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Traditional vs. Digital Advertising: Which Is Better?

Written by Erik J. Olson on . Posted in .
Home > Blog > Traditional vs. Digital Advertising: Which Is Better?

We spend a lot of time at Array Digital determining which platforms provide the best value for advertising. We work with several businesses who have historically thrown all of their marketing into traditional advertising – TV, radio, mailers, etc. We see more and more of these businesses shifting their budget to digital advertising.

Why is that? This article provides a comparison of advertising options in traditional marketing and digital media. It’s probably no surprise that the advertising industry has been in a tailspin for years as new technologies such as social media also introduce a shift in consumer attention and alternative advertising platforms.

At Array Digital, we want you to know how to best use your investment in marketing strategy to reach your goals. Contact us at 757-333-3021 or fill out our contact form for more personalized help.

(Get the whole gist in less than 2 minutes with this video)

Traditional Marketing vs. Digital Marketing: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between traditional marketing and digital marketing? Traditional media is media that existed prior to the rise of the internet. Some of the most common forms include magazines, billboards, radio, broadcast TV, newspapers, and direct mail. It’s any type of advertising that doesn’t occur online.

Digital media includes everything that is online. That includes online advertising, search engine marketing, social media marketing, and video streaming services. Websites are a component of digital marketing, too. Digital marketing also includes other types of both online and mobile advertising models. That includes geofencing, over-the-top (OTT), and long-form video. It can also include Digital Out-of-Home (OHH) which includes the use of digital billboards. There are many techniques that go into digital advertising, all coming together to create numerous touchpoints for consumers as they surf the web.

Some media such as radio are much older than other media such as social media. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons, and benefits to marketers.

This article provides a comparison of advertising options in traditional and digital media. It’s probably no surprise that the advertising industry has been a tailspin for years as new technologies such as social media also introduce shifts in consumer attention and alternative advertising platforms.

At what point do these alternative platforms become “the” platforms? Or has this already happened?

Disclaimer: I’m a digital marketer. But that’s no accident — if you want to know why I made it my career, keep reading.

Shifts in Consumer Attention

One core reason digital marketing has become so vital is because consumer attention has shifted significantly. Gone are the days of learning about the latest sales by flipping through Sunday ads. Instead, the way people engage has changed.

Viewership and listenership (which we refer to collectively as attention) are quickly shifting from traditional to digital. Take a look at the chart below from Statistic as it shows just how quickly the two trends are converging:

viewership digital traditional
It’s clear just how much the gap from just 8 years ago has shortened so much. It’s likely that these trend lines will overlap if they have not done so already. This is a strong indication that consumer attention is much different today than it was a decade or more ago. That shift from traditional to digital isn’t something to ignore. In fact, it’s quite profound and very obvious.

How Has TV Viewership Declined

For older generations, it’s easy to remember evenings spent watching TV and Saturday mornings watching cartoons. Much of the advertising happening then occurred on TV – because people watched it constantly.

Consider a Nielsen’s Q3 2016 Total Audience Report. It found that traditional TV viewership had fallen in every major demographic from ages 2 to 49. This shows just how widespread the changes are.

It is possible to create and grow a television audience, and in many ways, TV still has a place in marketing as a result. Another survey found that 12 out of 124 measured networks had a greater average audience in 2021 than they did in 2016 – this is rare, not the normal. Rather, 90.3 percent of broadcast and cable networks measured in both periods saw audience decline instead.

Today, there are fewer people watching TV. Many have fewer TVs in their homes. While in the 1990s and 2000s, most people had cable subscriptions, many people have cut them, eliminating what they just did not use. Instead, many picked up streaming services that they could easily log into with their smartphone and watch when and if they had time, often choosing to avoid commercials altogether as they did.

Time spent watching TV

“Traditional TV viewership continues to fall among every major demographic between the ages of 2 and 49, according to Nielsen’s Q3 2016 Total Audience Report.” ~ Business Insider, Jan 4, 2017

When viewership shifts from one media to another, their time and attention is shifting as well.

Advertising Trends: Follow the Money

There is no doubt that when attention shifts, investors have to make changes to ensure their products and services are properly positioned in front of their target audience. Consider the following chart from AdAge that shows how advertising spend in the top 2000 national advertisers has changed. Look closely at the type of media specifically.

advertising spend comparison

This chart tells an amazing story!


Internet advertising is growing like crazy. TV advertising has taken a dip of about 8% from its high from 2012.

Digital advertising has benefited from this massive shift in attention. There’s no doubt that media spending has shifted to meet that new focus.

Consider a few statistics to indicate just how much this has changed, as provided by Statista. Nearly $356 billion was spent globally on digital advertising in 2020. In the US alone, from 2020 to 2025, digital ad spending will hit $153 billion. That makes up 60.39% of total ad spending in the US. That’s driven by the projected $460 billion in digital advertising revenue that will occur by 2024.

A good way to see this is to notice just how much time is spent on various forms of advertising. For example, in 2020, the average consumer spent 470 minutes, or 7 hours and 50 minutes, engaged in digital media in some way daily.

Radio was one of the most important marketing tools throughout the end of the 1900s, but today it has fallen to the side. Radio, which was first hit hard by the emergence of TV in the 1950s, has fallen further. It will have lost 38% of its revenue over a 20-year span even further. Audiences still listen to music, tap into sports commentary, and listen to information content.

The difference is they tend to do so more through digital manners, such as connecting to their favorite podcasts instead of listening to the radio. Reports indicate that 71% of people say they listen to radio less because they don’t travel as much, but 60% also note that they have lifestyle changes that have impacted their radio listening.

Another area of decreased performance is in print. Both magazine and newspaper readership has also decreased, even when newspaper ads used to be one of the most common ways to reach consumers.

Looking at the newspaper numbers, they have been absolutely decimated. They’ve lost an astounding 80% of their revenue! As an example of newspaper’s demise, our local paper in Norfolk, VA, The Virginian Pilot, was bought after 153 years of operations for just $34 million. Of that amount, $14 million was for real estate holdings. So after toiling away for 153 years it was worth only $20 million.

The Virginian Pilot has since merged with another paper, The Daily Press, located 30 miles away. To add to the chaos, the two newsrooms have merged and unionized out of fear of losing their jobs and pay.

Radio, after being hammered by the emergence of TV about 70 years ago, will have lost 38% of its revenue over a 20 years span.

Some surveys point to as many as 65% of consumers saying they rarely or never buy print content, making this form of marketing far less effective. That drop in attention makes it far less cost-effective for marketing campaigns.


Out of home — billboards, signage, ads before a movie in the theatre — surprisingly, have seen consistent growth, increasing revenue 66% over 20 years. Well done OOH!

Determining Where to Advertise

With so much of consumers’ time and attention shifting from traditional to digital marketing, and with the leading advertisers shifting their advertising spend to follow the attention, what’s a small business owner or manager to make of these changes?

Some of our clients still rely in some part on traditional advertising. The best source to determine if traditional advertising is having an impact is by asking callers how they heard of the company.

One of our clients in Virginia Beach recently analyzed that data and found that in 2-1/2 months, only one lead was attributable to TV advertising. Further analysis of their web traffic resulted in realizing that just 1.5% of web traffic may have derived from TV.

One significant difference between traditional and digital marketing is called attribution. With digital marketing, we can more easily track how a user came into the marketing funnel. Using this data, we are able to make better adjustments to further increase the efficiency of a client’s digital marketing strategy. This can be done in various ways:

  •     UTM Tracking: Probably the most precise way to know exactly which traffic channel someone is converted from, Urchin Tracking Module uses a code at the end of a URL. This allows for very accurate marketing campaign tracking.
  •     Call Tracking: This is a method used to determine how customers calling your location found your business.
  •     Google Analytics: Using Google Analytics tools, it’s possible to find how people engaged with the Google ads you’ve placed. This can be done with various forms of marketing, including pay-per-click (PPC) ads.

Contact us, and we’ll briefly walk you through your options in determining how your marketing efforts and the various marketing techniques are helping you.

Storytelling in Advertising

Previously, traditional media relied on images and videos to tell a story in order to drive conversions. Digital marketing and digital platforms require much more. For example, companies can tell stories about their brand and products through search engine optimization (SEO). This type of content marketing allows the company to communicate information about themselves to their prospective clients while also working to support their efforts to rank in Google’s search results.

The best way to tell a story quickly is through video and pictures. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words then a video done well is worth a hundred thousand words.

Another important component of online marketing is social media. By using social media platforms, companies can communicate directly to their customers, even a local audience, in an effective manner. Not only does this help to educate the prospective customer, but it builds brand loyalty as companies engage directly with the consumer.

Creating enticing Google and Facebook ads is also critical. Digital marketing campaigns that have incorporated Google ads or other social media ads are able to target very specific customers, those most likely to buy from the company.

story telling in advertising

Image sourced via Phaidon

TV historically was the king media for storytelling. In 15 to 30 seconds, a scene could be set, a trusted advisor introduced, and a common problem would be solved. Moving pictures is the primary reason that TV dominated radio and print when it was introduced. Second best to TV was print due to its ability to include images. After that, radio which had the ability to describe something best suited for visual consumption.

the first banner ad

The first internet banner ad, via The Atlantic.

In the early days of Internet advertising, we had banner ads. Obnoxious and conspicuous, they were the bane of the early days of the internet. But they worked. According to The Atlantic, the above banner ad is widely described as the first-ever was a little rectangle purchased by AT&T on in 1994.

About 44 percent of the people who saw it actually clicked on it.

Cool, but that didn’t last long. Banner ads don’t tell a story. They demanded attention through antics that anyone who remembers the internet of the mid-90s cringes at. Slowly the state of internet advertising advanced to be more subtle. And bearable. Now online advertising can include images, multiple images in a slide deck, and video.

Internet ads are also much more relevant given the high degree of targeting capability. Many of the ads you’ll see online these days are actually products that could make sense for you to purchase. The use of video online with ads is a powerful combination, one that rivals TV. With attention already shifting to search engines, social media, and the rest of the internet, the somewhat recent addition of video ads tells a story is familiar to the consumer.

Broadcast vs Targeted Delivery

When considering traditional marketing vs digital, it’s also important to consider how messages are delivered. Traditional advertising is very much broadcast, which means anyone can receive it. This type of marketing typically attracts the same type of person to the ads.

Digital marketing is different, allowing for more precisely selected viewers to see products through the marketing efforts.

The best that traditional advertisers can do is broadcast their ad on a medium with a high concentration of the demographic they wish to attract. They cast a wide net and hope to grab the attention of the subset of viewers their offering may appeal to. But, they’re paying to show the ad to the rest of the non-target audience as well.

do tv advertisements work
Contrast the broadcasting approach with the capabilities of digital advertising. Digital platforms hold personal data at the individual level. Now, those platforms protect individual personal data to the best of their abilities, but they also aggregate that data in a way that allows marketers to provide contextually relevant messaging to the individual people.

As digital advertisers, we don’t know who the individuals are that are getting our messaging, but we know that they are relevant based on the filtering we specify.

Advertising through Google and Facebook allows the marketer to identify and target select audiences. It also allows for advertisers to engage in retargeting, which means if they did not buy the first time they visited the website, they are able to have ads shown to them later through these social media platforms to get them back to that website later.

To continue with a hunting example, if we were to advertise for a hunting product on Google or Bing then we’d have our advertisement show anytime someone searched for a relevant hunting term in our relevant geographic region.

Let’s say you’re selling a hunting tree stand. If someone searches for “tree stand”, and if they are in a geographic area that you support, you can have an ad shown for your hunting stand at the exact moment that they have the intent to find a hunting stand.

Amazing, right? But wait, there’s more.

Let’s say your Google or Bing ad resonated with the person searching for a hunting stand and they clicked through to your website.

But they didn’t buy. That’s ok.

With a technology called retargeting, we can show them an advertisement on Facebook and other social networks, and on relevant websites across the internet, for your tree stand.

Retargeting reinforces the recent intent that they already expressed by going to your website.

We already know that the individual was interested enough in tree stands that they went to your website — we don’t want to let the lead go. With retargeting, which is relatively inexpensive, we can remind the consumer about what they’re missing by not buying your tree stand and why yours is the best tree stand in the world.

We can set a budget that will dictate how frequently they will see your ad after going to your website (ex: two times a day) and we can set how long they will see your ads for (ex: 30 days after visiting your site). With this, you don’t have just one shot at getting the attention of a relevant consumer…you can stay in front of them.

With social media advertising, we can create text, image, and video-based ads that target consumers individually by their interests and intent.

Using various techniques, we can find individuals on Facebook who are into hunting, and have sufficient income or net worth to afford the offering and show them Facebook ads that are relevant to their interests.

We can even have different ads for different demographics — ex: an ad with a woman hunter to show to women who are interested in hunting — because people resonate better with those who look, sound, and act like us.

Within a large demographic, we can continue to segment even further. Once they click on the ad and go to your site, you can retarget them going forward.

The quick advancement and specificity of digital marketing is one of the few limitations here. In other words, to see the best return on investment and reach the right potential customers, it’s often best to work closely with a digital marketing agency to ensure you’re getting the most thorough results possible.

How Reach & Engagement Are Measured

Reach is how many people see or hear the media. Engagement is defined as how many people take some type of action with it, such as calling, clicking, liking, or sharing the content they receive. You may hear these called impressions and clicks.

Measuring Radio

The way communication happens impacts this reach and engagement. For example, radio gets high reach, but it has very low engagement.

According to Nielsen, radio has the largest reach of all – 93% of adult Americans (18+) tune into AM/FM radio each week, and 243 million each month. That’s pretty amazing. Radio is the king of reach. However, radio gets very low engagement.

There’s no user interface with radio, and most of radio’s listeners are in cars during the morning commute. A person has to take out their phone while driving, remember the number or website address they just heard, and call or click — while driving. Radio doesn’t have any form of direct engagement.

Radio can lead to brand awareness and lift other types of more engaging advertising.

Measuring TV

It’s actually quite difficult to figure out how many people watch TV. Nielsen provides the number of US households with TVs (about 119 million), but that doesn’t equate to people.

And TV is no longer a well-defined term that means broadcast over the airwaves or cable.

There’s “linear” TV streamed effectively by the broadcaster, and you watch whatever is being broadcasted. There’s time-delayed (ex: DVR), connected TVs (delivered via the Internet), and OTT (over the top) which is effectively TV content delivered on non-TV devices like phones. TV has really gotten quite unruly.

Below is a relevant chart I found from Nielsen. There aren’t definitive numbers other than the percentage, but you still understand that TV has less reach than radio.

weekly reach of media platforms
Engagement-wise, TV is similar to radio. There’s no way to directly engage with TV.

At least people are sitting on their couches, and they have a laptop in their lap or a phone in hand, and they can navigate online much easier than engaging with radio.

This is what’s referred to as “the second screen”: watching TV on the first screen and following up on the offering seen on TV with the phone (the second screen).

Measuring Digital Marketing

Digital marketing vs. any of these other forms differs in this way. It is possible to have very precise tracking opportunities, as mentioned. That means that you know exactly how many people have engaged with and received your ad. It’s far easier to track than radio, print advertising, or TV advertising because of this.

Digital marketing allows for direct rather than passive engagement. If someone sees a call to action, they can act now without roadblocks to get just what they need. That’s quite different from traditional marketing methods.

Neilsen says that search sites like Google reach 197M people per month, eCommerce 143M, social media 179M, video sites 143M, news sites 105M, and sports sites get 57M people.

But I’m unable to find how many unique people there are. Sometimes, like it or not, the data doesn’t yield clear answers.

But what is clear is that advertisers move to where the action is, and advertising is migrating to online.

(see the above chart from AdAge that shows internet ad spend skyrocketing)

That’s because of the rich ability to target individual, just-in-time intent instead of broadcasting to the general population provided by traditional TV, radio, and print.

Engagement is very high online — it’s one giant social experiment where people rate, review, like, share, and click. If someone has an opinion, it’ll be expressed online.

Online is where all the engagement happens.

What Does All This Mean?

I have shared plenty of data and information, and understanding all of the marketing channels discussed can be difficult to comprehend at first glance. To help you, let me summarize the state of traditional and digital media. Marketing uses have changed significantly, but there’s so much to be hopeful for, too, as you explore new digital marketing channels like email marketing, LinkedIn, and even automation.

To summarize, people are moving away from traditional media in just about all forms, like TV, radio, and newspapers. They are engaging more with digital media, like social media and websites, using their laptops and smartphones.

Although some traditional media such as radio and print ads continues to have listeners and readership in the US, their revenue stream is getting demolished as advertisers follow how people’s time and attention move towards digital media. Understanding these fundamentals is critical.

As a marketer, do you want to keep your marketing budget with the legacy of traditional media and declining returns? Or, do you want to take advantage of these marketing trends and create a strategic marketing plan that allows you to move into digital?

There is much to consider as digital marketing grows and real-time data becomes more readily available to you, allowing you to make faster decisions about who to market to and how. Let us help you make the best of it all. If you have questions about the various levels of digital inbound marketing, just reach out to Array Digital today. Call 757-333-3021 or complete the online contact form to speak with an experienced digital marketing expert at Array Digital.

Written By Erik J. Olson
Founder & CEO
Erik J. Olson is the Founder & CEO of Array Digital—a marketing agency that enables its clients to achieve their dreams, fulfill their missions, and impact more lives with their services.

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