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Wtf is 'Digital Advertising' Anyway?

By David Berry: Once upon a time, when advertising budgets were dominated by TV, radio and print, the media landscape was easy to understand. Clients could feel and hear their ads, and the media was easy to understand too. A TV ad goes on TV. A radio ad goes on radio. A print spot goes in a newspaper or magazine.

But then along came digital, and the confusion began. Clients -- and even agencies -- were, and still are, slow to embrace it. Largely for the same reasons anyone is resistant to change; it goes against what they know. The medium itself challenges the entire process that so many in the creative world took for granted.

  • Client Sends Brief
  • Creative Team Brainstorms
  • Creative Team Comes up with Great TV Commercial
  • Creative Team Wraps Billboard, Radio and Print Campaigns Around TV Commercial
  • Yay! 

Digital isn't that easy. And a lot of it isn't even visual or auditory in nature, so it's much harder to wrap your head around -- and therefore, harder for agencies to sell, and even harder for clients to sell to their own bosses. So, what is digital advertising exactly? In short, it's literally anything that is online. 

Digital advertising refers to marketing media that is digitally displayed. Digital advertising technology exists on the Internet, on smart phone and hand-held media devices, and even on automobiles and billboards.
— SmallBusiness.Chron

Within that definition, there are a number of categories which the ads fall into (and more than what I'm showing here).

  • Display Advertising. (Let's call them banner ads.)
  • Affiliate Marketing. (3rd party partnerships where content sites get a cut of sales from other people's products. Looks a lot like display advertising.)
  • Social Network Advertising. (Sponsored content and retargeted content.)
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM). (If it's in the top 3 on your Google search, it was paid for.)
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO). (If it's on the first page after the ads, SEO got it there.)
  • Mobile Advertising. (Ads that are targeted to your phone, because you fit the target audience or because you're near a place that wants you to shop.)

But there's something that a lot of digital ads have in common, and that's what makes it so hard to digest -- so much of what makes it good is never seen. For advertisers who spend millions of dollars on their ads, it's a terrifying prospect to say "hey, that TV commercial you can watch every day on your favorite stations? Let's drop that in favor of a bunch of Google Ads that you'll never see, with targeting too convoluted and detailed for you to understand."

How do you cut through the clutter and know you're not being had? Well, we'll talk about that next week. But for now, hey, you know what digital is. That's a good start.

- DB