Building a Digital Advertising Strategy

Crystal McFerran
7 min readSep 28, 2020


Photo credit: Shutterstock

When it comes to digital advertising, there are multiple approaches you can take, none of which are universally better or worse than the others. The devil’s in the details and you need to understand the advertising trifecta and the difference between approaching with a generalized or a highly targeted, specialized campaign. As you fill in the variables of what you need and where, you cut down on wasted time, money, and effort.

A wide net is going to be a waste if all of your customers are found somewhere specific and you’re casting in the wrong spot. A targeted campaign is going to fail if your leads aren’t worth the cost to continue sustaining your efforts. The advertising trifecta of earned, owned, and paid placements affects efficiency which impacts the cost per lead and the return on investment for your time. Your ad might be great, but if it’s on a platform none of your audience is, all of that effort and money evaporates.

To build a digital advertising strategy, you need to understand the platforms you have available, more specialized paths, and the common pitfalls you can hit. A generic strategy will be great for certain products, but a complete waste for others. Specializing too much can pigeonhole your market access. You (generally) need to strike a balance to make your advertising campaign soar.

Looking at Platforms and the Trifecta

When most people think of digital advertising, the first thing that comes to mind is something like Google Ads or Facebook Ads. These are great, easily accessible platforms with a wide reach, but they aren’t the only platforms, and they aren’t the only way to advertise. Most people forget about the advertising trifecta and focus on the paid portion while missing out on opportunities for earned or owned placements.

Your website, your blog, your social media are all owned assets which can be used as a platform to advertise. What makes your service valuable to someone and how can you show them without spending money? This won’t bring in the big bucks unless you have a big following, but it also doesn’t cost you much besides time and effort. It’s best practice to upkeep your owned content anyway, so this just becomes a cost of doing business.

Earned placements are like gold. They’re hard to get without knowing where to look, but they’re worth a lot. A little bit goes a long way for buying your success in a campaign. Word of mouth may not you as much as it used to, but it can definitely tip the scales if you combine it with the right campaign.

These get you organic traffic which is extremely powerful and important, but organic traffic only gets you so much. Your SEO goes up which means more people might accidentally stumble onto your product, site, or service. Your earned placements do similar via backlinks, but they also provide access to a different audience. The problem with relying on just these two is that you’re effectively relying on luck.

The Power of Paid Platforms

Paid platforms give you the ability to potentially level the playing field by providing a way to pay for access. They get you access to audiences outside your owned and earned placements or increase awareness and interest within the audiences for your current earned or owned placements.

Trying to avoid paid advertising is like if you want to sell a home “by owner” only. If you know what you’re doing, it’s not bad, but it can be overwhelming fast. You can choose to trade money to save time and ideally have someone more knowledgeable help you navigate the process, decreasing time and increasing your success.

One thing to note is that many of them will take your money or push bad decisions even if it’s not in your best interest for the sake of the deal. Google Ads doesn’t care that you’re bidding twice market on a keyword, or that you’re targeting keywords that make no sense. You still have to have a strategy, know the rules, and put in the effort; paying just means you don’t have to build the platform or do the majority of the legwork.

Paid platforms range from the generic like search engine ads, social media ads, and can get more and more specialized with trade publications, digital magazines, even product placement with streaming. Google Ads or Bing Ads exist for search traffic, Twitter and Facebook offer ads too, and even streaming services have sponsorships and product placement. Most magazines and publications are always looking for ads they can insert. You just need to know whether you need a wide or specialized net to hook the most buyers.

Getting Specialized

Platforms like Facebook and Google let you cast as wide a net as you want over a massive audience, but you have to understand your audience to really zoom in. You have a limited dimension to zoom in on. Your specialization is limited to some specific way to zoom in on a massive audience rather than starting with a more specialized audience.

Due to this, B2B companies tend to do well targeting a more limited audience with a wide net. This gets you general access to an audience which is substantially more interested in what you’re selling without trying to split hairs. The more niche the business, the more it (usually) pays to get more targeted.

The more specialized you get with advertising, either from the perspective of target audience or platform, the more expensive the ads become. This can seem counter-intuitive when targeting long-tail keywords on something like Google, but those have a cost in research, time, or efficiency. A general platform can get you access to pretty much any audience, but sometimes you want to take a more generic approach with a more limited, relevant audience.

This also tends to be where earned placements shine. A niche article isn’t going to reach that far outside of the specific industry, but many different subcategories will converge on it. Your keyword targeting may not hit on parts of the industry audience at all, but the right article can point them in the right direction. These types of articles end up in something like “the channel” for a B2B industry, or in a niche forum or other publication.

Common Pitfalls for Digital Advertising

Specialization only works if there’s a reason to specialize. Where is your audience, what platforms are they on, and can you reach them effectively? If your product relies on volume to be profitable, specialized advertising probably shouldn’t be your first avenue.

Different platforms have different advantages. If everyone who buys your product is on Twitter, wouldn’t that be the first place you should target? I may have a personal bias against certain platforms, but I’ll use them when my audience is there. Don’t let your preconceptions blind you to what the data actually shows. Go where your audience goes unless the platform just doesn’t make economic sense.

Another common mistake is the belief that “if you build it, they will come.” Word of mouth and SEO through owned and earned opportunities can and will still help your business blossom, but you have to put in the work. The digital landscape is saturated with millions upon millions of voices all vying to be heard. You have to trade either your time (and a level of skill) or your money to get ahead of the game, especially in the beginning. Paid advertising can help level the playing field when used right, but it is a money-sink otherwise.

Earned and owned placements are basically free in terms of (extra) cost, but they need continuous maintenance or else they fall off. You can’t just wait to be discovered, you have to focus on internal growth and how to make it accessible. What do you offer which can entice viewers (via SEO), how can you convert them, and how do you retain them? How are you getting blogs, news sites, journals, trade magazines, etc. interested in your offering? If you can’t answer these, you’re relying on luck rather than good marketing.

Getting It Right

The advertising trifecta is often overlooked, especially in the beginning for marketing efforts. It happens even with expert marketers though. Researching and targeting keywords can get boring fast. You may not be the best writer and you run out of ideas and try to overcompensate doing something else. I have to make a conscious effort to stay focused or I think “I can skip that today.”

Go back to basics and always think in terms of where your market is and how you can reach them. I can admit I have biases with certain platforms and I’ll either use them as much as possible or as little as possible, but you have to get over them. If my audience is on Facebook, you bet I’ll use it. If my audience isn’t on Facebook, then I won’t.

This doesn’t mean use a platform no matter what though. Are you able to navigate the platform if it has unwritten rules or is it even profitable? You can’t just get on Reddit and spam ads after all, you’ll be run off or just burn money. There’s an unwritten playbook you need to learn to make Reddit a valid outlet. It’s one thing to not want to, it’s another if the numbers just don’t work.

Know when you should cast a wide net and when you should get highly targeted for your efforts. Your audience may be a mix of general and specialized segments, but are all the parts worth targeting or is one substantially more profitable than the others? A generalist approach isn’t going to do much for antique store software (it’s a thing), and a specialist approach isn’t going to be ideal for pop music. The approach you take for this and with the advertising trifecta determines how successful you’ll be.



Crystal McFerran

CMO @ The 20. There are two consistent elements of work which bring me great joy: building relationships and making things grow.