Digital marketing is hot. Has been for years now, and 2014 was no different.

But by hot, what do we mean?

Hot as in products are killing it for organizations -- churning out ROI like it's going out of style? Hot as in innovation is at an all-time high, with different products and features hitting the market daily? Hot as in having a digital platform is a MUST for any marketer?

Some of this is happening, we're sure. But in 2014, it seemed like digital marketing was hot simply because, well, people were talking about it.

We really didn't see a leader. A clear visionary. An innovative concept that no one had that just flipped the industry upside down, much like when a Harvard dropout wanted to connect college kids online more than 10 years ago.

Lots of Hype

Don't get us wrong. We saw innovation -- from the big boys and the not-so-big ones. We saw success stories. But like many emerging technologies over the past 40 years, we saw hype. A lot of it.

Hype versus innovation in digital marketing -- which one won? There are about 1,000 marketing technology platforms and who knows how many more third-party add-ons and features. 

Pitch after pitch. We offer personalization. We offer actionable analytics. Social listening. Retargeting. Marketing automation. Who can blame the vendors? You gotta make your case.

Trouble is, we didn't see all that much differentiation between these 1,000 vendors. That's not to say the vendors didn't have anything to offer. It's just that what they offered was pretty much in the same ballpark.

Gartner in its Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing, 2014 reported that digital marketers aren't prepared to justify their strategies and produce ROI.

"Making matters worse are tech providers," Gartner researchers wrote, "that prey upon marketers' desire to make their mark through innovation and don't clearly articulate risks associated with a particular technique or technology."

All the Same

For me, no one this year summed up better the state of digital marketing -- particularly the social aspect -- than Jeffrey Doak, vice president of social measurement for Team Detroit. Speaking at the eMetrics Conference in Boston in October, Doak said social listening vendors are all the same.

"The fundamental thing a listening company does is pull in data from essentially the same source," Doak said. "They do a little cleaning and indexing, and then they display the numbers. Their secret sauce is that they would have sentiment analysis and topic analysis and things like that."

What Marketers Want

A lot of these digital marketing vendors are the same. So what do you do as a user of the technology looking for a platform that works for your company?

What do you as a digital marketer? How do you break through the hype?

Of all the industry conferences we've been to in 2014 -- and the endless interactions we've had via phone, social media and webinars -- it comes back to a few pillars:

  • What can give you qualified leads?
  • What solves your actual business problems?
  • What allows you flexibility and customization?
  • Who has good support programs?
  • What's affordable?

Build vs. Buy

The build versus buy your marketing cloud debate -- heightened when we went to the Marketing Technology Conference in Boston in August -- harmoniously fits this discussion.

Go with a big vendor? Stick with best-of-breed and constantly integrate? Just look at what practitioners told us. It really depends.

What really matters in digital marketing is cutting through the hype and solving your company's business needs. Remember, as we learned at that Marketing Technology Conference, there really is no such thing as a digital marketer anyway -- it's marketers living in a digital world.

No hype there.

Title image by thtstudios(Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license