Marketing channels are tools and platforms that brands use to communicate with their audience.
If we squeezed the idea of marketing channels into a single picture, it’ll look something like this:
Businesses use different means (content, messages, ads) to reach their audience in places where they hang out (e.g., social media, Google Search) or reach them directly (e.g., text messages, emails). They may use a selection of channels or all available channels.
In this post, you will get an overview of the most commonly used channels today: what they are about, how they are used, and what they are best at.
Organic search refers to the non-paid search results from a search engine.
Organic search is one of the pillars of the entire internet. In all, 68% of online experiences begin with a search engine (BrightEdge).
The practice of optimizing webpages to increase traffic and visibility in this channel is called search engine optimization (SEO).
At Ahrefs, we create blog posts about topics relevant to our product. At the same time, we try to target topics that offer search traffic potential and are within our capability to rank.
This way, when people Google things related to SEO and marketing, we can naturally feature our product.
Each piece of content that ends up ranking adds up to your overall organic traffic. So the more high-ranking content you have, the more potential customers visit your website. Plus, evergreen topics can generate traffic for years after publication.
Pros and cons
Social media platforms are used to engage brand followers and other users through organic reach or by paying to reach a defined audience.
Social media is not just Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Messaging-only apps like Discord, Slack, and WhatsApp also fall into the same channel category.
Do social media users “consume” content from brands? Quite surprisingly, 90% of people on Instagram follow a business (Instagram).
Each brand on social media tends to develop its own voice while publishing a balanced mix of product marketing, conversations, entertainment, and company news.
And so while some brands will be super serious and “business-oriented,” others will try to win hearts with candor and authenticity.
Furthermore, this is an effective use of social media:
Advertising products also works:
Demonstrating value is something fans want to see from their favorite brands:
Last but not least, one of the best ways to use social media for businesses… user-generated content:
Pros and cons
This marketing channel allows you to distribute your content and ads in a video format.
Does video marketing work? These stats seem to speak for themselves:
- 70% of viewers bought from a brand after seeing it on YouTube (Google).
- 96% of people have watched an explainer video to learn more about a product or service (Wyzowl).
Basically, video marketing is about two things:
- Using video instead of text and images to engage with the audience – Video can make such a difference compared to other media that focusing on this kind of content has become a distinct type of marketing.
- Taking advantage of video-first platforms like YouTube and TikTok – These platforms have such a big audience that it makes sense for many brands to create videos just to be there.
The great thing about video is that platforms like YouTube have their own distribution mechanisms, which can bring your content to thousands of people for free (of course, you can boost that with some budget too).
We use this channel on a regular basis, and we’ve even made a video on how to rank videos #1:
Moreover, you can repurpose videos and create “packages”—like a full-blown Academy. It also works the other way around: start with a course and share it or parts of it on YouTube.
Pros and cons
Advertising is about paying media outlets that have access to your audience to display your message near or instead of regular content.
Digital advertising is the same idea transplanted to the internet (aka paid traffic or paid media).
Why pay for ads when there are free traffic channels like search and social media? Especially when ads have such a bad reputation?
It’s all about the creative you use and the targeting.
Some ads can be simply irresistible because they dominate the space, such as this “Stranger Things” Ad:
Some are genuinely entertaining, such as the Super Bowl half-time commercials.
Some ads are just so well-targeted that it makes you wonder whether they’re still legal.
And unlike free traffic channels, you can simply outspend the competition instead of building authority, backlinks, or a following.
Pros and cons
Email marketing lets you reach your prospects’ mailboxes with messages that either prompt direct action or are aimed at creating a long-term relationship with the brand.
You can get a “direct line” to your audience either by building an email list (e.g., with a newsletter) or sponsoring someone else’s newsletter (a mix of advertising and email marketing).
Be prepared for what success looks like on this channel, though: The highest average industry click rate is 5.01% (hobbies), and the average for all industries is 2.62% (Mailchimp).
Some brands use this channel only to “seal the deal.” They spend so much on brand awareness and product marketing elsewhere that all they need is a nudge sent directly to an inbox (my inbox, in this example).
Other brands will need more touch points and do more soft-selling beforehand.
Pros and cons
Sponsorship as a marketing channel is about attracting prospects to your business through exposure to your brand in a sponsored material or event.
It’s typically used for two kinds of goals: brand awareness and brand image (i.e., gaining customers’ trust).
Sponsorship is all about visibility. But it works best if the cause/person you fund is something/someone that your target audience cares about, e.g., an event attended by your audience.
Is sponsorship a popular way to do marketing? If you look at it globally, the spending from 2007 to 2018 was on a steady rise.
Most probably, the stats are inflated by big brands sponsoring sports. But small and medium brands can engage in sponsorships too, e.g., niche magazines, industry events, or influential content creators.
Sports would probably be just a pastime activity if it weren’t for the sponsors.
Sports is also a great lesson about sponsorship. Watch an FC Barcelona game, and you’ll see and hear “Spotify” thousands of times. The logo is literally on every player, and its home stadium’s name starts with “Spotify.”
Pros and cons
Conversational marketing refers to engaging in real-time conversations with potential and current customers through live chats, chatbots, messaging apps, and social media.
This channel is supposed to be the answer to generic experiences typically offered on websites where users have to navigate through a set of pages to get information or service.
What’s more, it seems to be quite effective:
- 79% of companies say that live chat has had positive results for customer loyalty, sales, and revenue (Kayako).
- 82% of companies that use AI conversational marketing solutions find them to be a valuable asset in their strategy (Drift).
The way brands usually use chatbots (aka virtual assistants) is to:
- Answer basic and frequent questions.
- Qualify leads.
- Schedule a meeting with an agent.
- Promote specific content.
Just like Drift does:
Anything beyond that is beyond the capabilities of automation for now. However, solutions like Zowie claim their chatbots are ready to sell things to humans.
Pros and cons
Word-of-mouth marketing (WoMM) is the process of influencing and encouraging natural discussions about a product, service, or company.
In other words, it’s about giving people a reason to talk.
Is word of mouth effective?
Well, it’s probably one of the most effective marketing channels because people tend to trust other people more than brands. According to a study by BrightLocal, 91% of people regularly or occasionally read online reviews, and 84% trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.
WoM is so powerful it can get a company off the ground and help it grow throughout the years.
We should know. Ahrefs started over 10 years ago with 0 marketing budget and no marketing personnel. What got us where we are today was largely thanks to WoM: recommendations from users and positive reviews.
Pros and cons
Podcasting allows brands to reach people interested in a given topic by producing, being featured in, or sponsoring pre-recorded audio.
Podcasts seem to be a growing channel in terms of audience and ad spend:
- Podcast ad spending in the U.S. is expected to reach $2.2 billion in 2023, a 27% increase from 2022 (Statista).
- There are more than 850,000 active podcasts today.
Let’s take a quick look at three ways brands use podcasts today.
The first, and probably the most popular way, is being interviewed on a podcast or co-hosting one. The brand and/or the product gets to be featured in a natural way throughout the conversation.
The second way, and also a very popular option, is to sponsor a podcast. The audience gets acquainted with the brand through advertisements inside the podcast and/or brand identification near the content (like in the example below).
The last way a brand becomes engaged in podcasts is by creating its own series. Products are rarely featured; the focus is on memorable experiences delivered through carefully targeted content. This way, the brand can earn positive associations, differentiate, and give their audience a reason to come back to the website on a regular basis.
Pros and cons
Whereas other marketing channels are used to communicate with the audience, events are more about meeting with the audience.
Event marketing can be done online and offline but also in a hybrid model. However, in-person events allow for evoking stronger emotions and more convenient networking.
But can you rely on the in-person formula only? Probably not. Half of marketers and advertisers predict all future events will have a virtual dimension (MarketingCharts).
There are a few different types of events used in marketing. They can differ quite substantially.
Trade shows. Organized around products and technologies. Usually business-oriented, with the goal of networking and generating leads.
Conferences. Organized around ideas or technologies. The focus is on exchanging knowledge, entertainment, and networking. Often have a laid-back atmosphere with a mixed agenda. They are the most “open” of all types.
Seminars and workshops. Focused on exchanging ideas and experiences. Usually smaller in size and organized for a small number of people.
Pros and cons
Affiliate marketing is where people promote another company’s product or service in return for a commission on generated sales.
The party promoting the product is called the affiliate, and the brand delivering the product is the merchant. Often, there is also a middleman connecting the parties called the network or program (e.g., ShareASale or GiddyUp).
A commission is typically a percentage of the sale price but can occasionally be a fixed amount.
All those fractional commissions and percentages add up to a huge business. According to Statista, business spending on affiliate marketing will hit $8.2 billion in the U.S. by 2022.
This article by Musician on a Mission lists eight studio setup essentials and links to products using affiliate links.
Products mentioned in this one article alone can get a part of that over 10,000 organic traffic (and other traffic sources too).
At its best, affiliate marketing is a win-win for all parties involved, including consumers. Affiliates earn commissions on their work testing products (sometimes) and putting up the content, merchants get exposure to qualified audiences via trusted partners, and consumers don’t need to spend much time researching products on their own.
Pros and cons
Frequently asked questions about marketing channels.
Why are channels important in marketing?
Because every brand needs a way to reach out to its target audience and attract customers. Marketing channels simply connect brands to people who might need their products or services.
What is the best marketing channel?
It’s very unlikely and definitely not optimal to use one marketing channel. Brands usually try to be present in as many channels as possible, as this increases reach and convenience to customers.
That said, it’s common to focus on one channel or a small set of channels. For example, at Ahrefs, we focus on organic search and video marketing because those channels can serve the entire marketing funnel. This has proven to be an effective way to reach out to our audience.
How to choose marketing channels?
Do some market research and identify places where your audience hangs out and what channels your competition is using. Then start using those channels to test out what works for you and what doesn’t, and then iterate on your findings.
What’s the difference between multichannel and omnichannel marketing?
Omnichannel marketing is about using all available channels to attract and serve customers, providing a seamless experience. For example, Ikea allows you to purchase products in stores, online, through an app, by phone, etc.
Whereas in multichannel marketing, multiple channels are utilized. However, not all of them are utilized or integrated. For example, I bought a wardrobe online recently, and the shop sent me text messages about the status of the order. But I couldn’t use the same channel to respond (and warn that it was about to send me the same product twice).
How are marketing channels different in B2B than in B2C?
B2B and B2C brands invest in the same channels (according to HubSpot). However, the way they use the channels may differ.
B2C brands usually use these channels to offer entertainment and directly impact sales. B2B brands focus more on educating prospects and forming long-lasting relations.
These types of brands may also find some types of content or platforms more suitable for them. For example, B2C brands typically don’t publish case studies, and B2B brands find LinkedIn more effective.
What’s the difference between marketing channels and distribution channels?
Distribution channels are the means by which products or services are being made available to a consumer (e.g., directly via a brand’s website or through resellers), whereas marketing channels are the means by which products and services are being communicated to the consumer.
Multichannel marketing and omnichannel marketing seem to be the way to go these days. More channels mean more convenience for your customers, more prospects reached, and more ROI for your company.
But to make the best use of your channels, it’s a good idea to keep your brand’s messaging consistent across all media; marketers call it integrated marketing communications.
Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.