The Business Owner’s Guide to Understanding (Not Executing) Digital Marketing

The Business Owner's Guide to Understanding (Not Executing) Digital Marketing

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted in 2019. It was updated in 2021.

Digital marketing is an essential business activity in the 21st century. However, understanding and executing digital marketing campaigns and proving their ROI is a challenge for even experienced marketers, let alone someone who isn’t immersed in them on a daily basis.

As a business owner, you’ve got limited bandwidth. You’re managing a multitude of departments and responsibilities. You just don’t have the time to become a marketing pro, which is why you’ve got marketers working for you — either in-house or a marketing agency.

With that being said, every business owner should have a basic understanding of digital marketing and how it works, just like you should have a basic understanding of what every department in your company does. It enables you to:

  • Feel comfortable discussing the moving parts of your company’s marketing plan
  • Avoid confusion when your marketers use marketing terminology and lingo
  • Be more engaged with your marketers when you discuss strategies, tactics and reports
  • Maybe even offer up some ideas and insight of your own

This article is designed to be your guide to understanding digital marketing. It’s NOT a step-by-step manual for executing a digital marketing plan. That’s more minutiae than what you need.

What this article WILL do is give you a 30,000-foot overview of digital marketing. It will provide you with key foundational knowledge including:

  • Basic terms and definitions related to modern marketing
  • An introduction to the kinds of strategies and tactics that are necessary to win in the marketplace
  • A summary of the tools, charts and reports needed to measure marketing ROI

As a bonus, if you really want to immerse yourself in marketing and build a more extensive understanding of it, click the links included in this article to read more relevant, in-depth content.

But first, let’s start with the basics.

What is Digital Marketing?

Here is the DigitalMarketer definition of digital marketing:

Digital marketing is the act of promoting and selling products and services by leveraging online marketing tactics such as social media marketing, search marketing, and email marketing.

It’s not an earth-shattering definition because it’s not an earth-shattering concept. When boiled down to its simplest form, digital marketing is just marketing using digital properties. It has the same goal as old-school, traditional marketing: engage the RIGHT lead on the RIGHT channel with the RIGHT message.

It just so happens that the right channels today are often digital. Research has found that 72% of active B2B buyers search Google using basic keywords & phrases. Also, 96% of buyers, both active and non-active and regardless of the channel or tactic used, will visit your website first before reaching out to sales.

The bottom line is, digital marketing is necessary to put your company in front of prospective customers where they are and get them to take you up on your offer to help them solve their problems. That means utilizing things like social media, email and search engine optimization.

Benefits of Digital Marketing

While digital and traditional marketing both have their place in the 21st century, digital marketing offers many benefits you just won’t get with its counterpart.

  • Accelerates the buyer’s journey by presenting the right offers at the right time
  • Makes it easier to build brand awareness and elicit engagement both before and after the sale
  • Assists in producing more repeat purchases
  • Fuels brand loyalty and cultivates brand evangelists
  • Comes equipped with tools and analytics to help measure ROI

The Buyer’s Journey & Your Digital Sales Funnel

Before we start getting into the digital marketing channels and tools themselves, let’s discuss the structure into which they fit. Once you are familiar with the digital marketing framework, you’ll better understand and appreciate how the components come together to make it work.

In marketing and sales, the process begins with awareness and ends with a purchase. The steps in the middle will vary slightly depending on if you are looking at it from the point of view of the buyer or your company (the one trying to make a sale). From the buyer’s point of view, the process is known as the buyer’s journey. From the company’s point of view, it’s referred to as the sales funnel.

Here are the five stages of the buyer’s journey:

1. Awareness – The prospect realizes that there is a problem that needs to be addressed or a potential opportunity to improve.

2. Consideration – The prospect fully understands the problem or opportunity at hand and commits to weighing all possible solutions.

3. Comparison – The prospect has done the research and compiled a list of possible solutions, which are being compared against each other.

4. Intent – The prospect is close to committing to the purchase and just needs to finalize some details.

5. Decision – The prospect commits to the purchase, receives final approval from superiors if necessary and signs on the dotted line.

If you research sales funnels, you’ll find many different representations that say roughly the same thing. The version of the sales funnel we use has four levels:

  • Top of Funnel = Cold Lead: Most of the time, these leads don’t know you exist and have not engaged digitally with your company. Your goal here is to get them to show INTEREST in a topic related to your company, products or services by providing helpful, non-salesy, clickable content with a great headline.
  • Middle of Funnel = Warm Lead: These leads now know that you exist because they progressed from the top of the funnel down by engaging with your content. Don’t try to close the big deal here… you are simply getting warm leads to show INTENT by responding to a low-commitment offer related to the cold lead/top of funnel content that requires them to trade deeper contact information in exchange for your offer.
  • Bottom of Funnel = Hot Lead: These leads have expressed both INTEREST and INTENT by engaging with your content and by providing deeper contact information in exchange for a low-commitment offer. This is the time to build value in your products and services and get that warm lead offline and converted into a paying customer.
  • After the Sale = Customer: Your marketing was a success! These leads have converted and are now customers. However, the work isn’t done. You don’t want customers to be one-and-done. Increase their overall value through upselling and cross-selling to keep them coming back to you and turning them into brand advocates.

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into the digital components that come into play as a prospect moves through the buyer’s journey and you work to push them through your sales funnel.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is a vital component of a digital marketing strategy. Here is the definition of content marketing from Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is the practice of creating relevant and compelling content in a consistent fashion to a targeted buyer, focusing on all stages of the buyer’s journey, from brand awareness through brand evangelism.

What differentiates content marketing from traditional forms of marketing is that it puts the focus on the audience rather than the company. The primary goal is to provide informative industry-specific content that speaks directly to the audience about the problems they face on a daily basis. It’s not about promoting your company and boasting about what makes you better than your competitors. Your company, products and services are secondary.

Content marketing is NOT advertising, and there’s a reason it exists. People don’t like ads, especially those that scream, “We’re great! Pick us!” They’re annoyed by them and are savvy enough to know a sales pitch when they see one.

People respond to content marketing because it’s helpful without being pushy. It lets them be in control and consume what is of interest to them based on their unique situations. The value to the company putting out the content is that it allows them to build trust with their audience and learn about them based on their digital behaviors. This enables the company to eventually — when the time is right — shift into sales mode and present itself as the best solution when the prospect is ready to buy.

Check out these stats that validate the importance of content marketing:

  • 67% of the typical B2B buyer’s journey is now done digitally, and 9 out of 10 B2B buyers say online content has a moderate to major effect on their purchasing decisions. (Lenati)
  • 80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement. (Stratabeat)
  • 90% of consumers find custom content useful, and 78% believe that organizations providing custom content are interested in building good relationships with them. (CMO Council)

Content is the linchpin of digital marketing. In the previous section, we summarized the kinds of content you should be creating for each level of the sales funnel. Here are a few examples to give you a clearer picture of the kinds of things successful digital marketing strategies contain:

Top of Funnel, Cold Lead Content to Create Awareness and Establish Interest:

  • Blog article
  • Infographic
  • Video

Interesting content that drives people to your website but doesn’t try to sell them anything. You just want them to see enough about your company that they’ll recognize it when they see it again.

Middle of Funnel, Warm Lead Content to Generate Engagement and Show Intent:

  • White paper
  • Original research
  • Form templates they can use at their business

Content that is more in-depth and valuable that requires the submission of basic contact information (name, company, phone number, email) to get it. You want to capture lead information you can use for further marketing.

Bottom of Funnel, Hot Lead Content to Build Value and Convert:

  • Product demos/free trials
  • Free quote on products/services
  • Lunch & learn session

Content that provides enough incentive to get people to initiate contact with your salespeople and move them closer to making an informed purchase decision.

After the Sale, Customer Content to Retain and Expand by Building Brand Advocates

  • “Get Started” content (instructions, how-to manuals, tips and tricks, etc.)
  • Invitation to review their purchase and your company
  • Examples of upgrades and add-ons that can enhance user-experience

This content should keep your company top of mind, help them get the most out of their purchase and provide them with opportunities to make additional purchases.

Content can and should be distributed via many channels. Let’s take a look at the ones that are most effective.

48 Proven Workflows to Plug a Leaky Sales Funnel

Social Media

When it comes to getting your content in front of people in the digital age, the discussion should begin with social media.

Many business owners assume that the majority of their target audience doesn’t have a Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter account. If you’re among them, you’ll be surprised to learn that over 80% of American adults use social media, with many of them accessing platforms daily, according to Pew Research Center.

American social usage graph 2021
American social daily users graph 2021

While it is true that the vast majority of people use social media for personal use and not for business, the fact that they are on those platforms at all is half the battle. The challenge for your company is to create content and offers that will get them to stop scrolling, become interested and leave social media to go to your digital properties (website) to learn more.

The next social media myth we’ll dispel is that it’s a good digital marketing tool because it’s free. In reality, the free features available on social media rarely succeed in filling the sales funnel on a large scale. That’s because research by Simon Kemp and Hootsuite found that in April 2020 the average Facebook post reach was just 5.2%. That means every post you create will only be seen by five out of every 100 followers of your company page.

Facebook Organic Reach 2

The fact of the matter is, paying for social media ads is necessary if you want to get the most out of your social media presence. Here are some of the big selling points of social ads that appeal to business owners:

  • Ads are affordable — as low as $5 per day
  • Campaigns can be targeted to very specific audiences — speak only to your most profitable prospects
  • Ads work — In Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends Report, 26% of Facebook users surveyed said they made a purchase after clicking on an ad. An additional 7% said they purchased even if they didn’t click on the ad.

That said, companies are encouraged to be active on “free social media” as well, even if the impact may be minimal in terms of converting customers. Frequent organic posts are good because they show you have an active presence, help promote your brand and can be used for social proof.

A final aspect of social media we want to touch on that serves an important role in digital marketing is the “cookie.”

A cookie is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the web browser. Cookies track and remember a user’s browsing activity.

Facebook and LinkedIn both have cookies that can be implemented on company websites. Facebook’s is called the Pixel and LinkedIn’s is called Insight Tag. In addition to tracking user activity, Pixel and Insight Tag build custom audiences based on user behavior on the website. These audiences can then be targeted with ads and content to make your marketing more relevant to the leads who have engaged with your site previously. In addition, these tools provide data to help you monitor the performance of your ads so you can adjust accordingly.


Besides social media, do you know what other digital tool is used by most people to find useful content on a daily basis? A search engine! In fact, Forrester found that 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine.

As a result, a digital marketing strategy isn’t complete without optimizing for search. It’s a competitive arena where appearing on page 1 is essential. According to HubSpot, 66% of buyers don’t go past the top 5 Google listings, and 75% don’t go past the first page of listings.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of making a website more easily located by search engines, which will lead to increased web traffic.

The algorithms used by search engine companies to determine rankings are constantly changing and secretly guarded to prevent companies from gaming the system in their favor. Because of this, your website content must frequently be monitored, updated and promoted in order to keep its place in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

There are two sets of tactics to boost SEO, and both of them are necessary for success: On-page and off-page.

On-page SEO refers to tactics applied to a company’s web pages to influence their search engine ranking.

In more basic terms, it’s telling search engines what your website pages are about to make it easier for them to be ranked. Here are some common on-page SEO tactics:

  • Research and implement keywords – Keywords are the search terms for which you want to rank.
  • Properly format meta tags – Meta tags are snippets of text embedded in the HTML code of your site that help search engines identify the content on the pages
  • Use optimized URL structures – It’s a good practice to include a keyword in the page URL when possible
  • Post good content – Quality, original and relevant content is more likely to be rewarded by search engines
  • Make pages user-friendly – Pages should load reasonably quickly, easily link to other pages on the site, be mobile-friendly and be easily shared on social networks.

Off-page SEO refers to the tactics that are applied away from your website that can help it rank better.

In other words, it’s helping boost your site’s popularity and build a better reputation. Here are some common off-page SEO tactics:

  • Build quality backlinks – When someone links back to your site, it’s like a positive review that vouches for your site’s credibility.
  • Establish consistent citations – Citations are mentions of your business name, address and phone number (NAP) on other web pages that do not include a link to your website.
  • Utilize social media – It not only promotes brand awareness but also is an easy way to build links on sites with high domain authority.
  • Post good content – People provide links to websites that are informative and interesting.

Another option you have to get your website to appear prominently on search engines is to utilize search engine marketing (SEM).

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the practice of paying for advertisements that appear on SERPs.

These ads are called pay per click (PPC), and an example is Google Ads. They provide instant credibility and first-page positioning for your products and services.

Email/Marketing Automation

Another key piece of the digital marketing puzzle is email and, on a larger scale, marketing automation. You’ve probably heard of marketing automation because it’s becoming a mainstream marketing tool for many companies. That’s because B2B marketing in the 21st century has become very challenging due to long buy cycles, extremely busy salespeople and digital consumers who can be 70% of the way through the buyer’s journey before they even consider reaching out to those salespeople.

Marketing automation is a software platform that helps companies automate marketing and sales engagement to generate more leads, close more deals and better measure marketing success.

Marketing automation promotes efficiency by optimizing leads as they make their way through their individual buyer’s journeys.

Depending on the company’s goals and business model, one-off standalone email campaigns may suffice. However, marketing automation offers so many benefits that it’s definitely worth a look. We like to personify marketing automation as a salesperson that never sleeps, works 24/7 and doesn’t require an insurance or benefits package. Sounds appealing, right?

A marketing automation workflow consists of a sequence of email “touches” that are triggered based on user behavior such as a landing page form submission. All touches are sent in a specific order at predetermined intervals. So, whether a lead comes in today, tomorrow, a month from now or a year from now, they begin each program from the beginning on their own schedule. This allows you to control the narrative and tell the story you want in the order you want. This is one of the big differentiators of automation when compared to typical email software.

Marketing automation programs can be built to attract leads, engage prospects and grow loyalty. Here is a sampling of marketing automation sequences that can be built:

  • Top of Funnel Workflows
    • Monthly Blog/News Article Workflow
    • Demand Generation Drip Workflow
    • Thank You Workflow
  • Middle of Funnel Workflows
    • Quarterly Newsletter Workflow
    • Low Lead Score Drip Workflow
    • Long-Term Nurture Drip Workflow
    • Sales Meeting Drip Workflow
    • Event Marketing Workflow
    • Webinar Marketing Workflow
    • Thank You Workflow
  • Bottom of Funnel Workflows
    • Conversion Drip Workflow
    • Hot Lead Burst Workflow
    • Post-Sales Meeting Drip Workflow
    • Special Offer/Coupon Workflow
    • Seasonal Marketing Workflow
    • Abandoned Shopping Cart Workflow
    • Re-Engagement for Lost Deals Workflow
    • Re-Engagement for Leads That Don’t Buy Workflow
    • Thank You Workflow
  • After the Sale Workflows
    • Welcome/Onboarding Drip Workflow
    • Upsell Workflow
    • Cross-Sell Workflow
    • Renewal Workflow
    • Customer Satisfaction Workflow
    • Customer Advocacy & Referral Workflow
    • Re-Engagement with Former Customers Workflow
    • Thank You Workflow

Marketing automation is valuable because:

  • It doesn’t allow opportunities to slip through the cracks.
  • It appeases the modern buyer and keeps your company top of mind when a need arises.
  • Nurtured leads make, on average, 47% larger purchases than non-nurtured leads.

Now let’s be clear, marketing automation isn’t intended to replace salespeople. It’s still essential for sales staff to step in and close the deal when leads are at their hottest and ready to buy. Marketing automation just takes some of the tedious, repetitive sales tasks off their hands so they don’t waste time on leads who aren’t ready to buy.

Reporting & Analytics

One area where digital marketing has a clear leg up on traditional marketing is in reporting and analytics. As long as you’ve identified key performance indicators (KPIs) and have a method of tracking them, you’ll be able to easily determine whether or not you met your marketing goals.

A KPI is a metric used to evaluate the progress made as a company works toward its goals.

Here are some examples of KPIs from digital marketing efforts:

  • Email opens
  • Email link clicks
  • Landing page form submissions
  • Social media ad impressions
  • Social media ad engagements
  • Website users
  • Web page views
  • Average website session duration
  • Website pages per session

Tools exist to show you the data for each of those situations. The email/marketing automation software will track opens and clicks, and you can view them in real-time and export reports via a reporting dashboard. Social media ad impressions and engagements are tracked in a similar fashion via the respective reporting dashboards of each platform.

Landing page data, if incorporated into a marketing automation program, can be managed within the same dashboard as the emails associated with it. Otherwise, data can be viewed using the same tool used to analyze website data: Google Analytics.

Google Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic.

Google Analytics captures two key types of data:

  • User acquisition data – Where site visitors came from
    • Country
    • Source (direct, organic, Facebook, email, etc.)
  • User behavior data – What they did after they got to your site
    • How long they stayed on your website
    • Pages they visited
    • Goals they completed

Google Analytics data provides key insights about website visitors and helps measure the ROI of marketing efforts. To capture even more detailed data, you can implement urchin tracking modules (UTMs).

Urchin Tracking Module (UTM) is a modification to the URL you drive traffic to as part of your digital marketing efforts that allows you to track which efforts were directly responsible for the traffic.

You’ve likely seen UTMs before and maybe didn’t realize what they were. For example, here’s one of the UTMs we used to track the traffic to the post in the previous link we provided:


A UTM can consist of as many as five parameters:

  • utm_source = the referrer
  • utm_medium = the marketing medium
  • utm_campaign = the specific campaign or promotion
  • utm_term = the paid search term
  • utm_content = the specific item clicked to bring the person to the site (often used for A/B testing)

Without applying UTMs, you won’t know which specific campaign drove the traffic to your website. For example, you’d know that someone reached your site by clicking on an email link, but you wouldn’t know which specific email they used.

UTMs bridge the gap from marketing channel to website and enable you to track someone’s journey from start to finish.

By utilizing all the available digital tools, you’ll have no shortage of reporting and analytics data you can use to assess your marketing efforts and make improvements to take them to the next level.


Feeling more comfortable discussing digital marketing now? We hope so!

While you probably won’t be itching to take any marketing tasks into your own hands anytime soon, at least the topic is no longer foreign. You now are familiar with some of the key terms, tactics and tools associated with digital marketing and have a general idea of how they fit into the larger marketing strategy.

Now, the next time you have a meeting with your marketers, you won’t be overwhelmed and confused but instead can be an informed and active participant in the conversation.

Have additional questions about digital marketing or want to learn even more? Call us at 815.431.1000 or submit this form to contact us.


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