Digital Marketing Vs. Traditional Marketing – The Winners and Losers

I’m a digital marketer. I live and breath it daily and it consumes my thoughts pretty much most of the time. I market for my clients and I market for myself. However the more I get into digital marketing the more I understand the digital marketing vs traditional marketing paradigm. Unlike what most people would think, to me, its not all about digital. The more I see the power of digital the more I believe traditional marketing has its place.

While digital and traditional marketing have very different focuses, one thing remains clear: the right combination of the two methods can be used very effectively together to build brand awareness and attract new customers. Many of the super big brands are flocking towards digital channels, so much in fact that eMarketer predicts digital adspend to overtake that of traditional TV advertising in 2017. That’s a pretty big point to consider especially since TV has been the number 1 advertising


The chart above (taken from Marketing Profs) illustrates the change from 2014 and what is expected in 2017. By far the largest growth is coming from mobile with big declines in notably Newspapers and Magazines.

Before we go on any further, let’s define what we mean by “traditional” and “digital”.  Traditional marketing is just that—traditional—with a focus on “older” media like television and radio, and print and direct mail. Another way to define traditional marketing is that traditional equals tangible–tangible items like print ads, TV commercials, radio spots, business cards, billboards, and brochures all represent traditional marketing methods. Or you could just define traditional marketing is everything except digital!

Digital media focuses on all things, well, digital. As technology advances, so does the relatively new format of digital marketing. Display advertising, search, social media,  video are all examples.  Another way to think about digital marketing is that it is traditional advertising using digital devices. Banners are what print ads are for traditional. Video is the equivalent of TV. Email is Direct mail and search is.. well.. Search is unique to digital as is social.

If it wasn’t for one particular client then I would have probably said traditional is dead. However a couple of years ago we were pitching for a global brand that did plenty of TV. Their goal was to sell product by pushing into TV land and getting people to jump online to purchase. My theory behind this was that it was simply a waste of money! Why not drive traffic to the site directly and get someone to convert that way?

After an analysis of their Analytics and some attribution metrics we found that online only ads required 3 or more visits to the website to convert into a sale. Each touch point would cost the advertiser several dollars. With low margins digital advertising has a relatively low ROI.

However during times of peak TV activity, we found that converting TV driven users was much faster and required considerably less touch points. In turn we needed to drive less TV traffic to convert compared to digital and had to ‘work less’ to acquire that customer. Final CPA’s had TV as the best performer and guess what was second? Branded search. See where I am getting at here? Digital and Traditional can work extremely well together when used correctly.

On the flip side, traditional businesses have a tendency to be skeptical of digital marketing, and often view digital and traditional marketing as being either mutually exclusive of each other or even in competition with each other.  Then you get the digital guys who think traditional marketing is unnecessary, and choose a 100% digital marketing strategy.  But in fact, they can truly complement each other.

The problem is that most tracking systems favour and skew digital channels. We know that in the majority of cases, the sales always ends in digital. People will see an ad on TV, print or hear it on radio and jump online to take action. Most tracking we use to measure success only really gets the user mid way or at the end of the journey when it comes to measuring conversions.

This is the underlying issue and the reason traditional advertising can often be understated in its effectiveness. Tradition mediums rarely have tracking so when a user goes on to convert by jumping online, Organic or Paid search inevitably gets the credit, forcing us to make decisions on what possibly could be ambiguous and misleading data.

Let’s do a comparison of the two methods, and look at their strengths and weaknesses to determine how to effectively use them in tandem for powerful results.

  • Longevity: Let’s face it, people are accustomed to traditional marketing.It’s been around a long time. Newspaper and magazine ads, billboards, and certainly radio and TV ads are mainstays in our society. They are familiar and comfortable things that people see and hear all the time. Although they’re familiar, traditional marketing nevertheless usually reaches only a local audience even though it is typically designed to “cast a wide net”, so to speak.
  • Cost Effectiveness: Traditional media like television and radio is very effective, but also very expensive.In fact, it is much more costly than digital in almost every case. By comparison, digital marketing is much less expensive and much more cost-effective than advertising in traditional media.Larger competitors typically have a larger budget, and may use radio and television much more than we do, so smaller companies often have a very well-planned, well-executed digital marketing campaign to close the gap against larger competitors.With digital marketing, we can typically reach a wider audience for a fairly modest annual investment.
  • Measureable Data: The great thing about that modest investment in digital media is that we get the data to go along with it, and having these data lets us measure effectiveness and return on investment. We all know it is not an easy thing to determine how many people read our print ad or heard our radio ad.In fact, traditional marketing’s primary disadvantage is that it is not easily measured and sometimes can’t be measured at all. But with digital marketing, we have a richness of data.  We can determine how many times a digital ad was sent or shown to local customers.  We can also tell how many times ads were displayed to customers who were searching for a particular product, and even how many clicks were made and which web pages were viewed. We can literally “slice and dice” the data in so many ways:  peak days/times that people visited our site, and how many times a person took actions on your website (these are known as conversions, things like signing up for a newsletter, or clicking on a particular link). Being able to collect data like this is great, and the results of these data can be used to very quickly change your marketing strategy, much more quickly than you could develop a new TV or radio ad.
  • Branding: Websites are great branding tools, but they must be well-designed with high quality content and it is critical that they be consistently updated. A website is one of the best local brand-building investments we can make, and honestly, web sites are crucial.Even if we don’t sell products online, the reality is that our business has to be found online because local customers expect it.Your target demographic expects your website to add value—they are looking for information about your products and answers to questions.
  • Exposure: Everyone uses some type of digital device, so an effective online marketing campaign can be very powerful when delivering our product’s message right to that device, whether it be a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Print ads are great, but print ads don’t go viral—digital media does, and we can reach a vastly higher number of customers with it.Ads on Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other social media mean that our products will be seen by exponentially more customers—and best of all, they are “qualified” customers rather than just random people.A great television or radio ad with compelling content can be strategically placed during a great television show or during a great radio timeslot (such as morning commute) for our audience, but as well-planned as these might be, it is still hard to truly target the audience.
  • Customer Engagement and Interaction: Digital marketing allows us opportunities to engage with our target audience in a way that traditional media cannot. We first need to build our brand awareness in our local markets, a job best done using traditional media methods. But one of the big disadvantages of traditional marketing is that it is static—it offers no way to interact with our potential customers.  And that’s where digital media comes in.  It not only creates widespread exposure but it also contains many ways to target the digital audience and then keep fine-tuning the message as time goes on.  Because of this, we are much more likely to reach people who are truly interested, and much less likely to annoy customers who don’t care about our product. With digital media, we can tailor our message to customers ready to purchase now; this is much, much harder to do with traditional marketing.
  • The path always ends in digital: Once the traditional media drives consumers to our website, digital media takes over, and this is where customers typically continue the research process.Therefore, a compelling website and content can lead to increased sales month after month. Customers today use many forms of communication to interact with a business that sells a product they have interest in.We might have phone calls from local customers who see our online ads.We might have email addresses from a check box to receive a newsletter, or comments from a blog of discussion on social media.No matter what the digital media venue, all of them create an opportunity for us to engage with our current and prospective customers. But let’s not sell traditional marketing short.When customers find our product or business via traditional means, like a referral or word-of-mouth or personal network that can lead to us building a relationship with them that digital media cannot offer. . In traditional media, we are for the most part literally tossing information out in front of people and crossing our fingers that we get a nibble, meaning that the customer does something with it and takes some action.

Many people in business share the predominant theory that digital marketing has taken over, leaving traditional marketing to go the way of the dinosaur. Bold moves, such as traditional print magazines like Newsweek making the decision to go completely digital, reinforce this school of thought.   It is true that the world has become digital. We can’t function in today’s world without doing something digital every day—online banking, finding a restaurant, and even reading are all done via our devices nowadays. But traditional marketing does still have an important role, although it is no longer the traditional standalone role it once had.  Instead, it is crucial for our businesses today to have a healthy, profitable combination of both.