the digital marketing ecosystem gartner

Are you a digital marketer? Does your company do digital marketing? Chances are, you’ll get a “yes” or “no” to those questions, but the meaning behind them will vary a lot. Generally, we’re talking about online marketing, but there are a lot of possibilities, as you can see in Gartner’s Digital Marketing Transit Map, and most marketers focus on at least one or two disciplines. So how can businesses distinguish between all of the flavors of digital marketing and find the best match for their needs?

I recently attended the Mirren Live Conference in NYC, which is an annual get-together of well-known and not-so-well-known marketing agencies from across the globe discussing the latest trends and new business strategies. I asked quite a few attendees what their agencies do, and, not surprisingly, many called themselves “digital agencies.” But what they do and what we (inbound marketers) do are very different sets of strategies, skills and tools. Let’s take a look at some of these differences and similarities.

Digital Agencies (or Digital Marketing Agencies)

By and large, we’re talking about ad agencies that specialize (these days) in programmatic media buying for relatively large B2C and B2B brands through ad exchange networks or DSPs (demand-side platforms) that allow them to manage media buys across multiple media exchanges and accounts. It’s the hottest thing since sliced bread for advertising agencies, so much of the discussion at Mirren was about this one topic. Specialties for these digital agencies seem to be, in order of priority:

  • Programmatic media buying
  • Social media advertising
  • Pay-per-click advertising (to some extent)

SEO/PPC Agencies

Yes, there are still plenty of agencies that specialize in search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising (Adwords, Bing, Yahoo). Many of the SEO specialists have started to morph into content marketing agencies, like SeoMoz is now simply Moz, and pay-per-click marketers are starting to take an interest in programmatic media buys, although the necessary budgets can be much higher than PPC (think millions). The lines have blurred for SEO agencies as a result of Google’s crackdown on “blackhat” technical SEO and link building with Panda and Penguin and the emphasis on high quality shared content with Hummingbird. We’ll see what happens in the ongoing shakeout in this industry specialty.

Social Media Marketing Agencies

These folks specialize in all things social, not just advertising. One of these agencies will manage your entire social media presence online including:

  • Social media advertising campaigns
  • Profile building and reach development
  • Influencer development and relationship building
  • Social media monitoring and engagement
  • Social commerce and CRM
  • Analytics and business system integration

Content Marketing Agencies

On the other end of the inbound/outbound spectrum from the ad-oriented Digital Agencies are the Content Marketers who create and share content to attract and convert leads. Heavy emphasis is placed on brand journalism and relationship building through social media and earned media networks (blogger outreach, syndication, curation and industry media outlets). Most of the effort is focused upon:

  • Development of buyer persona and buyer journey assets and strategy
  • Creation of owned media assets, like blogs, ebooks, whitepapers, videos and webinars
  • Development of shared assets (earned media) through relationships with influencers and industry media sources
  • Development of thought leadership content by subject area experts

Inbound Marketing Agencies

A few years ago, these agencies would have been called “Lead Generation Agencies” with their heavy emphasis on lead generation through both advertising and content marketing. Inbound Marketing Agencies still specialize in lead generation, but the emphasis is now on content marketing and social sharing instead of advertising. Either way, this is a huge distinction from traditional ad agencies that primarily seek brand awareness and are less likely to measure performance through direct lead conversion. “Inbounders” focus on targeting likely buyers (buyer personas and journey) through relevant, helpful content rather than demographics and direct marketing tactics. To distinguish them from Content Marketers, add in a more generalized skillset:

  • Website design and development
  • Content marketing & SEO
  • Social media marketing
  • Demand generation campaign management
  • Email marketing and lead nurturing
  • Marketing automation and pipeline development
  • CRM integration and analytics

So Who Are the Real Digital Marketers?

Well, they all are, and they each have an important role to play in the online marketing ecosystem. So-called Digital Agencies may be more appropriate for large B2C and B2B brands with big marketing budgets and aggressive brand awareness goals. More specialized “boutique” digital agencies may be more appropriate for individual projects, like video production and campaigns. Others, like content and inbound agencies are better suited for accomplishing long-range goals like increasing website traffic, leads and search engine visibility over time. What’s interesting to me is you rarely see all of them blended into one “master agency” like the old Mad Men days. Now it’s more likely that there may be one agency of record that outsources individual projects and types of services to the specialty agencies. Brands are starting to do the outsourcing themselves as they seek to reduce or eliminate retainer relationships.

With the spectrum of digital marketing services available, small businesses are often challenged to find the right fit for their needs. With smaller marketing budgets, which approaches are most cost-effective and least risky? There are no easy answers, but your best bet is to clearly define your business goals and current resources, then ask lots of questions to find the best agency or hiring fit for your needs.

Photo credit: Gartner