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What is Digital Marketing? A visual summary.

Defining the scope of digital marketing is essential for businesses to get the most from it

Smart Insights exists to help advise marketers how to best plan and optimise their use of integrated digital marketing, but recently the term digital marketing has had a fair bit of criticism. Dave Chaffey’s recent blog post on digital marketing trends considered if we were going to be entering a ‘post digital’ era, while PepsiCo exec Brad Jakeman called digital marketing ‘The most ridiculous term I’ve ever heard’. Similarly, Amanda Rendle, global head of marketing for HSBC decided to ban the term ‘digital’ in her team because she thinks that to talk about having a digital team when all consumers exist in a digital world is anachronistic. It’s a bit like calling cars ‘non-horse drawn vehicles’ – there is no need to specify it isn’t horse drawn anymore.

All well and good, but it doesn't reflect the reality of the adoption of digital marketing; maybe in ten or fifteen years this will be the case, but right now, a huge amount of marketing departments are currently transitioning to being more digital focused, with many still a long away from being ‘digital first’ organisations. Our research showed that over half of large organisations don’t have a ‘digital strategy in place’. Clearly digital marketing is not the default and does need a term to quantify it and differentiate it from traditional marketing.


Defining digital marketing

The use of the Internet and other digital media and technology to support ‘modern marketing’ has given rise to a bewildering range of labels and jargon created by both academics and professionals. It has been called digital marketing, Internet marketing, e-marketing and web marketing and these alternative terms have varied through time...

digital marketing

Digital Marketing is the term most frequently used today, as we can see from these digital marketing definitions in Google Trends, so that is the term we focus on.

Because of the recent debate about the use of the term ‘digital marketing’, we thought it would be useful to pin down exactly what digital means through a definition. Do definitions matter? We think they do, since particularly within an organisation or between a business and it's clients we need clarity to support the goals and activities that support Digital Transformation. As we'll see, many of the other definitions are misleading.

Boiled down to its simplest form, digital marketing is defined in Dave Chaffey's book Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice as simply:

Achieving marketing objectives through applying digital technologies and media.

Dave expands on this definition of digital marketing to explain that, in practice, digital marketing includes managing different forms of online company presence and presences such as company websites, mobile apps and social media company pages. This is in conjunction with online communications techniques including the likes of search engine marketing, social media marketing, online advertising, e-mail marketing and partnership arrangements with other websites. These techniques are used to support the objectives of acquiring new customers and providing services to existing customers that help develop the customer relationship through E-CRM and marketing automation. However, for digital marketing to be successful, there is still a necessity for integration of these techniques with traditional media such as print, TV and direct mail as part of multichannel marketing communications.

If we look at these other definitions of digital marketing such as this definition of digital marketing from SAS: What is Digital Marketing and Why does it matter? or this alternative definition of digital marketing from Wikipedia we can see that often there is a focus on promoting of products and services using digital media rather than a more holistic definition covering customer experiences, relationship development and stressing the importance of multichannel integration. So for us the scope of the term should include activities across the customer lifecycle:

  • Digital media and communications channels
  • Digital and mobile experiences such as web design and mobile apps
  • Prospect and customer relationship management through marketing automation
  • Digital strategy and integrating multichannel communications and experiences
  • Digital technologies and platforms to manage all digital marketing activities

The role of digital platforms in supporting integrated multichannel marketing is an important component part of digital marketing, yet is often overlooked. In many ways, this highlights how important it is to break down silos between ‘digital’ and ‘traditional’ marketing departments. Online channels can also be managed to support the whole buying process from pre-sale to sale to post-sale and further development of customer relationships.

Optimising digital marketing can be tricky, and a simple definition does not necessarily translate into something that is useful for achieving business objectives. That is where the RACE Digital Marketing Planning framework comes in, as it can help break down digital marketing into easier to manage areas which can then be planned, managed and optimised.

Our graphical summary definition of the scope of digital marketing

To answer the question 'What is digital marketing?', we have put together this new visual definition summarising all the activities that form digital marketing that need to be managed across the Smart Insights RACE Planning framework. It's used in the new, 6th edition of Dave's Digital Marketing book. We explain best practices for all of these in our Digital Marketing Elearning course.  The infographic is divided into activities to develop and manage digital strategy at the top to the marketing activities at the bottom.

Digital marketing definition using the RACE planning framework

It is important to remember that just because digital marketing uses different communications techniques to traditional marketing, its end objectives are no different from the objectives that marketing has always had. It can be easy to set objectives for digital marketing based around ‘vanity metrics’ such as number of ‘likes’ or followers, so it is useful to bear in mind this definition of marketing advanced by the Chartered Institute of Marketing:

"Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably".

This definition emphasises the focus of marketing on the customer while at the same time implying a need to link to other business operations to achieve this profitability. Dave Chaffey and P.R. Smith note that digital marketing can be used to support these aims as follows:

  • Identifying – the Internet can be used for marketing research to find out customers’ needs and wants
  • Anticipating – the Internet provides an additional channel by which customers can access information and make purchases – evaluating this demand is key to governing resource allocation.
  • Satisfying – a key success factor in digital marketing is achieving customer satisfaction through the digital channel, which raises issues such as: is the site easy to use, does it perform adequately, what is the standard of associated customer service and how are physical products dispatched?


So, digital marketing is about utilising digital technology to achieve marketing objectives. There is no essential need for digital marketing to always be separate from the marketing department as a whole, as the objectives of both are the same. However for now it remains a useful term because digital marketing requires a certain skill set to utilise the digital technology effectively. As our recent Developing Digital Skills report showed, many marketers are now spending > 50% of their time on digital marketing activities and two of the three top job roles in marketing are digital, so clearly digital skills are needed.

By Robert Allen

I am the Editor of Smart Insights. I manage the Smart Insights blog and write on a range of subjects- Marketing Technology trends and latest tech developments are a regular focus, as well as exploring key marketing concepts. You can get in touch with me on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.

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