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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 differences of traditional vs digital marketing. Learn the pros and cons of each, and how to bring them together onto the same timeline. Read this to learn how combining traditional and digital gets you back to a better future.

We recently updated our 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. 

As we did this, we were thinking about the differences of traditional marketing vs digital marketing.

De Lorean car in a car park

It often feels like these 2 areas 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 marketing. But the traditional timeline carried on regardless.

But what if that weren’t the case? What if you could 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.    

We’re going to give it a go. But first, we need to clarify what they are, and why they’re different.

Traditional marketing

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

It’s a broad subject with many sub-topics. 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. 

But, 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. So they know a bit about qualitative and quantitive research. They’ve been to so many focus groups and creative thinking workshops, they all blur together. And done so much marketing planning, they can do brand essences and activation plans on auto-pilot.

Plus, they’re still scarred by learning all those tough marketing innovation lessons. All those new products which didn’t make it. They believe, they’ve earned their spot at the top of the marketing career ladder by working their way up from the traditional marketing trenches. 

Digital marketing 

Then, along comes digital marketing. It doesn’t care about most of those things. It has a whole new bunch of things to learn. 

We’re lucky to have done both traditional and digital marketing. But, 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. It’s to create experiences that feel made for humans. 

And yes, digital marketers might call this 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. 

These won’t win the hearts and minds of customers. There’s no real insight into what makes people tick. Just an endless barrage of content.

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

This 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. Get in touch for a “drive” in our marketing ‘De Lorean’. Otherwise known as our coaching and consulting services. We’ll 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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