As recently as a few years ago, online marketing meant one thing: search marketing. And there were only two flavors of search marketing: search engine marketing (SEO) or paid search (PPC). Today, there are seven distinct online channels that can be leveraged as part of your overall marketing mix: content marketing, social marketing, ad retargeting, paid search, product feeds, affiliate marketing, and e-mail marketing. More channels are appearing every year as companies continue to innovate the online experience. How can a marketer predict which channels will work for them and determine how best to leverage those channels?  

To answer this question, take a step away from the details and consider how you would have engaged your customers a hundred years ago. In 1898, advertising pioneer St. Elmo Lewis developed a four-step model for writing effective marketing copy called AIDA. The name is an acronym that describes four steps to convincing someone to buy from you. First, you must get their Attention (A), then build their Interest (I), create Desire (D), and finally, you must inspire Action (A). More than a century later, this model is still useful for demonstrating how the dialog with your customer changes from first introduction to the eventual sales event and how your messaging needs to be different depending on what stage of the process you’re engaging with a potential customer. 

Consider how this model applies to your sales conversion funnel and how you would engage customers differently at the four stages of the funnel. Most businesses naturally align with either a "high funnel" or "low funnel" marketing strategy, not both. Is your business one that is more focused on qualification and brand building? Or is your product or service a known commodity for which you’re merely competing on price and convenience? The answer to this question is where you must start to define your online marketing strategy. 

In my recent book The Smarter Startup, I introduced the following two marketing models that reflect this difference in high funnel versus low funnel engagement:

Inbound Marketing

If you sell custom services or high-end products, you must expect that your customer is going to do some research to qualify you before they select you as their provider. They may look for reviews on Yelp, ask colleagues for references, or spend time researching online before they decide whom they will contact.  The window of opportunity with these customers is high in the conversion funnel, and so you must focus on capturing their attention (A) and interest (I).  

The online marketing channels that lend themselves best to engaging this type of customer will reinforce your reputation and demonstrate knowledge and quality. Content marketing lends itself particularly well here. Consider writing articles for popular online magazines and contribute to online conversations where they are occurring. Think about how to enable brand advocates to share your message with their own social and professional networks via social platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter.  

Because this type of conversion funnel can last weeks or months, it is critical to stay in touch with your customers to keep your brand top of mind. If you’re engaging them high in the funnel, they’re likely not ready for a purchase yet, but it would be reasonable to request an email address or social follow.  This will give you the opportunity to continue sharing your knowledge and commitment to quality as they proceed through their decision process.  

You might also consider retargeting ads, which track a visitor's movement online and can continue to show your ad wherever they go online after they’ve visited your website or otherwise engaged with your online content. These ads are available through many ad network providers, including Google AdWords, and are a great way to stay top of mind. 

Outbound Marketing

Outbound Marketing focuses on the lower funnel prerogatives of desire (D) and action (A).  Rather than building a brand that demonstrates quality and knowledge, you would instead focus on optimizing the transaction event, driving traffic, and optimizing conversion rates. Your messaging should typically reflect this with time sensitive offers and prices discounts.  For the outbound marketer, there is little value in establishing expertise or commitment to quality, since the product is often a known commodity. The goals of outbound marketing thus are to get in front of as many customers as possible and to convert those customers before they leave their website.  

The online channels that work best for online marketing are the ones that serve these low funnel prerogatives most efficiently. Paid search (PPC) for example is excellent at pairing specific advertisers with customers searching for something very specific; a signal they may be nearing the bottom of the funnel. Product feeds and affiliate marketing programs, meanwhile, are two vehicles that enable the outbound marketer to get their products into popular product comparison directories, where customers can easily compare product features, and provider prices and shipping. 

E-mail marketing can also be useful as a follow-up mechanism, as it is with inbound marketing, though the goal is different and its use less critical.  Rather than nurturing a lead by helping them through a long and complex discovery process, the outbound market merely re-markets existing customers with special offers in order to hopefully win additional business. 

The bottom line? It is important recognize the purpose of each of the online marketing channels, how it is consumed by the public, and how each one may be vary in efficacy for the message you are trying to communicate. For a channel to be effective, you must pair it with appropriate messaging, and for that message to be well received, it must reflect the appropriate stage in the conversion funnel your customer is currently in.  

To demonstrate this mismatch, consider what would happen if you try to intercept someone low in the funnel who is researching graduate schools by offering them a 20 percent discount if they enroll today. Or conversely, what will happen if you are an e-commerce website that sells batteries and you spend the majority of your budget writing content that positions you as a battery expert or worse, you begin flooding Twitter and LinkedIn with battery discount codes. Chances are good that St. Elmo Lewis would not approve.