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Digital Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing: Definitions, Growth, and Intersection

With my career spanning decades, I’ve enjoyed working in both the traditional and digital marketing industries. My career started at a newspaper, where I caught the Internet bug and began networking and programming. I moved on to database marketing and direct mail and then to MarTech and SaaS platforms.

I often share that much of my success was bringing the discipline of analysis from traditional to digital. With traditional marketing mediums, we didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes or doubling down on some testing… it was pretty expensive, and we needed to measure every last ROI.

Many businesses don’t understand the nuanced differences between the two. Understanding the distinction between digital and traditional marketing is necessary for companies navigating the evolving landscape. Digital is often abused because it’s so inexpensive, deluging our poor prospects and customers with more and more garbage. Conversely, direct mail is expensive, but there’s much less competition in your prospect’s mailbox than in your inbox!

Defining Digital and Traditional Marketing

Let’s start with definitions; then, we can define their differences, the growth trends, and the intersection where they converge.

  • Traditional Marketing represents all marketing efforts not executed online. This includes broadcast, phone, direct mail, print, and billboards. It’s not just the oldest form of marketing but also extensively researched. Traditional marketing is particularly effective for local audience outreach and has a specific consumer base best reached through these means.
  • Digital Marketing, on the other hand, encompasses all forms of online marketing. Examples include social media, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, and email marketing. It has gained immense popularity due to global digitalization, offering a cost-effective way to connect with audiences worldwide.

Technology and connectivity are playing an ever-growing role even in traditional marketing efforts… whether it’s digital delivery tracking, the interactivity of digital signage, or the streaming of broadcast mediums… everything is slowly being digitized. Even something as basic as direct mail may incorporate a trackable QR code that alerts the sender of the recipient’s behavior.

The Key Differences Between Digital and Traditional Marketing

The primary difference lies in the medium used to convey the marketing message. Digital marketing employs digital media like websites and social media, whereas traditional marketing uses newspapers, magazines, billboards, etc.

  • Marketing Media: Digital marketing includes SEO, content marketing, social media marketing, etc., while traditional marketing involves broadcast, print, direct mail, etc.
  • Marketing Devices: Digital marketing utilizes digital devices like smartphones and tablets, whereas traditional marketing employs television, radio, newspapers, and more.
  • Target Audience Reach: Digital marketing is global, offering real-time results, whereas traditional marketing primarily targets local audiences with delayed, hard-to-measure results.
  • Technology: Digital marketing uses modern technology like personal computers and smartphones, in contrast to the basic technologies of TV and radio used in traditional marketing.
  • Marketing Costs: There’s a significant difference in costs, with digital marketing offering more budget-friendly options compared to the often expensive traditional marketing avenues.

Growth of Digital vs. Traditional Marketing

In 2019, digital ads surpassed traditional for the first time and by 2023, digital ads will constitute two-thirds of all ad spending.


The digital marketing expenditure in the U.S. for 2020 was approximately $150 billion, significantly higher than traditional marketing at about $105 billion. Predictions suggest that digital marketing ad spending could rise to $202 billion by 2023, whereas traditional marketing is expected to fall to around $100 billion. This trend indicates a consistent annual increase in digital spending and a decline in traditional marketing investment.

The Intersection of Digital and Traditional Marketing

Innovative intersections between digital and traditional marketing are emerging, offering new avenues for reaching consumers. Examples include:

  • QR Codes and Direct Mail: Integrating QR codes in traditional direct mail campaigns to bridge the gap between physical and digital experiences.
  • Online and Offline Consumer Data: Combining data from both digital and traditional sources for a more comprehensive understanding of consumer behavior.
  • Broadcast and Digital Cross-Channel Advertising: Employing a mix of digital and traditional broadcast methods for a wider audience reach.
  • Hybrid Marketing Strategies: Using digital tools in traditional settings (like digital displays in physical stores) or vice versa.

While digital marketing is increasingly dominant, traditional marketing still holds value, especially in targeting local markets. The future of marketing lies in effectively blending both digital and traditional methods, leveraging their unique strengths to create more impactful and wide-reaching campaigns.

Here’s a great infographic that does a good job of defining each type of marketing.

Infographic: Digital Marketing vs. Traditional Marketing
Source: myMarketing

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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