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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn

Is digital marketing always best?

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

The world is rife with "digital first" organisations, campaigns and teams. But is digital always the answer for your marketing and communications activity? Is there a danger in bypassing offline channels?

The short answer is: it depends on what you're trying to do and who your audiences are. As with every activity you design, identifying marketing objectives and audience analysis are the first key steps.

Based on your goals, you will know whether you are looking to create long-lasting brand awareness and drive sales over a period of time (say to launch a new business), OR whether you are looking to create fast, short-term impact for an existing brand (for example to promote a sale or let people in a specific area know something important).

Based on your understanding of your audiences, you'll have a good idea of the best way to communicate with them.

Put these together and you can start asking: where does digital fit in? How effective will digital channels be in reaching and engaging your audiences?

What does digital marketing mean?

Digital marketing is sometimes used as shorthand for advertising online, through paid placement on other websites and social media. But the true definition includes anything that comes under the wider remit of marketing and communications and is delivered using digital technology. Therefore this could include websites, search engine optimisation (SEO), video content, Google Analytics, emails and so on. This wider definition is critical if you're designing a marketing strategy for a business or for a large-scale, long term project. But you need to take account of the scale of the effort behind all of this, especially if you are a small business. SEO alone requires an investment of time and specialist expertise, but is critical to the success of your customer journey over months and years.

If you are thinking of a specific campaign, digital communication is a slightly more straightforward way of thinking about it. How are you going to use digital channels to share your message quickly and easily? What contribution to your overall goals should this make?

For the purposes of this article, we're going to focus on digital communication, and communicating key messages through digital channels.

A young man in a beige hoodie has his back to the camera. He is looking up at a range of colourful digital advertising billboards in Times Square.

Image: Joshua Earle

In the context of "digital first" environments, there is often a leap to only think of digital channels for communication. It's true that digital technology has opened up access to audiences, but thinking only digital, without considering if more traditional, offline methods can also play a part, is never a good idea.

When is digital best?

Using digital channels for your communications works really well when you:

  • Need to reach a wide audience

  • Need to be able to measure performance in real-time (for example to justify expenditure, evidence why you need further investment or provide very frequent reports on impact)

  • Know your audience(s) in detail and can match these characteristics to media outlets

  • Are not limited by location (for example if you are selling an online service or product which can be delivered anywhere) and use online channels, OR

  • Are very specific about location and use outdoor digital promotion in a targeted way

  • Need to communicate something complex in an early understandable way (video is ideal for this)

When should offline channels be considered?

Using only digital channels can have risks, depending on your project. And offline channels shouldn't be ruled out before considering whether they offer an effective way to get your message across. Examples of when offline channels could be beneficial in supporting, or even better than, digital activity include:

  • A door drop from a council to advise residents in a specific area about local roadworks

  • Personalised direct mail to congratulate staff on reaching a milestone or delivering a big project

  • Targeted offers for a new bricks and mortar business in a local area

  • Sharing complex, perhaps legally binding, information

Summary: how to know if digital channels are best for your campaign

  • Do your research. What do you know about your audiences? What can you infer about where they are likely to consume information? Read my guide on audience analysis as a refresher. Test your approach and make tweaks based on the feedback you get.

  • Don't make assumptions. Not all young people love TikTok. Not all older people read newspapers and watch daytime telly.

  • Don't ignore common sense, or underestimate the power of thinking practically.

  • Focus on return-on-investment. No business can afford to waste money, and very few of us have lots of time on our hands, so zoom in how you get the biggest, fastest impact from your budget, not on what you think looks the best or is what non-marketers want to hear.

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