What is Digital Marketing?

Just what is digital marketing? Unless you are a digital marketer or savvy marketer, you might have the impression that digital marketing is about social media promotion or ads you see while performing a Google search.

If you think so, you will not be wrong since social media marketing and paid advertising are types of digital marketing.

However, digital marketing is so much more. It is a specialised marketing discipline in its own right.

I have spoken to both sides of the marketing camp, marketers who consider themselves practitioners of traditional marketing and those who see themselves as specialised digital marketers. I was quite surprised by how some view each other’s role in contemporary marketing.

One traditional marketer remarked that digital marketing and traditional marketing are the same, the only difference being the channels employed. So, there is nothing much to learn as the concepts are the same.

Some digital marketers feel that (digital) marketing is all about reach and conversion and knowing how to use the different technologies to reduce cost per acquisition and convert customers. This is achieved through setting up campaigns, split-testing, analysing data and adjusting the campaigns to optimise conversions. So, traditional marketing theory does not play a significant role in online marketing success.

Both camps are not entirely wrong if viewed in the silo of just the traditional marketing or digital marketing world, respectively. But their line of thinking does not encompass the big picture view of marketing that is needed to achieve business goals in the current economic and social landscape.


The analogy I like to give to explain both types of marketing is to compare them with cooking and baking. Generally, both cooking and baking involve working in a kitchen to prepare food to be eaten. But any chef or baker will tell you that both disciplines are entirely different.

Cooking relies a lot on experience and is more instinct-based with a set of principles and techniques to guide the chef. In this way, traditional marketing is like cooking; in that, it requires experience and know-how, along with a strategy that can be tailored as the marketer deems fit.

Baking requires precision and a meticulous approach to preparing and mixing the ingredients. Even a slight change to the ingredients or proportion of ingredients can affect the end-product. The heat of the oven and the time in the oven must also be monitored closely.

The baker must strictly adhere to the recipe to attain the results as intended. This process is very similar to digital marketing, where data analytics is used to fine-tune and optimise campaigns that are carefully planned based on research data.

So, even though traditional and digital marketing come under the umbrella of marketing, they are both quite different in scope, implementation and measurement.

According to the Digital Marketer, “Digital marketing is the act of promoting and selling products and services by leveraging online marketing tactics such as social media marketing, search marketing and email marketing[1].

Essentially, it covers all forms of marketing activity that takes place in the online space.

The definition that I have come up for digital marketing is:

Communication that uses digital channels and different online marketing methods to engage users with digital assets.

[1] “The Ultimate Guide to Digital Marketing”, (retrieved Feb 2020). Digital Marketer.


It is widely acknowledged that the birth of digital marketing took place in 1994 where AT&T purchased the first clickable banner ad on HotWired.com. 44% of people who saw that ad clicked on it, an almost-impossible metric to hit today (Lafrance, Adrienne, “The First-Ever Banner Ad on the Web”, (Apr 2017). The Atlantic).

Digital marketing grew in the 2000s and the 2010s, with the introduction of the iPhone and other smartphones and devices. These digital devices allowed access to digital media that subsequently grew substantially due to increasing demand.

The development of social media in the 2000s, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, gave brands the ability to communicate and interact with consumers directly.

This digital evolution changed the customer journey and experience. The change in customer behaviour improved the diversification of marketing technology.

Digital marketing has also been refined due to the availability of extensive data collection and tracking technology that allows for highly targeted marketing and retargeting advertising.

Digital tools like Facebook Insights, Google Analytics, tracking pixels, cookies and email automation have made digital marketing much more sophisticated.

Read more about digital marketing and how it fits into your business in the book “Evolve, Adapt or Collapse“.

Request for the FREE digital marketing eBook “Behind the Click” below.

J C Sum

J C Sum is a certified management consultant (TR 43:2015), an American Marketing Association Professional Certified Marketer (PCM®) in marketing management as well as a certified digital marketing strategist (SSG-WSQ accredited) with 12 years of experience specializing in search engine optimization, content marketing, and analytics. J C holds a Bachelor of Arts from National University of Singapore and is the author of "Evolve, Adapt or Collapse". He has been featured on The Straits Times, Business Times, Channel News Asia, The Edge Singapore, CNA938, and Money FM 89.3.