Has “Digital Marketing” just been “Marketing” all along?

A few weeks ago, I was doing my usual rounds keeping myself up to date with news in the digital marketing field when I stumbled upon an article by Samuel Scott entitled “How Google Analytics ruined marketing.” Controversial title and content aside, I was struck by the notion he presented in his opening paragraph:

Marketers in the high-tech world who use phrases such as “social media marketing,” “Facebook marketing” and “content marketing” do not understand the basic difference between marketing strategies, marketing channels and marketing content.

As a young marketer who’s been diving deep into the world of online marketing for the past couple of years, I found this idea shocking. Countless of podcasts and articles I’ve consumed while learning about this medium for marketing have recognized these terms as legitimate, and many who created these materials have been working in the industry for years. Could they have been wrong all this time?

But his wasn’t the first time Samuel Scott said something like this. A little more digging and I found another article from him (aptly called “Everything the tech world says about marketing is wrong”) with a similar quote.

Digital marketers — who, as marketers, really should be cynical enough to know better — have fallen into an echo chamber of meaningless buzzwords.

Now, as someone with the title of Digital Marketing Manager, this sent me into a bit of an existential crisis (dramatic, I know). Have the creation of all these “digital marketing” terms been all for naught? After all, Scott seems to be implying that at the end of the day the best marketers still rely on various traditional marketing theories as the backbone of their strategies. And that therefore, we should let go of all these terms based on that fact.

To get me out of this loop of wondering whether I should keep calling myself a “Digital Marketer”, we’re going to go on a journey into understanding what “Digital Marketing” and “Marketing” means to us today. A bit of a disclaimer though: I’m still pretty new to the field so take what I say with a grain of salt and feel free to present your own opinions on the matter. I’m always looking to learn.

Where does Digital Marketing fit in?

Let’s first take a look at some theory. Marketers thrive on using a theoretical approach in order to properly strategize a campaign. And for years we’ve relied on the 4Ps of the marketing mix:

  1. Product
  2. Price
  3. Place
  4. Promotion

Theoretically speaking, “Digital Marketing” falls into “Promotion” (Scott himself says this as well), and “Promotion” is defined by Investopedia as “the collective marketing communications campaign used to sell the product, often called the promotional mix.” And in that promotional mix, the common strategies are advertising, personal selling, sales promotion, public relations and direct marketing.

The Problem

While researching on this topic, I found a presentation on SlideShare on “Promotional Mix” that basically sums up what I learned in college:

Now these are fine and dandy to a certain degree, but when looking at the current big picture of marketing, the emergence of new technologies has changed the way we communicate with customers and therefore, the nature of these strategies. The problem with slides like these is that the characteristics they present may not be relevant to digital marketing at all.

Take a look at “Advertising.” As someone who creates content and runs paid ad campaigns on Facebook, I know that “advertising” online can both be personalized and inexpensive — thanks to the platform’s targeting system, mass audience and overall business model. And writing just one ad copy for multiple social media channels will not always guarantee results because each channel has it’s own audience and culture.

Another example can be seen in “Personal Selling.” When an online only store allows customers to chat live with staff members as they are shopping, it’s possible to consider that “personal selling” and it doesn’t always have to be “the most expensive promo tool” as defined by this slide. On the other hand, if we refuse to call it “personal selling” based on this, then were does it fall within the traditional framework of the promotional mix that’s taught in so many schools? We can’t simply brush it off and say it’s not promotion because it certainly is part of “personal interaction” and “relationship building.”

Therein lies the problem with “marketing.” Many practitioners, teachers and students are taught these outdated definitions, and there are plenty who are insistent on keeping these well-respected theories consistent — which is completely understandable from an academic perspective. However, no matter how abstract it may sound, examples like the ones above illustrate that there are certainly times when “digital marketing” is not the “marketing” many business veterans know and many young marketers are taught to understand.

There is a gap that needs to be filled. It is obvious there is a need for these concepts to be updated but that poses a number of challenges due to the rapidly changing environment of marketing today. Academia still need time to do thorough research into patterns in the field and consolidate what the traditional theories lack for our contemporary context.

The Need for New Terms

At this point in time, it seems we are in a bit of a transitional period where there are majorities on both sides of the current marketing spectrum. On one side, we have those who are insistent on the theoretical consistency of marketing (I put Samuel Scott here). On the other, we have those who are disrupting the foundations of “marketing” and may actually be part of shaping it into something new.

Where we are right now, the use of terms like “digital marketing”, “social media marketing”, “Facebook marketing”, “content marketing”, etc. is part of our mechanism for coping with the many changes that are happening in the field and attempting to define what it is we’re doing. These terms are by no means perfect. They could probably be grouped together more systematically and some might be better off not existing, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with trying to come up with these new terms.

And that’s because in the middle of that spectrum, we have a minority who are faced with the difficult job of trying to balance both theoretical consistency and change in 21st century marketing. In the 14th edition of Marketing Management, Dr. Philip Kotler, a veteran in marketing theories and a leader in marketing thinking, introduces students to an update to the 4Ps:

Given the breadth, complexity, and richness of marketing, however — as exemplified by holistic marketing — clearly these four Ps are not the whole story anymore. If we update them to reflect the holistic marketing concept, we arrive at a more representative set that encompasses modern marketing realities: people, processes, programs, and performance… (p.25)

We are only starting to understand the changes happening in the field and also starting to identify the patterns to develop sound observations that support the creation of updated marketing concepts.These contemporary theories, however, haven’t reached mainstream capacity yet as more research needs to be done. Traditional theories of marketing are still prevalent and passed around since the number of generations who have learned and practiced this well-established form of “marketing” are many.

In the future, perhaps the concept of “digital marketing” will become part of what society knows as “marketing.” But I don’t think that time has arrived just yet.

This post originally appeared on my blog, KRISTEEN.ME.