What is a channel strategy in marketing?

February 7, 2023
7 minute read

If you're a cord-cutting millennial, the concept of various television channels may feel like a distant memory. For marketers, however, TV channels are a great analogy for channel marketing. 

Read on for an overview of how to create an effective marketing channel strategy and how to define yours.

Defining what a channel strategy is

A channel strategy is the process of choosing certain marketing channels to reach your target audience. These channels can include online platforms, retail stores, TV advertisements, and more.

Let's stick with our TV channel analogy for a minute. In marketing, a channel strategy refers to what channels your audience is currently watching. This knowledge can inform where you place your ads so that your audience sees them.

Some channels (like retail stores or certain social media platforms) may be high-value places to advertise your business. Other channels may be less useful. Just as a commercial on daytime television reaches a certain segment of your audience, an email marketing blast might reach a specific marketing persona that your TikTok ads won't.

A good marketing channel strategy isn't just about where you're putting ads, though. It's also about when you're advertising to specific customers and how often. By maximizing the marketing channels where you're already performing well, you can begin to branch out and create more consistent brand messaging.

Elements of a good marketing channel strategy

A good channel strategy should have the following elements:

  • A clearly defined target market (including preferences and demographics)
  • Identified channels to reach that audience
  • Defined ad spend budget, per channel
  • What tactics you'll use to implement the plan (such as promotions or targeted display ads)

Additionally, it's always a good idea to add a phase for evaluation. Understanding which metrics you’re tracking (and which KPIs are important) can help you iterate on your strategy in the future.

How does channel strategy relate to marketing strategy?

Channel strategy is an important component of your marketing strategy. However, it is just a fraction of the activities that make up your marketing efforts.

While a multi-channel strategy with many channels can become complex, a marketing strategy has dozens of other details and tactics to consider, including things like:

  • Audience research for existing and potential customers
  • Product development
  • Market research
  • Brand identity
  • Positioning 

Think of your marketing strategy as a broad umbrella of marketing activities while your channel strategy is a more focused look at what target customers you're reaching via certain marketing opportunities. Keep in mind that you may perform different advertising or content marketing on different marketing channels.

Know your target audience

Whether you're targeting potential customers or existing customers, in order to create an effective channel strategy, you need to be advertising on the channels where your customers are.

Many times, people want to hop on the latest trends when it comes to social media marketing. While digital channels like TikTok can be great for some brands, if your prospective customers aren't on TikTok regularly, it might not be worth including it in your channel strategy.

Ultimately, certain segments of your target market are going to be active on different platforms. That’s why it's important to consider whether to be present and how present to be. Your multi channel strategy may include ads, organic content, or a mixture of both. It's best to design this around how active your audience is on the channel in question.

Know the difference between your business target audience and marketing target audience

As you develop your channel strategy and determine who it is you want to reach, it's important to recognize the difference between your business target audience and your marketing target audience.

In some cases, these will be the same. If you sell cribs, for example, your business and marketing are likely both going to be focused on expecting parents.

While there are corner cases where a family member may wind up purchasing a crib for their grandchild, generally speaking, they will know what crib the parents want, thanks in part to your marketing.

Some products and businesses allow for more variety, which means you may have to make more decisions when it comes to your channel strategy.

For example, if you're a company that sells plant-based meat alternatives, you have a few different markets you could appeal to. Marketing to vegans makes sense, since these prospective customers are likely already on the hunt for plant-based meal options.

On the other hand, you could also try to expand your market with direct marketing appeals to meat eaters. Whether you develop a channel marketing campaign that appeals to meat eaters using health or environmental reasons could change which channels you choose for paid advertising. 

In fact, you may not even spend as much time or energy on channel partners where vegans are already active, since your business objectives may already be met by their existing demand.

For some business-to-business markets, it may be helpful to take a broader approach to your marketing channel strategy — even if you only sell to a specific group.

For example, if you sell appointment software for use in physician's offices, it may be the administrators who make the final call on whether or not the business adopts your product. Even so, serving some ads to doctors, receptionists, and nurses (in addition to administrators) could increase brand awareness for your product. If a nurse proposes your solution to a decision maker due to your broader channel marketing plan, that may effectively bring you more sales in the long-run.

Ultimately, your marketing objectives may be focused on finding ways to reach customers in a more specific way

Defining your marketing channel strategy

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you work to build a customer journey, aiming to serve relevant content to the right customers in the right places.

Marketing channels to consider

There are a plethora of direct channels you might consider then building a marketing channel strategy. Here is just a partial list to get your brainstorming started:

  • Advertising on social media like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter TikTok, Pinterest, and Snapchat
  • Search engine marketing (paid ads on search engine results pages)
  • Flyers or displays in brick-and-mortar stores
  • Direct mail pieces
  • Print ads in newspapers or magazines
  • Organic or sponsored website content
  • Affiliate marketing, brand ambassadors, or influencers

When weighing the pros and cons of any of the above advertising options for your marketing channel strategy, remember that it's important to match customer experience with the channel you're using. A few tips to help you achieve a good match are:

  • Look at data showing where your audience spends time online: Facebook is still quite popular with millennials and older demographics, whereas Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok skew younger.
  • Keep in mind that different markets value certain channels differently: In the United States, many jobseekers use Glassdoor to research companies. In Europe, Glassdoor is much less popular.
  • Analyze current customer data if customer retention is a priority: If you're trying to retain existing clients or customers, you can analyze engagement on your existing channels to see if one channel may be best to reach this segment.

Spend some time using the above list to brainstorm other channels with the rest of your marketing team. Just because an idea gets tossed out doesn't mean that it's going to be something you want to use in your channel strategy. However, if you have a broader list to work from, you may find that attracting new customers is easier than you think.

If you're struggling to come up with an exhaustive list of channels to consider, try reverse-engineering your list by first considering specific buyer personas or audiences. Thinking of a category like "gamers" may make you think about advertising on Reddit or mobile device ads for mobile games. A category like "commuters" may spark ideas of reaching a large audience by purchasing a billboard ad on a busy expressway or taking out radio ads during popular commute times.

What is possible within your marketing budget?

Of course, not every small business is able to spend money to be everywhere their customers are all the time. Even companies trying to reach a large audience would do well to focus on a smaller amount of channels as they scale up their channel marketing efforts.

If you can't afford to be visible on YouTube, TikTok, Google, and Instagram year-round, determine if there are specific products and channels that make sense to pair together each quarter.

Repurpose your content in a smart way

If you can create a piece of content like a video, and double dip in multiple channels, you can stretch your marketing budget. For example, a three-minute video could be uploaded to YouTube and put in an email that you send to your audience. That same video can also be edited down to shorter clips and served on Instragram, TikTok, and Snapchat as an ad.

In order to make the most of your marketing budget and channel strategy, you'll want to talk to your boss, finance team, or CMO. They can advise you on what is (and isn't) worth spending money on in their eyes, which can help to refine your marketing strategy. If you can make a good case for a one-off trial to potentially increase sales with a niche channel, you might be able to score some extra funding to experiment, too.

Focus on one thing first, do it well, then move onto more channels

Most marketing strategies are multifaceted, but in order to find the right channel partners, it's best to start small. Direct mail might be great for reaching certain target audiences with your business, but it can be costly to go all-in while also running weekly social ads. Starting small before scaling ensures you are collecting and measuring sound data to inform future marketing efforts.

Take, for example, Funnel. We were focused on optimizing ad performance, which we achieved this one step at a time. At first, we focused only on search engines. Once we had achieved sustained success on that channel, we moved on to social media.

From there, we were able to start including things like content marketing and partner marketing in our channel strategy. By growing organically, we ensured that our growth was sustainable and that we were giving each channel our best effort before moving on to the next.

Recap: what is a channel strategy in marketing?

At its heart, a channel strategy in marketing refers to the different advertising platforms and materials you use to reach your customers.

Since the various channels you can market with are growing and evolving every year, it can be easy to get overwhelmed if you consider them all at once. By zeroing in on your target market and target audience, you can begin to whittle away at less useful channels to discover what really works.

As you're doing all of this, it's a good idea to keep your budget in mind, since that can also impact where (and how often) you place certain ads. In some cases, you'll have to get creative and find ways to repurpose content across channels. At other times, you'll just have to focus on a certain channel for a limited period of time.

While it can be daunting to start a channel marketing strategy from scratch, if you start small and build from there, you'll soon be able to reach your audience effectively and efficiently.