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How to reach customers with digital media advertising

Small business owner working at desk

Key takeaways

  • Digital media advertising allows companies to precisely target their ideal demographic
  • Online advertising can save small businesses money on ad spend because they can set a precise budget and only pay per click
  • Businesses can update their ad campaigns anytime and measure digital ad performance with click-through and conversion rates

The average person spends six hours and 40 minutes online each day. Any business that doesn’t use digital media advertising as part of its marketing strategy could be missing a major opportunity to connect with potential customers.

With digital advertising, companies can reach potential customers on social media, blogs, websites, search engines—anywhere customers browse. And although online advertisements appear all over the internet, many people don’t realize just how prevalent and powerful they are.

Learn how digital media advertising works, the different forms it can take, and the benefits it offers businesses big and small.

What is digital media advertising?

Digital advertising includes any piece of media that a business pays for to promote its products or services. Digital ads typically include a visual element, like a graphic or photo, along with ad copy that tells you about the company or product.

As you browse the internet, you’ll see digital ads everywhere—on social media, websites, search engines, and more. The goal of digital advertising is to build brand awareness and convert leads (potential customers) into paying customers.

Digital media advertising vs. traditional advertising

Digital media advertising: a digital media ad example

Traditional advertising consists of ads that appear anywhere other than the internet. This could include newspaper and magazine ads, billboards, TV commercials, and radio or podcast ads.

With traditional advertising, companies choose a spot where they think a lot of their potential customers will see or hear their ad. For example, a local AC repair business might advertise on a billboard along the main highway in their service area because many people will see the billboard on their way to work. On the other hand, a high-end cookware company might advertise in a nationally distributed food magazine.

With traditional advertising, companies choose the channel that is most likely to resonate with their target audience. They then put out their ad and wait for the results. These ads can help build brand awareness with the target audience and a wider audience (though not everybody who sees the ad will be an exact fit), but it’s difficult to measure the results—and it’s difficult to change ads if they’re not working.

With digital advertising, you can use precise targeting to reach only the demographic that’s most likely to buy your product.

For example, the local AC repair business can specifically target homeowners within their service area who are searching for AC repair on search engines or business platforms like Yelp. The high-end cookware company can target only people who make above a certain income level and follow cooking-related content online.

If a digital ad is getting poor results, such as a low click-through rate or conversion rate, the company can change the ad to include a new image or call-to-action and measure the new results in real time.

Why is digital advertising important?

Business owner opening a box while holding a mobile phone

Beyond its precise targeting and budgeting features, digital advertising is an essential way for small businesses to connect with potential customers. According to Brightlocal’s Local Business Discovery and Trust Report, 61% of customers use online business platforms to discover new local businesses. Many also use social media platforms, like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, to find businesses near them.

Digital marketing allows businesses to meet potential customers where they are—and four in 10 Americans say they’re online almost constantly, according to Pew Research Center. (That number is even higher for Americans under age 30.)

Because the internet is so vast, businesses can interact with potential customers repeatedly across different digital channels. Conventional marketing wisdom says that customers need to encounter a brand multiple times before they decide to make a purchase, so having many opportunities to advertise to potential customers can help companies win their business.

Different types of digital advertising

Digital ads appear all over the internet, from your email inbox to your Instagram feed. Here are the many types of online advertising you can tap into.

Native advertising

Native ads look like regular web content, except that they specifically feature a company and its products. For example, say you go to Buzzfeed and read an article called “30 Things from Amazon to Add to Your Travel Wardrobe.” That’s native advertising.

Native advertising can be purchased directly (e.g., Amazon could have gone to the Buzzfeed native advertising team and paid them to write 10 different articles focused on Amazon products), or it can be paid for in the form of commissions (e.g., Buzzfeed may get a commission when their readers click on a link and purchase a product), much like affiliate marketing. For smaller publications, like a personal blog with a few thousand readers, some businesses might give the content creator free products to review instead of paying directly for the advertising.

Affiliate marketing

Business owner viewing their blog site using laptop

An affiliate is a third-party content creator—like a person who runs a popular online blog—who partners with a business to promote its products. Unlike native advertising, the business they partner with doesn’t get to decide when and how their products are promoted.

Instead, the affiliate links to the business’s products whenever it’s appropriate for their content. The business pays the affiliate a commission if one of their readers clicks the link and buys the product. Ecommerce companies most often use this type of digital advertising.

Email marketing

Email marketing is when a company emails previous or potential customers who’ve signed up for their email list. The company might advertise a sale or seasonal discount or simply share tips related to its area of expertise. This is a form of remarketing meant to get customers who are already familiar with the company to make another purchase.

While most email marketing comes directly from a business promoting its own products or services, a business can also pay to have its ads appear in emails from blogs that have a similar target audience.

Social media advertising

When a company pays to promote its products or services on a social media platform, it’s called social media advertising. This type of advertising can take several forms.

Companies can pay to boost their social media posts so more people in their target audience see them. Or they can run a pay-per-click (PPC) social media ad—like Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, or Facebook Ads—that will display an advertisement rather than a social post. Companies only have to pay for a PPC ad when someone actually clicks on it.

A business can also use influencer advertising by partnering with someone who has a social media following made up of people within its target audience. The influencer then creates posts telling their followers about the company and its products.

Display advertising

This is another way to advertise online, typically on a third party’s website. Display ads show a visual, some ad copy, and a call to action. If you click on a display ad, it will typically take you to a landing page for the company and the advertised product.

There are a few different display ad formats, including banner ads (which display along the top, bottom, or sides of a web page) and pop-up ads (which pop up on the screen, covering the content that the person was originally looking at until they either click on the ad or X-out of the ad).

Video advertising

A businesswoman filming a video ad

Much like TV commercials, digital video advertising uses video content to show off a company’s products. YouTube is a common channel for video advertising. Ads display before and after the video content consumers watch on YouTube (except on the subscription version of the service).

In addition to video ads, companies can partner with popular YouTube content creators to have them make content about their product—much like the influencer marketing you see on other social media platforms. In addition to YouTube, you may also see video display ads pop up on websites.

Retargeting ads

Retargeting ads appear when a potential customer looks at a company’s website or products but doesn’t make a purchase. That customer will then see ads for the company as they browse other sites on the web.

For example, let’s say you look at a pair of shoes but don’t buy them. Suddenly, you start to see that pair of shoes advertised on social media platforms, search engines, and banner ads on other websites you browse. You’re seeing retargeting ads. Most retargeting ads are PPC, and many display ads are also retargeting ads.

Search advertising

Search advertising, also known as search engine marketing or SEM, is the process of advertising on search engine results pages (SERPs). So if a potential customer searches for something like “electricians near me,” they will see paid advertisements—or sponsored content—above the organic search (non-paid) results.

Organic search results are those that companies “earned.” Businesses can earn high ranking on results pages by using content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO), a process of adding keyword-rich content to a website to ensure the site comes up in search results.

However, a company can purchase ad space above the organic results with paid search advertising. For example, Bing Ads and Google Ads allow companies to pay for search ads. This content is typically marked as sponsored on the SERP. Most search advertising is PPC, so businesses will pay based on their click-through rate (or the number of people who actually click on the ad).

Similarly, when you invest in Yelp Ads, your business page is placed in key places on and the Yelp mobile app, such as above or below relevant search results in the “Sponsored Results” sections and on your competitors’ pages.

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Mobile ads

All the types of digital media advertising mentioned can also appear on mobile devices. You’ll see ads on social media platforms’ mobile apps, as well as many other mobile apps. Plus, when you browse the internet from your smartphone or tablet, you’ll see digital ads on the SERPs and web pages you visit.

The biggest difference between mobile ads and other digital ads is that they need to be formatted to display correctly on smartphone and tablet screens to provide a good user experience. Many digital media advertisements are responsive, meaning they’re formatted to adjust to whatever size screen a potential customer is browsing from.

How digital ads work

Different digital ads work in their own unique ways. For some types of advertising, like native advertising or affiliate marketing, companies can reach out directly to the website that they want to publish their native content. They can also use affiliate networks to discover and reach out to potential partners.

With most online advertising—including social media, search engine, and video advertising—businesses sign up on a specific digital channel. For example, if a company makes a video ad, they can sign up for YouTube Ads. To reach customers on social media, they can sign up for Instagram or Facebook Ads. To reach customers searching for local businesses on online business platforms, they can sign up for Yelp Ads and so on.

Once you sign up for a platform’s advertising service, you’ll upload your advertisement, set your target demographics and budget, and then start running your ad. Most digital advertising platforms have built-in tools for measuring the success of your digital advertising strategy.

How to measure the success of digital ads

A digital marketing manager looking at report on her laptop while working from home

Businesses can track the success of their online marketing campaigns using several different metrics. Views, click-through rates, and conversion rates can all provide insight into how an ad performs.

Because digital ads are easy to update, businesses can try running one ad for a month or two, followed by a different ad for the next month. Then they can see which one performs better in terms of those three metrics.

You can also get a holistic view of the return on investment (ROI) of your digital marketing efforts by measuring your sales growth over the campaign’s duration and comparing it to your sales growth before the campaign.

Best practices and tips for successful digital advertising

There are many options for digital media advertising—from different digital channels to different types of ads. But even small businesses with limited budgets can develop a successful digital advertising strategy—just keep these best practices in mind.

  • Define your target audience. Knowing who you want to reach (in terms of age, gender, wealth, interests, location, and so on) allows you to set precise demographics and reach people who are most likely to need your product or service.
  • Decide which channels your audience is most likely to use. Different digital channels attract different audiences. Consider where your target audience is most likely to browse so you can limit your ad spend to the platforms that are likely to be most effective.
  • Create an ad with a clear call to action. Advertisements should clearly state the steps you want potential customers to take. A home repair service might say, “Call for a free quote,” while a small ecommerce company might say, “Keep browsing winter boots.”
  • Measure your results. Once you run an ad, you should measure views, click-through rates, and conversions to determine whether the campaign was worth the money.
  • Adapt. Fine-tune your digital advertisements by changing the platforms you advertise on, the ad copy and images you use (such as A/B testing), and/or who you target. Measure the results with every change until you find the most effective strategy.

Go digital to grow your business

In the digital age, digital media advertising has become an essential way for businesses to reach their target audience.

With digital advertising, companies can connect with potential customers on nearly any corner of the internet. Digital ads can appear on blogs, webpages, social media platforms, search engines, and email.

This type of advertising also allows companies to be more precise with their demographic targeting and advertising budget—which makes it a great option for small businesses. Learn more about attracting targeted leads and running affordable advertising campaigns to make the most of your small business marketing efforts.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.