How to Start a Career in Digital Marketing

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Do you want a career in a high-growth industry in which skilled professionals and dedicated individuals with a drive to learn are both in high demand?

A career in an industry that values diverse skill sets, from creatives and analysts to mathematicians and techies?

A career that could land you your choice of in-house or agency roles, but also lends itself to remote working and freelancing?

Then digital marketing could be the path for you.

Intrigued?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 8% growth for advertising, promotions, and marketing manager positions between 2018-2028, and from what I’ve seen, that’s probably at the low end. The median pay for those positions is listed at $135,900 per year, or $65.34 per hour.

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There are currently more than 36,000 individual job listings on Indeed for the keyword “digital marketing.”

And between 2018 and 2023, Chief Marketing Officers are expected to spend almost $150 billion on digital marketing. With so much money on the line, it’s no wonder digital talent is in such high demand. 

Under the umbrella term of digital marketing, you could choose to specialize in content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing (SMM), email marketing, pay-per-click, data analysis, or many others.

And here’s the best part: unlike many industries, you don’t need any formal qualifications in order to get started (although they certainly won’t hurt you, either). Knowledge, talent, and a drive to learn are valued by most employers far more than academic credentials. Results matter more than a piece of paper.

In fact, until recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find any professional qualifications that focused solely on digital. Even now, they are far and few between when compared to other industries and professions.

While a degree might be nice if you want to go that route (Search Engine Journal has created a great list of some of the better online and on-campus programs available), it’s in no way necessary. I, like many people in this industry, have gotten where I am through sheer determination and hard work.

You can always check out some of the free online training courses and programs like Hubspot’s content marketing certification, or the SEO Training Course by Moz, or Google’s Academy for Ads to get a leg up on the big ideas. Facebook also has a ton of qualifications to help marketers get to grips with its various digital properties. The little badges and icons you earn after completing these various courses can then be added to your website or portfolio. That’ll help you stand out from the crowd.

Want to follow in my footsteps? Here’s the roadmap.

Read everything

One of my favorite things about this industry is how open we all are about sharing knowledge and experience.

Before I entered digital marketing, I worked for companies that treated the competition as actual rivals. It always felt very small-minded and petty. It really didn’t work for me or fit who I am as a person.

Thankfully, that’s rarely the vibe I get in the digital industry.

It’s a very open and trusting environment. The feeling is very much one of “all being in this together.” Big names and brands frequently collaborate together, guest post on each other’s blogs, and generally share with anyone willing to listen anytime they discover or reveal some new approach or hack. Everyone has access to stacks of data and is constantly testing new things – and they’re always happy to share the results.

I love that.

I also love that it results in a seemingly-endless stream of information for us to learn from and consume.

So what does that mean for you? The first step to landing a career in digital marketing is pretty simple: read as much as you can.

Aim to get a broad understanding of the industry as a whole. This should include (but isn’t limited to):

  • SEO
  • PPC
  • SMM (social media marketing)
  • SEM (search engine marketing)
  • Content marketing
  • Social media
  • Writing for the web
  • Email marketing
  • Growth hacking
  • Voice search
  • The marketing funnel
  • CRO (conversion rate optimization)
  • Web analytics
  • A/B and multivariate testing
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Referral marketing
  • Augmented reality
  • Mobile marketing
  • Automation
  • App marketing

But where can you find content worth reading?

My two main go-to sites are Medium and GrowthHackers. They’re both communities designed to help share and promote digital content, and they both utilize voting systems to help the best content get more visibility (though admittedly this doesn’t mean great content can’t be found further down the ranks).

As you become familiar with the sites, you may notice some publications or writers that repeatedly catch your eye. Follow them directly on social media and subscribe to their blog feeds (I recommend using Feedly for this). Check out my 15 other ways to stay on top of the hot, trending content, too.

That being said, here are a few excellent blogs and resources that are equally well worth getting sucked into:

And a few specific resources I strongly advise adding to your reading list:

Of particular interest from that list is the T-shaped marketer post by Rand Fishkin. In it, he explains the importance of having a wide breadth of knowledge but really drilling down to the expert level on at least 1-2 of them.

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It’s a fantastic way to visualize the modern digital marketer.

No matter what you want to learn or read about, you’ll find plenty of excellent resources online. Head on over to Google, and search for “beginner” or “advanced” or “definitive guide to [specific topic].” Pro tip: Click the “Tools” tab, and change “Any time” to “Past year” to see only recent and up-to-date results.    

Start a blog of your own

This might feel like a big step – especially this early on – but it’s a crazy important one: start a blog of your own. Today.

Writing your own blog forms part of a steep learning curve – teaching others is widely considered to be one of the best ways to learn, after all. It’s called the Protégé Effect. Write about the topics and ideas under the digital marketing umbrella, and you’ll be solidifying your own understanding at the same time.    

A blog also acts as evidence of your knowledge, and can be invaluable in helping you build connections, and eventually, secure a job. Demonstrate your expertise, share and promote your posts across various channels and tactics, and build your brand.

WordPress.com has everything you need starting out, but I’d advise paying the few dollars a month to remove ads and get a custom domain name.

Even better, if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious and/or you’re a little more tech savvy, register a domain name and turn to providers like Bluehost, InMotion, MilesWeb or HostGator to host your WordPress website.

Remember that at this point, your goal isn’t to build a big audience, and it certainly isn’t monetization. It’s to develop your knowledge, spread awareness, and begin creating a portfolio that acts as proof that you know this stuff, and care about learning more.

So start a blog. Do it right. And show them what you’re made of with 10x content.

Get some wins

At some point, possibly quite quickly, you’re going to get a feeling for an area or two that you’re particularly interested in, and that you feel best match your skill set.

Aim to be a T-shaped digital marketer, remember?

Hone in on these – you’re going to need to roll with them in order to start getting gigs (albeit at this point, they’re probably going to be unpaid).

So…

Find what you’re good at.

In fact, you don’t even have to be good at it – you just have to not suck.

This might be:

  • Writing articles
  • Crafting sales copy
  • Creating social media posts
  • Designing imagery and/or infographics
  • Writing text for PPC ads
  • Writing title tags and/or meta descriptions
  • Coding
  • Analytics data
  • Performing keyword research
  • Designing emails

Or one of the many, many other tasks digital marketers perform.

Once you’ve identified where you can shine (or at least, not suck), find and approach startups and offer these services. For free. Think of it like an informal internship. Paying your dues. It helps you, and it helps them.  

You’re not being expected to turn up Monday through Friday for a full-time role; you’re just completing ad-hoc tasks in order to gain experience and potentially form some valuable connections.

Use your blog as evidence of what you know so far and as proof you want to learn more. Emphasize that for the startup, this is a risk-free transaction. Not only are they not making a financial commitment by working with you, but if they don’t like what you do, they don’t have to do anything with it.

You can find details of startups on Product Hunt, the Startup Database, and TechCrunch.

Get names. Find contact details. Reach out and offer your services.

Get a real internship

Once you’ve got one or two happy “customers” under your belt, it’s time to get some real-world, in-house experience.

This is a chance to seriously learn – not just about the industry itself and the work involved in contributing to it, but what it’s like to be part of a digital team. It’s your opportunity to find out for certain whether this is a path you want to follow.

To secure an internship, you should approach:

  • Startups, or
  • Marketing agencies

Interning with startups

  • For: Potential to get lots of wide-ranging experience and take on a lot of responsibility, fast; you can really make a difference in a way that you couldn’t at a big, established brand.
  • Against: The existing team may be lacking in digital experience; startups are often extremely busy environments, so you may find yourself lacking direction.

Startups are a good bet because they’re often in need of an extra pair of hands. They should be relatively easy to get a “yes” from, and very grateful for the help.

Unfortunately, unless the startup in question already has a digital team, you’ll be on your own. It’ll be trial by fire, which can accelerate your learning, but it also means no one to learn from – no one to identify when you get things wrong and put you back on the right path.

On the plus side, startups are fast-paced and things are always changing. This will keep you on your toes and increase the variety of tasks you’re able to get involved in.

Interning with marketing agencies

  • For: Work with a wide variety of clients across different industries, giving you a broader range of experience; opportunity to learn on the job from genuine digital experts.
  • Against: Theoretically, everyone should already know what they’re doing, so you can expect to perform more basic/menial tasks than at a startup.

Your other option is marketing agencies.

Agencies rock too, in part because you get to experience lots of different industries and business models, but also because they do what you do. All being well, you’ll be working among people who can help teach you, and act as a sounding board for your ideas.

That said, regardless of who you approach and where you end up, you need to be prepared to put in a lot of grunt work.

Just because you’re working for free doesn’t automatically make you valuable. Time is money. If you’re making mistakes that someone else has to fix, or taking up significant training time, this is all in effect money to the business.

Be prepared to complete menial tasks that might not directly help your cause, in exchange for the larger lessons the company can teach you and the goals it can help you reach.

Job boards like Indeed and professional networks like LinkedIn list unpaid internships in addition to paid positions, so they should be your first port of call.

Find a mentor

In digital marketing – or any other walk of life – people don’t simply become experts on their own. We all need a little help along the way. Many of our most successful business people have been guided and influenced by mentors; think Steve Jobs offering advice to a young Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates turning to Warren Buffett for support throughout his career.

A mentor is akin to a personal guide and career coach. They’re there to answer your questions, share their experiences, and just generally help you reach the next step in your career.

Unfortunately, getting someone on board with this agreement takes time. It’s rarely as simple as approaching someone and saying: “Will you be my mentor?” That’s a huge ask and a lot of pressure. Even if they say “yes,” they might be left wondering: “What’s next?”

Instead, reach out to your favorite bloggers and ask them specific questions.

Take control of the dialogue by asking them exactly what you want to know. If they answer you, thank them, wait a few days, and ask them another question.

If you keep doing this, eventually they might actually become your mentor – even if it’s unofficial.

A little cold email outreach can go a long, long way.  

Bonus tip: Email on Saturday or Sunday mornings. If they pick up emails on the weekend, they’ll probably have more time to respond. Even if they don’t open your email until Monday morning, the fact that you’re at work on the weekends is a positive sign that demonstrates dedication and commitment to your cause. Every little bit helps…

Attend a marketing event or conference

Events and conferences are great places to learn, but more importantly, they’re great places to meet and connect with people.

To find a suitable event, look on Meetup or try Googling “Marketing conferences in [your location].”

Once you’ve decided on an event, find out who’s attending and shortlist anyone you’d like to chat with. Prioritize people who have the potential to further your career by helping to fulfill the last step in this process – getting a job.

Alternatively, you might prefer to build a list of people you want to meet, and choose which conferences to attend based on where they’re speaking.

In both cases, there’s something you should do to maximize your odds of getting a chance to speak with the right people.

Reach out to everyone you’d like to talk to before the event.

Ask them if they’re able to grab a coffee with you during the event. Chances are, they’ll say no. That’s okay. If you do manage to catch up with them on the day, you’ve already crossed that bridge. This isn’t a cold conversation. They’ve spoken to you before (however briefly), which means you’re not a complete stranger, and they’re more likely to be receptive to your approach.

What’s more, they’ve already let you down once. It’s human nature to want to avoid disappointing people, so it’s unlikely they will want to let you down again.

And, they just might say ‘yes’ to your email ask. You never can tell. The only surefire way to fail at this is to not reach out in the first place.

Even if they don’t have a job for you right now – or ever – there’s still so much benefit to building a strong network. Dropping the right name at the right time can open so many doors for you. And it could be an invaluable first step in getting yourself an experienced mentor.

Build your business knowledge

It’s easy to forget that people don’t just pay for “marketing.” They pay for the results of that marketing. 

When Coca-Cola drops a new ad campaign or Nike lines up a new celebrity endorsement, they’re not doing it for the sake of “doing some marketing.” They have a specific goal in mind. 

They might want to raise awareness of their brand among a specific demographic or sell more units of a certain product. 

Ultimately, they want to make money – and if your clients are in the private sector (as opposed to public-sector organizations, or charities, or non-profits), so will they.

This is where many marketers fall down. In fact, 39% of social media marketers say they’re unable to show the impact of the work they do.

As a wannabe digital marketer, you can really stand out from the crowd by demonstrating that you understand what businesses want. That you understand their customers. And that you understand how to show the ROI of your actions to a group of decision-makers who might not know (or care) about marketing.

Get comfortable with as many analytics tools as possible. Google Analytics is an obvious starting point, but there are many more – from alternatives such as Matomo, Woopra and GoSquared, to platform-specific tools like Facebook Analytics and LinkedIn Campaign Manager.

Get yourself a job

By this point, you’ll have likely been involved in the industry for a year or two, give or take.

However, if you reach this stage in more or less time, that’s okay too. This isn’t a college degree course. There are no rules about how long the process should take.

In fact, if you’re not having to work to support yourself through all of this, you might even feel ready to start job hunting in less than a year. If you’re trying to fit all this around a full-time role, it could take longer.

Do what works for you, and start job hunting when you feel ready.

One of the best places to find digital jobs is on LinkedIn. It’s the social media platform for professionals, and any agency worth their salt will be using it.

Of course, since digital is such a booming industry, it should come as no surprise that recruitment companies have jumped on the bandwagon. There are now many recruitment agencies that use recruitment agency software that specialize solely in filling digital roles. If you search Google for “[job title you want] + [your location],” you should uncover anything relevant that’s nearby.

Just remember something once you land that job.

This is a seriously fast-paced industry with best practices that can change at a moment’s notice. Taking search engine marketing as an example, Google makes thousands of updates to its algorithm every single year. Some of those updates will dramatically alter the search landscape, dropping sites off page one and catapulting others up the rankings. And that’s only one element that digital marketers need to stay on top of. To keep up, you need to be making time for digital every day. If you don’t, you can quickly fall behind.

In other words:

Never stop learning.

This is how you will progress, get promoted, and start earning more money. The wider your skill set, and the more knowledgeable you are about each area, the greater your earning potential.

It’s the manager roles that come with bigger salaries, but if you’re after a six-figure salary, you need to be aiming for consultancy and “head of” roles.

That takes time – as it does to get to the top of your game in any field. But in my experience, you can progress much faster in digital than in most disciplines – so long as you’re willing to put in some seriously hard work for a few years.

Accept that you’re probably not going to be able to learn everything you need to in order to progress while you’re on the job.

If your role is in SEO and you want to get to grips with PPC, you can’t expect your employer to have the time to teach you. In the end, you’re responsible for your own training, and in turn, your own future.

Never stop learning. Never stop trying to better yourself.

And that’s it. That’s what you need to do to start a career in digital marketing. Good luck – not that you need it. With enough dedication and hard work, you’ll make it.

The digital economy has grown at more than 3x the pace of the GDP in the States over the past decade (5.6% and 1.5%, respectively), with employees within the industry earning an average of $114,275. That’s more than 72% above the general average per worker in the country.

Now is the time. Just be sure to come back here when you’re a big name in digital to tell me about it.

Have you started your digital journey yet? What do you wish you’d known before beginning? What advice do you have for others about to take that step? Leave your comments below:





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