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Why is Digital Marketing Growing so Slowly?

Even though it may seem like digital is growing at a quick pace, marketers still need to move faster in order to get a step ahead of consumers.

When I tell people I’m a digital marketer they usually say, “ahhh” as if they understand. They then inevitably say, “What is digital marketing, exactly?”

It’s a remarkable question, to be honest, but I get it regularly. When I explain it’s things like social media, mobile apps, email, e-commerce…they get it. “Wow,” they say, “digital is a big part of marketing.”


To consumers, digital is everywhere. It makes sense they would think digital has grown within marketing as it has in their lives. But, according to eMarketer in 2014, digital was only 28 percent of the entire U.S. ad spend. Granted, it’s number two on the list and digital spend is accelerating while all other disciplines are contracting or leveling out. This trend has been long standing and digital spend is expected to exceed TV by 2018, led largely by mobile. But three years is a long time in digital and I don’t see any slowing in the momentum of video.

Did you know that, according to the US Census Bureau, in 2014, e-commerce was only 6.7 percent of total U.S. retail sales? That includes Amazon and eBay, for example. Total e-commerce sales have gone up every year for the last decade, but are far from eclipsing offline sales.

Your next new car will come with a data plan. The phone in your purse is constantly capturing and sharing information about where you are, how fast you’re moving, and what apps you’re using. The emerging ubiquity of connected devices and the personal data streams they create will have profound impacts on marketing and on our society as a whole. Today, brands can’t keep our measly credit card numbers safe – when will they be ready to accept, manage, secure, and apply the data from my fitness band? The war over this data will be here faster than we think and every day we fall further behind being able to handle it.

We’re about 20 years in and consumer behavior and media have gone through massive digital transformation with much more to come. Yet marketing and business transformation has been considerably slower and the implications are gaining in severity.

Why Such Slow Growth in Adoption and Expertise?

It seems like a preposterous question. Slow growth? Digital? What I mean is that marketers still aren’t keeping up with consumers, and by now, we need to be a few steps ahead to survive.

There are many reasons why brands have been slow to fully integrate digital marketing and expertise more thoroughly into their organizations.

  • Digital is complicated – it includes technology + creative, interactivity/user experience, and it’s constantly changing. Additionally, how consumers use technology is constantly changing. Most businesses aren’t equipped to invest in such a diverse set of resources and tools and it often seems too risky.
  • Like traditional disciplines, it’s easier and less risky to hire an agency than to build and integrate proactively in-house.
  • Digital impacts most facets or modern business. To invest solely in digital marketing, for example, seems odd when digital disruption is occurring everywhere.
  • Traditional disciplines are well established and lucrative. Agencies, of course benefit, but marketers are still rewarded for maintaining status quo strategies and not making mistakes.
  • Digital requires its own set of expertise and tools with new challenges and opportunities every day. This is not how most organizations hire or buy technology – curious generalists using low-cost tools as needed.
  • Digital is at once globally open and accessible to all and at the same time controlled by giant corporations. Businesses must constantly assess where to make investments, with whom, and how to plan for when everything changes again.
  • We don’t understand how consumers use digital well enough. Have you ever funded a digital ethnography project to understand how your most important buyers use digital technologies? Very few have. We must go deeper here, and a single study isn’t enough. Go deep once and build the structures needed to have a constant stream of key consumer insights flowing in. Can you spot trends and conversations that matter? Can you float ad hoc questions to key audiences and get real-time answers? Do you have access to an analyst who can transform your disparate data into compelling narratives?
  • Success can be elusive. I believe this is the biggest problem ailing digital marketing today. Without clear goals aligned to objectives, it’s impossible to prove your value. I’ve had two senior marketers tell me recently that, in the middle of new CEO transitions, they are struggling to articulate and prove their value. This is an unenviable position to be in, but we can all relate. The best marketers know reckoning comes often and they commit to understanding their impact on key business drivers.

Sure, these challenges are enough to make any marketer want to take a nap. If it weren’t for consumer behavior and the massive scale and influence of digital, most marketers would choose to ignore it completely. This isn’t an option, neither is retirement.

Marketers must dedicate some of their time to pulling out of the weeds. Start with a fresh look at your customers and the role digital plays in their lives. Going deep here will unlock ideas for driving more value and sales, understanding emerging trends, and highlight the need for continuous input. I believe that if you’re a customer expert and you can base your ideas and requests on what you learn from them, you’ll always be in a good position to assess performance and prove and improve your value.

How can you help increase the pace of digital integration into your team and into your organization more broadly? What do your leaders need to understand about how you’re moving the needle today and what you need to prepare for tomorrow? What tools do you need to do your job better? In digital, there are hundreds of specialty tools claiming their niche, many are truly remarkable and useful, and many of those are free.

Consumers (all of us) have spoken and we’ve chosen digital. Ignoring, outsourcing, or lagging further behind is lunacy. Now is the time to accelerate your digital efforts, smartly, investing in people, tools, and the agile infrastructure to assess and prove your value as you go.

Marko Muellner