Wait, What Is “Digital Marketing” Exactly?

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It seems obvious until you try to map it out. 

“What is digital marketing?” seems like a trivial question. It’s right there, in the name — “marketing that is done with fingers”, obviously.

To break it down a bit — marketing, which let’s just say means “communicating value of product or service to potential customers”, and “digital” which is like, “using computers and stuff”. Easy, right? 

Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash

What is “Digital”? — A Sidebar

But, hold on, what doesn’t use digital tools in 2021?

Saying “digital marketing” is akin to saying “digital farming”, “digital accountancy”, or “digital shit-shoveling”.

Sure, growing corn and tracking payroll can benefit from the use of computers. It still isn’t really fair to say that doing so is somehow distinct in its nature from doing the accounting on paper or using an old-fashioned dumb tractor. The tacking on of “digital” onto marketing or farming seems superfluous (in 2021, not 2012) because everything is digital, or will be very soon.

A big part of “digital” marketing is its juxtaposition with traditional (analog?) marketing, like newspapers, TV, or a good-ol’ PR stunt. 

This seems like a false dichotomy. And, while the likes of Gary Vee and Neil Patel may be screaming “TV is Dead!” or “Billboards are Dead!”, the reality is more nuanced. 93% of Americans listen to the Radio at least once a week. The global direct mail ad market is growing (and was expected to hit about $67.34 billion in 2020). PwC expects global non-digital ad revenues to continue growing

Analog marketing is alive and well, especially when it incorporates digital elements:

“Digital” in marketing is superfluous and no longer relevant. It’s marketing. Some marketing is done with computers. When Redditors decided to put up memestonk outdoor signage, those tended to be digital billboards.

If I design, order, and pay for a billboard ad online, which part of that is “not digital”?

When everything is digital, nothing is digital.

The Many Flavors of Digital Marketing 

Ok, maybe this will be easier to pars out if we ask “What does it actually mean, to do digital marketing?” Like, what do you actually do? 

Typing “What is digital marketing?” into Google got me respectable sources: Investopedia, Hubspot, NeilPatel.com, Marketo, Mailchimp, Fiverr, and even the American Marketing Association. If anyone should know, it’s that last one, right? 

Each one of these sources had a list of activities that fall under the label of “digital marketing”. Each list was different. Here, I made a chart: 

Not a single source has the same list. 

This is a mess. There are marketing tactics, marketing channels, specific communications mediums, and technology tools all thrown in on lists with no hierarchy. It’s madness. 

The amount of “marketing automation” in this list is surprising, as is the lack of popularity of “analytics”. I mean, neither are a marketing tactic, but why one and not the other? Was this written by a black-hat SEO, just stuffing keywords in and desperately needing to add “automation” to the H2 pile?

Some of these sources raise bigger questions: why is “online” PR a separate thing, Hubspot? Why would you include “website” in this list, Investopedia? Who let you out of the basement to say “forum marketing”, Fiverr? Whose idea was it to say “video” is its own, separate marketing tactic, Investopedia? Seriously, Investopedia, what are you smoking? Video ads are a thing, TV ads are a thing, even outdoor video ads are a thing. What do you mean “video”?!? Explain yourself.  

Thanks for telling me what you’re going to tell me. 

There isn’t a solid picture of what constitutes “digital marketing” activities. There isn’t even consensus on how many types of digital marketing activities there are, even while some very cocky agencies claim to know the precise answer. Apparently, it’s exactly 11

The experts don’t seem to agree, and every marketing agency seems to have its own proprietary, branded special label for the kind of special, unique, unrepeatable work that they do. You know, t̶o̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶u̶s̶t̶o̶m̶e̶r differentiate themselves in a saturated market. Talk about getting high on your own supply.

The T-Pose Marketer

Speaking of marketing Expertise, do you remember the “T-shaped” marketer craze? This is a mildly cringe-inducing way marketers describe themselves as having a broad set of shallow skills, and a small set of deep skills, making them useful in cross-functional teams (as opposed to an I-shaped marketer, a classic specialist).  


There are countless infographics explaining the concept, especially for marketers. Each one includes the top of the “T” as a list of what broad skills every marketer should have, at least to a shallow degree. This sounds like an easy look into what marketers feel are the general skill-sets necessary for any practitioner in their field.  


This one, from Digitalmarketer.com, offers a sensible breakdown of the general list of activities. Upon closer inspection, it seems a bit reductive. The usual suspects of “Social Media”, “Content”, “Email”, and “PPC” are still here. Ecommerce is a new one, though I am wondering if social, content, SEO, and paid don’t account for the vast majority of what’s involved in e-commerce marketing.  

As a counterpoint to the simplicity from Digital Marketer is this monstrosity from Growth Tribe. The inclusion of front-end code, behavioral psychology, and wireframing on the same level seems baffling. Also, every marketer should know a bit of Machine Learning / A.I.? Seriously, Growth Tribe? 

The image is this small on Brian’s website, too. 

The next one is from Brian Balfour, a former Hubspot VP for Growth and founder of his own thing, Reforge. His graphic has a level of sensible hierarchy. Unlike the others, this chart shows an awareness of the difference between a marketing channel and a medium (like separating the hierarchal layer of activity, i.e. writing, from individual channels like social media and email). 

But here, again, to say that statistics and programming are prerequisite skills to engage in marketing feels…excessive? 

Marketing Common Ground

The few things the sources seem to actually agree on is that Digital Marketing involves social media, Email, PPC, and Content. Of course, what is Email if not content? And, for that matter, what are social media posts if not content?

The above models have these major issues for me : 

  •  conflating tactics and channels
  • confusing technology tools with tactics, channels, communication media, and everything, really
  • lack of hierarchy —  I’m looking at you, people who put PPC and SEM on the same level

Channel vs Tactics

By mixing tactics and channels, I mean — email is a channel, as are search ads, TV Ads, blog posts, guest posts, emails, direct mailings, skywriting, whatever. These are channels. You use them to communicate your message to the customer. The channel is not the message. 

Tactics are how you get your message across. You could pay someone to do it (like Google, or a newspaper, or a guy twirling a sign). You could make nice things and let people come to you because their friends liked your thing (inbound, Burger King’s tweets, downloadable white papers, email list subscriptions, etc.) You could hit up all your existing customers and tell them they’d get a bonus thing from you if they send over their friends and those friends buy a thing. 

Technology as Replacement for Ideas

Technology in and of itself is not a tactic. That cringe you feel at the cartoonish Boomer manager saying “we should be on Facebook to market our company” is good, listen to it. Don’t be like that with other technology tools either. Analytics are key, but both the interpretation of marketing data, as well as the “which button do I push to get my sales numbers” are not really marketing tactics. 

The one pseudo-exception may be SEO since on-page SEO requires a level of technical tool use to work (metatags, cross-linking, headings with keywords, image alt-text, etc.) Even in this case, I think one can separate out tactics from channels from technical tools. Tactics would be soliciting backlinks, guest posting, content generation with keywords. Channels would be the guest blogs themselves, business directories, etc. And, the on-page information as well as the broader SEO-beneficial activities of responsive design, site hierarchy, loading speeds as that — technical SEO. 


Off the rip, I’ll admit that this is very nit-picky, but boy does it bother me. PPC by definition means any marketing channel where you pay for your message to be served to prospective customers, trying to get them to click. SEM is a subset of PPC. When you put these two on the same level, you break hierarchy, and it’s annoying. The neurodivergent among us would appreciate it if you didn’t do that, thanks.

SEM listed as a separate, distinct, and equal in importance activity as PPC? You monsters!

The point here is not to put anyone on blast or criticize. All these models were created for a purpose and to communicate an idea — broad skills for flexibility, deep skills for impact. And in any case, I hate the term T-shaped marketer a lot less than “Full-stack Marketer”, so there’s that.

In aggregate, we can see that the answer to “what does a digital marketer do (and know how to do)?” is a little slippery. Our models are not precise.

What’s worse, most of the ways that I have seen of explaining digital marketing seem to be preoccupied with what the marketer is doing. Marcomm people make a big show of saying they put the customer first (with the expected special labelto go with it, too). Yet, when we talk about what we do, there seems to be a lot of “me, me, me” messaging.

So, What is “Digital Marketing” Exactly, and What Should I Do About It?

In short- it’s a buzzword, and the sort of buzzword that gets embraced by edgy #marketingtwitter crowd who flaunt their unfamiliarity with “the 4 P’s”. The the need to “be special” from marketers is probably a combination of the kind of personality that attracts people to marketing, as well as the selection pressures on the industry to sell the shiniest buzzwords before they’re found out to be bunk.

 There is a vague cloud of skills you can kind of guess at if someone describes themselves as a “digital marketer”, but the only think you can be pretty sure of is that they’re not the ones hoisting up the billboards. 

So, “marketing done with your fingers” may be more accurate than expected.