No-BS Advice for Starting Your Digital Marketing Career

I was recently asked on a podcast what advice I would give new college graduates starting a digital marketing career.

I gave an answer off the top of my head, which I think was okay. But I’ve also got a little sister who just graduated, so after I did the podcast, I ended up thinking more about what my response would be.

This post is what I told her (and would tell others in the same position).

A career in digital marketing is exciting because of the endless possibilities and paths, but that same aspect of it makes it daunting, overwhelming, and often confusing.

Note that marketing advice should always come with a grain of salt: this is based on my experience, so it’s going to be biased by my perception. In the end, you’ve always got to forge your own path and make your own choices. But if I can be one data point that helps you map out those steps, then this article will have been useful.

The Three Digital Marketing Career Differentiators

There are so many different types of digital marketing jobs out there, and your path on each of these routes will differ. But these three pillars are important no matter which specialty you choose:

  1. Deeply know something specific
  2. Be able to communicate that knowledge to others
  3. Connect and build a network

Or in other words: expertise, communication, and connection. These matter whether you’re entry-level or at the top of the online marketing field.

These are fairly obvious at the high level, but I don’t think most people understand the extent of the specifics and what it actually means to “network” or develop a speciality. So I’ll cover each of those pillars in detail.

The other piece is that you have to follow your own inclinations. For example, many posts will tell you to go into a specific area, like “data science” or “social media.”

The problem with this advice is twofold.

First, it’s impossible to predict which fields or specialties are going to be the most in-demand and opportune in the future (beyond the next few years).

Second, even if you could predict that a specialty was the most lucrative, if you hate doing it you’ll never be the best at it (and you’ll live a less rewarding, more stressful life).

Know thyself, right?

Deeply Know Something Specific

The world is filled with people who don’t know what they’re doing, especially at a deep and technical level.

At a certain level, we’re all making it up as we go. You will be too.

This is inevitable, even at the highest levels of a trade. There will never be full certainty or clarity as to what you’re doing or what decisions you make.

But you can pick a subject and get really fluent in it. You can be a beacon of light and stability for others looking to learn about a subject, and you can charge people a lot of money to do this thing or consult them on this thing.

The landscape of specialities to learn in digital marketing is, in some aspects, limitless and always changing. That’s because new platforms and technologies arise, new jobs are created, and old ones are deprecated. However, at this point in time, these are some of the top areas to dive deeply into:

  • SEO (search engine optimization)
  • Social media marketing / Social media strategy
  • Content marketing / content management
  • Inbound marketing
  • PPC and SEM (digital advertising, search engine marketing, Google Ads, etc.)
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Mobile marketing and ASO (app store optimization, like SEO for app stores)
  • Copywriting
  • Email marketing
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • Referral marketing
  • Design and web development (WordPress, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Figma, Sketch)
  • Demand generation (broadly speaking)
  • Brand marketing and brand awareness (a lot of “traditional marketing” falls into this, too)
  • Interactive / field marketing
  • Marketing automation
  • Ecommerce marketing

At the end of the day, your job is to attract and convert more potential customers to your business. There are many ways to do that.

Again, depending on how you categorize the disciplines, there could be more specialties there, but those are the big ones. As you can see, there are many marketing roles you can inhabit, and they span an array of disciplines and skills.

I also think there are core disciplines that you should have some understanding of no matter what specialty you pick (but you can also go deep on these):

  • Strategy (knowing the different marketing strategies you can employ)
  • Analytics (knowing how to understand data and use tools like Google Analytics)
  • MarTech (knowing which marketing tools are useful for which purposes)

On Digital Marketing Career Titles

You may end up with a fairly broad title like “digital marketer,” “digital marketing manager,” “marketing specialist,” or “digital marketing specialist,” but it’s still a good idea to become deeply specialized in a given discipline. This helps you reach new heights as your career path and digital marketing skills progress.

You may also start out in a more specific role with a specific title like “SEO specialist,” “social media manager,” or “content writer.” This doesn’t preclude you from moving to other specialties, but it does give you a head start to deeply learn that which you’ve been hired to do.

For the record, I picked conversion rate optimization and experimentation as my deep expertise. But it didn’t start that clear. I started as more of a generalist digital marketer.

When I graduated college, I knew I eventually wanted to build my own companies, so I knew I wanted to join an early stage tech startup. I did this (joining a pre-seed stage startup in Austin), and I learned about pretty much every aspect of launching a business, from sales to customer success to product to marketing.

But then I found myself getting more and more interested in this emerging field of “growth hacking,” or simply “growth” as it’s known now. I particularly liked articles on A/B testing that I read on Andrew Chen’s blog and Sean Ellis’s content.

When I had the chance to join CXL as a growth and content marketer, I jumped into it. The founder, Peep Laja, was the biggest name in the space, and I knew I could learn a ton from the experience.

On Digital Marketing Career Mentors

Side note: having a mentor will speed you up. But the idea of “getting a mentor” is nebulous and stressful. You’ll almost always be able to get a mentor simply by being curious, ambitious, and proactive, not by emailing random influencers asking them to be a mentor. So don’t worry as much about finding a mentor, but rather worry about becoming someone people want to mentor.

I did learn a ton from the experience. I got direct mentorship from Peep and the team, but I also got to work with clients and learn CRO hands-on.

Moreover, I got to network with the best in the business through the conferences we hosted and the blog I wrote on. I pretty much got paid to learn about CRO and to write about it (thus building my personal brand, which I’ll cover in the next two sections).

After this experience, I was highly recruitable because I had a specific depth of knowledge about a specific subject people cared about. No longer was I subject to convincing others of my abilities in one of many areas. I knew I didn’t want to work on social media or brand; I wanted to work on growth and CRO, and the companies who wanted a specialist in that area knew to reach out to me because of the small reputation I had built there.

That reputation (built through experience and blog posts I wrote) landed me at HubSpot where I worked for 4 years on freemium growth.

Explore First: Why Startups Are a Great Option

You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do right away. In fact, I think joining a startup can be helpful for two reasons:

  • You’ll do more than one job
  • You’ll learn how to be proactive and work hard and smart

There’s a concept in machine learning / artificial intelligence known as the explore / exploit problem or the multi-armed bandit problem.

Imagine a hundred slot machines with varying expected values (i.e. each one pays out better or worse), but you don’t know which one has the highest expected value. Your strategy, then, is to first explore the selection by pulling each arm. As you start to pull the arm of each slot machine, you’ll notice some give more rewards than others. So you start to pull on those more often, and you pull on the less lucrative ones less often.

This process of refinement is called “exploitation” because you’re using knowledge you gained during “exploration” to earn more rewards in future iterations.

So you want to first explore to see which career options there are and where your inclinations lie, and when you get an inkling, start exploiting that option more and more.

And startups, like I said, make you a more proactive and better worker.

There’s no safety net, and if you don’t do something, it might not get done. And there’s an unlimited array of options when it comes to what to work on, so you get good and judicious at prioritizing based on business value. There’s no time to sit around building slide decks and hosting meetings.

This attitude, when brought anywhere, will make you stand out.

There are Tons of Great Online Courses for Specific Knowledge

Unlike many other ingrates in this industry, I liked college and thought it did well to prepare me in many ways for an unclear but highly opportune career.

However, when it comes to specific knowledge, you’re not going to be able to rely on your marketing 101 classes in university.

Luckily, there are just a massive amount of courses out there for people in this industry.

I built a digital marketing course specifically for content marketers.

There’s also CXL Institute, which is world class education taught by actual practitioners. Cool thing here is they have mini degrees in broader specialties like growth, CRO, or digital analytics to build you into a T-Shaped Marketer (aka one with a broad skill set but one or two deep specialties).

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As a rule of thumb, there’s probably a good digital marketing course out there for what you want to learn and which career choice you pick. You can find them all over the place, but here are some of my favorites:

Just try to pick one taught by actual full-time digital marketing professionals, not by theorists or teachers.

Be Able to Communicate That Knowledge To Others

There’s a certain class of online influencer tha is great at communicating with people and building an audience, but they don’t actually know much about the subject they’re talking about.

You shouldn’t be this person, at least morally speaking. But you should learn as much as possible about *how* they’re able to reach as many people and resonate as they do.

You see, communication is leverage. If you run a great A/B test or email marketing campaign, but no one knows about it, did it really happen? In one sense, yes, because you’ve got the results to speak for. But the world is noisy, so unless you’re good at showcasing what you’ve done, you’ll almost certainly be overlooked for those more boisterous personas.

Communication doesn’t have to be via a given channel, but channel does matter when it comes to who you reach and how influential you are. You want to pick the channel best suited for your communication abilities as well as the place where your audience is most likely to respond.

I like writing and think I’m pretty good at it. So I started a blog in college to write about the things I was learning about marketing and advertising. I still blog, and it has brought me career opportunities, consulting opportunities, affiliate revenue, and now agency clients. Like I said, huge leverage.

You can also get great at public speaking, which also helps you connect with people and build a network (which I’ll talk about in the next section).

I know people who have picked writing on a specific network or channel – Twitter, Quora, LinkedIn, etc. – and have built huge audiences there, just speaking out their subject expertise.

I also know people who are more private that don’t want to build a “personal brand” (which is totally okay, too). But they’re still great at communicating their ideas internally via memos or slide decks (internal communications need to reflect how people in the company already communicate, lest you go unnoticed).

Communication also helps you work together with your marketing team and the broader organization. You can have all the skills and ideas in the world, but if you can’t work with others, it’s not going to work well.

This is the soft side of the equation. But if you already have a hard skill and you can learn skills like persuasion, storytelling, writing/speaking, and visualization, you’ll surpass those who are solely experts in their field but can’t communicate about it.

Connect and Build a Network

There’s the old trope: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

This isn’t totally true, because you don’t want to be a charlatan who knows nothing. But it is true that if you just know a lot of people, you’ll have more opportunities than other people will.

I read “Never Eat Alone” on my drive down to Austin after college and it really changed how I thought about my career. I began to look at “networking” as something not only critical to my career success, but something fun I could incorporate into all aspects of my life. I wanted to connect with smart and interesting people; if they could help in my career, that’s great, but I began doing it for its own sake.

I’d now say that’s one of my biggest superpowers, both in career growth as well as when it comes to growing my agency (our first several clients came directly from my network).

Also, now that you can’t really plan on working at the same place your whole career, you need to look at your network as your safety net. If you lost your job today, do you have people you can reach out to? How many connections would help you get back on your feet?

Your network is wildly powerful, and it’s almost just more fun to engage with the tribe and broader community. Digital marketing can get “lonely” in a way that other fields don’t. It’s less structured, and our work is virtual, so we have less tangible ties to the outputs of our efforts. Having people – an in-crowd – to share this with is critical to your professional growth, but also to your personal satisfaction in what you do.

If you can get great at meeting people, building relationships, connecting those people, and ultimately building a tribe, you’ll do well.

Where to Work

Like I mentioned before, I think startups are a great place to start your career. But the average salary at a startup isn’t incredibly high. I wouldn’t worry about that as much as learning early in your career, but you still want to make money and judiciously pick where you work.

Glassdoor reviews are worthless. You ideally want to work somewhere that is growing quickly where you can get hands-on experience and mentorship from a more experienced marketer (one with high quality standards). Even better if you can pick a pretty visible company, because that will increase your value as you think about moving to other companies.

I think later in your career, it also helps to work for a household brand name (Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc.). People put a “halo effect” on you because of the reputation of that company.

Conclusion

A digital marketing career gives you insane optionality, but that can also breed stress and discomfort. You can add some clarity and stability by picking an area of expertise to go deep on, getting good at communicating that expertise, and building a network of like minded people.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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