“There’s no marketing channel that’s a silver bullet for everyone,” marketing ecommerce expert Alex Greifeld says.
The marketing channels you choose as part of your marketing strategy depend on the resources you have and the products you sell. Alex, a digital marketing consultant who has worked with brands like Viacom and Tapestry, has a decade of experience in helping businesses run more profitable marketing programs.
Ahead, with some help from Alex, we’ll share what a marketing channel is, examples of different channels, and a framework for choosing the right ones for your business.
Meet the expert
What is a marketing channel?
A marketing channel is a place where you attract new customers to your business. There are two main types of channels:
Paid channels are places where you spend money to show advertisements to potential customers.
Organic channels are places where you create and share content without paying to show it to people, like email or social media.
The mix of marketing channels you choose helps comprise the overall marketing strategy for your business. Most channels are digital marketing channels, which means they reach people who are browsing online. Other channels aim to catch people in person, whether that’s through hosting live events or sending out direct mail.
The best marketing channels
- Direct mail
- Paid ads
- Social media
- Public Relations
Your business makes money from either new or returning customers. “So when you’re picking channels,” Alex says, “‘Where am I getting my new customers from?’ is the question behind the question.”
Doing market research, running a “Where did you hear about us” survey, or chatting directly with new customers can help you understand the right marketing channels to focus on. Returning customers, on the other hand, are a bit more of a known entity, Alex says, and you can take a look at the kinds of marketing activities that brought them back over time.
Here are examples of the different types of marketing channels you can leverage as an ecommerce business.
Using email to engage with customers is called email marketing. You can send a one-off email to alert people to a promotion or sale, a full-fledged email campaign, or a series of emails focused around a central topic, during key moments for prospective customers. That might be when they first join your email list or when you’re promoting a new product launch.
Before you email prospective customers, you’ll need to build an email list. Many businesses offer a one-time discount for first-time customers. For example, skin care brand Beneath Your Mask offers $15 off and free shipping for new subscribers to its email list.
If you’re thinking about making email marketing a priority, Alex suggests putting your focus on contacting people at the consideration phase rather than trying to win back abandoned carts. Prioritizing people who are still thinking about making a purchase will give you more bang for your buck than reaching someone who’s already left.
“Especially if you’re a relatively young and growing brand, hitting those people who are already displaying really high purchase intent with additional messaging and additional touches is not going to drive a huge amount of incremental revenue,” Alex says.
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Sending people a physical item through the mail is called direct-mail marketing. Direct mail can vary in style and scope. Some direct-mail campaigns feature a postcard with a coupon code, others might announce a new product or a sale. Many brands still opt to send full catalogs.
For example, Marine Layer sends colorful catalogs that feature selections from the brand’s new seasonal collections.
Paying to show advertisements on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok can help you grow your business by bringing a stream of visitors to your website. But paid ads, also known as display advertising, come with their own risks. Paid advertising costs have skyrocketed in recent years, and you’ll have to pay to play time after time.
While paid ads might work well for your business, they’re not as stable as organic forms of traffic, which grow more steadily over time. Instead, consider using paid content to prove the concept for a new business idea.
“I think paid social ads, whether it’s Facebook or TikTok or even potentially SEM [paid search engine marketing], for some categories, is a way to validate your idea,” Alex says.
Social media marketing
Posting content to different social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook is called social media marketing. Unlike display or paid advertising, posting content on your own social media channels is a form of organic marketing, because you’re not paying for views.
Social media marketing can be a great way to find, engage, and build relationships with the communities that will buy your products and champion your brand. Establishing a presence on social media can help you grow a following, work with influencers through influencer marketing to expand your reach, and sell products directly within the platform.
Rani & Co., a jewelry brand, has seen success on TikTok and Instagram. “I started posting on TikTok at the end of 2020,” Ramona Gohil, the brand’s founder, says, “and that’s when my business really started growing. TikTok has honestly helped me so, so much.”
@raniandco Do you like it? (Launching 5th may 6pm BST) @raniandco #jewellery #jewellerytok #amethyst #gemstonejewellery #jewellerylover #necklace #amethystnecklace ♬ Low Down - venbee & Dan Fable
Affiliate marketing is where people earn money through commission when they advertise a product or a service on their website. For example, a food blogger might list their favorite baking sheet, stand mixer, or type of flour within a recipe blog post. If a reader clicks through and purchases the item, the blogger gets paid a commission.
This type of marketing is helpful because it uses an entity your target audience already trusts to talk about your product. This makes people more comfortable making a purchase because the recommendation is coming from someone they know and like.
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SMS marketing is when brands send direct text messages to repeat or new customers. This marketing channel often requires a sign-up incentive because of how personal a channel it is. But,the direct and immediate nature of SMS is what makes it so effective. The key is to reach out to your audience sparingly and only when you have something important to say.
For example, Olipop, a healthy alternative to soda, uses SMS marketing to tell its audience about new flavors and limited edition releases. Its SMS strategy sees great traction: one launch made the brand around $30,000 in 15 minutes.
Content marketing can refer to many different marketing channels, but it most often implies creating organic (non-paid) content on your owned channels. These channels include your blog, social media platforms, email, and YouTube channel and podcast, if you have one.
In addition to driving traffic to your website through search results or popular social posts, content marketing can also build trust with your audience and help fill in any gaps or questions they have about your products.
For example, Omsom, a food brand that specializes in Southeast and East Asian sauces and meal kits, uses a blog to share stories about different dishes and recipes, as well as profiles of culinary tastemakers. For Omsom, content marketing is a key portion of a channel mix that also includes social media and email marketing. That means that the team can cross-post its content between Instagram, TikTok, its blog, and emails, creating a rich, consistent stream of fun and interesting videos and reads.
Search engine optimization
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of getting a webpage, like a blog post, to show up in search results on a search engine like Google. The higher up in search results a page is, the more eyeballs you’ll drive to your website.
“If you have a product that really solves a problem, where people are probably searching for it online, that’s a clear use case for search marketing and SEO,” Alex says.
The magic of using SEO as a marketing channel is that it’s a more stable revenue stream because of the intent behind the traffic. For example, a person scrolling through Instagram might come across a paid ad in their feed. But someone actively searching for something like “vintage mid century modern furniture for sale” has the intent to actually make a purchase.
Vintage furniture store Urban Americana has found success with SEO. Its all-furniture collection page ranks first in search results for that same query.
Paid search engine marketing
Search engine marketing, or SEM, is where you pay a search engine like Google to show up above all other results and to drive traffic back to your website.
Because there’s intent behind search traffic, it can be a lucrative way to capture people who are already searching for the types of products you sell. Unlike organic SEO, paid search engine marketing means you’ll top all other organic results for the same search term.
Whether it’s at a local farmers market, craft fair, trade show, or other type of event, getting your product in front of customers in person can help your business grow. Hear real time feedback, get a better idea of what marketing messaging works, and better understand your target audience.
Showing up at events can be helpful at any stage of your business, but many find it particularly useful to validate an idea right at the beginning.
Terri Sammann, one of the founders of eyeglass company Peepers, attended the Chicago Merchandise Mart trade show in 1994. “She took five styles and laid them on a table,” Alec Sammann, Peepers’ current CEO says, “and in three days she did about $35,000 of business. She came back and said, ‘We’ve got something.’”
PR, or public relations, involves reaching out to established media networks in the hopes that they’ll want to cover your business or product. It’s an approach that Alex says works best when your product is new, unique, and has a great story, citing Haus, a brand specializing in modern aperitifs.
“The go-to market for that brand was traditional PR and comms driven because the story behind it was so compelling and the product itself was so differentiated,” Alex says.
Partnership marketing involves working in collaboration with a different business in order to capture the attention of that business’s audience. For ecommerce stores specifically, this could include product collaborations, where you create a product with another business and both sell it in your shop. This might be a brand or creator whose audience is similar to yours.
For example, fine jewelry shop Fewer Finer recently partnered with influencer Mally K. Goldman to produce a charm bracelet just like the one Mally wears daily. These collaborations increase exposure to your target market by leveraging the following of a similar business.
People trust a recommendation from a friend or family member way more than a paid ad or blog post. That’s why referral marketing is such a powerful marketing tool: if you can get it going, you’ll turn your best customers into your biggest advocates.
While you can’t control who’s talking about your brand to whom, you can incentivize the customers that do. For example, athletic apparel brand Girlfriend Collective offers a free pair of leggings to customers who successfully refer a friend.
How to prioritize the best marketing channels for your business
The marketing channels you should choose to focus on depend on your business model, the resources you have, what you’re good at, and what your product is, Alex told us.
If you sell a more brand-driven product, she continues, you might want to focus on more visual platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok.
You’ll also want to consider “the unit economics of your product,” Alex says. “Will it work on the channel? If you’re selling a $500 handbag, it might be hard to sell that at scale on Facebook or TikTok, just because of the nature of the channel,” Alex says. Higher price point items might take longer to sell or require more relationship building on the brand side, as opposed to the immediacy of social channels.
There’s not one marketing channel or a list of marketing channels that will work for every business, but relying on multiple marketing channels is always a good idea. And evaluating those three elements (your business model, resources, and what you’re good at) will help you identify the best ones to start with. “Everything depends on what your objective is for the business,” Alex says.
Doing market research can also help inform what your channel mix should be. Sit down with current customers or people in your target audience to better understand what motivates them, what they use your product for, where they spend time online, and how they first heard about you.
Make sure you measure performance
Before you move forward with any marketing channels, coming up with goals and ways to track how different channels perform will help you understand if your marketing strategy is working. Generally, Alex says, those goals are profitable growth and not running out of money at the end of the month.
“You’ll always get the most value out of your marketing if you use your financial goals as your north star,” Alex says.
Marketing channels FAQ
What is a marketing channel?
A marketing channel is a place where you attract new customers to your business.
What are some examples of marketing channels?
- Email marketing
- Direct-mail marketing
- Paid ads
- Social media marketing
- Affiliate marketing
- Content marketing
- Paid search (SEM)
- Events marketing
- Partnership marketing
- Referral marketing