People often ask me what’s the difference between e-commerce and digital marketing. I’m always stunned by this question. To me, the answer has always seemed obvious and intuitive. Until I actually thought about it.

When I got my marketer’s cap off and looked at e-commerce and digital marketing side by side, I understood why they may be confusing to people.

All the misinformation on the topic flowing around the Web doesn’t help, either. Today, I’m here to set the record straight. Let us begin.

What is e-commerce?

Back in the day, you had to go to an actual store to buy something. Especially around the holidays, this meant epic Lord-of-the-Rings-style battles. All tightly packed around the aisles of consumer goods as people fought their way through waves of fellow shoppers to reach their new deep fryer at 25% off. It was a brutal and merciless experience where only the strong prevailed.

Those who survived the onslaught claimed the ultimate prize of waiting in line to part ways with their hard earned cash. The entire endeavor culminating in coming home and realizing they didn’t like what they bought, anyway.

To many, shopping was a freaking chore. A proper nightmare for introverts.

But then everything changed when e-commerce entered the scene. It was a shopping renaissance. It introduced the romantic notion of shopping without leaving the comfort of your own home. And it was glorious.

Today, instead of going to the store to get your new electric toothbrush with three power settings, you can get it delivered directly to your doorstep. Without so much as talking to an actual human being.

E-commerce, as the name implies, took commerce into the brave new digital world.

In layman’s terms, it’s simply commerce through electronic devices. Everything you buy on a website, order via email, or another form of electronic communication falls within the realm of e-commerce.

In many ways, it’s quicker, easier, and more enjoyable than traditional shopping. It doesn’t require you to go anywhere. It takes the load off arranging transportation if you don’t have a car. And it’s far more efficient.

Online retailers offer many benefits over their brick-and-mortar counterpart. Which isn’t to say e-commerce not without its faults. You have to wait for delivery. You can’t examine the goods before you buy them. The process of returning something is arduous. But overall, retail websites offer a better experience, especially to younger people.

Benefits of e-commerce

According to Statista, millennials are the biggest group of online shoppers. As Gen Z begin entering the workforce, this trend is likely to continue.

After all, as I established earlier, e-commerce offers lots of benefits:

  • Retail websites are open 24/7. Some even offer 24/7 customer support.
  • You can save money. Running an e-commerce website is substantially cheaper than having a brick-and-mortar store. This reduces prices.
  • Easy retail comparisons. Because all the other retail websites are just a few clicks away, it’s easy to make comparisons. Brands, quality, reviews, prices – you name it. Getting the best bang for your buck.
  • You save time. Buying whatever you want with a few clicks is quick and easy. It sure beats driving to the store, picking what you want, standing in line at the checkout counter, and driving back.
  • It’s much easier to find what you want. Type the name of the item in a search engine. You get the top retail websites that sell it. It’s that simple. You can even order internationally.
  • It’s super convenient. Especially when the retailer offers free shipping.

This isn’t to say brick-and-mortar stores are without benefits. You can physically examine the goods before purchase. You don’t have to wait for shipping. And some people genuinely enjoy the experience of shopping at a physical location. So it’s a matter of preference. But all in all, many prefer e-commerce, which is why it’s a rapidly growing industry.

What is digital marketing?

The question of the hour. Is it a form of marketing specifically tailored for e-commerce? A blend of dark magic powered by student loan debt? Does it even exist? Does it matter?

Digital marketing took marketing into the world of electronics. In the same way as e-commerce did it for commerce (which is the first common thread between the two). Digital marketing has the same goals and objectives as traditional marketing. But it uses different methods to achieve those goals.

If you’re marketing using a website, PPC ads, email, or any other form of electronic communication, you are employing digital marketing.

Examples of digital marketing

Here are some more examples of digital marketing:

  • SEO – search engine optimization. It’s a method of optimizing your content so people can find it through it search engines. Using this method is organic, meaning you don’t have to pay for each visit on your site.
  • PPC – pay-per-click ads. As the name suggests, you pay search engines to show your content to people. As long as you pay, your content appears on the results page.
  • SMM – social media marketing. The act of promoting your business on the relevant social media channels. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter – whatever seems relevant to your brand.
  • Email – email marketing is one of the oldest forms of digital marketing. It seems to have lost some steam over the past several years, since every marketer and their dog are using it (almost all unsuccessfully). But it still works and it’s still pretty good (given you can string more than two words together in a coherent manner).
  • Affiliate marketing – promoting other companies’ products and services on your platform. The pay you receive is proportional to the traffic you send the receiver’s way. It works if your website is performing well.

These are just some of the examples, but you get the gist. You can use digital marketing for both traditional retail and e-commerce.

Digital marketing benefits

Digital marketing offers some benefits over traditional marketing. Some of the tools and tactics you can use are like sniper rifle fire as opposed to shotgun blasts:

  • Lower cost – digital marketing offers you a great bang for your buck. If you know what you’re doing, you can do a lot with very little resources.
  • Measurability – this has always been a thorn in the side of marketers. How do you measure the effect of a billboard? By jumping through a lot of hoops, that’s how. You have to be creative and slick. You need to outsmart the system. Measuring the performance of a website? There’s a few different ways to go about it, and none of them take more than 60 seconds.
  • Personalisation – if you’re selling running shoes, you want to target people who are interested in running. With social media and content marketing, you can easily do that. Instead of burning through your marketing budget and never hitting the mark.
  • Higher ROI – because of the points above, you get a better return on investment through digital marketing.

This doesn’t mean digital marketing is without its cons. The low cost of doing it means you have a lot of competition. So you need to do it better than everyone else (I can help you with that). You need better e-commerce strategies than your competition. It takes time, effort, dedication.

And because it’s cheaper than traditional marketing, people don’t trust it as easily.

Finally, it looks easy but it isn’t. Underestimate digital marketing and you can waste a lot of time and money.

Where does the confusion between digital marketing and e-commerce come from?

The confusion comes from the fact that digital marketing and e-commerce share many of the same tools. The way they use these tools is very different, but it’s enough of a similarity to breed confusion.

Here’s an example. Your website can be both a tool for digital marketing and e-commerce. Same goes for email – you can use email for marketing or direct sales. You can even use social media to sell products.

So where’s the difference? The way you use these tools is very different.

Let’s say you have a breathtaking and technically brilliant e-commerce website. This entails web design, front-end development, kickass copy, excellent images. You have systems for checkout and payment methods. Where does the digital marketing end and e-commerce begin?

It’s simple. E-commerce is your sales process. That’s it. Anything you do beyond the sales process is marketing.

In other words, when I order a pair of running shoes from your store, the process of ordering and delivery is e-commerce. However, the way you get me to your website and the way you get me to trust your brand, that’s digital marketing.

Why is it important to know the difference between e-commerce and digital marketing?

E-commerce and digital marketing work together to breathe life into your business. They are complementary processes. Digital marketing brings attention to your brand. E-commerce allows you to actually sell.

The distinction between the two is important because being good at one does not necessarily mean you’re good at the other. You may be great at digital marketing and bringing a ton of visitors to your website. But if you can’t sell your goods to save your life, what good is that?

At the same time, you may have a nearly flawless sales process, but if 3 people a month visit your site, that wouldn’t make you fat stacks of cash, would it?

Balance between the two is important. You need to pay attention to both and knowing the difference allows you to pinpoint problems.

Imagine you brought a thousand people to your site this week. And no one bought anything. Where’s the problem? Digital marketing or e-commerce? Turns out your checkout button is broken and no one can buy anything. Clearly, it’s an e-commerce problem. One you need to fix immediately.


E-commerce and digital marketing are related processes. E-commerce usually begins where digital marketing ends. It’s important to understand the difference between the two so you can properly focus your resources and fix problems should they arise.

Now go check out your e-commerce business with this new knowledge and see where you can improve.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you so much!

    When I was browsing on LinkedIn, some of the job posts are very confusing. They mix e-commerce with digital marketing all the time.

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