What Is a Digital Marketing Strategy? (And How To Create One)

When we think of digital marketing, it’s easy for our minds to leap straight to the flashy stuff. You know what we’re talking about—highly engaging content and cool brands that interact with their customers in novel, headline-making ways. 

However, while the work of great brands may appear effortless on the surface, you can guarantee it’s always underpinned by a rigorous digital marketing strategy. When launching a new campaign, devising an effective strategy is always the first step you should take. 

If this is all alien to you, don’t fear. In this post, we strip things right back, asking: What exactly is a digital marketing strategy, and how do you create one? In covering the topic, we’ll answer the following questions: 

  1. What is a digital marketing strategy?
  2. What makes an effective digital marketing strategy?
  3. Digital marketing strategy examples
  4. How to create and deliver a digital marketing strategy in 8 steps
  5. Key takeaways

While ‘devising a strategy’ might not sound as exciting as creating great content, it’s just as critical and can be a lot of fun, too, as we’ll see. But before we get to that, let’s dive in with the basics.

1. What is a digital marketing strategy?

A digital marketing strategy outlines a business objective and identifies steps for achieving this through digital channels. Sounds simple enough, right? In its most basic form, it is pretty straightforward. Remove all the jargon and buzzwords and ‘digital marketing strategy’ is essentially the fancy term for a business’s online game plan. What do you want to achieve, what do you need to do to achieve it, and what digital techniques and channels will you use? 

Digital is transforming the way we shop, work, travel, and interact with friends and family. That’s why a digital marketing strategy is something all businesses now need. Indeed, many pour huge amounts of money and resources into creating strategies that will achieve their goals (which tend to include things like lead generation, sales, brand awareness, or building loyalty). 

Why is it so important to have a digital marketing strategy in place?

We know what a digital marketing strategy is, but why is it important to have one? Surely businesses can get by without, right? You could indeed try. But why take the risk? 

A digital marketing strategy is like a blueprint for you to follow. Without it, a business is essentially winging it. Even if you’re an expert in all the digital marketing techniques, from content creation to SEO, none of this is enough on its own. Knowing how to use these tools is necessary, of course. But so is knowing when to use them.

Think of this as a bit like building a house. You might be an expert craftsperson, but start building the roof before the walls, and your house will quickly collapse! The same goes in business—a digital marketing strategy can help you avoid similar mistakes. By defining your goals upfront, you’ll know which actions to take, when to take them, and why. You’ll also have a much better idea of what success should look like and how to measure it.

What’s the difference between a digital marketing strategy and a digital marketing campaign plan?

Before we go further, we need to highlight a distinction between digital marketing strategies and digital marketing campaign plans. The two are often confused but there’s a subtle difference. Think of it like this: if a digital marketing strategy is a blueprint for a house, the digital marketing campaign is the process that explains, in detail, how to construct the house. To clarify, let’s dive a bit deeper here.

The digital marketing strategy

A digital marketing strategy is a high-level plan. It uses data-driven insights to define objectives and ensures that these align with the overall direction of the business. For instance, let’s say a cosmetics company has a makeup line that hasn’t been selling well. To increase sales, they decide to rebrand the product line. As a result, their marketing objective might be ‘to increase sales of this product by 5% over the next year.’

Next, the company’s strategy will cover what needs doing to achieve this objective. For example, ‘to promote this product, we need to raise brand awareness with the new target audience: teenagers aged 16-19.’ The strategy will then include broad actions that need taking to achieve this. Finally, it includes broad timeframes, such as ‘this campaign needs to run for six to twelve months’. However, it might not go into more detail than that.

The digital marketing campaign plan

While the strategy outlines the broad objectives, the digital marketing campaign plan is more detailed. Although it’s technically a part of the strategy, it defines the individual tasks, techniques, tools, and timeframes for delivery. 

For example, it might include deadlines for activities like content creation or pay-per-click advertising (or whatever else you’ve identified as suitable for delivering on the objective). Our cosmetics company’s marketing campaign plan, for instance, might include a sixth-month schedule with dates for completing individual pieces of content, when they will be released, via which channels, how to measure engagement, and so on.

If this isn’t clear, don’t worry—we’ll go into more detail in section four. First, though, let’s look at what a digital marketing strategy requires to succeed. 

A marketer working on a laptop, devising a digital marketing strategy

2. What makes an effective digital marketing strategy?

Time to get down to the details! What exactly makes a digital marketing strategy effective? According to the Digital Marketing Institute, which has over 160,000 members worldwide, there are seven ingredients for a successful digital marketing strategy. In this section, we’ll look at each of these in brief.

1. Establish realistic objectives

Starting a new project is exciting! But with this excitement must come caution. That’s because there’s a risk of thinking we can achieve more than we really can. Rather than overstretching with too many objectives, aim for simplicity. If you have numerous objectives, that’s OK, but ensure they’re all working towards the same ultimate purpose.

Whatever your objective (or objectives) you should ask yourself the following: Do they align with the organization’s overall goals? Are they realistically achievable given the time, money, and resources you have available? (If the answer is no, it’s time to rethink them!)

2. Choose appropriate key performance indicators (KPIs)

Once you’ve established your goals, you need to identify appropriate KPIs against which to measure them. Without clear goals and success metrics, it’s easy to lose focus. KPIs measure whether a goal was reached and can help us identify areas for improvement. 

When determining KPIs, ask yourself how each one relates to your objective, how you intend to measure it, and how it will help you define what success (or failure) looks like. Be willing to change your KPIs as you go. When it comes to executing your campaign plan, your initial KPIs may not serve the purpose you thought they would when you started out.

Learn more: What are marketing metrics, and which ones should you know about?

3. Familiarize yourself with the sales funnel

The sales funnel is a common business tool used to identify the steps a typical customer takes throughout the sales journey. While there are many variations, it typically begins with brand awareness (on the broad end) and ends with sales or closing (on the narrow end). The steps in between include things like engagement (where prospective customers actively connect with a brand), evaluation (where they assess the brand’s value), and conversion (where they become paying customers).

For the most part, digital marketing deals with the broad end of this spectrum, i.e. brand awareness and engagement. It’s all about relationship building. However, loyalty and retention marketing are also important, since these deal with existing customers at the narrow end of the spectrum. Any digital marketing strategy must consider each step carefully, to support customers throughout the entire brand journey.

4. Understand what makes effective content

Great content is more than just well-written blog posts or videos with high-production values. It needs to serve two purposes. Firstly, it should push the company’s core messaging. Secondly, users should find it engaging and perhaps even shareable.

Striking the balance between the needs of business and the needs of prospective customers is tricky. It helps to begin by building your product or service offering, then producing ads or content that drive customers towards this with compelling content and clear calls to action. At the same time, it must be relevant to your customers while accounting for practical issues like SEO. Nobody said content creation was straightforward!

5. Allow for contingency and flexibility

Just as you would build contingency into any project plan with a client, you should do the same for your digital marketing strategy. Being too rigid is a guaranteed way of getting in trouble. Although the emergence of fields like data analytics has reduced much of the guesswork, marketing is never an exact science.

Current affairs, shifts in the business landscape, what your competitors are doing, and other unforeseen factors can all impact your digital marketing strategy. Build in ‘breathing room’ and be prepared to change direction if necessary.

6. Produce a library of reusable content

As far as possible, try to create what’s known in the industry as ‘evergreen content.’ This is content that remains relevant over long periods, is SEO optimized, and can be shared across numerous different digital channels.

Naturally, you’ll probably want to complement your evergreen content with context-specific or responsive material that’s relevant to current affairs. However, your digital marketing strategy will be much easier to execute if you have a library of reusable collateral that keeps customers and prospects engaged and gives you something to fall back on in the case of an emergency.

7. Remain goal-focused

It sounds obvious, but always remain focused on your goals. They should drive everything you do. When you reach an important milestone in your strategy, or something forces you to change direction, ask yourself: Does this serve our end goal? Are customers/prospects still engaged?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you’ll need to reassess your approach. Don’t worry if that happens, though. Frankly, planning and uncertainty go hand-in-hand when it comes to digital marketing. This is challenging but juggling the two makes it fun, as well. Honestly, you should be more concerned if nothing changes at all!

3. Digital marketing strategy examples

Okay, we hear you say! We understand what makes an effective digital marketing strategy, what about some examples, already? We’re with you. It’s much easier to visualize this stuff by looking at what real companies are doing. So let’s look briefly at three businesses that have their digital marketing strategies nailed. First up… 

Digital marketing strategy example 1: Innocent Drinks: Social media marketing

The Innocent digital marketing strategy, a series of smoothie bottles with knitted hats

Source: innocentdrinks.co.uk

Innocent Drinks are regularly cited as one of the best examples of how to do digital marketing right. We hate to be a broken record, but damn: they’re good!

Innocent is famed for its unique tone of voice which is friendly, relatable, funny, and yep: just a bit weird. While their ultimate aim is to sell juice and smoothies, they’ve built a loyal fanbase on social media and are experts at customer engagement. While it’s pretty common now, they were one of the first companies ever to use Twitter to engage directly with their followers in a non-corporate, human voice. And although many organizations have since tried to emulate them, Innocent still does it better than anyone else. 

Innocent uses regular quizzes, jokes, and competitions to engage with followers, as well as clever awareness events like their annual ‘Big Knit.’ This sees volunteers knitting tiny winter hats to go on their drinks bottles. For every one sold, they donate a small percentage to charities for the elderly. This is a great example of a digital marketing strategy that engages customers at all stages of the sales funnel. It creates engagement, pushes customers to buy their products, and fosters loyalty from existing buyers. Bravo, Innocent! 

Digital marketing strategy example 2: ASOS: User-generated content

The "As Seen On Me" campaign run by ASOS as part of their wider digital marketing strategy

 

Source: duffy.agency / ASOS

 

British fashion empire ASOS has one of the most successful digital marketing strategies of any clothing brand. This is partly because they launched in 2000, right at the dawn of the digital era—digital marketing has been in their blood from the start. But it also comes down to knowing their audience and finding appropriate ways to engage with them. 

First up, ASOS knows that their target audience is millennials, who are highly active on social media. Tapping into this demographic, in 2014, they devised a hugely successful user-generated content campaign. This offered Instagram users the opportunity to feature as the face of ASOS on their social media channels. All they had to do was share images of themselves in ASOS clothing, using the hashtag #AsSeenOnMe.

This approach not only fostered brand engagement but also resulted in tonnes of free advertising, creating a snowball effect. Although the campaign ended years ago, the loyalty remains: ASOS is still one of Europe’s highest-grossing fashion retailers. 

Digital marketing strategy example 3: Taco Bell: Influencer marketing

An Instagram post showing a card sent by Taco Bell to Chrissy Teigen as part of their digital marketing strategy

Source: Chrissy Teigen on Instagram

 

Back in 2012, Nielsen reported that 92% of people trusted word-of-mouth recommendations from family or friends over all other forms of advertising. We reckon fast-food chain Taco Bell got the memo and ran with it because, in 2013, they launched one of the first-ever influencer-marketing campaigns. 

Taco Bell sent several quirky notes and gold rings (emblazoned with their name) to what they called some ‘special ladies.’ This included popular social media users, actresses, and models (including Chrissy Teigen) who had previously shown some love for the brand. Because the influencers shared images of the jewelry with their many millions of followers, Taco Bell generated greater brand awareness and conversation amongst those who might not have given them much notice before.

This quirky approach ticked many boxes: shareable content, great engagement, and loyalty rewards. And while public awareness of influencer marketing is greater today (meaning perhaps this approach would meet more consumer cynicism) it was a cutting edge idea at the time. Hats off to Taco Bell!

4. How to create a digital marketing strategy in 7 steps

We’ve learned what a digital marketing strategy is, why companies need one, and who’s doing it well. But how do you go about creating one? In this section, we provide a step-by-step guide to creating your own digital marketing strategy.

1. Research and analysis

The first step in any strategy is to ensure you have the necessary data at your fingertips. Data-driven insights will help you determine appropriate objectives and KPIs. Upfront, this will involve some significant research and analysis, comprising three main threads:

  • Understanding your business: You should analyze your company’s past performance, assessing everything from turnover to website clickthrough rates and customer retention. While not all this will necessarily be relevant to your strategy, it will all help identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
  • Understanding your competitors: Just as you assess your strengths and weaknesses, do the same for your competitors. Examine their digital presence, see which ones are doing well and which are not. Ultimately, you want to get as clear an idea as possible of the past, present, and future direction of the business landscape.
  • Understanding your customers: Finally, you must research your existing and prospective customers. What size audience do you have? What demographics do they fit into? What are their interests and dislikes? What are their passions? And, of course, what digital channels do they use? All this will help you to create a tailored and more successful campaign.

2. Devise your high-level strategy

Once you’ve done some research and are feeling confident about the insights you’ve obtained, it’s time to get started with your strategy. A common framework for devising digital marketing strategies is the GOST model. This stands for goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics, and covers everything you need from high-level thinking to the detailed aspects of your campaign.

  • Goals: This is a general aim, which has direct value to the business. For instance, a goal could be to grow the company to $5 million over the next five years.
  • Objectives: Objectives are more specific than goals. While they also have direct value, they describe what needs to be done to achieve the high-level goal. For instance, to grow the business to $5 million, you might need to boost overall sales revenue by 10% each year over the next five years.
  • Strategies: This outlines the general methods and capabilities you require to achieve your objectives. For instance, to boost sales by 10%, you might need to hire a new team or invest in new technologies.
  • Tactics: This outlines the specific activities required to implement the strategy, such as building a social media presence, creating x-amount of new pieces of engaging content per month, or launching a seasonal webinar.

While there are other models available, they all ultimately cover the same points. The most important thing to understand is that every strategy is different anyway: how they shape up depends a lot on your business and industry.

3. Define your audience

Following your research phase, you should already have a good understanding of your target audience. However, it may be quite broad. Now that you have your high-level strategy in place, it’s time to get more specific. This can involve numerous activities, but two common ones are creating customer segmentations and buyer personas.

  • Customer segmentations help you to identify or predict market interest for your particular product or service. They divide existing or prospective customers into broad groups based on demographic measures such as age, location, gender, and so on.
  • Buyer or user personas are more personal; they help you map the emotional and behavioral needs of specific customers you might want to target. While this profile represents the outline of an ‘ideal’ customer (rather than a real individual) it will help you to determine how best to shape your messaging, what kinds of content to produce, and how likely your audience is to engage with this content.

A digital marketing manager working at a desk, analyzing a digital marketing strategy

4. Select channels

As part of defining your audience, you’ll need to identify which channels they use. Common digital marketing channels include email marketing, PPC advertising, social media, affiliate marketing, and online public relations, although there are many more. Depending on your strategy, you might focus on one or several channels. Determining this is important, as the channel/s you use will inform the type of content you produce.

5. Create a content plan

Presuming you’ve defined your product or service offering, it’s time to shape a message that will push this to your target audience via your selected channels. Your content format will depend on numerous factors. For instance, social media marketing is a key channel where video content is often very popular. Meanwhile, email marketing will involve creating some compelling copy, whereas website marketing might mean producing white papers or PDF booklets that your users can download.

Beyond the format, you’ll also need to consider the subject matter of your content. As well as your target audience’s interests, look at what’s currently trending. Check out Google search and make sure you investigate what your competitors are doing. This includes your bad competitors—even unsuccessful campaigns are informative as they can tell you what sorts of content to avoid. Do plenty of trawling of your chosen channels and social media, too, to see what kinds of content your target audience engages with most: do they like factual content? Funny? Emotive? Or something else entirely? 

6. Select KPIs and benchmarks

Once you’ve produced some great content, it’s tempting to put it out there right away. That’s fine, but only do this if you’ve already identified KPIs and benchmarks. Without these, it’s impossible to measure the success or return-on-investment of your campaign. 

Common KPIs in digital marketing include things like: web traffic sources, website leads, clickthrough rates, brand awareness metrics (such as search volume data or unique impressions), and lead conversion. 

Choosing KPIs is not enough on its own, though. You should also set benchmarks (which define your aspiring goal). For example, perhaps you want your campaign to achieve 15% lead conversion or for a mailshot to obtain a 30% clickthrough rate. Once you’ve selected KPIs and defined your benchmarks, you’re safe to finally execute your campaign! 

7. Assess results against KPIs

Lastly, you must measure your campaign’s success. This isn’t just something you do at the end of the campaign (although you should do it then, too) but throughout. There are many free digital marketing tools available for measuring live data, so there’s no excuse not to assess as you go. Presuming you’ve selected suitable KPIs and benchmarks, this should be relatively straightforward.

Did you meet your benchmarks? If so, excellent. Why was your campaign so successful? What can you take from this to improve further? Likewise, if your campaign fails to meet its benchmarks, what can you change? Did you have the wrong content, or were you measuring against the wrong KPIs? Sometimes this requires a bit of forensic analysis but it’s very important to try.

If something isn’t working, don’t just stick to the strategy. Change it. Adapt as necessary, and you can still get your digital marketing strategy back on track!

5. Key takeaways

There we have it: digital marketing strategy demystified! In this post, we’ve defined what a digital marketing strategy is, why it’s important, and what it involves. We’ve learned that:

  • An effective digital marketing strategy defines a business objective and identifies steps for achieving this objective through digital channels.
  • Even if you’re an excellent marketer, a digital marketing strategy acts as a blueprint to follow and helps you measure success.
  • Successful digital marketing strategies are flexible and adaptable with realistic objectives, clear KPIs, and user-focused content.
  • Creating a digital marketing strategy involves 7 key steps: Research and analysis, defining a strategy and an audience, selecting digital channels to target, creating a content plan, choosing KPIs and benchmarks, and assessing your results against these.
  • Brands that have launched successful digital marketing campaigns include Innocent Drinks, ASOS, and Taco Bell.

Digital marketing is fun, varied, challenging, and stimulating. Maybe it’s the role for you? To learn more about a potential career in digital marketing, check out the following posts:

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