Digital marketing skills are hot right now. The internet has given back power to the buyer. Businesses can no longer grow a business with smooth-talking salespeople alone – they have to make use of technologies like online advertising, web design, search engines, and so much more to close deals. A Google search can make the difference in someone’s buying decision.
Because of these changes, the industry is set to grow by 10% by 2026, above average for all professions. As automation threatens unskilled workers, more and more people are flocking to digital marketing for lucrative careers or the opportunity to start and grow their own business.
The latter is what attracted me to the field.
Why am I qualified to write this?
After spending the first year after college graduation exploring a few career options, I figured out I’m not much of a corporate career guy. I decided to start a web design agency instead (I’d been learning on the side for a few months). Over the course of a year this snowballed into a full-service digital marketing agency focused on helping local small businesses in Austin and around the United States grow. I’ve been running the agency for two years now and we’ve grown to a team of three, working with dozens of companies in a variety of industries.
In late 2019, the University of Texas at Austin reached out to me to work as a Teaching Assistant for their 24-week Digital Marketing Bootcamp. Teaching and facilitating their extensive and in-depth curriculum has solidified many of the skills and lessons I’ve learned since starting this journey into marketing and entrepreneurship. In fact, I’m really writing this for students coming into the bootcamp program as well as a bunch of friends who’ve asked me how they can learn to do what I do.
What makes digital marketing a valuable skill set?
Digital marketing encompasses any activity a professional could take online to move someone towards a financial transaction, whether that’s optimizing a landing page or setting up an email automation campaign. Individuals who are successful at performing those activities are going to get paid by businesses who need them performed, or can start their own businesses doing the same. That said, it’s definitely not easy. Digital marketing’s difficulty creates a barrier to entry that explains why talented individuals can command strong salaries – the supply is low. Remember supply and demand from Economics 101?
However, it’s not quite sales. If salespeople are hunters, digital marketers are trappers. They are attempting to create online eco-systems that draw people in and convince them to exchange their money for a product or service the marketer has to offer. Reading that description, questions of morality should arise. It certainly sounds like it could be manipulative doesn’t it? This is why it’s vital to work for companies and people providing real value.
Why do you want to learn digital marketing? Is it worth it?
You could learn a lot of skills to make a good living. Online skills like programming, digital marketing, and copywriting are all options. Sales skills will always be valuable. The trades are killing it lately – every electrician and plumber I know is making big money. To determine whether digital marketing is worth the effort to learn, you first need to determine what you want out of your career (and your life, but that’s a question for another article). Do you want security? Do you want to work remotely and travel the world? Do you want to work in the coolest places for the most prestigious companies? Are you introverted or extroverted? What do you actually like to do?
Personally, I’d dreamed of traveling the world in style since I was pre-teen. I probably read too many fantasy and sci-fi books full of grand globe-trotting adventures. I chose digital marketing so that I could do creative work, live anywhere, be self-employed, and make a good living. In hindsight it was an obvious path to my end goal but the first step was finding clarity and honesty on what I REALLY wanted from my career.
You have to do the same for yourself or you’ll never be motivated to do all the hard, unpaid, after hours work required to build a new skill set. The good news is that once you know what you want, it’s a lot easier to figure out what to do to get there. Then you’ve just gotta keep showing up and doing the work.
Is digital marketing interesting?
Digital marketing is a stunningly broad field. You can spend all day designing beautiful websites and graphics, or maybe you spend your day crunching numbers to determine the efficacy of your company’s Google ads. Maybe you work in strategy, or maybe you pump out optimized articles to rank well on search engines. If you can stand spending 8+ hours a day on the computer, which can admittedly be grueling, digital marketing can offer more than enough stimulation for a creative and inquisitive mind.
Most of the skills have some carry over, so when you get bored you can always move horizontally in your company’s marketing department and try something new. If it’s a small company or you’re a freelancer, you’ll probably end up executing a range of different marketing activities anyway.
For example, as the founder of a small agency, my work is incredibly varied. On any given day I might be on a sales call with a lead for the agency, set up Facebook and Instagram ads for a spa, write an article like this, build a website, put together a marketing plan for a new app, manage my team, organize our books, send out email newsletters, plan a side business, or about a million more things. I get stressed, and I get sick of looking at a damn screen, but I don’t get bored.
What are the pros to a career in digital marketing?
There are always new projects and new clients to work on, as well as new skills, tactics, and strategies to learn. The digital marketing field is technology-driven, which means change is fast and constant.
Related to the variety of the field, there are so many learning opportunities in online marketing. There are “left-brain” skills like data analysis, and “right-brain” skills like web design. Videography, photography, advertising, design, writing, management and more all play a part in the field, which means there is opportunity for every kind of person.
According to Glassdoor, the average salary in the digital marketing industry is $57,473/yr, which is above average for every age bracket. The best part is the field is mostly skills-based. Degrees are still respected, but if you can prove your Google ads campaigns consistently get a ROAS (return on ad spend) of 2000% I can guarantee you’ll find a good job.
Most, but not all, digital marketing jobs are possible to perform remotely. Some of the ones that aren’t are photographers and videographers, but even there photos and videos can be edited remotely. A lot of bigger companies also like you to come into an office regularly, but there are plenty of small companies and startups that are more laissez faire. Almost any agency’s work will be done 95% remotely – I have never met at least half of our clients in real life.
Online marketing operates on the edge of technological innovation. Facebook and Google, the leading tech companies of our era, both generate most of their revenue from selling ads. Amazon is just a big vertically-integrated e-commerce store. Digital marketing jobs are here to stay, especially considering the changes in consumer buying behavior in the aftermath of covid-19. Some tasks we currently do manually will be automated, as many have before, but so far automation has only increased the complexity and sophistication of online marketing campaigns. It has not reduced the number of people working in the industry and it continues to grow fast.
What are the cons to a career in digital marketing?
Spending the majority of your day, 5 days a week (and probably more if you’re self-employed – I’m writing this on a Saturday afternoon) at a computer takes its toll. My eyesight and posture have definitely gotten worse since I started working in the digital marketing field.
Like I mentioned before, if you’re marketing a product or service you don’t believe in you might feel slimy. Like sales, your job is to convince people to buy something. Make it something that improves their life for a reasonable price.
Lack of Purpose
Online marketing isn’t going to save many lives. You’re not a doctor, or a firefighter, or some kind of hero. You’ll be a business person, basically a merchant. The job is all about money and trade. If that doesn’t sound fulfilling to you, marketing might not be the right career. However, it is wonderful to see your clients grow and succeed thanks to your efforts and you can make a difference in people’s lives with these skills.
If you specialize you’ll probably be doing pretty similar tasks day in and day out. To be successful in the modern economy you need to specialize to some extent or you’ll be out-competed by those that do. Some people like mastering and then using a skill over and over, while others get bored once they “get it”. I’m more of the 2nd person, so I push myself to constantly learn new skills and strategies in the digital marketing field.
Most of digital marketing is numbers-driven. It is always clear whether your article is getting views, or your ad is getting clicks, or your website is getting visits. This means there is no hiding poor performance. There are also a lot of talented competitors out there, so as soon as your performance slips your client is likely to try another service provider (or your boss a new employee). This can all lead to stress. Not everything you do will work and it sucks when it doesn’t.
After reading all that, if you think digital marketing could be a good career for you, then it is time to take action. You need to start learning skills. Here is a non-exhaustive list of profitable skills you could learn to get an entry-level job in the industry:
- PPC (Pay-Per-Click Advertising)
- SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
- CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization)
- Social Media
- Content Marketing
- Web Design
- Graphic Design
- Data Analysis
- Email Marketing
I have dabbled in all of these and specialized in a couple (web design and PPC). I recommend you choose 1-3 that seem particularly interesting to you and learn as much as you can about them. There are a few ways to do that.
Learning from a quality instructor online is probably the cheapest and easiest way to dip your toe in the water and find out if digital marketing is really a good fit for you. Udemy has a ton of great resources and is my first stop when looking to learn a new skill. I learned most of what I know about web design from Team Treehouse. LinkedIn Learning also has a bunch of relevant courses and automatically adds certifications to your LinkedIn profile to help you stand out to recruiters. Finally, YouTube has an endless supply of free educational content of varying quality.
If you’re ready to commit and take things to the next level, you could enroll in a digital marketing bootcamp. These are not cheap. The UT Austin bootcamp I was a Teaching Assistant and Substitute Instructor for is over $10,000 for a 6 month curriculum. Between class and homework, the students spent 20+ hours a week learning online marketing skills in addition to their regular lives, jobs, and families. It is not easy but most of the students were able to make a career change before the bootcamp ended.
Getting paid to learn is always my favorite way to go. If you can spin some previous experience as relevant and you’re still young, you might be able to find an internship in digital marketing. A quick search on Indeed returned over 1,000 open internet marketing internships.
Once you’ve learned a skill or two, I recommend hanging out your shingle on platforms like UpWork and Fiverr as well as throughout your network. Like internships, freelance gigs are a great way to get paid to learn. You probably won’t be able to charge much at the start, but your rates will increase as your skills improve. Just remember, you’re doing this to learn, not to make a $1,000,000 fast.
To get a taste of the range of digital marketing specialities, you should really try what I’ve seen referred to as “sandboxing”. Sandboxing is a learning strategy by which you start an online business with the express purpose of learning new skills and technologies. For example, you could start a blog about your favorite topic (not marketing!) or a small business selling some product. I still use a clothing e-commerce store called Austin Access for this purpose. We’ve used it to test different graphic design technologies, web design platforms, Pinterest ads, Etsy stores, and more. We’ve even sold a few dozen t-shirts and leggings in the process!
In the process of setting up an online business, you’ll run the gamut of digital marketing challenges, like branding, logo design, website design, product photography, SEO, social media, content marketing, and everything else. It also makes a great portfolio piece to show potential employers if you manage to do it all yourself.
So, should you learn digital marketing? It can be a great career choice for the right kind of person. It is not an easy field to break into or be successful in, but the rewards are worth it. If you think it might make sense for you, take an online course or try a small project of your own and see how you feel after. With 3-6 months of hard work, you could be ready to start applying to internships and entry-level jobs or even open a freelance business. I can’t wait to hear where your brand new adventure in the wild world of internet marketing takes you.