Digital marketing: Everything you need to know about this awesome career field in a single, comprehensive overview guide.

In this guide we’ll cover the basics and principles of digital marketing. We’ll look at what digital marketing is, and what it isn’t.

We’ll also dip into the vast swimming pool of learning digital marketing and link to really useful resources.

Next, we explore how to develop a career in digital marketing and what it means to work as a digital marketer.

We then look at the ways you can use digital analytics to report on the successes of your digital marketing actions using meaningful KPIs, reports and dashboards that give real insight for smarter decision-making.

Finally, we take out the crystal ball and wander into the future of digital and where current trends are leading us.

Are you ready! Let’s go!


Welcome! I’m glad you’ve found this article – it’s a brain dump of many of the things I’ve learned as a digital marketer since 2002 and my objective is to help people who are new to digital marketing get involved with a burning fire in their belly. My aim is to pull back the curtain on this vast career field and get you excited about everything to do with digital.

Sounds good, yes?

What is digital marketing?

Digital marketing (online marketing, internet marketing, emarketing or similar names) is any form of marketing that uses digital technology for the commercial purpose of creating profit for a business.

If you’re doing marketing but not using digital technology, you’re not doing digital marketing. If you’re using digital technology but not for the express commercial purpose of creating profit, you’re not doing marketing.

Definition of digital marketing

Digital marketing is any form of communication that uses digital technology (such as a website, social media, email, SMS, search engines, apps etc) to attract, convert and retain customers for the commercial purpose of making a profit.

Digital has several characteristics:

  • Actions, tactics and strategies are measurable using digital analytics
  • Campaign results can be measured in real-time
  • Multiple tests can be set up and measured at the same time in real-time
  • Changes to campaigns can be made quickly and easily

Types of digital marketing

Digital marketing is any form of marketing that uses digital technology such as the Internet, SMS and email.

It’s an incredibly broad field with many tactics and channels available.

The broad types of digital marketing are:

  • Paid media: digital advertising such as Facebook Ads, Google Ads and digital advertising networks and exchanges
  • SEO: search engine optimisation that increases product or brand visibility in the organic (non-paid) search results of a search engine (such as Google or Bing)
  • Content marketing: using content channels to create awareness of brands and products by using engaging content (podcasts, social media, blog posts, videos etc)
  • Email marketing and SMS marketing: sending targeted, relevant email and SMS messages to acquire, convert, retain and reactivate prospects and customers
  • Social media marketing: posting relevant and engaging content to social media channels to engage audiences who are ideal potential customers or existing customers
  • Other technologies: augmented reality, virtual reality, QR codes and other emerging technologies and platforms where potential and existing customers can be reached

The above types of digital marketing all have the following in common:

  • Audiences can be targeted based on ideal matching criteria such as location, age, gender, lifestyle, interests and any other available targeting data
  • Campaigns can be executed and changed very quickly
  • Campaigns can be measured in real-time

Digital is therefore different to traditional marketing (TV, radio, print, outdoor) which do not have the same level of audience targeting or measurement, and also cannot be as quickly changed and optimised as digital marketing can.


Digital marketing covers a massive area and some examples are listed below.

  • An insurance company uses Google Paid Search advertising to show ads to people who are searching Google for “car insurance”
  • An online high school uses Facebook and Instagram ads to target parents with teenagers to create awareness and grow qualified leads and applications
  • An online gaming company develops content pages to rank in Google for high-converting search phrases as part of an SEO strategy for WordPress sites
  • A large ecommerce shopping website uses automated email marketing to recover abandoned cart users and increase sales
  • A well-known make-up brand uses a celebrity influencer’s social media posts to create product awareness and increase sales
  • An estate agent uses virtual reality tours of homes for sale to sell houses

The possibilities for using digital marketing for commercial purposes are endless and a critical component of any business strategy.

Digital channels

There are an incredibly large number of digital marketing channels.

Below I’ve highlighted the most popular in no particular order:

  • Google paid search
  • Facebook ads
  • Instagram ads
  • Organic social media posts
  • Blogging
  • Email marketing
  • YouTube video marketing
  • LinkedIn advertising
  • Twitter advertising
  • Pinterest posts
  • SEO
  • SMS and MMS
  • Virtual reality
  • Augmented reality
  • Web live chat
  • WhatsApp for Business
  • Bing advertising
  • Ad networks and ad exchanges
  • Affiliate marketing

This interesting infographic from Smart Insights gives you an idea about how vast digital marketing is.

The task of any digital manager is to understand which marketing channels bring the best return on ad spend (and return on effort) and how much time and budget to allocate to each digital marketing channel.


Digital marketing takes the lead against other forms of marketing for the following reasons:

  • Easy to measure results
  • Real-time reporting and analytics
  • Easy to test and swap creative and wording for campaign messaging A/B testing
  • Relevant audiences can be targeted
  • People who are actively searching for your products or services can be targeted with search ads and organic SEO campaigns
  • Paid media spend are determined by your marketing budget and can be as small or large as makes sense for your business
  • Digital marketing uses the latest in digital technology which is constantly improving

The advantages of digital marketing mean that you get the best return on ad spend and can be highly targeted and effective with your marketing budget.

Learning digital marketing

Life is a constant journey of learning. You never stop learning about digital marketing even if you have decades of experience. Tactics that worked a few years ago may no longer be relevant and with new technologies and changes to Google and Facebook algorithms, you need to be on top of your game.

Luckily there are many ways to learn digital marketing and keep yourself sharp so you are the smartest marketer in the room.

How to learn digital marketing

Most of the digital marketing you need to do is self-taught. This means reading books, attending events and seminars, watching YouTube videos, reading authoritative blog posts and articles and enrolling for online courses.

You can get a more formal qualification in digital marketing which will be structured and result in a certified qualification.

You can follow both paths – but you cannot succeed without following the constant, self-learning path.

Digital marketing books

I have a number of digital marketing books in my Kindle library and I’ve found the following to be the most useful ones. Let me know in the comments below which digital marketing books you recommend.

Digital marketing courses

There are a massive number of digital marketing courses to choose from. Your local college, university or training centre will most certainly offer at least some digital marketing courses.

You can also study digital marketing completely online and in your own time and your own pace.

Paid courses

Below are a number of paid courses I recommend – feel free to comment below if you have others you recommend.

Udemy Digital Marketing Masterclass 23 courses in 1

Udemy Learn Conversion Rate Optimisation from an Expert

Udemy Google Tag Manager Training Course – from zero to hero

Udemy Ultimate Google Ads Training

Free courses

There is a FANTASTIC free resource for learning SEO over here, compiled by Aleyda Solis. I highly recommend this free resource for learning SEO.

You should also check out the really useful Fundamentals of Digital Marketing by Google.

Facebook offers free learning for Facebook and Instagram ads.

You can also learn Google Advertising for free.

LinkedIn Learning offers great, free courses in marketing.

You can also study digital marketing through EdX.

I also recommend Hubspot Academy for marketing learning.

Don’t miss out on the free learning from CopyBlogger – they have been around for ages and really know their stuff.

If you still have time after that, check out the beginner’s guide to digital marketing from QuickSprout.

Some of these free courses result in certification you can add to your resume, which is great!

YouTube channels

Did you know that YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine, after Google itself?

More and more content is being produced in video format and marketers caught on to this long ago. Some really good YouTube channels for learning digital marketing are listed below. Enjoy!

Learn SEO with the Ahrefs YouTube channel:

You also need to check out Neil Patel’s digital marketing channel:

Want to start an ecommerce store? Check out the Shopify channel:

The Future publishes really great content:

Check out Latasha James for social media marketing tips and info:

Hubspot Marketing posts really solid content about email marketing and marketing in general:

Copywriting tips from Alex Cattoni:

Income School posts phenomenal content for people who want to start their own content and blogging businesses:

Got any other suggestions or favourites? Let me know in the comments section!

Working in digital marketing

Ah, this is where the rubber hits the road. Your career. How to turn digital knowledge into value other people are willing to pay for. Outsourcing yourself. Working in-house. Working for an agency. Consulting and freelancing.

There are so many options to choose from, so here’s some advice about how to craft the perfect career in digital marketing, from someone who is still, after more than 20 years, learning how to do that.

Building a digital marketing career

Your digital marketing career improves as you gain experience and knowledge.

You can tailor your career in any direction and at any level you want to: start off as a specialist in one area for example and then become a general marketer, or stay in one area and become an expert.

How deep and wide you take your career is up to you.

My path, for example, started as a copywriter. I then moved into email marketing campaign management for a number of years and then into SEO (search engine optimisation). After that I focused on all acquisition channels (paid search, organic search, affiliates, paid social, organic social) and developed skills in each of these areas.

My current role is Head of Marketing since I consider myself a digital marketing generalist and have specialist digital marketing teams report in to me.

Your career path will be completely different. You might start as a social media community manager and then head up a social media team. You might become a technical SEO expert and work as a consultant.

Digital marketing is broad and flexible enough so you can pivot midway through your career and do something different.

You will also find that if you become a generalist, no two days are the same. One day you might find yourself fighting to meet a paid media campaign deadline and the next day you’re discussing technical SEO best practice with a team of web developers.

If you’re a deep specialist in a specific field you might find that your skills are in demand from numerous companies and this might lead you into consulting. You might even be asked to share your expertise in seminars, podcast interviews or live events. Publications might ask for your opinion and ask you to guest blog for them.

Your career has no limits as long as you’re constantly learning, experimenting, gaining experience and putting yourself out there.

How to find a digital marketing job

How do you get experience if you don’t have a job? It’s the old catch 22 situation where nobody will hire you without experience.

Digital marketing allows you to create your own experience.

Here’s how:

  • Build your own website using WordPress or similar
  • Create content about a topic you enjoy e.g. a hobby
  • Optimise your website for SEO
  • Set up Google Analytics for your website
  • Build an audience and an email list
  • Send them interesting and useful newsletters

The process above will give you a number of skills. You will learn basic web development (HTML, CSS) and how to register a domain, set up web hosting, install WordPress, set up a WordPress theme, create a content plan, do basic SEO, analyse web traffic and write content and emails people enjoy.

These skills are very useful and even if you’ve never had a formal job before you can show your website and email campaigns to potential employers to demonstrate your skills.

If you are employed and are thinking of moving into digital marketing, the above process will give you hands-on, practical experience.

Your other option is to study a digital marketing course where you will (hopefully) have practical projects to work on. This will also give you skills you can demonstrate to anyone looking to hire a digital marketing specialist.

People who are hiring for a marketing role need to trust that the person they employ know what they are talking about. Certifications and qualifications are important, but equally important is practical hands-on ability.

As you develop more skills, your confidence will grow and you will be able to talk freely and with conviction in any job interview or when pitching a client. Learning and doing will give you this confidence.

What types of digital marketing jobs are there?

Let’s look at some of the most common forms of jobs you can do in the digital industry and look at the pros and cons of each:

  • Digital marketing specialist or manager in an agency: in this role you are working as part of a digital team for one or more clients
  • In-house specialist or manager: you work for a specific company as part of their digital marketing team
  • Freelance specialist: you work for multiple companies or agencies as a freelancer
  • Digital marketing consultant: generally the role of the consultant is to get paid for their knowledge and expertise and not for hands-on execution of digital marketing tasks. The consultant usually bills at a higher hourly or project rate than a freelance digital marketing specialist

The above roles can happen in fully face-to-face environments where you are expected to work from an office or could be fully remote, or a hybrid of the two.

What is a digital marketing specialist?

A digital marketing specialist works in an agency, in a company or as a freelancer as someone specialised in a specific area of marketing, or as a marketing generalist (someone who can “do it all”).

You might find yourself doing multiple things when you work as a digital marketing specialist. This can range from writing copy for mailers to creating and publishing social media posts and everything in between.

Large organisations usually have very specialist roles. This means you might spend each day, every day only working on a specific area such as technical SEO.

Smaller businesses might ask a digital marketing specialist to do everything from web development to SEO to email campaigns and more! This is a good way to learn multiple skills but you might find yourself spread too thin if expected to do everything.

You have the option to learn a little about many areas of marketing as a generalist, or focus only on one area (such as Facebook Ads) and become an expert in that one area.

Digital marketing remote jobs

The world of work has changed significantly over the past few years and more people are open to fully remote work.

The classic image is that of the digital nomad spending a few hours writing copy for clients before heading out to catch a wave in some tropical location and then partying all night.

Remote work is work like any other and you will have the same pressures and deadlines as if you were in the office full-time, but it does have more flexibility and gives you more freedom. And of course, no sitting in traffic!

LinkedIn has caught on to the remote work trend and you can now search for jobs using the remote work filter when you’re job hunting. Tick the “remote only” box and you fill see jobs where you can work from just about anywhere, as long as you have a computer and an internet connection.

Some of the remote job portals I recommend include the following – but let me know in the comments if you know of any others you like:

You don’t need to use a job portal to find remote work though. Simply start promoting yourself as a freelancer or consultant and tell all your friends and family. Word will spread and you will start picking up clients who will refer you to more clients if you do a great job.

You don’t even need your own brand or website (although it helps). Simply skill up and put yourself out there and you will pick up remote work as a digital marketer.

What is a digital marketing agency?

A digital marketing agency creates value for clients through digital marketing services.

These services may include all or some of the following:

  • Web development
  • SEO (search engine optimisation)
  • Paid media management
  • Creative services (copywriting, design, illustration, video production etc)
  • Digital strategy
  • Email marketing
  • Social media
  • Business intelligence and analytics

A good agency looks after the needs of both clients and employees. Happy employees do great work for clients.

Working for a digital marketing agency

The culture at a digital marketing agency can make a huge difference.

For example, if you work for an agency where you are constantly expected to meet near-impossible deadlines, work overtime, get paid very little, get no bonuses or increases and are constantly bullied by management – you’re working for a digital sweatshop and you need to get out as soon as possible.

Many agencies operate like this, unfortunately. They hire young, talented and CHEAP people, work them to death and then replace them when they are unhappy. This model is far too common and absolutely dreadful.

Thankfully not all agencies work like this. Some agencies invest time in rewarding, training, motivating and leading their employees. This is good for business in the long run. It means your staff turnover is lower which means you have more reliable service to clients and the work done for clients is great.

Be careful before you sign a job contract with an agency – culture can make all the difference.

What is a digital marketing consultant?

A digital marketing consultant sells their EXPERTISE to clients. This means they ADVISE and give direction but don’t necessarily do the IMPLEMENTATION themselves.

Consultants provide value based on years of experience and specialist skills and knowledge. They will look at a problem and suggest a solution the client might not have discovered themselves.

A consultant will work WITH clients and their implementation teams to ensure strategy becomes action.

Some of the work a consultant will do includes:

  • Marketing audit
  • Marketing strategy
  • Detailed marketing action plan with tactics
  • Measurement and reporting plan

These can cover all areas of marketing including content marketing, SEO, paid media, website, user experience, email marketing, analytics and more.

A good consultant will ensure strategy is implemented and will work with the client’s teams or their own network of digital marketing specialists to implement the recommendations from their audits and strategy plans.

Working as a freelancer

So you are considering the life of the freelancer? Maybe you believe it will give you ultimate freedom – no more shouty boss!

The reality is that when you are a freelancer working for multiple clients, you have multiple bosses! There are many pros and cons to consider:

Advantages of being a freelancer:

  • You are your own boss and can choose which clients to work with
  • You set your rate
  • You can scale your freelancer business by hiring your own team members to help you out (but remember, you have to pay them!)
  • You can choose the types of work you do and keep things interesting

Disadvantages of being a freelancer:

  • YOU are responsible for everything (including chasing money from clients)
  • Clients might fire you and leave you in the lurch
  • You have to constantly look for new clients to work with
  • You end up working a lot harder than you expect
  • The income is not as reliable as a salary

The good thing is you can have the best of both worlds if you find that full-time freelancing is not for you.

Do some work on the side while you hold down a day job.

Some people are able to go out their completely alone, escape the corporate world and become full-time freelancers. All of them enjoy the freedom it comes with and all of them say they work incredibly hard all the time.

You can decide the path you want to take – just so long as you are aware of the realities of freelancing as a digital marketer.

Digital marketing tools

The tools you need to do your work as a digital marketer depend on the type of work you need to do.

Designers need design tools and software such as Adobe Creative Cloud.

SEO specialists need tools such as AHREFS or SEMRUSH.

Web developers need specialist development tools and copywriters need Microsoft Word or similar.

If you’re working in social media you might need special tools to automate and schedule posts (such as Hootsuite) or perform social listening for online reputation management.

When you do analytical work you will need tools such as Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, Tableau, Google Data Studio, Microsoft Azure and more.

Email marketing specialists will need marketing automation software such as MailChimp, ActiveCampaign, Hubspot, Marketo and SalesForce Marketing Cloud.

A good digital marketer is familiar with most of the the above tools and knows how to use them.

Developing a marketing strategy

Strategy involves understanding what the business problem is and finding the right solutions.

A good digital marketing strategy will be laser-focused on the objectives of the business and not recommend tactics that won’t give a reasonable return on investment or effort.

The marketing strategy creation process includes:

  • Assessing the current situation
  • Understanding the business needs and objectives
  • Understanding the customer, environment, competitive landscape, products and services
  • Consider financial objectives
  • Understand the resources available to implement any recommendations
  • Develop a reporting framework including Key Performance Indicators
  • Recommend the best course of action
  • Includes a detailed, tactical action plan
  • includes a measurement and reporting plan

The strategy starts with an audit to understand every part of the business – what’s working and not working.

The marketing plan is built from the results of the audit to ensure any gaps are identified, solutions proposed and the right tactics chosen to meet the business goals.

The implementation plan is the outcome of a good strategy – and strategy is nothing without action.

As a digital marketing strategist you need to take a holistic, commercial view so that your recommendations make a positive impact on business performance.

You need to know the tools you have available to suggestion solutions, whether these include SEO tactics, email optimisation, conversion optimisation, user experience or more.

NEED HELP WITH STRATEGY? I’ve produced a comprehensive strategy toolkit you can buy for $19.99 which will set you on the right path.

Measuring digital

Digital marketing is super powerful because nearly every aspect of it can be measured.

If you don’t have access to data, you are running blind. How do you know if what you’re doing is working if you cannot measure it?

Let’s look at some of the important key performance indicators that tell you if your digital marketing is working or not.

What are the main KPIs?

Let’s explore the different aspects of digital and the important key performance indicators (KPIs) related to each:

Paid media advertising KPIs

When you’re running ad campaigns on Facebook, Google or other platforms, you need to be aware of the following important metrics:

  • Cost per acquisition (CPA): how much it costs to acquire a customer, complete a sale or whatever metric your business calls a “result”. The further down the funnel you can track this metric the better. Similar metrics are cost per sale, cost per enrolment, cost per player – it all depends on what you call it when people take out their wallets and give your business money
  • Return on ad spend (ROAS): you need to understand how much money you are making from the money that you spent. Return on ad spend is the revenue you make as a direct result of a specific marketing channel

Your CPA and ROAS metrics will guide where you spend your marketing budget. If you get a better return on ad spend on Google Paid search than Facebook Ads, for example, spend more on Google Paid search.

You must understand the CPA and ROAS for each marketing channel, so it is important to tag and track all your campaigns so you understand what’s working and then double down on those campaigns while reducing spend on the campaigns that are not performing as well.

Email marketing KPIs

The key things to measure when you manage email campaigns are:

  • Open rates: what percentage of the people you sent the email to actually opened it?
  • Click through rates: what percentage of the people who opened the email actually clicked on the call to action in your email?

Your SUBJECT LINE influences your open rates.

The CONTENT of your email influences your click through rates.

Other interesting metrics include bounce rates (soft and hard bounce) which are an indication of how valid the email addresses in your list are, as well as the Spam report (how many emails ended up on the Junk or Spam folder).

You should constantly test subject lines and content (design and words) to improve open rates and click through rates.

Social media metrics

Ah, this is a great one. Most people think it’s all about how many FOLLOWERS you have on social media, but followers are nothing without ENGAGEMENT.

Your social media posts should be designed to cause a reaction or engagement with your brand. Millions of views or impressions don’t really mean much in the commercial world unless your audience engages with your brand and ultimately buys from you.

Engagement is usually measured as comments, reactions and shares.

YouTube likes, comments and subscriptions are an important metric for YouTubers and helps the algorithm show your video to more people – which increases your overall views.

The problem with social media metrics is that many can be seen as “vanity” metrics and don’t have a real commercial impact. All social media platforms and campaigns should be correctly tagged and tracked to understand their impact on conversions and sales.

It’s interesting to note that not every conversion can be specifically attributed to a single channel. It sometimes requires multiple interactions with your brand across multiple digital marketing channels, before someone is ready to buy from you. This multichannel attribution is the Holy Grail of digital marketing and quite honestly nobody, including Google, is able to measure this effectively yet.

Website analytics

Web analytics is changing significantly ever since Google announced it was sunsetting Google Universal Analytics and replacing it with Google Analytics 4.

The metrics from your website will tell you where people are engaging, what content they are interested in and a whole host of other important metrics related to how they interact with your site.

You need to get into Google Analytics 4 in a big way right now so you understand your website and how people interact with it.

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) analytics

Many clients and SEOs are overly focused on RANKINGS.

The key to SEO is to understand its impact on business PROFIT. You need to use your data and measurement platforms to report on how much money you made from ORGANIC SEARCH. This is the only really valuable SEO metric.

Number of links, rankings and other vanity metrics don’t help unless your SEO efforts result in increased revenue – this is a BUSINESS after all, right?!

Make the time to understand which organic search keywords are driving the right type of traffic that convert into sales and revenue – and put your SEO focus behind these keywords.

SEOs can get a great deal of insight from paid search keywords to understand where “the money” is. This will help to choose the right keywords to try and rank for.

Digital analytics tools

Digital can be measured in more ways than you can imagine. There are a massive number of reporting and analytics tools out there.

Let’s look at some of the important ones.

Google Analytics 4: critical to understand how people interact with your website

Facebook and Google Ads native reporting: the ad platforms have their own reporting interfaces.

SEMRush and AHREFs: these are the gold-standard for SEO metrics and will give you a good idea of whether your SEO efforts are paying off.

Google Search Console: gives web masters and SEOs insights into website performance, technical considerations, keywords driving organic search traffic and if there are any manual actions (penalties) against the website.

Email marketing platform analytics: all good marketing automation platforms will have built in reporting and analytics dashboards you can use to track the important KPIs I mentioned above.

Heatmapping platforms like Crazy Egg and Hotjar will give further insights into how people are interacting with your website.

Your CRM platform (SalesForce, ActiveCampaign, Hubspot, Marketo and more) is where your customer data lives. This is where all the leads and sales data sits so you can understand exactly what marketing actions are having a positive impact on the business.

It’s critical that all your marketing campaigns are tagged and tracked. This allows you to allocate a unique ID to each campaign and then, when somebody buys something, enrols or signs up, you know which marketing campaign they engaged with.

UTM tagging and tracking is the best way to track campaigns currently. You can find the UTM URL builder tool here.

Digital reporting and dashboards

All this data! What are you going to do with it all?

The key to proper reporting is to turn data into INSIGHTS. So what if you are able to measure and report on every little click – it means nothing if you cannot gain some insight that will result in action to improve the business.

You will need a BI specialist to help convert all the data streams into insights through decent reports and dashboards. There are incredibly powerful data visualisation tools available now (including Tableau, Google Data Studio, Power BI and more) and your BI team can help.

The future of digital marketing

Wow. We’re here. It’s the end of the article – but the future of digital looks really bright.

Current trends point towards a greater reliance on data while being mindful of privacy issues.

We’re seeing some incredible AI technology being used in marketing to make our lives easier. The bots will work besides us in the future and we need to understand the value that collaboration will bring.

Marketing has changed and is no longer about award winning campaigns and the best creative. It’s more and more about data.

We can now launch and scale campaigns to highly specific audiences and measure the revenue increase in real-time. That’s the power of digital.

The data that matters is the data that says your customers are happy – so make sure your customers are the absolute center of everything you do.

About the author : Tony Lopes

Tony Lopes is an expert digital marketer who has worked across competitive industries since 2003. His broad experience covers SEO, Content Marketing, PPC, Email Marketing and Marketing Analytics. He works with sustainable, purpose-driven clients across the world and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with his wife, daughters and Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

About the author : Tony Lopes

Tony Lopes is an expert digital marketer who has worked across competitive industries since 2003. His broad experience covers SEO, Content Marketing, PPC, Email Marketing and Marketing Analytics. He works with sustainable, purpose-driven clients across the world and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with his wife, daughters and Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

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