How Does Digital Marketing Really Work?

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How does digital marketing really work? And is it worth the spend? Two very important questions to consider on your journey to a better website.

Looking out on the landscape of the internet, websites, apps, and devices it’s easy to be confused on the topic of digital marketing. In this post, I hope  to demystify a few details about which puzzle pieces you should try to understand in 2016.

This post is for any website owner (person or organization) who just wants their site to work better. And by better I mean they want it to reach more of the right people at the right time to drive strong results for business objectives.

I’ve had too many experiences of talking with incredibly smart business people that experience this weird block when it comes to wrapping their minds around how digital marketing works, and what they can and can’t do for their businesses online.

Yes, using the internet to market to anyone in the entire world can be confusing at times. But I have confidence that most people can gain a good understanding of how to apply digital marketing to their enterprise if they have a proper perception of the lay of the land.

Your website is kind of like a book, and the Internet is kind of like a vast library.

how does digital marketing really work to provide positive ROI

Most of us know how books and libraries work. If we make the analogy that your website is kind of like a book, and the Internet is kind of like a vast library, Digital Marketing is the art of making sure your “book” is:

  • Easy to find in a massive archive of information
  • Full of valuable and useable information
  • Easy to share with friends
  • Full of the right kind of content your audience is looking for

SEO, PPC, Content and Social Media are the tools you will use to “promote your book”. In this case, your book is your website so, your goals are going to be to gain a steady stream of traffic, and to have a reasonable percentage of that traffic convert into paying customers and ideally, brand advocates.

Let’s start by explaining Search Engine Optimization applied to a written book.

Basic SEO

Doing Basic Search Engine Optimization on your website means you must make sure your “book” has a proper cover, a title on the spine, and a table of contents. Basic SEO feeds the spiders and crawlers, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to serve the actual people who are looking for the information you provide. We’ll talk more about how Advanced SEO can do that in a moment.

Basic SEO information tells search engine spiders and crawlers what your website is about so they can do their job well. Their job is to “index” your site.

The index is that thing at the back of your book that lists all topics your book covers and tells you where in the book (on which pages) you can find each subject. You can see an example in any good textbook.

When spiders “crawl your site,” it’s as if they skim through your book. They use the basic SEO information you have provided to create an index. An index on the internet is no different; it’s just magnitudes of order bigger than it is in a book. This index (just like an old school card catalog on steroids) is what search engines use to deliver “organic results” for all of your searches.

Some quick definitions to help keep you clear here:

  • Organic traffic – Generated by a search engine that returns your URL as an answer to a question typed into the search engine. This happens when your site is judged to be a relevant and authoritative resource for the question asked.
  • Paid traffic – Works the same way as organic search, except that your placement in the search results is directly correlated to the amount of money you spend on ad placement instead of the quality or authority of your site.
  • Direct traffic – Traffic reported when people either type your website URL in directly, or they click on a link that isn’t being tracked – like the one you probably have in your email signature.
  • Referral traffic – Traffic that comes directly from other sites, a.k.a. incoming traffic from links.

Advanced SEO

Advanced Search Engine Optimization involves doing research about the people you want to target, trends, keywords, pain points and how they can motivate people, and what your competition is doing with their digital presence. This seemingly arcane art is really just common business sense wrapped up in a bunch of complex technology.

In business, you should always study your target demographic to find out what motivates them, and what kind of messaging they respond to. You always want to build a symbiotic relationship with your customer base. And you want to track which marketing actions work best so you can focus on doing more of those!

None of this changes in the digital realm – it just gets more, well, digital.

how does digital marketing really work for small businesses trying to DIY it

Below, I’ll go over several of the kinds of marketing tools you’ve probably already encountered, but might not fully understand.

Content Strategy

Use a Content Strategy for Blogging (+ Everything Else!)

There are several possible kinds of Advanced SEO. One of the biggest is called Content Marketing.

Your content needs to be ridiculously good for the audience you are trying to reach: It needs to be empathetic, useful, and inspired. – Ann Handley

“Content” is often assumed to be synonymous with “Blog,” but that does not do justice to the full range of places where content works hard on a day to day basis. Everything from the images on your website to what you have in your email signature counts as “content”. And content can be designed with very specific end-user goals in mind. Learn more about content strategy here.

By taking some time to identify and learn your target audiences, you can create content that is more likely to resonate with them. You have a much better chance of writing an impressive “best-seller” if you are promoting content they are currently seeking. The often mentioned Inbound Marketing strategy is based on the Field of Dreams philosophy that if you build it, they will come.

But content created without considering the end user and what they are searching for will make a dud of a book. This will happen even if you think it does a bombastic job of explaining your particular product or service.

How does digital marketing work? And why should you care about building a content strategy? Because they are the bread and butter of using your website to reach out and connect with an audience that wants to buy what you have to sell. It’s the ability to match the right content to the right users that makes a website useful.

In the hands of someone called an “analysis ninja,” clickstream analytics (the art of tracking how many people come to your site, where they come from, how long they stay, what they do, etc.) can shine a bright and brutal light on your web content that no one ever reads.

The writing is on the wall, because in digital marketing you can measure just about everything! – Joe Pickerill

Having an overarching content strategy behind all your marketing activities allows you to craft a common thread of purpose in everything you create, no matter which content type or digital location you use.


Getting other people to link to your site is one of the other most important strategies of Advanced SEO. You can read more about this important strategy here.

Imagine that you write a seminal text in your field, and over time it becomes so well regarded that other writers refer to you book on a regular basis in their own works. 

Kind of like a bibliographical link, these references from other experts signal that you are a top level authority in your niche.

Increased authority is what getting links from other sites can do for you. The more “expert” the sites that link to you, the more authority those links will confer.

Guest Posts

Posting your content on other websites which speak to your desired target audience is another kind of backlink strategy. Guest Posting means – you provide a sister site with awesome content geared to their audience, and they provide you with a platform that exposes you to an audience you might not otherwise be able to reach. It can be a very win-win situation.

Guest posting is kind of like writing a short story for another author’s book, for the purpose of exposing more and different readers to your content. If they are intrigued by your guest post maybe you can entice them into coming back to your site to check it out.

More on the art of guest posting here.

Social Media & Paid Advertising

Social Proof

When people engage in a positive way with your company online, we call it Social Proof. The book equivalent of this can be found on the back cover. You see it as short quotes from famous people giving their approval of the book in your hand.

Individuals who like the book and want to share that appreciation with their networks and friends are great. Well known people and experts in your field that like your book and want to share – that’s pure gold.

Social Proof and Backlinks from recognized authority can serve to lift you higher into the limelight.

A website is supposed to be more than pretty. It’s even supposed to be more than functional. It is supposed to be… magnetic.

When you show a new visitor to your site that your brand is drawing positive engagement and great reviews from other people, you instantly increase the chance that they will follow your CTAs (Calls to Action) and engage with you.

Social Advertising

Putting social ads up for your website is like putting your book on the table by the entrance to the bookstore. It is a method to get yourself front and center with visitors who might not otherwise find you. Social Media platforms are the places to promote your beautiful and highly effective content geared to the Awareness stage of the customer journey.

Social advertising works best when you have the right content, and the right knowledge. You want to know:

  • Who you are targeting
  • Which platforms your target users are likely to use
  • What kind of questions and pain points they are looking to resolve
  • Precise action you want the content you are promoting to drive

You don’t necessarily look to social advertising to boost what they call “vanity metrics” – the number of likes, or fans you get on your pages. Likes and Fans are good first steps to building brand awareness and community, but they are definitely not the end goal.

They do serve a purpose – namely in providing social proof to later visitors.

It is very valid to consider the effect that viewer actions like liking, sharing, endorsing or commenting have on (a) building brand awareness, (b) building a community around your brand and (c) influencing the future purchasing choices of your engaged social media friends.

Running promotions or advertisements on a social platform has a few advantages. It’s low cost, highly targeted, and it is easy to test how well it is working both quickly and inexpensively.

Pay-Per-Click & Google AdWords

There are many great reasons to “do SEO” on your site. But one of the drawbacks of using that method alone is – it takes a while to start seeing results. Search engines regularly crawl and index sites, but realistically it might take 3 to 6 months to start reaping significant benefit from even the best-designed SEO & content strategy.

Staying with our comparison to writing a “best-selling book” here, PPC is roughly analogous to hiring a sign twirler to stand outside the front door of the library for the purpose of drawing attention to your book offering inside.

PPC is a way to fill the interim gap and start driving traffic to your website right now – EVEN IF your content isn’t mind-blowing yet and there aren’t a bunch of links pointing to your site.

Keyword and trending search research can be used to craft and deploy highly efficient PPC ads that will put you on the front page of Google search results – assuming you’re willing to pay enough.


One last tool of interest to you here is retargeting. There are a lot of different ways to use this particular beastie. Let me give you an example. 

Say our fictional web-surfer goes to the library and passes by your sign twirler outside. She may see your book on the promotional table by the door, and pick it up to glance at it. She may even be intrigued. But she puts it back down. She handles her business at the library and then takes off without giving your fantastic book a second look.

Later that week, our fictional viewer is out in public and everywhere she goes it seems there is a poster or an ad of YOUR VERY BOOK looking her in the face.

Retargeting doesn’t happen in the real world so much. Yet. But retargeting is a method by which you can drop this thing called a pixel in your visitors’ browser when they come to your site. Then you can display an ad for your book repeatedly to these almost-clients, in multiple locations, all over the web, for a while. And it’s not very expensive.

Find out more about how to use Retargeting on Facebook here.

Websites vs Books

The book format used to be the best and only way to disseminate information to other people. In a pre-digital age, information could still be shared – it just took a very long time to do so. And finding any specific information was quite a challenge!

Every real company has a website these days. It’s a given in today’s business world. Publishing a website is like creating a super-book, and putting it out for the world to see.

But I would venture to guess that many of those company websites are not fulfilling their full potential. And many of those companies lack a strong content strategy to work from or robust and measurable digital marketing goals. They have very little idea of how their investment in a website, content, and social media translates into ROI for their business.

how does digital marketing really work for websites that aren't working

There are also many frustrated business users out there facing the harsh reality that no one is coming to their site, and those who come aren’t doing what they are supposed to do!

If you are one of those frustrated website owners, hopefully, this post demystified some of the typical digital marketing mumbo-jumbo you tend to encounter and gave you some ideas of where to start. The journey of a thousand miles (or hops) begins with a single step. 

How does digital marketing really work for you?

To learn more about effective, and affordable digital marketing and how super-websites can help you evolve your business and meet your growth and development goals, get in touch.

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