What Is Digital Marketing in 2021?

David Victor
10 min readNov 30, 2020

Hint: It’s Much More Than “Social Media”.

Last year, I was at a meeting of a regional business group in the San Francisco East Bay, giving a talk about a hospital music charity I founded, Harmony & Healing, to a group of small business people.

I was curious about the promotional efforts of the organization overall, so I asked the very kind leader of the organization what sort of digital marketing they do.

“Oh yes, we do social media,” she responded with a pleasant smile.

I was a bit dumbfounded by her answer.

Let’s just say that a few bullet points were missing from her digital marketing playbook.

People have become enamored with social media like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

However, your friends, family and associates are not on social media to hear about your product or service.

If “marketing” is in your job description in 2021, you must first understand how people use the internet.

Your business does not own the “real estate” on social media. Social media companies make and change the rules, and their delivery systems, all the time.

In business, social media runs a distant 2nd place to your website.

Have you tried actually searching on Facebook in the past few years? As of the writing of this article, it is still slow, clumsy, and primarily concerned about keeping you on Facebook. Ultimately, in this author’s opinion, a Facebook search is not a great way to get answers to your questions.

People who have problems and questions do not want to wade through the morass of social media to find a solution.

People who want answers use search engines.

When your potential customers search, you want them to find your website, and see your company’s offerings as the answers they were looking for.

Things That Are Digital Marketing

To help you understand the current variety of digital marketing, I’ve put together a summary list. While other modalities pop up all the time, my “Things That Are Digital Marketing” list below covers most of what’s happening in 2021.

Your Business Website

Your business website is the only piece of online real estate you truly control and own.

Your website is where you can attract your ideal business prospects, engage them, and make your pitch, clean and unfiltered.

There are estimated to be 1.7 billion websites in the world today. Your job is to be sure that your customers find your website first.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Google, Bing, Yahoo are search engines you’ve probably used. With Search Engine Optimization, each impression and click is free when people search and find your company.

The challenge is getting your website “ranked”, so that the search engines show your link when people are searching for your product or service.

Writing great content, making your website “search engine friendly” and receiving links from other websites throughout the internet are just a few of the important factors that go into your ranking.

Paid Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Often referred to as “PPC” or “pay-per-click”. Somewhat simpler and faster than SEO, with PPC you pay each time someone clicks on your advertised link.

Clicks can be relatively inexpensive, but in competitive markets, certain kinds of businesses (family law attorneys, for example) might pay $50 or more per click.

And the average Cost-Per-Action (the measurement of how much it actually costs to get a sales inquiry, not just a “click”) averages $86 in the legal industry, and $133(!) in the technology industry.

Paid Search is fast, but you need to be realistic about your marketing budget.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is a fancy way of saying that you’re going to write, speak and record a lot of videos around your subject matter expertise, and publish your content to various platforms: your website, social media, Spotify (podcasts), YouTube, etc.

Content marketing is an essential part of an effective SEO strategy because without content, you have nothing to “optimize” (the “O” in “SEO”).

Content marketing requires the greatest amount of patience, while you wait for the search engines to recognize, index and grade the content you produce.

The effectiveness of a content marketing campaign is measured in months and years, not hours, days or even weeks.

The good news is that great content can be a gift that keeps on giving, since each piece of content serves to increase your subject-matter authority — one of Google’s most important ranking factors.

Social Media

Social media is Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. We can now add Google My Business to the list as well.

Similar to a search engine, social media can be “organic” (or free, such as when a post “goes viral”) or paid.

The chances that your followers see your unpaid posts gets smaller and smaller every year; by some estimates in 2021, around 6%. If you’re paying an intern to “post to social media”, most likely, very few people are seeing those posts.

It’s even getting expensive to advertise on social media, as the “inventory” (literally, the amount of space on a user’s timeline) gets smaller and smaller because of the amount of advertising. Of course, if social media was only advertising, people would stop looking at it, so they must keep at least a few dog and cat videos rolling in the timeline.

Including Google My Business or “GMB” as a social property is diminishing it somewhat. Few people use their GMB listing in the classic sense of “social”. Yet GMB is incredibly important to Google search. Suffice it to say, it’s a highly-valuable social property that your business can and should take advantage of right away.

Video — YouTube

Worthy of its own category with its fantastic integrated search engine, YouTube and its distant second cousin Vimeo, allow anyone to create their own marketing channels. YouTube’s organic reach is not bad, though as you probably know, YouTube sells lots of advertising as well.

YouTube is the #2 most-searched website after Google. Bing is a distant 3rd place. People go to YouTube for entertainment, but also to learn and find solutions to their problems.

My personal epiphany was when I went to YouTube to learn how to program my Lexus’ garage door opener. A car dealer in Tennessee had posted a how-to video and boom! I had my answer.

Email

Email was the original “digital marketing”. The trick to email marketing is building your email list (you must have someone to email!), and therein lies the rub.

You can do fairly well by advertising a lead magnet on social media in order to gather email addresses. No matter what, building an email list is pick-and-shovel work, but well worth it, as email is still one of the most effective digital marketing tools.

An email “series” on a how-to topic is a great way to get into your ideal prospect’s email box multiple times.

Text Marketing

Sometimes annoying, but pretty effective unless you are fined into oblivion for doing it. Many misuse it.

In fact, I received a political advertisement on my smartphone while I was typing this article from someone who did not receive my permission to contact me entitled “You have agreed to receive text messages from XYZ.”

Yeah, no.

But, text messages have astonishingly high open rates…as much as 98%. At least until marketers abuse and destroy this line of communication as well.

There are some nice “hybrid” text messaging (SMS) systems such as Podium, which allow the user to text you a message on your website. When you respond, your response goes to their text message system.

Display Ads

Display ads have been around since the earliest days of the web. Now display ads include mobile ads such as those icons for Shell or McDonald’s that you might see in Waze, or the links in the “Sponsored” section on Facebook.

Display ads, or “banner ads”, were one of the first ways that businesses tried to monetize their websites.

With a display ad, the advertiser simply pays for the real estate on the website. Due to their overuse, people have pretty much been trained to ignore this “interrupt” form of advertising.

Retargeting

While not technically a type of digital marketing, retargeting or “remarketing” is an effective adjunct in digital marketing.

Retargeting is the technique of showing your ad to a user who may have visited your website previously without taking the desired action such as purchasing a product, or submitting a contact form.

With retargeting, a piece of code known as a “cookie”, essentially tracking information, is added to a user’s browser. When the user visits a different site, such as Facebook or YouTube, the cookie is seen by the new site, and an advertisement from the original site is shown to the user.

Retargeting has proven to be an extremely-effective way to increase sales and sign-ups.

What’s the “Best” Digital Marketing for Your Business?

The type of digital marketing that works best for a complex business-to-business (B2B) sale, is often different than what’s best for a simple business-to-consumer (B2C) sale.

The key question is:

Are you selling into demand, or are you trying to create demand?

  • Selling Into Demand — People already know the “thing” or category of your product or service and are already searching for it.
  • Creating Demand — People may not be generally aware of your product or service, but might be interested if they were aware.

Creating demand can sometimes be thought of as a “branding” campaign. In branding, you’re putting out positive messages about your product or service, and hoping that, when the need arises, the viewer of your branding campaign will think of your brand first.

Selling Into Demand

If you are selling into demand, SEO and its close cousin, content marketing, is most often the most cost-effective digital marketing modality in the long-run.

SEO is the marathon-not-a-sprint marketing strategy. SEO is best if you:

  • Have more time than money.
  • Have patience.
  • Have a predictable marketing budget.
  • Plan on your business being around for a long period of time.

SEO is not just for national or international companies. Local SEO is highly effective when combined with a solid Google My Business listing strategy.

YouTube SEO is a different beast, but the overall strategy of presenting your solution as the answer to a problem or question is the same.

If you need a fast fix to your “demand sales” challenges, Paid Search Marketing may be the right fit for your business.

Paid Search is great when you:

  • Need results fast.
  • Have a larger marketing budget (you will pay for the advertising as well as for the advertising manager to create an effective paid campaign).
  • Need to prove a market fit for your product or service solution.

With Paid Search, you get “on the map” quickly, though your visibility disappears as soon as you stop advertising.

With SEO and content marketing, the investment you make continues to pay dividends for months and even years to come.

Creating Demand & Brand Awareness

If your product or service is unknown, or isn’t really in the “problem solving” category (e.g., marketing a concert or flower show), you’re trying to create demand and awareness of your brand. In these cases, social media and YouTube advertising can be effective.

People are not on Facebook to shop. But if your product or service offer enters their timeline, you’ve “touched” them.

They are now aware of you.

Now, lather, rinse and repeat (usually, many, many times). By some estimates, at least 7–10 times more, and you might just sell your company’s Bluetooth lapel microphone.

The old way of getting people to “like” your business page and posting things on that page is generally a waste of time these days.

Unless you’re paying for ads on social media, it is estimated in 2019 that only about 6% of your followers are actually seeing your posts. I actually think that’s a bit high, especially at the time of this writing.

Basically, you’re spitting into the digital wind unless you’re paying Facebook, Instagram or YouTube for reach — the space on their timeline.

Your Competition

No digital marketing overview would be complete without mentioning the challenge of competition.

No matter what you do in business, if your competitors are willing to do more with their digital marketing than you are, you’ll have a challenge.

Competition in digital marketing is like any other challenge when running a business.

The general confusion surrounding the shifting sands of digital marketing can be an advantage to a smart and savvy company.

For example, if your competition thinks they’re doing all they can because they “do social media”, you can easily best them with some clever digital marketing moves.

Your Website Is the Key to Your Digital Marketing Strategy

No matter which digital marketing strategy you employ, your website is the “hub” where all your other marketing activities should meet.

Building an appealing and highly engaging website is not a task for a newbie. The old days of having someone’s teenager slap something together more-or-less guarantees internet anonymity.

Aesthetics is subjective, but there are ways to know if your website is effective for your business.

Here are some basic stats you can track:

  • How many website visitors are you getting per month?
  • When they visit your site, do they immediately leave?
  • Of the ones who stay, how long do they stay?
  • What paths do they take through your content?
  • Are you achieving your goals (lead form submissions, calls, etc.)?

Ultimately, the best measure if your website is helping your business is the amount of sales leads that come through the website.

Closing them is still your job, but recent surveys show that as much as 70% of the buying decision has been made before anyone ever contacts your sales department. Since the “Great Pandemic of ‘20”, that number is probably still climbing.

No matter how you slice it, it’s critically important to be certain that your business makes the right digital “first impression”.

Summary

I hope this survey of “Things That Are Digital Marketing” has helped you at least get clarity around your options.

Now that you’ve surveyed the landscape, you may be ready to learn more about how digital marketing can help your business grow. I have created a few helpful articles on my own website for business owners and CMOs to check out.

The next time someone asks you if what kind of digital marketing you’re doing, you now know if your answer should be “Yes!”, “No”, or “Well, some…”.

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David Victor
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David Victor is an SEO and digital marketing specialist, musician formerly of BOSTON, and founder of a hospital music charity.