Eleven hours. That is how long American adults now spend online each day--reading, watching, listening to, or interacting with media. This means there are more opportunities than ever for digital marketers to reach customers. But with big opportunities comes a big challenge: How do you know which channels are best?

The options can feel endless. You are likely familiar with the basics: email, social media, paid search, and affiliate channels. Emerging technologies such as chatbots and intelligent voice-recognition assistants are also offering new ways to engage with potential customers. How do you navigate it all? It starts with avoiding two common roadblocks.

The first roadblock is exploring every single channel out there in the hopes that you will capture an audience. For example, you may write blog posts, spin up an email newsletter, post live videos, and create custom infographics. Then you pursue every advertising option available to boost that content. Some marketing teams call this the "spray and pray" approach--blasting generic messages everywhere and hoping something lands.

The second roadblock is what I refer to as the "copycat." This is when you go after a channel simply because it is garnering a lot of buzz or you see your competitors there. You follow what is trendy, ignoring platforms that have served you well over the long term.

Both of these roadblocks are problematic because you ignore the fundamentals--your customers and the market. This is why you need to focus your money and efforts on the digital marketing channels where you know your target buyers will be.

As the co-founder and CEO of Aha!, one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S., I know how important it is to focus your efforts on who will actually find value in your product or offering. Even better, focus on the people who will actually buy that product or offering.

Choosing the right channels for your digital marketing plan is not easy. It requires strategic thinking, knowledge of your customers, and patience. But if you approach the decision thoughtfully, I bet you will be able to grab people's attention--at least for a fraction of the 11 hours they spend online each day.

Here is how to choose the right channels:

Set the goals

Define your marketing goals and consider how they tie in with the different channel types. For instance, if one of your goals is brand awareness, you might want to focus your efforts on social media. But if you are aiming for lead generation, it might make sense to put your attention on display ads instead. No matter which channels you pursue, they should support your larger marketing goals.

Know the audience

Before you do anything, you need to understand your audience. Do market research to learn demographic information such as location and income level. Then go deeper. Ask yourself: Where do they spend time online? What sources do they trust? What calls to action will they be most receptive to?

Evaluate the channels

Do an audit of your current channels to determine what is working and what is not. Online audiences can be fickle, abandoning certain sites then migrating to others. So be aware that something that performed well six months ago may no longer be reaching the audience you want today.

Consider the budget

Budgets will inform which channels (and how many) you can realistically pursue. You may have to make tough prioritization choices between opportunities, considering the amount of money you can spend and the effort/reward for each one.

Maximize the team

Most marketing teams do not include channel specialists. To get the most out of each avenue you pursue, you need to consider who is currently on the team and what skills they have. Matching teammates' expertise to your digital marketing plans ensures that you put everyone's talent to good use.

Analyze the results

Measure your return on investment regularly to see how channels are performing. You can also look at the open rate, number of followers, site visits, and time on site. The more you watch the numbers (and how they change over time), the better you will understand how to reach your target audience.

By taking the time to research your audience and understand the channels where they spend their time, you can make a real impact--generating leads that turn into loyal customers.

Published on: Jul 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.