The Backbone of Digital Marketing

Last updated: February 28, 2024

Aaron Rudman-Hawkins

Aaron Rudman-Hawkins is a dynamic digital marketing expert and a driving force behind The Evergreen Agency's success. With a passion for technology and a deep understanding of the ever-evolving digital landscape, Aaron has become a trusted name in the industry.

Read Aaron's bio here

In this guide, we share invaluable insights into one of our fundamental ways of working at Evergreen. This concept was first documented and shared internally in 2016, we have used it ever since and decided now is the time to share it publicly. We hope you find it useful.

Read on to discover the ethos behind The Backbone of Digital Marketing, a concept and framework that brands can implement and action across your marketing channels to transform your approach to digital marketing.


The Backbone of Digital Marketing Explained

Digital marketing in the UK

There was only one way to start this guide; by sharing some pretty incredible stats with you, so here goes.

It’s estimated that UK brands spent £13.8bn on digital advertising in the first half of 2023.

The digital advertising market in the UK is projected to reach £55bn by 2027, representing an 8.33% annual growth rate between 2023 and 2027.

Looking specifically at digital search advertising (think Google Ads) in the UK, Statista is predicting this to rise on a global scale from $11.7bn in 2021 to $17.9bn in 2026.

The numbers are vast and difficult to comprehend. What’s also difficult to fathom is that 47% of brands do not have a defined digital marketing strategy.

What’s even more surprising is that a singular digital marketing strategy is rarely sufficient these days.

Brands need to rethink their approach to digital marketing strategy so it is absolutely comprehensive in covering the four key areas that drive success.

At Evergreen, these are also known as The Four Pillars.

Keep it simple, stupid

There is a great quote by Albert Einstein that says “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

In digital marketing, this sentiment resonates at every level. People love to overcomplicate things. It’s one of the main reasons that the industry has had to overcome its  ‘smoke and mirrors’ reputation for years, and why brands can be sceptical about digital marketing, not only as an entity, but as a service full stop.

Brands have a myriad of digital marketing channels and platforms at their disposal. When I started Evergreen more than a decade ago, I wanted to find a way to speak to the brands we worked with, communicate our way of working and share the subsequent results in a way that cut through the noise.  This method still forms the basis of how we run Evergreen today.

With so many channels and so much data, I needed a way to simplify everything so I could relay to a client what the data was showing in a clear, concise and consistent way.

This desire to see the big picture and analyse all of the data would later manifest itself into a core philosophy that is at the heart of this guide, and is an integral element of the Four Pillars mentioned earlier: Digital marketing that cuts through the noise.

The Four Pillars, explained

For years, Evergreen has grouped a brand’s traffic, visibility, sales and revenue into Four Digital Marketing Pillars, or BONE: 

  • Buy it
  • Own it
  • Nurture it
  • Earn it

Or, in other words, the Backbone of Digital Marketing.

These four pillars serve as the digital foundation for every brand, regardless of size, sector or service.

By taking your various platforms and channels and grouping them into The Four Pillars, it allows you to quickly see which areas of your digital marketing are working and where more work is needed.

Essentially, the first step in improving your digital marketing performance is knowing where you stand today. The Four Pillars will help you do just this.

Let’s take a look at how these work.

The Backbone of Digital Marketing, explained

Chapter 1: Buy It

These days, there are many pay-to-play platforms for brands to choose from. No matter what format this takes, most brands will actively buy their traffic in one form or another.

This may be from:

  • Google/Microsoft Ads
  • Paid Social Ads
  • Affiliate/Programmatic Ads

Brands often rely on purchasing ads to get their product or service in front of their potential customers quickly. Google owns over 80% of the UK search market, and digital search ads dominance is set to continue globally, predicted to grow annually by up to $17.9bn in 2026.

And so we form the first pillar: Buy it.

As a core pillar, it’s essential to know how dependent your brand is on buying your traffic and revenue.

You can identify the various channels and platforms your brand is using to buy traffic in your preferred analytics tool.

Use it to calculate the percentage of your revenue, traffic and sales that can be directly attributed to advertising scales.

Chapter 2

Generally attributed as direct traffic, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of the traffic arriving directly on your website is customers who already know you, potentially returning or searching directly for your brand via a bookmark or by directly inputting your URL.

Every brand will own a majority of search traffic by loyal and returning customers who search for them by name. In other words, it’s traffic that a brand owns by association.

The data always looks great for brand searches. Brands see higher-than-average engagement numbers, good purchase intent numbers and high recurring revenue. This will stem from:

  • Returning customers
  • Brand searches
  • Brand advocates

Most brands have a sizeable reliance on brand searches and returning customers. These customers are important, but can also limit your brand growth.

A crucial takeaway – Many reporting tools will default to direct traffic result reporting if the source of the traffic is unknown. This means that reporting tools can inflate the numbers and paint an unrealistic picture of how dependent your brand is on direct search traffic.

Cross-referencing your direct traffic with the brand search in Google Search Console is a good way to get a realistic idea of the true volume of earned traffic.

Chapter 3

So much is written about client lifetime value (LTV), average customer value and customer return rates. There is a lot to be said for building rapport to convert consumers into customers.

One of the best ways for a brand to do this? Nurture its customers. By grouping these techniques into one pillar, you can better understand your reliance on these techniques to identify what you’re working with and how successful your campaigns are.

You can nurture your customer base through recognised and practised techniques including:

  • Email marketing
  • Social media & influencers
  • Referral & partner relationships

Recognised as the third pillar, brands need to nurture users in their ecosystem in order to establish brand growth.

Nurtured traffic is hugely important for many brands, some of which will already do this incredibly well. Other brands, however, largely ignore or discount the nurturing phase of digital marketing, and set their focus elsewhere.

Chapter 4

Organic traffic is the hardest traffic to get, but it has the potential to yield the greatest overall lifetime value for a brand. Search engine optimisation is the primary driver for brands and is the leading method for earning the organic traffic coming to your website. Bearing the potential of SEO in mind, it naturally plays an integral role in how brands can elevate, understand and benchmark their digital marketing performance.

When a brand gets its organic strategy right, it can open the floodgates to new customers, increase visibility and generate huge online brand awareness. However, when most brands dig deeper into the numbers, the disparity between owned traffic vs earned traffic is often surprising.

Over the years this has become more difficult to accurately measure, owing to various reasons with privacy and data being just one of them. That said, by cross-referencing your organic search data with the brand search volume data (using tools like Google Search Console), you can estimate how much of your traffic you are ‘earning’ when you exclude the brand searches (the owned traffic).

Everything arriving on a brand’s website via organic search (SEO, Content Marketing and Promotion & PR) is the traffic you earn. By their very nature, the traffic and sales that are earned are often the hardest to gain.

  • SEO
  • Content marketing
  • Promotion & PR

Chapter 5

How to use the Four Pillars concept

This is the Four Pillars digital marketing concept.

Now we’ve looked at the Four Pillars in detail, the next step is to understand your current resource distribution and reliance on each of the Four Pillars. Being able to divide the channels into four clearly defined pillars allows us to see where a brand is focused, optimised and most reliant.

To be as robust as possible within your digital marketing, you want to ensure you do not have an over-reliance on any one of the Four Pillars. There are many reasons why this is important, not least to ensure your brand isn’t overly effected by algorithm updates, by competitors in your market or by trends and changes in consumer behaviours. The best brands are those who have a healthy mix of reliance across the Four Pillars.

Let’s see some examples to understand how this may look for a brand. 

Example 1 – Home & Garden brand

Setting the scene: A home & garden client advises they have made £2m worth of sales in the past 12 months and want to grow to £3m in the next 12 months. A 50% growth rate in a year is ambitious but not unobtainable with the right digital strategy.

A review of their channel attribution for the past 12 months shows:

Backbone pie chart - home & garden

Summary: Clearly an established brand, they are heavily reliant on direct (owned) traffic representing 45% of their total revenue in the past 12 months. This is potentially hard to scale/grow as there are only so many people searching for their brand at any one time.

Email (nurtured) traffic only represents 10% of their revenue, so exploring what opportunities and areas for growth exist in this area would be wise.

Google/Meta Ads (bought) traffic represents 27.5% of their total revenue. Being able to isolate how reliant this brand is on ‘buying it’, then taking this a step further and investigating how much was invested into that pillar to generate the return will allow us to calculate what role buying more traffic can play in the overall digital growth strategy.

Organic (earned) traffic looks healthy at 17.5% in the past 12 months, knowing this we can reverse-engineer what is working and look at what else could be done and what role earning more traffic/sales can play in the wider digital marketing strategy.

The ideal scenario for this home and garden brand will be to increase the percentage of traffic and sales they are nurturing and earning, thus reducing their overall reliance on traffic they already own and encouraging business growth.

Example 2 – Food & Beverage brand

Setting the scene: This food & beverage brand is smaller with just £600k sales in the previous 12 months. They are keen to break the £1m barrier in ecommerce sales in the year ahead.

A review of their channel attribution for the past 12 months shows:

Food & Beverage Pie Chart

Summary: This brand is overly reliant on direct (owned) traffic which makes up 66% of their overall revenue. We can expect to see lots of brand search and potentially repeating customers – depending on the brand and their products. Their organic (earned) traffic is making up the rest at 33%.

This brand hasn’t yet started exploring the nurturing and buying pillars for digital marketing growth. There’s clearly huge potential for growth by exploring the untapped opportunities within the buying and nurturing pillars.

With the goal of £1m+, we can now look at what reliance we want this brand to have on each of the Four Pillars and how much value and investment each will require. This approach prevents a brand from growing their top-line revenue and having all its eggs in one basket.

Example 3 – Fashion brand

Setting the scene: This brand has had sales of £5m in the previous 12 months. They want to grow by 20% year-on-year and want to invest more in Google Ads, as they can see that yielding a return.

A review of their channel attribution for the past 12 months shows:

Fashion & Retail Pie Chart

Summary: This ecommerce brand is increasingly becoming reliant on ‘buying it’ and that’s potentially a dangerous path to follow, particularly as they have advised they want to do even more of it.

By grouping as we have we can see half of their total sales are attributed to ‘buying it’ channels. A further 25% is attributed to email (nurtured) traffic and just 5% is attributed to organic (earned) traffic.

With so much revenue being generated through advertising (‘buying it’), it highlights that the focus should be on capitalising on search trends with an organic search campaign instead of putting even more of their budgets into buying it. We’d certainly encourage exploring this and the data almost immediately highlights areas of focus and that is the point.

This fashion brand needs to diversify it’s reliance on the traffic it is buying, otherwise it runs the risk of losing market share/sales if (or when) a competitor decides to be more aggressive with their bidding strategy.

Chapter 6

Improving the Four Pillars

By utilising the Backbone of Digital Marketing concept, brands can quickly and easily map out how each marketing technique, or pillar, plays in the overall brand growth strategy. By knowing where your growth is coming from, and your brand’s reliance for each marketing technique, you can better align to the Four Pillars and distribute your marketing efforts accordingly.

We firmly believe that the most robust brands ensure their digital marketing is not overly reliant on any one pillar. Rather, brands should aim to evenly distribute their reliance across the four core marketing pillar with 25% attributed to each.

Every digital marketing channel plays an important role, each has it’s merits and risks. By ensuring your brand isn’t over-reliant on any one of the Four Pillars, you can be confident your brand can withstand changes in consumer and competitor behaviours and market fluctuations.

How to align your current resource distribution

Some useful questions to ask yourself are:

  • Which Pillars need the most work?
  • Which Pillars have the biggest growth opportunities?
  • Which Pillars are you underutilising?
  • Which Pillars are you most confident with?
  • Which Pillars are you not so confident with and why?

By analysing your reliance on each pillar and asking yourself the six key questions you will quickly establish an action plan for what to do next.

Do you have a defined strategy?

Many brands have an overall digital marketing strategy, what is often lacking is a strategy per channel, or in our case per pillar.

Ask yourself:

  • Does your brand have a defined strategy for how you buy it?
  • How will you increase the amount of traffic you own?
  • How will you grow the customers you are nurturing?
  • How will you increase the traffic you earn?

Do you have a clear timeline?

Buying it can often be the quickest route to market, while earning it can be a longer-term strategy. Having clear and realistic timeframes in mind for each pillar is an important step to take to ensure you’re being realistic and not setting yourself up for failure.

Do you have a plan of action?

With a strategy and timeline clear, you need a plan per pillar. What needs doing, how it will be done, when it will happen and who is responsible for making it happen?

Do you have the required resources/expertise?

This is all about your people and your budget. Most brands have an in-house marketing team to some extent but they often lack the digital and technical expertise needed to make things happen.

Understanding the resource and budget you have as well as what you’re going to need per Pillar makes everything much more achievable. You may have to prioritise one pillar over another or delay something while the resource is used elsewhere. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Do you have clear targets and goals?

This is obvious but incredibly important. You need to set clear targets and goals for each of the Four Pillars. This ties everything back to your current reliance and what you want your future reliance to look like.

If you know where you are today, you can create targets and goals so you know what needs to be achieved.

Do you track and measure performance?

It’s unbelievable how many brands have a digital marketing report, which lacks a channel breakdown. It’s imperative that you track and measure the performance of each of your pillars.

It’s only with this kind of insight that can you truly measure and track your brand’s overall digital marketing performance.

Analysing your competitors’ digital marketing channel reliance

While you’re unlikely to have the same level of data access for your competitors as you do for your own brand, there are still lots of ways for you to take this concept and apply it to your competitors.

You be able to get an insight into which channels they are focusing on, how much they’re relying on owned vs earned traffic and how aggressive they are being with their nurturing (email and social media) and buying (paid advertising) activity.

Wrapping up

We hope you have found The Backbone of Digital Marketing a useful resource and can take this concept and deploy it into your brand. Remember, knowledge is power, but digital marketing doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Keep it simple, stupid.

Fancy discovering how our Backbone of Digital Marketing concept could work for your brand? Get in touch. Lastly, please do connect with me on LinkedIn.

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