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What is digital marketing? Tools and templates to define the scope of digital today.

Author's avatar By Dave Chaffey 12 Oct, 2021
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Defining digital marketing today using the Smart Insights RACE Framework. In this new era of digital disruption, make time to revisit your omnichannel marketing strategy and discover opportunities to accelerate your ROI

What is digital marketing? The answer to this all-important question is in flux, as 'digital' continues to rapidly merge into our new lives. As marketers, we must stay vigilant and continue to scan for new threats and opportunities in the digital landscape. But it can be difficult to work out which trends will actually add value to your marketing strategy, as opposed to vanity metrics.

At the same time, I still regularly come into contact with marketers and business owners using the term 'digital' simply to mean 'our website' or 'our Facebook page'. This thinking limits the scope and opportunity of what's managed and it means that activities that need to be properly managed may be missed.

To truly define digital marketing today, you need a structure that includes all your customer touchpoints, that integrates online, offline and omnichannel experiences, and empowers you with a data-driven approach to identify and manage your customers' journeys.

That's where our RACE Framework comes in. Our popular strategic marketing template informs marketers and managers about the function of digital and offline marketing activities in their customers' lifecycles.

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Plan your marketing strategy with the RACE Framework

The RACE Framework maps the online customer journey across all potential touchpoints, showing the scale and opportunity of all your digital channels - more than just 'a website' or 'a Facebook page'.

Within this framework of Reach, Act, Convert and Engage across all channels, you can implement digital practices effectively within your organization by planning, managing and optimizing your digital media, digital experiences and digital data.

Customer Lifecycle

The 5Ds of digital marketing

To understand the importance of digital to the future of marketing in any business, it’s helpful to think about what audience interactions we need to understand and manage. Marketing today is about many more types of audience interaction than website or email... It involves managing and harnessing these ‘5Ds of Digital’ that I have defined in the introduction to the latest update to my Digital Marketing: Strategy, Planning and Implementation book.

The 5Ds define the opportunities for consumers to interact with brands and for businesses to reach and learn from their audiences in different ways:

  1. Digital devices – audiences experience brands as they interact with business websites and mobile apps typically through a combination of connected devices including smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, TVs and gaming devices.
  2. Digital platforms – most interactions on these devices are through a browser or apps from the major platforms or services, that’s Facebook (and Instagram), Google (and YouTube), Twitter and LinkedIn.
  3. Digital mediadifferent paid, owned and earned communications channels for reaching and engaging audiences including advertising, email and messaging, search engines and social networks.
  4. Digital data – the insight businesses collect about their audience profiles and their interactions with businesses, which now needs to be protected by law in most countries.
  5. Digital technology – the marketing technology or martech stack that businesses use to create interactive experiences from websites and mobile apps to in-store kiosks and email campaigns.

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What is digital marketing?

The use of the internet and other 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...as this plot from 2014 to 2021 from Google Trends shows.

digital marketing definition

You can see that digital marketing is the term most frequently used today, so that is the term we focus on.

Do definitions matter? We think they do, since particularly within an organization or between a business and its clients we need clarity to support the goals and activities that support Digital Transformation.

Definitions of digital marketing

Boiled down to its simplest form, and defined in my book Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice as simply:

'Achieving marketing objectives through applying digital technologies and media.'

I expand on this definition to include 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 to be successful, there is still a necessity for integration of digital techniques with traditional media such as print, TV, and direct mail as part of multichannel marketing communications.

If we look at these other definitions such as this definition by SAS or this alternative definition from Wikipedia, we can see that 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 activities.

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My recent blog post on 2022 digital trends shows the latest innovations. It's crucial to keep these in mind as we consider the scope of digital marketing - since it is always developing. Moreover, it's important in these instances not to get carried away with trying to implement every digital trend immediately without considering your business objectives. This is why considering the function of digital marketing within your company can be a useful exercise.

Particularly for today's marketers, incorporating an integrated omnichannel approach to marketing is a 'must do' for success.

Digital channel managers today support the whole buying process from pre-sale to sale to post-sale and further development of customer relationships. Marketers with digital skills, sitting in specialist digital or integrated marketing teams, enable companies to leverage digital technology and media to meet those objectives.


Marketing managers and directors are responsible not just for marketing strategy, but also for maintaining a high level of marketing activities and coherence within their team. If you're struggling to get the buy-in for digital marketing, read up on our 10 reasons why you need a digital marketing strategy to help make your case.

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Defining marketing

It is important to remember that, despite digital using 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 digital objectives based around ‘vanity metrics’ such as the 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 emphasizes 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. Yet, it's a weak definition in relation to digital activity since it doesn't emphasize communications which are so important to digital activity.

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In Digital Marketing Excellence my co-author, PR Smith and I 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 is achieving customer satisfaction through the appropriate 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?

Optimizing your digital channels 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 Framework comes in, as it can help you plan, manage and optimize your digital strategy.

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Our graphical summary definition of the scope of digital marketing

We have put together this new visual definition summarizing all the digital activities that need to be managed across the Smart Insights RACE Framework. It's used in the new, 6th edition of Dave's digital marketing book. The infographic is divided into activities to develop and manage digital strategy at the top to the marketing activities at the bottom.

The Race Framework

So, digital marketing is about utilizing digital technology to achieve marketing objectives. There is no essential need for digital 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 requires a certain skill set to utilize digital technology effectively.

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Author's avatar

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of online marketing training platform and publisher Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. My personal site, DaveChaffey.com, lists my latest Digital marketing and E-commerce books and support materials including a digital marketing glossary. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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