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Traditional vs digital marketing – the timelines have split

De Lorean car in a car park

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Why read this? : We look at the relative merits of traditional vs digital marketing. Learn why it feels like they run on separate timelines. We look at the pros and cons of each approach, and how to help them work together. Read this to learn how using both approaches can get you back to a better future.

We recently updated our set of digital marketing guides. Because the world needs more content about digital marketing, right?

Um, no.

But digital continues to evolve as an area of marketing. That’s why we regularly review and update this content. 

This update made us think a lot about how digital marketing works vs traditional marketing.

De Lorean car in a car park

It often seems traditional and digital marketing are 2 separate topics. They don’t connect well, if at all. Almost like they operate in separate timelines.

Like somewhere along the way, digital split off on its own away from traditional. But the traditional timeline carried on regardless.

So, they both exist, and should be on the same timeline. But clearly, they aren’t. 

So no, the world doesn’t need more digital marketing content. But it could do with more content which helps pull together this split in the marketing timelines. 

A bit like a marketing Back To The Future. Where you change just a few things, and suddenly you’re in a marketing world which makes more sense. Where there’s more marketing Martys. And less marketing Biffs.  

But before we can bring them together, we first need to clarify what they are, and why they’re different.

Traditional marketing

We’ve had a lot of experience doing traditional marketing. Traditional marketers would probably prefer you call it classic marketing.

It’s a broad subject which covers a lot of ground. There’s lots to learn. It takes time to get good at it. And it’s evolving all the time. 

You have to be able to go from broad market research to specific segmentation research, for example. To switch from brand identity and innovation to specific advertising campaigns

Young man standing in Times Square at night looking up the bright media advertising billboards

Senior traditional marketers like to bang their own drum about how good they are at marketing. 

But often, it’s as much who they know than what they know that moved them up the career ladder. They’re not always the best people to ask for marketing advice. Too much time doing politics and leadership. Not enough time doing actual marketing. 

We like to think we’re not like that. We’ve got good insight into how traditional marketers think. How they see the world. We’ve been there. We’re still there.  

Traditional marketing is where most senior marketers cut their marketing teeth. It’s what they know. It’s what got them where they are now. 

If you’re an experienced traditional marketer, yes, you know about qualitative and quantitive research. Yes, you’ve been to so many focus groups and creative thinking workshops, they all blur together. You’ve done so much marketing planning, you can do brand essences and activation plans on auto-pilot.

And you’re still scarred by learning all those tough marketing innovation lessons. All those new products which didn’t make it. 

You’ve earned your spot at the top of the marketing career ladder by working your way up through the marketing trenches. 

Digital marketing 

And then along comes digital marketing. And it doesn’t care about all those things. It has a whole new bunch of things to learn. 

We’re unusual in that we’ve done both traditional and digital marketing. Not too many people can say that.

For example, we’ve run many digital media campaigns and built many websites.

We’ve worked on big marketing technology and data projects. Ones which changed the way businesses worked, and the way they understood customers. 

Scrabble tiles spelling out Digital Marketing laid out on a wooden table

And unlike most marketers, we’ve also launched successful e-commerce stores. That was a big part of our own journey into digital.

We did say marketers like to bang their own drum. Sorry about that.

But there’s a reason we succeeded with all those projects. And that’s because we applied what we’d learned from traditional marketing to digital. We applied core marketing principles from before the Internet was even a twinkle in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. 

Like customer understanding. We understood the importance of research and insights. 

Like brand building. We understood the value of brand purpose and brand identity

And like great brand activation. We understood that most of all, it’s about getting stuff done. 

The biggest frustration in digital marketing

But to our frustration, we’ve found much of this new generation of digital marketers reject or ignore the past. It’s old, they say. We’re all about the new

They make it about traditional vs digital marketing when it doesn’t have to be. 

They’ve little knowledge or interest in the thoughts, concepts and principles of ‘traditional’ marketing.

They think they can “hack” their way to growth, when in actual fact, they mostly just hack people off.

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

These digital dunderheads arrogantly dismiss most traditional marketing. It’s “old-school” thinking that doesn’t apply in today’s digital world, they say :- 

What traditional marketing offers digital marketing

Probably the most frustrating aspect of digital marketing is it dehumanises the customer.

Yes, in digital marketing you generate loads of data.


But unless you can turn that data into an engaging experience that impacts a real human being, then your marketing goes nowhere.

All you’ll have is a big chunky data file in R, or a big fancy spreadsheet.

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

(R is statistical programming language used in data analysis if you didn’t know. And we love the story of why it’s called R. Gotta love Kiwi creativity sometimes!).

Traditional marketing focuses on actual customers. Real people with real needs. Your brand has to meets those needs. That’s what its real purpose is. 

Traditional marketers find it easier to create experiences and content that feels more human

Yes, there’s all the work that goes on in the (digital) world around Customer Experience (CX). But let’s be honest. Most CX terminology has been shamelessly lifted from traditional marketing. Like adoption funnels, for example.

CX likes to think of itself as the shiny poster child of modern marketing. But the adoption funnel it uses originated, not in the last century, but the one before. E St Elmo Lewis developed the AIDA model in 1898 for crying out loud. 

Funnels - that you click

And yet on a daily basis, our social media feed is snarled up with some version of a funnel. That you click (no names, but easy to work out who the worst offender is).

They claim to ‘guarantee’ leads and conversions, just by following their process.

Thanks, Mr Digital Evangelist, but no thanks. 

But these won’t win the hearts and minds of customers. There’s no real insight into what makes people tick.

Digital evangelist - transparent angel statue against a backdrop of computer code

Just an endless barrage of content.

This barrage of terrible content creates a lot of noise, but also a lot of waste. And contributes to a world where ‘marketing’ isn’t seen as a job to be proud of (yes, thank you #scottyfrommarketing).

We think this is why so many traditional marketers shy away from digital marketing. Like they don’t want to be tainted with that brush.

They want to focus on content that serves a purpose. That builds deeper relationships with real customers.

It drives us crazy the language of acquisition, when it talks about leads and prospects. It’s the opposite of what marketing’s about. This throw-shit-at-the-wall approach isn’t the way forward.

It’s the Biff Tannen marketing world of the future. And you know what happens to Biff in those movies.

What digital marketing offers traditional marketing

So if traditional marketing is the wise old (Doc Brown) campaigner of the marketing game, what role does the (Marty McFly) ’rookie’ of digital marketing play?

Well, here’s the thing.

When you apply traditional marketing principles to digital, your digital marketing works better.

In particular, you move much faster. The speed at which digital marketing generates data and insights is way better than the old ways of gathering customer information.

Relay sprinter holding a baton in his blocks about to start a sprint relay

Like brand health equity studies that took weeks to show your brand and campaign performance.

Now, thanks to digital marketing, you can get that type of data in almost real-time. As ‘traditional’ marketers, that’s both exciting and a bit scary. 

Marketing technology helps you set up automatic interactions with customers. Contact forms, Chatbots and Check-outs. These are like the hoverboards of marketing.  Martech may come with its own challenges for sure. It’s not all rosy. But there are huge opportunities for savvy marketers. 

Look at what customers do online, and you’ll soon find opportunities. Opportunities like digital services, or in communications and social

So traditional marketing should look at digital marketing as a way to do marketing better. To create better insights, better experiences and happier customers.

Conclusion - traditional vs digital marketing

That’s why our digital guides cover all the key areas, but written with a traditional marketing view in mind.

For us it’s not traditional vs digital marketing, but traditional AND digital marketing coming together. 

For example, check out our RESTART (Reach – Engage – Sell – Technology – Analysis – Resource – Transformation) in our digital business model guide.

Or check out our guides to digital media, websites, technology, data and insights to see what they do for customers and brands. 

The Seven Steps of the RESTART digital business model - Reach, Engage, Sell, Technology, Analysis, Resource, Transform

We wrote these so we could show how to be a better digital marketer. That’s the key point of this article.

To be a better digital marketer, you need to connect to the traditional marketing world. And not just live in a digital marketing world. 

If you need help bringing together the traditional and digital marketing timelines in your business, we can bring the flux capacitor. Contact us for a “drive” in our marketing ‘De Lorean’. Otherwise known as our coaching and consulting services. We help you accelerate your marketing up to 88mph and beyond. 

Photo credits

DeLorean Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Night time billboards : Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Digital Marketing : Photo by Diggity Marketing on Unsplash

Frustrated Man (adapted) : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Conversation Image : Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Angel : Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

Code : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Sprint : Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

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