Why it’s time to stop thinking of ‘digital’ as a channel

Posted on Monday 27 March 2023 | Michelle Urwin - VP Marketing, Skai

Michelle Urwin, VP Marketing at Skai, explains that it's time to move beyond thinking of digital as just another channel and instead focus on winning hearts and minds with a consumer-centric approach 

In the first two decades of digital advertising, the advice to marketers looking for ways to improve performance has often been to use online’s superior targeting and personalisation in specialised campaigns across the customer journey.  

This approach of tactics over strategy has focused on the perceived strengths of digital to reach consumers with precision at specific points in the funnel. Best practices dictated to maximise each digital channel’s discrete role in the funnel - social to drive awareness, search for conversions, email for loyalty and lifetime value, etc.  

But the world of marketing has changed dramatically in recent years. Digital advertising has become an essential part of any marketer's toolkit, but it's time to move beyond thinking of digital as just another channel. Instead, marketers must focus on winning hearts and minds with a consumer-centric approach. 


‘Digital’ as a channel is an outdated model - it’s all just marketing now 

In 2004, mobile marketing was just a sliver of digital spending. There were mobile specialists and agencies, mobile ad tech, and mobile publishers. Just a decade later, the internet was a mobile-first medium. Today, mobile isn’t a line item in the media plan.  

The same is true for digital. Back in 2003, online marketing -simply called interactive -comprised just around 3% of global marketing investments. Now, it represents more than half of all spending. So, digital is just… marketing now.  

The prevailing narrative in the advertising industry is that digital is supposed to be used as a performance channel. However, this needs to be challenged. The truth is that digital advertising can do it all, from driving awareness to consideration and purchase intent. So, despite the breadth of digital channels available to advertisers, the focus should be on the consumer and their journey rather than the channel itself. 

Consider paid search, the largest slice of the digital media plan. Since its inception, it’s been labelled as a bottom-of-the-funnel tactic. But, according to Forrester, more than 90% of consumers say they use search engines when discovering, exploring, and engaging during their purchase decision-making:  

  • 95% of respondents use at least one search channel for discovery (top funnel)  

  • 94% of respondents use at least one search channel for consideration/purchase (mid-funnel)  

  • 93% of respondents use at least one search channel for engagement (bottom funnel) 

Social advertising, too, has been somewhat stigmatised as a discovery channel -and, yes, it’s particularly good at this. But it is also a full-funnel channel with opportunities to connect with customers at every stage. For example, marketers can use social’s reach to build awareness; stay top-of mind with consumers; target people with relevant propositions to nurture consideration; transact directly via social commerce; and build communities around their brand. 

And social’s engaging creative formats - such as video, carousel, and stories ads - can build brands the same way that television, print, and radio did for consumers in years past. 


Consumer-centricity should dictate media strategy 

Digital is a medium that can meet the consumer's needs at each journey stage, but it's also worth noting that digital advertising is more than just a one-size-fits-all solution. The right mix of channels and tactics will depend on the business goals, target audience, and industry. A luxury fashion brand, for example, may focus on high-impact visuals and emotional storytelling, while a B2B software company may prioritise educational content and thought leadership. 

And, in a consumer-centric marketing approach, “channels” matter less and less. Those are marketing constructs for how advertising is bought and sold, not where they fit in consumers’ lives. Channel-first thinking could be limiting performance in many instances. When “digital” is stripped out of the equation, practitioners can evaluate marketing opportunities/tactics for their value in contributing to overall growth, not just ‘how well the predetermined channel X budget performed against last year's channel X benchmarks’. 

For marketers, the focus should always be on the customer and their needs. This means understanding their pain points, motivations, and preferences - and tailoring the marketing message accordingly. By doing so, marketers can create a seamless, personalised experience that builds trust and loyalty using all tools in their toolbox wherever best utilised. 

The implications of this switch go beyond a label change. This evolution requires practitioners to measure the impact of digital advertising beyond just clicks and conversions. While these metrics are essential, they only tell part of the story. Marketers need to consider the long-term impact of their advertising on brand perception, customer loyalty, and lifetime value. 


Digital can do it all - so let it 

Digital advertising has revolutionised the world of marketing, but it's time to move beyond thinking of digital as just another channel.  

Instead, marketers must focus on influence and impact in a consumer-centric approach. This means understanding the customer journey and leveraging the strengths of each channel to create a seamless, personalised experience. By doing so, marketers can unlock the true potential of digital advertising and drive growth for their brands. 

Written by

Michelle Urwin

VP Marketing, Skai


Related content

person talking

IAB UK introduces series exploring trust & effectiveness in digital 

Learn more

The personification of digital media

Learn more

The Building Blocks of Quality Media: steps to make the most of your next creative campaign

Learn more

Building trust: How marketers can thrive in a privacy-first world

Learn more

Rediscover the joy of digital advertising

Champion connections instead of clicks. Capture audiences' imaginations, not just their attention. Boldly move to your own beat instead of letting tech set the pace. It’s time to rediscover the joy of digital.