How to improve your digital marketing skills

Post by Tom Baker
22 Aug 2018

To state the obvious, digital marketing is a skill (or range of skills to be more accurate) in high demand.  I don’t think there’s any doubt about this so I won’t labour the point.

There’s a wealth of opportunity for people that are determined to master digital marketing.  What frustrates me as someone that is largely self-taught is that there isn’t enough structured support for people wanting to accelerate their marketing knowledge.  As an industry, we can be far better at improving the ways we help people to acquire and more importantly apply the things they’ve watched, read and listened to.

Why should this be? I’m putting forward two main reasons for this

  1. the inherent pace of change within digital marketing and more widely in the evolution of the internet
  2. business practices and organisational structures that make it hard to put knowledge in to practice

I won’t dwell on this too much as I want to share a few solutions but this second point deserves a bit of explanation.  I’ve worked in-house for around 10 years for small and big businesses. What I’ve personally experienced is an unwillingness and/or blindness to the benefits of developing core digital marketing skills. Too often a grad goes in to a job whether its PPC, SEO, Display or any other channel and gets pigeon-holed in to that discipline without any opportunity to broaden their knowledge.  People quickly become specialised.

Whilst this is great for some, it more often than not causes careers to plateau.  That sounds like a big claim but think about it. There are thousands of people going through the same process of acquiring technical knowledge of a particular channel. This is practical knowledge that is relatively easy to acquire.  Once these people start to move in to senior roles they lack the breadth to truly understand the bigger picture – think attribution, customer behaviour, usability and so on.

To quote Mark Ritson “Everyone is a great technical marketer by the time they are 30 but nobody gives a shit any more”

With all of this in mind, what can you do to improve your digital marketing skills and accelerate your chosen career path. This list is a mixture of things I do now, things I used to do and things I wished I’d done earlier in my career!

Continuous Learning

Expect to be continuously learning. As I’ve said this is inherent to the discipline given the constant change we experience. You will never know everything about a subject. Don’t get frustrated by this. See it as a challenge and a pursuit that you will never get bored of. Or look at it another way, if your discipline is not evolving then you’re probably in a stagnant or declining area of work.

As an example, I started off working in-house at a company that purchased domain names for their ‘type-in traffic’. This was back in simpler times when people would often literally type-in a generic phrase and at .com, co.uk etc. at the end. Search engines were not yet the gateway to the internet and browser address bars didn’t action like an entry point to search engines.

This changed pretty quickly as Google imposed itself. It meant that type-in traffic declined massively and consequently the domain purchasing strategy become obsolete. There was nothing else to learn about domains as a marketing pursuit (admittedly always a very tactical one) but it meant that I had to found a new route. I started to pick up SEO from my colleagues and moved on from there.

  • Conferences – I’ve found that conferences aren’t the best way to learn but they are good for making connections. If you want to go to conferences then I would err towards smaller more specialist ones as they’re more likely to give you actionable and relevant advice
  • Blogs – this is a must. Read widely and in the case of your chosen area of specialism, deeply. If you really like a particular article save it somewhere (I use Trello) so you can reference it at a later date. The same applies for webinars, forums and how-to-guides.
  • Colleagues – hopefully, you’ll be working with some people that know what they’re doing. Ask questions and put yourself forward to help with projects they’re working on
  • Online courses – the proliferation of structured online teaching in recent years is a boon to people like you who want to learn more. Make sure you do your research. You need to know the course content is good quality and the tutor is reputable.
  • University – I’m really not a big fan of marketing degrees or post-grad diplomas. I can honestly say I’ve met less than 5 people with a marketing degree in my 10 years in marketing. The course material is often out-of-date and can’t give you the hands-on experience that you really need to improve your skills. If you really want to go down this route take a look at Mark Ritson’s ‘mini MBA
  • Write – either start a blog, contribute to others or post to Medium or Linkedin. I find this is a great way to crystallise my thoughts, get feedback and discuss topics with the wider community

Keep a record of important resources

I read a lot but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realised I wasn’t extracting the most value from that time and effort. Treat it like self-study and not just a passive exercise at the start of your working day.

My top tips

  • open a Feedly account – subscribe to the best blogs within each niche. I’ve shared a list of the blogs I follow here.
  • use Pocket to save links for things content you want to read at a later date
  • create a Trello board or use a product like Evernote to keep a permanent record of the best articles you’ve read on each subject

An added bonus to working this way particularly if you need to persuade a colleague or client of the need to follow your advice is that you’ll have great resources to hand to share with them to prove the sense in what you’re saying. I find this really useful when explaining a marketing concept to a designer or developer.

Be a Self-Starter

Don’t expect anyone to go out of their way to teach you. The onus is on you to be motivated and have a strong desire to get better at what you do.

  • Be proactive – volunteer for projects outside of your comfort zone
  • Ask questions – don’t sit in silence if you don’t understand. Be curious and inquisitive. People who ask questions tend to be the ones that get ahead in life
  • Be active in communities – contribute and ask questions on blogs, forums and social media
  • Find ways to apply your knowledge outside of your current role or remit – I’ve addressed this further down this post

Find a Mentor

Mentors can come in all shapes and sizes. Throughout your career you’re going to meet people that you admire and respect.  Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who is an expert in your specialism. It could be someone who exhibits great leadership skills or who consistently delivers against targets.

It could also be an entirely impersonal relationship. For example, you may follow every word that a certain blogger produces.

The important thing to realise is that you won’t find mentors in great supply so once you do build that relationship, cling on to it for dear life!

Here’s what you should be looking for in your mentor

  • a person who is generous with their knowledge and experience
  • a person who listens  – someone who only talks is not a mentor
  • someone who has a track record of success
  • someone who is keen to see others do well

A mentor will be able to help you develop your approach to work and colleagues, make good career choices and help you to place work within the context of a healthy work-life balance. Learn from their successes and failures.

Once you’ve identified this person and preferably its someone you can meet face-to-face or via video conferencing it’s up to you to build the relationship. Take them for a coffee, ask them about their career or current projects (people love to talk about their jobs) and keep the relationship on an informal basis – develop the relationship beyond business.

Lastly, if you find a mentor at your workplace but one of you leaves make the effort to stay in touch. Don’t waste the opportunity you’ve created for yourself.

Find ways to Apply your Knowledge

I will confidently pronounce that this is the single most important thing you can do to further your career.

By ‘applying your knowledge’ I don’t mean being able to share your knowledge of a subject with your colleagues. I mean putting what you have learnt in to practice, measuring that activity and optimising to achieve great results.

Too many marketers, particularly you in-house peeps, are either fearful of putting their head above the parapet, use agencies to execute or have realised that you can fool senior people by sounding like you know what you’re doing.

Whilst these are all routes to working you’re way up the corporate career ladder they are not the way to improve your digital marketing skills.  You may have a very successful career following this path but if you’re truly interested in being the best marketer you can be, then do not fall into these lazy traps.

To slightly caveat that – I have used agencies and obviously many businesses do so. There’s a time and place for agencies (and for a future blog post). My point is don’t retain an agency for work that could help you to develop your career.

Back to our point; reading is one of the best ways to acquire knowledge but it is insignificant when compared to doing the thing you’re reading about, whether that’s launching a Facebook campaign, optimising landing pages, link building and so on.

Find Businesses that Encourage your Growth

I’ll admit this is a hard one to follow. How do you know that a company has an enabling culture?  When interviewing or researching a business I would look at for the following attributes

  • A clear statement of the company culture – how much emphasis do they put on career development and collaboration
  • Who works there – have they presented publicly about work practices and culture
  • Does the company subscribe to particular ways of working that encourage experimentation
  • If you’re interviewing ask how do they approach failure – do they celebrate it or does it feel that they consider failure to be the same as a mistake
  • How are decisions made – is everything dependent on the CEO or do they delegate and trust every level of the organisation
  • How rigorous is the selection process – I’ve found that this is a very good indicator of the amount of collaboration, autonomy and responsibility a business will afford its employees. The more rigorous the process the more likely that once in you’ll be entrusted to take responsibility and grow on the job.

A Broad Foundation is a Strong Foundation

I can’t emphasise this enough. Having a broad understanding of complementary marketing and business practices will stand you in good stead, particulrly as you move in to more senior roles. This is not to say that you need to be an expert in each discipline but you need to understand the principles and processes that your colleagues in other teams follow.

This point has been covered elsewhere in much more detail. The original concept, a ‘T-shaped person’ was coined by IDEO CEO Tim Brown and applied more specifically to marketing by Distilled and many others.

My advice for digital marketers is to delve in to

  1. Research methods
  2. Data analysis
  3. Usability
  4. Product Management

Of course, you will want to add other disciplines depending on your interests and envisioned career path.

Don’t be in a rush to get promoted

Be aware of the peter principle which states that people rise to their ‘level of incompetence’. There are two things to take from this

  1. Don’t try to blag your way up the career ladder. You’ll get found out pretty quickly. I once recruited a senior manager who appeared to have excellent experience for the role. He talked a very good game and had the CV to match. However, it became clear very quickly that this was a sham. He didn’t last beyond his probation.
  2. trying to move up the ladder too quickly creates a vacuum between your ability and the requirements of the role. If it does lead to your dismissal you end up with a difficult choice. Do you swallow the pill and move back down or do you continue to cling on to the idea that you can work at this level?

My advice is to be humble. Find a role that’s at your level but challenges you to grow. If you take the other option you’ll end up stumbling from job to job, take roles at less successful companies and perhaps most importantly you will find it very hard to move any higher than your current level. Don’t limit yourself by trying to go too far too quickly. That might sound very negative but remember you’ll be working for 50 years. It’s a long time. The best way to have a satisfying career is to build on solid foundations.

Tom Baker

The guy writing this stuff. Previously worked in-house doing all sorts of marketing for start-ups and large brands. Now devising marketing strategies and executing for small, medium and large brands.

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