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What Is “Digital Marketing?” And Why Does It Matter for Your Small Business?

Digital marketing

David Ogilvy was an advertising legend who inspired some of the best episodes of AMC’s critically-acclaimed Mad Men series.

In his era, a single idea could serve as the fodder for a campaign that ran for years.

Ogilvy died in 1999, just as digital marketing was gaining a foothold.

He began his marketing career at the ripe age of 39 with no formal training in advertising. If that sounds like a familiar storyline, it’s maybe because many of today’s best digital marketers learned their craft on the job, like Ogilvy. Their curiosity and willingness to experiment, not their college pedigree, sets them apart.

Few traditional colleges have the resources, staff, equipment, or desire to train young people for the modern workforce, let alone for digital marketing, which evolves so fast that any degree would be obsolete by commencement.

Many age-old advertising principles still hold, but marketing has changed more dramatically in the past 20 years than ever.

Even press releases are almost unrecognizable, written like articles or advertorials. Only a troglodyte uses the old rote intro: “So-and-so today announced…”

Thank you for announcing. We would never have figured it out.

So what is digital marketing, and how is it fundamentally different from the advertising of the Mad Men suites? Patience, my friend — we’re not yet done with our long-winded intro.

David Ogilvy’s clever, carefully crafted copy will never go out of style. But consumers today are resistant to traditional marketing messages after years of oversaturation. They don’t read magazines like they used to, at least not on glossy paper. And the television they watch is often ad-free.

Ogilvy was a minimalist — with an image and few words, he’d convey the essence of a product.

Minimalism still works for headings and e-mail subject lines but not for web copy, where customers want in-depth information. Search engines won’t rank a one-paragraph work of advertising art. And Clios don’t matter if you have to buy your traffic with $20 Adwords.

The Definition of Digital Marketing

Your website, e-mail campaigns, and Google Business Profile are all products of “digital marketing,” meaning they exist only as electronic files on the internet. There’s nothing “real” about a website other than the images on your screen, and an e-mail campaign is never put to paper (unless your mom prints it out).

Is a billboard digital? It can be if you never print it, and even a printed billboard begins as an electronic file in Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign.

Electronic marketing on the World Wide Web is digital marketing. Like cryptocurrency, there’s nothing physical about it.

Will it last? You bet it will — until the lights go out.

Digital Marketing Is the Life Blood of Local Businesses

When a water pipe bursts in your kitchen, do you reach for the Yellow Pages, rifle through a stack of flyers, or leaf through the weekly ad mailer?

No, you search on your mobile phone and call a plumber featured in the Google Map Pack, which lists the plumber’s business hours and average customer rating, among other things.

That plumber optimized his Google Business Profile (or had someone do it for him) to gain a prime position in the search results. That optimization falls under the rubric of “digital marketing.”

Great copy and keywords do little for your Business Profile. Hard work, know-how, and excellent customer relations do.

97% of search engine users search online to find a local business. 46% of Google searches are seeking information.

Corporations like General Motors and Budweiser still lean heavily on TV, magazine, and billboard advertising. When was the last time you saw an e-mail promo for Bud beer (spring break doesn’t count)? But plumbers don’t have billboards, and many don’t bother with Yellow Page ads.

Small service companies need digital visibility. They won’t survive without it unless they have amazing word-of-mouth — and even that is shared digitally.

Digital Is the Newest Species in the Marketing Zoo

Ogilvy was the king of magazine ads. Joseph Sugarman is a home shopping legend. Both wrote books that are well worth reading and remain relevant today.

But great copywriting alone won’t let you compete in today’s rough-and-tumble digital marketplace. It helps, but it’s only a start.

A website isn’t a magazine ad, an e-mail isn’t a postcard, and SEO doesn’t work like direct mail advertising.

Digital marketers must understand the customer journey from awareness to purchase and use analytics to test different approaches. They should know how organic search rankings work or collaborate with experts who do.

Content is still king (therefore, the gold rush for “content marketers”). But it’s less about Ogilvy-esque copywriting and more about producing videos, editing podcasts, and managing websites with user-friendly navigation menus.

Digital marketers convey a brand’s message while driving traffic to its website through creative campaigns. Rather than one idea per campaign, they may generate dozens, with an equal mix of good and bad.

Unlike Ogilvy’s one-pagers, their copy is copious. They write more, not less, and may even have word count targets because the SEO wonks say it takes X number of words to rank.

They construct their copy around keyword lists, answer every possible customer question or objection, and include multiple calls to action. And that’s just the copywriting aspect of digital marketing. Yes — there’s more.

Digital Marketing Is Highly Specialized

Digital marketers must analyze data, track customer interactions on web forms, emails, and social media networks, and use this information to optimize campaigns.

That’s a lot to deal with, and no digital marketer does everything well, but the best marketers are competent in several areas and exceptional in one or two. A good SEO specialist may also excel in copywriting, have design experience, and come from a background in analytics. A graphic designer may venture into web development and UX (user experience).

Ironically, corporate digital marketing, which embraces diversity in personnel, often discourages people from developing diverse skill sets.

The person sending the e-mail may not have conceived the campaign and sure as heck didn’t design it. The SEO specialist seldom builds pages, writes, or does anything outside a narrow range of analysis and recommendations. The copywriter never sees the analytics showing the impact of copy on sales.

If it sounds like corporate digital marketing can be stifling, well, there you have the reason I prefer working for a small agency where people wear several hats out of necessity.

Quantity Counts & Not Just Quality

Gone are the days when quantity mattered much less than quality.

For a website, digital marketers must churn out a lot of content to outrank competitors. Search engine algorithms consider user engagement, website visits, and author authority and often favor large websites over small ones.

Plus, no matter how well you optimize a page, you can never know if it will be a winner. Content marketing is like drilling for oil in the days before ultrasound scans. You know the oil’s down there somewhere, so you drill until you hit a gusher. Persistence is a key ingredient of success.

One blog about leaking toilets won’t establish you as an authority, but ten might, especially if they’re part of a plumbing website. And if you post three blog articles on a topic but none on related issues, search engines will give the nod to websites with more comprehensive information.

Quality still matters and always will but a five-page local business won’t drive much organic traffic, no matter how “optimized.” Content volume and site size are part of the optimization.

Fresh content drives traffic and links to your site. It gives search engines something new to crawl and index. The content must be helpful, relevant, up-to-date, engaging, to the point (unlike this blog), and compact yet comprehensive enough that readers won’t have to go elsewhere for further information.

Digital Marketing & Social Media

I don’t endorse social media marketing for plumbers and electricians (please convince me I’m wrong in the comments). But it’s a goldmine for nonprofit agencies, e-commerce companies, and some small businesses.

Social media is the largest targeted marketing platform ever created. Companies use it to attract followers who identify with their mission, products, or services.

The challenge is to create compelling content that gets shared and keeps people coming back for more. Long-form articles and videos usually work better than short posts lacking depth, detail, and context.

Effective social marketing demands engagement and customer interaction. Unlike your website visitors, social media users expect more back and forth. They want to be heard, not just listen to what you say.

Social networks are great places to conduct market research and test advertising campaigns before they go live. Plus, they provide a platform for launching campaigns, collecting feedback on products or services, and building an online presence.

Other Forms of Digital Marketing Your Local Business Might Need

I’ve talked at length about content marketing, which factors into most aspects of digital marketing, including:

And that’s just the beginning. Technology is advancing at an exponential rate and creating new digital marketing strategies, such as:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning
  • Voice search optimization
  • Augmented reality (AR)
  • Virtual reality (VR) marketing campaigns

Does your plumbing business need to try and do everything? Of course not, and no agency offers a complete menu of digital marketing options, despite their claims.

But the basics, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, include a functional and search-optimized website and a robust Google Business Profile. Beyond those two things, all digital marketing is optional.

About Culture Cube Digital Marketing

Culture Cube specializes in digital marketing for local businesses. Our clients include plumbers, HVAC installers, appliance repair companies, and local newspapers.

We offer the expertise of a large agency at small agency rates.

Because we specialize, we’re better qualified to promote your small business and create the most effective campaigns.

We don’t waste client money on lavish offices, fancy equipment, costly business trips, and endless meetings. We pass our savings on to you and welcome you as a partner more than a client.

Please contact us to learn what we can do for you.

References & Related Reading

  1. The Copywriting Handbook (Joseph Sugarman)
  2. Ogilvy on Advertising
  3. Confessions of An Advertising Man (David Ogilvy)
  4. Ogilvy on the True Value of Education
By Peter Losh

Peter Losh is the SEO Director of Culture Cube Marketing in Upland, California. He's also a de facto UX designer, site builder, and content creator. Unlike most folks in the SEO biz, he works directly on the sites he optimizes, having witnessed the effects of recommendations that go ignored or misunderstood (in previous gigs).

Peter has worked on websites since the salad days of the internet, first as a graphic artist and web designer at the Centers for Disease Control. Then came several years of freelance web development, SEO and e-commerce management for business sites of various sizes, and ultimately a 10-year stint as the sole SEO Manager of PartyCity.com.

In his spare time, he enjoys classic film, classical music, and classic comebacks. And cats.

Professional Work Experience

  • Search engine optimization
  • Ecommerce management
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • UX design and analysis
  • Copywriting and training
  • E-mail campaign design
  • Web design and development
  • Graphic design

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