Yes, digital advertising works. When it is done thoughtfully, done well, and done while knowing what you’re doing and done in a strategic manner. And that’s much like any kind of advertising really. TV advertising doesn’t work simply because it works. It works when it’s approached with an objective in mind, is part of an overall strategy to market a business, and has been targeted at the right kind of audience. The difference is that you need to spend a hell of a lot more on television than you do on digital to get similar results.

The trouble with digital marketing is that it is usually done by people who have no idea what they are doing, have taken really bad advice from “experts” who know nothing about their business, or they have been reading from sources that give them some kind of framework that doesn’t take into account the often unique traits of the market they are operating in.

Know what you’re doing

The biggest opponents of digital marketing are often advertising agencies and traditional media companies. That’s mostly because their entire business models are based on you not knowing how to do things yourself. Digital advertising, on the other hand, is 80% do-it-yourself. When you remove the margin of an agency or a sales rep from the equation, the cost of advertising can be anywhere from 50% to 90% less than advertising on television, radio or doing a campaign via an advertising agency.

And this is where the problem can arise. While it is almost universally cheaper than traditional and agency advertising, digital advertising still has a learning curve for those who choose to do it themselves.

Anyone who’s ever bought a flat pack furniture kit and handed it to their husband to assemble knows the pain. There are ample instructions provided, online video instructions linked to, and resources available to do the right job. Yet, people will jump in and do what they will do. And when people just jump in without prior preparation or a solid set of instructions, they’re bound to fail at building a good, sustainable and successful digital advertising campaign.

A bit of learning can go a long way, and most platforms provide excellent learning tools. The Facebook Blueprint is an excellent self-paced resource to learn the various free and paid tools for getting the most out of your marketing on that platform. Google’s ads platform has tonnes of instructions and how-to articles and videos to get started on search and YouTube advertising. LinkedIn has a simple article linking you to everything you need to know about their marketing platform.

If you fail to consult them first, and just fumble your way around, you’re just costing yourself time and money and you’ll likely not get the results you want.

Know your objective

Making more money isn’t an objective when it comes to advertising. “Getting myself out there” is not an objective when it comes to advertising. Neither is, “I just want more customers.” Any advertising that aims at vague and sweeping statements like that will get as lazy a response as the thinking that went into it.

Your objectives are what you want to get out of a particular piece of advertising you’re about to do. And your objectives need to sit in at least three stages of the customer’s journey towards buying from you.

Most people go straight for the sale, hoping that some random ad from someone they’ve never heard of, and don’t have any relationship with, will magically inspire someone to buy something from them right now.

And those same advertisers are the ones who cram their messages with a thousand products, cringe-worthy cliches like “one stop shop” and have no one easy-to-follow action to them.

Your potential customers need to move through a few steps to be in a position where they are open to buying from you. This is especially true when you’re not the cheapest in town. You need to make them aware of you first, but not throw hard selling in their face at this stage. Then, when they know who you are, and you’re familiar to them, then you can add yourself into their consideration for when they’re, one day, looking for the things that you sell. Only once they know who you are, know what you sell, and either need or have decided that they need, what you sell, can a direct message about buying your stuff work with them.

With well over 70% of consumers shopping primarily on price, you need to work a little harder when your product isn’t the cheapest of the bunch. Unfortunately more than 90% of digital advertising is poor thought-out, cuts straight to the hard sell, and fails to get results. This leads businesses to think that digital advertising doesn’t work. And that adds more fuel to the high-cost agencies and media giants to double down on their attitude that digital advertising is just one big bubble of nothing.

Good things take time

The other problem with smaller businesses with digital advertising, is that they want their marketing to deliver results right now. This is where bigger businesses have a natural advantage. Those who have been advertising for much longer, understand that marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. They know that what your advertising was doing last year, is what is leading to this year’s sales. They get that few, if any, people make a decision to buy something right now, based upon seeing an ad for the first time.

But small businesses are notorious for having big dreams, without the money or the patience to make them happen. This is not helped by the swarms of social media marketing gurus in the marketplace making wild claims about their secrets and formulas delivering huge results for their clients within very short periods of time.

The reality is that anything that delivers quick results won’t last long. In regional markets, tricks that drive website traffic to all-time highs are always followed by massive dips and a huge loss of credibility. When you’re in a town of 30,000 people with only a few hundred businesses, then your hard-sell ads are going to do you more harm than good when you sell out of product, can’t deliver on your promises, or people work out that you aren’t quite a great as you’ve made out you were in your ads.

Marketing takes time, strategy and thought to make it happen. This is the same for digital advertising as it is on television, radio, newspapers or personal branding.

So does digital advertising work? Absolutely yes. But it also doesn’t work a lot of the time. Just like any form of advertising. If you set out to simply hammer someone with a message without any thought to building an audience, growing a relationship and introducing yourself over time, you’re going to fail unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend every month or every year.

Dante St James is the founder of Clickstarter, Head of Digital at Treeti Business Consulting, an accredited trainer for Facebook Australia & New Zealand and a digital literacy trainer for Google’s Digital Springboard program. He is regarded as one of Australia’s leading digital marketing minds.