What Is Digital Marketing? The Beginners Guide

CareerFoundry Marketing Content Editor Jaye Hannah

Ever been bowled over by a brilliant blog post, excited by a great deal in your inbox, or confused as to how a social media ad can seemingly read your thoughts? All these strategies fall under the umbrella of digital marketing.

Offering broader geographic reach, easy personalization, and quantifiable results (to name a few), digital marketing has quickly overtaken traditional marketing for almost every organization on the planet. But as the lines between online and offline activity become more blurred, it’s harder to define what digital marketing actually is—and how multi-channel marketing, inbound marketing, and traditional marketing fit into the mix. 

We’re here to lift the lid on the exciting and innovative field of digital marketing. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore exactly what digital marketing entails—and how to forge a lucrative career as a digital marketer. We’ve also included a digital marketing FAQs section towards the end. 

We’ve got a lot to cover, so feel free to click ahead to a section you find most relevant using the menu: 

  1. What is digital marketing?
  2. Types of digital marketing
  3. Inbound marketing vs. digital marketing
  4. B2B vs. B2C digital marketing
  5. Digital marketing roles
  6. How do I become a digital marketer?
  7. What skills do you need to become a digital marketer?
  8. How do I learn digital marketing?
  9. Digital marketing FAQs
  10. Next steps

Ready? Let’s get started!

1. What is digital marketing?

Let’s start with the basics: what actually is digital marketing, and what does it entail? 

Put simply, digital marketing—also known as online marketing—is all marketing activity that takes place online. Digital marketing is an umbrella term for any and all digital marketing activity, but it also exists as a discipline in its own right. We’ll explore this a little more in the next section.

Unlike traditional marketing, which relies on offline channels like print, direct mail, and phone calls, digital marketing involves the use of online marketing channels for marketing activity. This allows digital marketers to easily target and convert potential customers. 

Common digital marketing channels include:

  • Email 
  • Social media 
  • Paid ads 
  • Search engines
  • Websites 
  • Multimedia messaging

While the channels and methods are different, digital marketing still serves the same purpose as traditional marketing. Both kinds of marketing seek to nurture and develop relationships with leads, and get the right message in front of the right people at the right time. 

So why has digital marketing overtaken traditional marketing as the go-to?

Let’s say you see a billboard for a product you might be interested in. Before you go straight into your local shop and buy it, you’ll want to do some research first. And you’ll likely do that research by browsing reviews on Google, or looking at the company website to learn more about the product. 

When you do this, you’ll then show up to the digital marketing manager as a lead (potential customer), and they’ll target you with compelling information to mitigate any doubts you might have about buying the product. This might include a paid ad about the product on Instagram, a first-time buyer’s discount on the website, and a follow-up email listing five-star reviews from other customers. 

Before you know it, you’ve confidently come to the decision to purchase the product. 

That’s not to say that traditional marketing is obsolete. After all, in this scenario, it’s what made you discover the product in the first place. Often, businesses will use a combination of digital marketing and traditional marketing as part of an overarching marketing strategy. 

2. Types of digital marketing

By now, we’ve established that digital marketing is a broad, all-encompassing field. So let’s take a look at some of the different types of digital marketing, and what they mean. 

Search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization involves optimizing web pages to improve their search engine ranking, to increase the number of organic visitors that come to the page or site. There are three main types of SEO: 

  • On-page SEO, which focuses on optimizing the visible content on a web page in order to rank higher—i.e. Keyword optimization. 
  • Off-page SEO, which refers to everything that happens off the website that controls your ranking—i.e. Backlinks (other web pages that are linking to your page) 
  • Technical SEO, which concerns the back-end of a website; including its code, data, CSS file optimization, and image compression.  

SEO can almost be considered a science since it involves a combination of keyword research, content strategy, data analytics, and building relationships with other publishers. SEO also isn’t considered a ‘one-off’ tactic: the way users use search engines continues to evolve, so websites need to be continually optimized in response. 

Search engine marketing (SEM)

While SEO focuses on organic traffic, search engine marketing (otherwise known as SEM) is all about paid traffic. SEM is the process of bringing in visitors by strategically promoting paid content on search engines. SEM is a great way to generate brand awareness—especially when users are using search engines to find out about a product similar to yours. 

One of the most popular SEM services is Google Ads, which SEM specialists will use by bidding on relevant keywords with paid campaigns. That way, if a user searches one of the targeted keywords, they’ll see the Google ad (and hopefully be enticed to click on it). Most digital marketing strategies rely on both SEO and SEM strategies for lead generation. 

Related reading: SEO vs. SEM—what’s the difference?

Content marketing

Good content is one of the most important pillars of any content marketing strategy. It’s all well and good doing all the SEO to get leads to click onto your web page; but if the content itself isn’t relevant to them, they’ll click off the page without hesitation (and may not come back). 

Content marketing works by enticing your target market with engaging, high-quality content through a range of channels and formats; including blog posts, videos, podcasts, social media, e-books, and case studies. In addition to being relevant for your ideal customer base, the content needs to convert leads to customers while remaining on-brand. 

Social media marketing (SMM)

The rise of social media has seen more and more companies invest in their social media marketing efforts. With an increasing number of users spending a large chunk of their day on social media platforms, social media marketing is a great way to drive brand awareness and connect with your target audience. 

As part of your social media strategy, you’ll need to understand which platform your audience is on—and what kind of content they’ll want to see. For example, B2B audiences tend to be on Facebook and LinkedIn, whereas TikTok and Instagram are generally considered better for B2C content.   

Pay-per-click advertising (PPC)

Unlike typical paid ads, where you’ll invest a certain amount of money for the same ad(s) to run over a period of time, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) charges you a fee every time someone clicks on the ad (kind of like affiliate marketing). How much you end up paying for each lead depends on your budget, and how many leads actually click on the ad. PPC often overlaps with SEM, especially when it comes to Google Ads—but PPC ads can also use channels like YouTube, Amazon, and other social media platforms. 

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing is when you pay other websites or publishers to promote your product or service through their content using an affiliate link. Each time a user clicks on that link, you (the merchant) will pay the publisher (aka the affiliate) a commission for ‘sending’ you a lead. 

Affiliate marketing is effectively a partnership model. You’ll need to build long-lasting relationships with publishers and websites that you know your target customer will visit. When executed properly, affiliate marketing can be incredibly lucrative. 

Email marketing

Email marketing seeks to engage and nurture leads with emails. Sounds simple, right? In practice, email marketing is a lot more layered than you might think. Email marketers use audience segmentation to provide specific groups with the most relevant content to them via email. They also use various different emails to educate and incentivize leads; such as nurture flow emails, newsletters, promotional emails, personal emails, and survey emails. 

Email marketers are constantly optimizing their content based on A/B tests, and will run dedicated email marketing campaigns to drive traffic to the site. All of this (and more) is what makes email marketing such a powerful and effective type of digital marketing. 

Want to learn more about email marketing? We’ve got a complete guide to it in this article.

And if you want an even more extensive look at the different digital marketing types, check out our complete guide.

3. Inbound marketing vs digital marketing

While researching digital marketing, you’ve probably seen the term ‘inbound marketing’ thrown around. So what is inbound marketing, and how is it different to digital marketing? 

Digital marketing is a broad term that includes both outbound and inbound marketing strategies. Outbound marketing, also known as push marketing, is the practice of pushing a message out to potential customers through channels like cold-emails, pop-ups, and cold-calling. 

Inbound marketing, also known as pull marketing, is the practice of creating meaningful content and messaging that attracts potential customers to your website and product. This includes channels/formats like blogs, social media, videos, landing pages, and SEO. 

Think of outbound marketing as a megaphone where you’re shouting a message out to leads; and inbound marketing as a honeypot, where you’re reeling people in by providing them with something they want—or want to hear. 

With inbound marketing, it’s much easier to track return on investment (ROI) and understand which channels and pieces of content actually convert leads into customers. Rather than forcing a promotional message onto new leads, inbound marketing is about establishing your position in the market, as well as delighting and engaging leads in the long term. It’s no wonder that inbound marketing is one of the key pillars of any successful digital marketing function. 

Related reading: Inbound vs. outbound marketing: what’s the difference?

4. B2B vs B2C digital marketing

‘B2B’ and ‘B2C’ are common digital marketing terms that crop up a lot in job descriptions. In some cases, they’re considered to be two completely different disciplines—so it’s important to understand the differences and similarities between the two. 

B2B digital marketing is business-to-business, which takes place when a business’ customer is… you guessed it, another business! B2B marketing typically targets individuals who are making purchases on behalf of their team or company, rather than themselves. Examples of B2B products that require B2B marketing strategies include HR software, remote working tools, or office design services. 

On the other hand, B2C digital marketing is business-to-customer, which means marketing to individuals who are buying a product or service for themselves. B2C marketing addresses the needs, desires, and challenges of individuals that sit within a company’s target market. 

While there are a lot of similarities between B2B and B2C, they’re still two distinct audiences—and how digital marketers engage and communicate with these audiences can vary hugely. So what are some of the key differences between B2B and B2C digital marketing? 

Decision making

As B2B customers are making decisions on behalf of a team or company, they’ll usually need to be very thorough in researching a product. They’ll also need sign-off from other team members and stakeholders before a decision can be made, which can take months. Because of this, the B2B sales funnel is usually longer—and will require a lot more relationship-building, and marketing to other stakeholders within the same company, before a decision can be made confidently. 

On the contrary, B2C tends to have a much shorter sales funnel. When an individual is the sole decision-maker, and doesn’t require any sign-off, they’re much more likely to decide to make the purchase quickly (sometimes in the same day). Of course, with expensive or pick-ticket purchases, you can still expect a much longer decision-making process while they shop around. 

Messaging and language

Because of the ‘weight’ behind B2B purchases, leads tend to be more compelled by evidence and proof-points—like case studies, reviews, and statistics. Ultimately, prospective B2B customers want to know what the return on investment will be when they make the purchase, and whether or not it will directly impact their team. B2B digital marketing also requires more professional language that showcases your expertise in a specific industry. 

On the other hand, B2C digital marketing tends to be much more emotion-based; using personalization to communicate emotion-driven messaging that the individual can relate to. This helps customers feel good about their purchase, and feel confident knowing that this is the right product for them. B2C messaging can also be more playful, casual, and based more on storytelling. 

Long-term engagement 

The reason why it takes longer for businesses to make purchases is because B2B customers tend to become long-term product users. No contract is forever—but it’s much harder for businesses to get rid of a product they no longer want to use, especially if the whole company is already using it. Because of this, B2B digital marketers aren’t just focused on acquiring new customers, but retaining current ones. B2B digital marketing also places much more emphasis on the benefits of a product long-term. 

Of course, every company wants to turn new customers into repeat customers—but it’s much more common for a customer to make a one-off purchase and then disappear in B2C digital marketing. When it comes to tools and software which require subscriptions, however, both B2B and B2C marketing is focused on long-term engagement.

5. Digital marketing roles

Because there are so many different types of digital marketing, decoding digital marketing roles can feel confusing. Should you go for a general digital marketing position, or specialize? And is a digital marketing qualification enough to land a specialized marketing position? 

Let’s set the record straight by exploring some of the most popular jobs you can get with a digital marketing qualification, and the skills involved. 

SEO specialist 

SEO marketing has risen through the ranks as one of the most prominent (and lucrative) digital marketing roles on the scene. As companies continue to learn about the influence SEO has on brand authority, traffic, conversions, and sales—SEO specialists have the exciting task of crafting SEO guidelines, analyzing search data, and optimizing the site on an ongoing basis. With search engines algorithms and trends constantly evolving, SEO marketing is far from a two-dimensional career path. 

Digital marketing analyst 

So, you’ve heard of digital marketing specialists—but what does a digital marketing analyst do? Is it a hybrid of digital marketing and data analytics? The answer is actually yes—kind of. A digital marketing analyst monitors online marketing trends, analyzes and quantifies the insights, builds strategies that ensure all marketing efforts are optimized, and tracks and measures the performance of digital marketing campaigns. That’s a lot, right? Which is exactly why digital marketing analysts are considered highly-skilled. If you’re fascinated by data, but also love coming up with creative ways to act on that data, a digital marketing analyst role might be right for you. 

Content strategist 

Content strategists responsible for creating content strategies that engage, delight, and convert a company’s target audience—as well as hitting business goals. They look at user data and insights to make tailored suggestions around what messaging will work, which channels to focus on, and when. Content strategists are skilled at project management, long-term planning, and delegation. They’ll work closely with other members of the content team (such as copywriters, social media managers, and videographers) to ensure the strategy is implemented effectively. 

Interested in how to incorporate video into a greater content strategy? Check out this interview with CareerFoundry’s own Video Team Lead, Calum Russell!

Copywriter  

Ever read a particularly educational blog post? Or been impressed at how clearly a question was answered in a website’s FAQs? That’s the work of a skilled copywriter—and just about every company needs one. Copywriters are inherently versatile; with the ability to turn their hand to everything from short paid ad copy, to long-form e-books and case studies. Copywriters will uphold a company tone of voice, and understand which words will really ‘strike a chord’ with users. In addition to exceptional written skills, copywriters require great research skills, and a keen eye for detail. Learn more in our introductory guide to copywriting

Email marketing specialist 

With four billion average daily email users in 2022, email has cemented itself as an increasingly lucrative inbound marketing channel. As a result, demand for email marketers has skyrocketed. Email marketing is so much more than just writing and sending emails. Email marketers segment audiences, target leads and customers with highly relevant and personalized content, run regular tests, and create complex strategies to convert leads. They also, of course, are skilled at writing engaging and informative emails that compel users to take action. 

Want to get into digital marketing? These are the best jobs to seek out!

6. How do I become a digital marketer?

With so much involved in digital marketing, forging a marketing career might seem like an overwhelming feat. But digital marketing is one of the most accessible—yet lucrative—digital careers on the scene. 

Everyone’s journey into digital marketing looks different, but we’ve rounded up three overall steps to making the switch. 

Learn the right skills 

The first step to becoming a digital is learning the right skills. To understand what ‘the right skills’ are, you might want to reflect on what kind of digital marketer you want to be. Do you want to become a digital marketing generalist? A content marketer? An SEO specialist? 

Identify which of the digital marketing disciplines interests you the most, and start browsing job descriptions for that role to understand which skills employers are looking for. Once you’ve done that, you can start looking at courses and programs to get your skills up to scratch. We’ll explore this in a little more detail in the next section. 

Create a portfolio 

Once you’ve learned the right tools and skills—and you can demonstrate them—it’s time to prove you know your stuff with a winning digital marketing portfolio. Your portfolio won’t just be a glorified digital marketing resumé; it’ll showcase both your new skills and your transferable skills—as well as forming the base of your online presence. As a newbie digital marketer, what better way to prove your understanding of digital marketing fundamentals than ‘marketing’ yourself?

Find the right role 

Landing a digital marketing role without previous experience might seem like a pipe dream, but it’s absolutely possible. As long as you can prove your digital marketing skills and demonstrate a working understanding of digital marketing principles, you’re a legitimate digital marketer—and employers also see it that way. 

There’s also no shortage of digital marketing jobs to be had. You can find digital marketing jobs on classic job boards like LinkedIn and Indeed, as well as networking in one of the many marketing groups and meetups that take place every month. To learn more, check out our blog post on how to become a digital marketer with no experience

7. What skills do you need to become a digital marketer?

As with any career change, you’ll want to identify the in-demand skills you need to go straight into your first digital marketing role (and smash it). Let’s look at five of the most valuable digital marketing skills employers look for.  

SEO and SEM 

Search engines are a core digital marketing channel, so understanding them is a fundamental skill for any digital marketer. As we previously explored, SEO and SEM refer to separate disciplines (paid and organic)—but they both include a working understanding of optimizing search as a digital marketing channel. SEO and SEM skills include keyword research, Google ads, link building, technical SEO, and on-page SEO. 

CRM 

Customer relationship management (CRM) is the tools, strategies, and software used to facilitate interactions with leads and customers. In addition to learning how to qualify and manage leads, you’ll need to learn your way around industry-standard CRM tools like Salesforce CRM, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, and Zoho CRM—and understand how to interpret the data that comes from these tools. 

Critical thinking 

While there are creative elements to digital marketing, the discipline on the whole involves a lot of data analysis, problem solving, and strategy. As a result, you’ll need to nail down your critical thinking skills to make it as a digital marketer. Marketing in any organization is a complex ecosystem, and you’ll find yourself using your critical thinking skills on a daily basis—whether it’s to come up with creative angles for campaigns, figuring out how best to target a specific group, or understanding why your leads aren’t converting into sales. 

Communication

Digital marketers regularly collaborate with various company stakeholders; including sales, data, and product teams. From reporting to senior team members on progress, to delegating tasks to colleagues and freelancers—digital marketers communicate a lot, so effective communication skills are key. This includes active listening, good presentation skills, and clear written communication skills. 

Data analysis

Data analysis is the art of identifying and monitoring trends in user behavior using various tools and software. It’s also the ability to act on these insights—interpreting and communicating them to stakeholders, and proposing action around how the company can improve and refine its marketing strategy. Good digital marketers are constantly tracking the performance of their marketing efforts, and iterating on their strategy towards company goals. 

To understand the full scope of which skills are required for digital marketing, we’ve written a super informative article detailing the top 9 skills every digital marketing specialist should have

8. How do I learn digital marketing?

So, you’ve made up your mind that digital marketing is the right career path for you. How do you actually learn the in-demand skills that will get you hired? 

Luckily, digital marketers to-be are spoiled for choice. When it comes to digital marketing courses, there’s an abundance of schools and institutions that will help you make the switch—many which are extremely credible in the eyes of employers. 

If you’re looking to dip your toes into the field without investing any sizable money, there are plenty of free options—like the CareerFoundry 5-day digital marketing short course, which will bring you up to speed with digital marketing fundamentals in less than a week. Hubspot Academy also offers an abundance of free certifications for inbound marketing, content marketing, and more. Just check out our roundup of the 7 best free digital marketing courses for beginners.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth education that comes with career support and your own personal mentor, you might be better suited to a marketing bootcamp program. CareerFoundry’s Digital Marketing Program is designed to take you from total beginner to job-ready marketeer in less than a year (rhyme not intentional).

Working with an industry expert mentor and tutor, you’ll graduate with a professional digital marketing portfolio that will impress recruiters and land you your first marketing role—or your money back. 

The best part? The program is flexibly self-paced, so you can transition into marketing without quitting your current position. 

Want to get an idea of how the program works? Check out this digital marketing webinar we held, where we talk about the field of digital marketing and how the CareerFoundry program teaches you the skills you need to work within it.

9. Digital marketing FAQs

Made it this far, but feel like your questions haven’t been answered yet? Don’t panic—we’ve rounded up a few of the most common frequently asked questions for a quick-fire digital marketing Q&A. 

What is a digital marketing agency?

These days, digital marketing agencies seem to be popping up left right and center. So what do digital marketing agencies do, and should you join one? 

Digital marketing agencies work with multiple clients to help them maximize their digital marketing efforts. As digital marketing agencies are made up of specialists, they’re skilled at leveraging advanced tools, techniques, and strategies—and have their finger on the pulse of emerging trends and practices. Clients hire digital marketing agencies to increase their revenue, boost website traffic, generate leads, improve online visibility, and equip them with a bespoke long-term strategy. 

Typical digital marketing agency services include: 

  • SEO & SEM 
  • Content marketing 
  • Website design & development 
  • Influencer marketing 
  • Affiliate marketing 
  • Social media marketing 
  • Copywriting 

While there are plenty of general digital marketing agencies that offer these services (and more), you can also find an abundance of specialized digital marketing agencies—like content marketing agencies and SEO agencies—who offer in-depth support with optimizing a specific part of your marketing function. 

Many new-to-the-scene digital marketers consider agency work, largely because it exposes you to a diverse array of projects and contexts. You also get to see how the same digital marketing technique might be applied across sectors, with different company sizes, audiences, and budgets. However, digital marketing agencies can often be extremely fast paced with high workloads—which isn’t everyone’s preference. 

What is lead generation in digital marketing?

Throughout this blog post, we’ve used the term ‘lead’ a fair amount. So let’s clarify what leads actually are, and why generating them is so important. 

Put simply, a lead is someone who’s shown some interest in your product or company. In other words, a potential customer. Given that a lead could go from ‘potential customer’ to an actual customer, leads are extremely valuable—and it’s important for businesses to have as many of them as possible. Enter: lead generation. 

Lead generation is the process of attracting potential customers, and increasing their interest in your product or service.

What lead generation looks like in practice depends on two main factors:

1. How leads are qualified: Not all leads have the same level of interest in the product. Not all leads can even buy the product. In order to assess where a lead is in the sales funnel—and what they need in order to be convinced to make a purchase—digital marketers go through a process of qualifying leads. 

This means they can focus on sales-qualified leads, which refers to leads who are interested in the product and fall within the product’s target market. Some digital marketers also qualify leads in terms of sentiment; ranging from cold (they’re unlikely to buy in the near future) to hot (they’re showing all the signs that they’d like to buy in the near future). Once leads are qualified, the lead generation efforts can be optimized. You can even segment your leads and show different leads different things. Which brings us onto our next point: 

2. Which channels to focus on: Lead generation typically spans several types of digital marketing. Most commonly, these include SEO, SEM, and content marketing. As lead generation involves a combination of brand awareness and lead nurturing (in other words, continuing to tell leads what they want to hear to keep them engaged with the product) it usually takes a multi-channel strategy to get it right. Wherever your leads might be, that’s where you need to be. 

For example, if your product is a cooking app, your lead generation efforts strategy might involve affiliate marketing for popular recipe sites, content marketing around the topic of learning to cook, and paid ads on YouTube cooking videos. 

What’s the future of digital marketing?

One of the biggest challenges digital marketers face is making sure they’re marketing strategy is evolving alongside their target audience. How people use search, the channels they use, what they’re interested in, what their needs are—it’s all subject to change, and digital marketing has changed considerably to keep up to date with trends. 

We’ve outlined a few common predictions for the future of digital marketing: 

Social media: As attention spans continue to dwindle, brands will need to experiment with more creative ways to capture leads’ attention—particularly with short-form videos on social media platforms. Micro-influencers (influencers with smaller audiences and more personalized relationships with their followers) are also set to continue to rise across social media, with users hailing their recommendations as more authentic and trustworthy over influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. 

Artificial intelligence (AI): AI will become an universal part of the digital marketing landscape. Not only can AI optimize and elevate marketing campaigns, it also mitigates human error—and can provide useful insights about users. Google is already using AI to optimize their paid ad campaigns, and chatbots continue to offer personalized services to leads with little strain on resources. Brands will need to find ways to incorporate AI into their digital marketing strategies without losing the ‘human touch.’ 

Personalization: Across the board, personalization will become an even more important cornerstone of any digital marketing strategy. Brands will need to do more to personalize their messaging and content—not just for each audience, but for each lead. Examples of this can be seen with Netflix’s recommendations and Spotify’s playlists, but personalization can be done on a much smaller scale through pop-ups, webinars, and ‘smart content’ which can be adapted depending on the audience. 

10. Next steps

And just like that, we’ve come to the end of our journey of discovery on what digital marketing is, and what it entails. Hopefully, we’ve demonstrated that digital marketing is a vast and exciting field that encompasses both highly analytical data roles, and highly creative content roles (plus everything in-between). 

The main takeaway? A digital marketing qualification can take you a long way in the digital marketing field, even if you do end up specializing down the line. Once you’ve mastered the fundamental principles of digital marketing, you’ll be set up for a long and fulfilling career in one of the world’s most exciting fields.

The best part? Digital marketing is extremely versatile, and can be applied to every industry. So whether you had your heart set on tech, health and wellness, events, e-commerce, or SaaS—a digital marketing certification can get you there. 

Want to get a hands-on sample of some of the tasks you could take on as a digital marketer? Why not try out this free, 5-day short course?

Enjoyed this blog post? We think you’ll like these, too: 

What You Should Do Now

  1. Get a hands-on introduction to digital marketing with a free, self-paced short course comprised of five short tutorials.

  2. Take part in one of our FREE live online digital marketing events with industry experts.

  3. Talk to a program advisor to discuss career change and find out what it takes to become a job-ready digital marketer in just 4-7 months—all backed by the CareerFoundry job guarantee.

  4. This month, we’re offering the first 100 students reduced tuition—worth up to $1,120 off our full Digital Marketing Program. To secure your spot, book an advisor call today.

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