navigation on website
  • On-Page SEO
  • Page load speed
  • Proper coding (HTML)
  • Redirects
  • Server Management
  • Sitemaps
  • Web Design
  • Website Development
  • Web Hosting

Experts in digital marketing know there is a competitive advantage in providing a better online experience. In fact, user experience is actually one of the most important factors of being found in search engines.

target audience digital marketing

The Most Important Consideration Is Audience Relevance

Did you notice that all of these categories are connected by a decision to support a target audience? During the evolution of digital marketing, this has never changed. In fact, I would say this is the most important difference between digital marketing and traditional marketing.

While traditional marketing channels like billboards, television, and radio typically do have a specific audience in mind, the ability to control how that marketing is received is somewhat limited.

You can make strategic decisions on what magazines an ad is placed based on subscriber demographics, or where to put a billboard based on the general demographic of who is nearby, but the truth is, that messaging is going to show up for a lot of people who are not going to care.

Digital marketing channels have the ability to manually and automatically learn and adjust everything about it so the messaging falls only on those who data has determined are likely to be interested.

The audience is the real reason why websites and social networks collect data on their users. That information empowers businesses to save money and improve their marketing by using this data to focus on relevance to the audience.

I hope this cleared up digital marketing. I believe this perspective essentially resets an industry nearly as old as civilization itself.

history of digital marketing

Yes, Digital Marketing Is Pretty Ancient

Remember earlier when I said digital marketing is older than anybody currently living? Well, when you consider digital marketing is simply a brand connecting to specific audiences through personal devices, we have to consider this revolutionary piece of tech:

antique phone

No, not that one…


Still no…think way back further

smoke signal

There we go! Smoke signals were first used by various cultures in ancient history. Using the flames and smoke from bonfires, or torches (the device), encoded messages would be communicated over long distances that only a specific target audience could interpret. Of course, it was not called digital marketing back then, like the practice, the name has evolved over many centuries.

What To Do With This Knowledge

Now that we understand digital marketing a little better, it is time to get started. As you may have inferred from reading this, a digital marketing strategy for your business is going to be unique.

But you can now organize your strategy to use channels and messaging relevant to your target audience.

This understanding of digital marketing means you can now use (or not use) various digital marketing channels in a planned way. 

You can plan your content.

You can research your audience.

You can engage with them as well.

You can reach them at the right time and place through strategic and considerate advertising.

You can build trust for yourself and your organization.

And provide an experience that leaves the audience feeling good as well.

I specialize in the creation and execution of these strategies. Please reach out and let me know how I can help your business be successful through digital marketing.


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