The Digital Marketing Stack: Channels

Ian Lurie

This is the very last post in the digital marketing stack series! Want to start from the beginning? Click here.

Part 1: The digital marketing stack
Part 2: Infrastructure
Part 3: Analytics
Part 4: Content
Part 5: The channels – paid, earned and owned ← You are here

The channels

The channels

Channels are like pipes. They’re the machinery that puts you in front of your audience.

  • Infrastructure ensures that you can deliver to those channels and receive visitors when they respond.
  • Analytics tells you which channels bring you visitors and how they respond.
  • Content is what the audience sees on those channels.

Content is everything you transmit, from product information to videos to tweets. See my rant in the part 4 to learn more.

There are three basic kinds of channels: Paid, Earned, and Owned.

You spend money or other currency to appear on paid channels. They might include:

  • Pay per click (PPC): Google Adwords, Bing Ads, Facebook. If you pay per click, then, Product Listing Ads. These are good for agile, tracked marketing spends.
  • Pay per impression: Some programmatic buys, many kinds of banner ads, billboards, print and anything else where you pay to get eyeballs. These are good for brand building.
  • Pay for performance: Paid lead services, affiliate services. These are good if you’re going for very low volume, highly trackable performance. However, they generate real business growth about as often as bananas cure baldness.
  • Pay per action is subtly different from pay for performance. These usually charge based on engagement (Facebook paid ads), drive-tos (GPS-driven mobile) or something similar. These are still very new, but fun to play with.
  • Native ads promote content and messages in ways that look a lot like the non-paid content around them. Native advertising is controversial but highly effective and generally drives solid engagement.

I’m sure you’ll post a few that I left out in the comments.

Most paid channels tend to drive late-stage conversions. However, native and social media paid ads are fantastic content promotion tools that can fill the ‘top’ of the funnel. And, they’re relatively cheap. Use them to build earned media momentum.


You gain access to earned channels by getting people’s attention.

“Earned” implies “deserved,” but that’s not always the case these days. Someday, I’ll write a 9 million word rant about that. This is not that day.

Earned media includes:

  • Unpaid or ‘organic’ search rankings
  • Unpaid social media shares, mentions and comments
  • Citation and links from other sites
  • Good old PR mentions

Earned media is the lion’s share of digital marketing these days. Look at the typical web site’s traffic. You’ll agree with me.

But too many businesses depend on a single earned venue: Organic search. Do so at your peril. Algorithms change and even the best SEOs in the world aren’t immune. So diversify. Build your social media presence. Also add some low-cost, super-effective paid marketing.

Because “Rank number one on Google” is not a business strategy.

Earned media happens whether you create it or not. You can ‘earn’ bad media as easily as good. Never forget that.

Earned media takes time, but it scales better than any other channel. Make it the majority of your marketing mix. Otherwise, I’ll bet you lunch you’re missing out.


Owned channels are the stuff you 100% control or could control if you wanted. For example:

  • Your web site
  • Reviews you can download and transfer to another service or database
  • User-generated content (if licensed correctly)
  • Your house e-mail list (still super-valuable)
  • Any other content or assets you control and collect

Owned media is more at the mercy of infrastructure than any other channel. On the plus side, it should be more measurable, and easier to control.


Channels are where you show your face. Everything you do to solidify infrastructure, measure results and create content sets you up to reach out through channels. They’re at the top of the stack because they depend on all the elements and sit between you and the audience. Treat them as the transmission lines to that audience.

The end

You’ve read our entire Marketing Stack series. Or you cheated and jumped to the end, but I won’t judge. Either way, if you have any questions, tweet them to me, @portentint or contact me through Portent’s contact us form.

Note: Read a bit more about analytics and compare it to other parts of the stack in our Marketing Stack Explainer.

Part 1: The marketing stack
Part 2: Infrastructure
Part 3: Analytics
Part 4: Content
Part 5: The channels – paid, earned and owned ← You are here

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Hi Ian,
    There were some great soundbites in here, and some useful modes of explaining things that might come in handy when I’m talking to some of our less digitally sophisticated clients – I will quite probably be using an adapted version of your stack visualisations in a slide deck sometime soon. The interactive version is a nice touch too – I like the idea of scoring each component of the stack on the same criteria. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to put this all together!

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