Why do we call it “Digital”?

Why do we as an industry refer to online media and other emerging technologies as “Digital”?
Let’s look at the dictionary definition of the word:

digi·tal (dij′i təl, -it’l)


  1. of, like, or constituting a digit, esp. a finger
  2. having digits
  3. performed with a finger
  4. using numbers that are digits to represent all the variables involved in calculation
  5. using a row of digits, rather than numbers on a dial, to provide numerical information a digital watch, a digital thermometer
    1. designating or of data, images, sounds, etc. that are stored, transmitted, manipulated, or reproduced by a process using groups of electronic bits represented as 1 or 0
    2. of or by means of such a process, as one using a digital computer
    1. designating or of a recording technique in which sounds or images are converted into groups of electronic bits and stored on a magnetic or optical medium: the groups of bits are read electronically, as by a laser beam, for reproduction
    2. designating or of a type of radio or TV transmission and reception in which data, sounds, or images are sent or received as groups of electronic bits

As we see from the definition, cases six and seven describe digital technologies that are used in computers, television, terrestrial radio, satellite radio, the internet, and telecommunications. In fact, they are fundamental to virtually all media today. (Ask a newspaper editor or magazine writer if they could produce their content without a computer…)

The “digital” communications technology we have come to take for granted was invented by Bell Labs in the early sixties to facilitate long distance telephone calls, and has grown to become the de-facto transport for information in the post-industrial information age. Televisions are digital. Radio signals are digital. Mobile phones are digital. Electronic Billboards are digital. Theatrical films are distributed digitally. Music is distributed digitally. And of course we are all aware of the impact personal computers have made once they were connected to each other by this technology.

Yet, for reasons that are not clear, we in advertising refer to only “non-traditional” media as “digital”, when in fact all media has become digital. Our industry is being revolutionized. If you don’t believe it, ask a music industry veteran about how her world has changed because of digital technology in the past 10 years.

What does this mean for advertising? Computers are great for, among other things, storing and analyzing data. We can save just about anything to a database, then sort that information, join it to other tables of data, filter it, discover trends in it, predict future trends from it, report on it and use these reports to make decisions. With databases and intelligent (computer) programming, we can identify consumer profiles (their interests and intents) and push relevant advertising to them. Sounds profitable, and we have come to expect this from online advertising campaigns.

But wait, there’s more!

Since virtually all media is now digital, potentially we can target consumers across them. Going forward, we will be able to target TV audiences in a similar fashion as we target online audiences. Video content will be primarily distributed online. The consumer appliances now known as “Televisions” and “PC’s” will blur in functionality to the point that they may become indistinguishable. Mobile devices are essentially miniature versions of the same technology (think iPhone). With the democratization of content publishing, the consumer will have the power to directly determine the success of a marketing conversation. With a processor, memory and broadband attached to just about every display device, ROI has the potential to become substantially measurable instead of subjective.

If you’ve read this far, you get the point. We can begin to look at all media through the lens of digital technology. And, as we refine the way we conduct online advertising, (tactically, it’s a work in progress now and far from perfect) we can begin to apply these “digital” paradigms to TV, Radio and OOH. (Yes, OOH. RFID technology makes it measurable). Welcome to the brave new world of digital media.

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