Digital marketing has exploded as a career field in the last five to ten years. Given the massive impact that digital marketers can have on a business, it has become a lucrative profession to pursue.
In the past, digital marketing has been largely a self-taught field. SEO, Pay-per-click, and every other sub-niche were learned through experimentation, and on the job training. However, as the profession gained in prestige and importance, traditional colleges as well as online training courses have begun to offer programs around digital marketing.
So, the question is whether these college degrees or online courses provide any value to their students? Do they provide a grounding in the basic skills and theory students need to know to begin their career? Or is self-teaching and experimentation still the best way to get started?
To find out, we asked some experts what they best way to break into the field was. As well as degrees and certifications had any value in the hiring decisions.
We asked 9 experts what their thoughts were, as well as what role they thought employers should play.
Our panel included:
- John Doherty – Founder of Credo
- Maria Johnsen – Author, CEO and Founder of Golden Way Media Ltd.
- Evan Dunn – Director of Services at Transform
- Aaron Agius – Co-Founder of Lounder.Online
- Ben Wynkoop – SEO Specialist
- Bill Sebald – Managing Partner of Greenlane Marketing
- Kris Degioia – CEO of WTF Multimedia
- Aaron Levy – Sr. Team Lead at Elite SEM
- Melissa Mackey – SEM Specialist, Speaker, and Search Supervisor at gyro
Q1. In the past, digital marketing was largely either self-taught or learned on the job. These days, there are a large number of online education courses, as well as certifications and degrees from traditional colleges. Given all these options, what do you consider to be the best path for becoming a digital marketer?
I still believe that teaching yourself through experience is the best way to become an expert at digital marketing. Online courses can expedite a bit of the theory and learning around the history of the discipline, but the digital marketing world changes so quickly that you really need to learn how to keep up with it and stay relevant. Certifications mean very little to me beyond that you can take a test and may know your way around a tool, but they do not prove that you can get the needed results. That comes from experience alone.
I fully believe that the best way to learn SEO and digital marketing is to launch your own websites and products, and learn how to get them found and bought online.
The best path is to know both practical and theoretical aspects of digital marketing. One should become an expert in search engine optimization (SEO), Google Adwords, social media marketing, social media advertising, video creation and optimization, content marketing and video marketing. You should also understand how search engines work. In digital marketing, you have to keep educating yourself and learning. Every two or three months come new trends. If you are not aware of them, you will be far behind and have to branch out.
Follow digital marketing social media influencers. Those are the ones who know what’s going on. This is why following influencers is important. You don’t need to follow whoever, just the ones who have an online presence. Those are the ones who know the trends. This is how you get updated. Some of them rehash the other influencers and take credit for them, so you should be smart to recognize who is an independent thinker and helpful.
It’s incredible what search skills can get you. As on Google search – looking up resources frequently and quickly. No digital marketer is ever finished learning. I am always studying new tactics and best practices about different media channels, technologies and tactics.
I’m happy to see digital marketing gaining enough respect to support courses like these, but I’m still not sure they’re needed (at least, not for everybody). You can still learn everything you need to know to get started for free on different blogs or websites. If you want somebody to put together a learning plan for you, versus finding the right resources on your own, a course or degree program might be appropriate. The same goes if you want to study with a particular teacher who’s offering a course or certification. But don’t feel like you have to put in tens of thousands of dollars to get started.
The quickest path to becoming a digital marketer is at least one course and get an internship or entry level position at a digital marketing agency to be around more experienced professionals and get paid while gaining hands-on experience. During your free time work on personal projects to try different areas of digital marketing such as eCommerce or client work and network with other professionals in your area and in Facebook groups. For example, there were not many good meetups in Orange County, so I started co-hosting a periodic SoCal Digital Marketers Meetup to not only talk with other experienced digital marketers about the technical aspects of our craft, but also the business side.
I am an adjunct professor at Philadelphia University teaching SEO, so my answer is a bit biased. I definitely think a curriculum can be valuable, especially if taught by someone who understands digital marketing as it stands today. Take SEO for example – if a course is teaching the basics, that’s certainly useful as a platform. If the same course is teaching outdated tactics, that’s dangerous.
If you want to get into this industry and can find a good course, that’s gravy. Jump on it! But don’t let it be the minimum. Take what you’re learning, test it, start websites, and experiment.
Regarding myself I am completely self-taught when it comes to digital marketing. Some of these courses and classes might help someone have some basics, for someone that has zero knowledge of the industry, but that is about it. Learn from your peers, ask influencers questions, do trials by yourself for yourself. Personal experience in the industry is what helps you not only become successful, but also helps you stay a step ahead in the industry. ALWAYS keep it real with your clients, don’t sugar coat anything, I promise that’s what earns respect in the digital world.
The best parts of digital marketing are still learned on the job, and come only with a great deal of situational experience. I’m encouraged to see so many students learning digital in college as it gives them exposure to a form of marketing well out of the textbooks. However, that’s where traditional coursework falls short – I’m an adjunct instructor at a few universities so I can tell you first hand, lectures differ every semester since the tactics change so frequently.
Certifications and courses are two different things. Certifications are nice to have, but being certified does not equal being qualified. It’s fairly easy to study up for certification tests and pass them, even if you’ve never run a PPC campaign before. Courses, on the other hand, tend to be more in-depth. Good PPC courses are taught by experienced practitioners and include detailed strategies and tactics for success.
Q2. Do these certifications, degrees, or courses help in the hiring process?
As I said above, certifications and completed courses show a hiring manager that you can take a test and pass it, not necessarily that you can do the work. If I was hiring an email marketer to work on a company that used ActiveCampaign for example, a certification from them may get them an initial conversation but beyond that I want to know their experience, the challenges they’ve faced, the results they’ve driven, and what it took to get those done.
First, you have to earn a college degree within the following areas: digital marketing, marketing, business administration, media and journalism, media and communication. When you get your degree, then you have to go through trainee program in order to learn in practice how to do it. This is how you get your foot in the door and learn networking. Then you may have 70% chance to get a job.
All these online courses are good for you to learn in theory, however, 99.9% won’t help you to get hired. Here is why: There are two types of companies in the job market: Startups who are seeing growth and major player companies.
A startup with low budget looks for an expert.
A major player companies look at the following:
- How many years have you been in the business?
- Who were your clients?
- How much sales you landed for each client?
- How much was each client’s monthly Pay Per Click budget?
- What is your success story?
Bigger companies detect lies from thousand miles away. For example, you can say you landed sales here and there, but you must have proof of sales. How much is each client’s ROI per year? These are their criteria when they look at your resume, but 99.9% don’t tell you and the recruiters/hiring agents. This is why the majority get rejection letters.
Companies have lost a lot of money in hiring processes and have become extremely picky. So the bottom line is this: get a college degree and practice.
Of course – but weigh the options for price. I’m a fan of Imparture and Galvanize. Some others are overpriced for the value they give you. And there is a lot of fluff out there so make the course has clear details about what you will learn and be able to do once you complete the course.
From a hiring perspective, I’d probably give a little more weight to someone who bothered to do the certifications, only because the fact that they put in the time and energy shows some level of drive. Not having certifications wouldn’t disqualify a candidate for me, as long as they can prove they can drive results. It’s also worth mentioning that not all programs or certifications are created equally. If I know it’s a program anyone can get through in a few hours, that carries a lot less weight for me than programs that require more commitment.
Not as much as other fields. i.e. there is no gold standard like a CPA or bar examination. You do not need a university degree to be a professional digital marketer, but if you choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree, major in computer science. First, get your Google Analytics + Google Adwords certifications because that can be completed in a weekend. The only other certifications I would consider getting is if you specialize in a specific software such as HubSpot or Infusionsoft.
When we are hiring digital marketers, we are primarily hiring for demonstrated skill and passion. Because we (sadly) don’t often see digital marketing degrees on resumes, we are happy making an investment on someone who has taken initiative to learn digital marketing and can show success. Being self-taught is fine, as long as there is passion to continue in an industry that never lets you stop learning.
I actually wrote an entire syllabus on digital marketing for a college. By the time it was finished and went to print I was literally thinking “that was pointless”, because we live in a world that’s constantly changing. Literally every 2-5 mins there is something new trending on one of the platforms, if not all of them, and there is ALWAYS something new rolling out. Some of these courses, degrees, etc. may help some people. I do not hire based off what degree or courses someone has taken, or not taken. I hire based off talent, and willingness to learn.
I put a lot of solace in survey or certificate programs as a way to expose working professionals to the field, and getting a certification on your own time & dime can show a lot of initiative. With that said, I don’t know that it’d swing my hiring opinion one way or the other in the same way that a PMP or Salesforce certification might.
There is no substitute for on-the-job experience. If you’re looking to break into search or social marketing, see if you can volunteer to run a campaign for someone, or persuade them to hire you as an intern or consultant – even if you have to work for free. Running even a small campaign is the best way to learn the ins and outs of digital marketing.
Thank you panel!
Do you agree with the experts? Comment and let us know your thoughts.