Is Digital Marketing Really That Special?

Reader Question: Is digital marketing really that special?

One of the main selling points of Digital Marketing is the fact that it is “digital” – but is that really a competitive advantage or just the flavor of the day? Do you think that the old “offline” way of marketing and merchandising will become popular again once the value of being digital becomes more of a novelty?


Yes, digital marketing is an incredible way to reach new customers.

No, it will not replace the need for sound marketing strategy.

At this point, the biggest advantage that Digital Marketing has over traditional/analog marketing is that it is new, growing, and still not very well understood by most marketing practitioners and company executives. This is something I make sure to explain to all of my students looking to learn digital marketing.

With constant changes to technology, the wide adoption of networks that barely existed 5 years ago, and the ability to find new ways of reaching customers inexpensively, digital marketing has a seemingly limitless growth potential in the upcoming years.

Growth is a key component to the digital world that we should make sure that we understand before getting into counter-points. When a technology/tactic/network/channel is new and growing, much effort is put behind trying to understand and explore that new territory for the benefit of marketing.

Exploration with no certification

With new frontiers come new opportunities for easy money and the initial exploration phase of new technology plays out like a boom town in a gold rush.

Like any booming industry, there are opportunities to exploit imperfect systems and take advantage of weaknesses. A lot of money comes in and a lot of money comes out.

Eventually the growth creates an opportunity for real businesses to emerge from the chaotic environment. This type of activity happens in any high growth situation, more than just in the marketing world.

In the digital marketing world, digital proficiency is the only prerequisite needed to get involved. There is no requirement for a certification, experience, or domain expertise to get started. If you can turn on a computer and connect to the Internet, you can call yourself a digital marketer.

Obviously that is not a sustainable business plan for anyone, so the industry has needed to mature to be taken seriously.

Digital marketing has matured through tactics, not always strategy

While digital marketing appears to be very advanced tactically, it has not always been approached from a strategic position. This is because many of the top practitioners in digital marketing were able to demonstrate their expertise to the world without actually knowing marketing. They were able to find a voice due to their digital proficiency, not from having a fundamental understanding of marketing that comes with years of experience.

Over the past few years, we have seen tacticians become more strategic in their approach to digital marketing, maturing their methods and focusing on sustained growth and predictability. This is because they realized that just being proficient in digital is no longer a competitive advantage.

Their new competitive advantage comes from the ability to understand big picture strategies that affect the overall marketing organization, and understanding how to apply digital marketing tactics to maximize the effectiveness of this strategy.

Using SEO as an example of digital maturity

An example of this coming into play is in the SEO (search engine optimization) industry. At one point it was very easy to exploit the holes in the Google search algorithm and use this to generate lots of online revenue for businesses.

Over the years, Google has made it increasingly difficult to exploit their search engine through tactics, to the point where many of the initial explorers of search lost their ability to predict search results.

In order to adapt, many SEO professionals started focusing on the strategy behind building a brand presence, instead of focusing purely on tactics.

The first step in this process was for the practitioners to rebrand themselves as content marketers or strategists, dropping any mention of SEO from their company names or job descriptions.

The next step was to develop an entirely new marketing and content strategy in order to create predictable long term results. They became strategic.

This is not exclusive to SEO as a profession. I have also seen it happen in social media, paid media and everywhere in between as well. As we mature in our careers and as an industry, adjustments are made in order to focus on long term predictable results (strategy) instead of the flavor of the day (tactics).

Maturity comes naturally for some, not for others

The transition from short term tactics to long term strategy may come naturally to early adopters and the technology savvy. For others, it will not come naturally at all. This is where I feel that the traditional education system is failing to catch up with the times by not offering programs specific to digital marketing.

I try to do my part by offering a Digital Marketing Certificate program twice a year in Minneapolis, but this is one of the only programs I know of in the country. Knowledge Land takes the same level of learning online, because I have yet to find an online resource that provides the same level of insight.

We all must learn from each other

My digital marketing students usually fall into two camps:

  1. They were direct or brand marketers for 20+ years and were laid off in part to a lack of digital competency
  2. They were new to marketing and started in a digital-only environment and were looking to round out their skills

For group #1, it is my duty to help them understand the value they can bring to an organization with their previous experience. As long time marketers, they have already figured out the hard part: how to get people interested in their products. They just need to become familiar with how to do it in a digital world. In many ways, Digital is actually less complex than some of the multivariate campaigns they had been working on.

For group #2, I asked them to pay attention to the veteran marketers and learn from them about how they were able to get people interested in the products they were selling, how they generated revenue, and what it is like to grow a business. Then apply their digital knowledge on top of that base.

Both groups become infinitely more valuable to the marketplace by talking with each other and sharing their knowledge.

The marketplace speaks with job availability

The reason why I teach digital marketing, then, is because that is where the jobs are for marketers!

I know this from the personal experience of interviewing over 100 digital marketing professionals for open positions at my previous company. There were far more open positions for digital marketers than individuals with the skills needed to fill the positions.

I know this because I have seen great marketing professionals get laid off from their jobs due to a lack of digital proficiency.

I know this because when I finally stopped complaining about the lack of digital talent in the marketplace and actually did something about it by teaching these skills, people started to notice. The programs became wildly popular and the programs have been able to help thousands of individuals become more confident with digital marketing.

Digital marketing is an all-encompassing term

It is fun to think about digital marketing from an outsider perspective. My online presence has been largely centered around positioning myself as a Digital Marketing blogger, teacher, speaker and consultant.

There is no doubt that I am pushing heavily on the word digital marketing when it comes to the branding and content of this site. This is based on my personal experience and observations working with everyone from giant companies to small businesses. They need help in understanding how to adjust their existing business to meet the unique challenges of the digital world.

Mix in the fact that I have only known marketing in digital form and have observed the difficulties others have with making the digital switch, there is an obvious need in the market for digital marketing expertise in 2014. There will be a need for these skills in 2019 and there will be a need for digital marketing skills in 2024 and beyond.

As the time spent by consumers shifts away from television, print and radio toward online, digital marketing skills will become even more important in the future. We can learn a lot from the past by observing the strategies and tactics that made offline marketers successful.

Perhaps the most applicable book to digital marketing strategy was written in 1923 by Claude Hopkins. Sure, digital marketing isn’t mentioned a single time in Scientific Advertising (free PDF), but all of the concepts still apply.

Digital marketing will continue to grow, until it is taken over by a more specific form of digital marketing.

Digital competency is not a strategy

Digital competency alone is not a strategy. If anything, it is a short term competitive advantage.

Once digital marketing simply becomes marketing, the industry may be on to the next shiny thing.

But that next shiny thing will absolutely be in digital form. Every major development in the 21st century, every new form of advertising, every innovation we see on the horizon will be digital.

I use the word digital marketing now because it is encompassing. That may change in the future, but our need for knowledge will always remain.

About the Author

Jeff Sauer is an independent Digital Marketing Consultant, Speaker and Teacher based out of a suitcase somewhere in the world. Formerly of Minneapolis, MN and San Francisco, CA.