How to become a digital marketer

BY Nicole Gull McElroyOctober 26, 2022, 10:54 AM
Illustration by Martin Laksman

As the line between content and advertising continues to blur, brands looking to capture and engage potential customers have countless ways to steal a piece of the market: Facebook, Google, TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram, and more. In other words: All marketing is digital marketing.

Businesses across every industry, from health care to finance to consumer products, are increasingly looking to hire the best talent to leverage mediums such as email, social media, and digital experiences to build a brand and then attract, engage, and retain customers. The marketing industry on the whole is expected to grow 10% by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And digital skills will be key to that growth.

“The industry really has exploded,” says Brandon Lupo, partner and head of strategy at Slicedbread, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles. “We have seen a ton of competitors, both as agencies and personal marketers. It’s harder than you’d expect to find talent. And there’s a clamoring for [it].”

Digital teams with the right balance of industry experience and tech expertise can determine the way a brand resonates with end users and, ultimately, transform the growth strategy and trajectory of a business. Digital marketers often work for agencies that are contracted by brands, as well as on in-house marketing teams. There’s a wide swath of skill sets needed within the industry—from SEO to social media—along with tremendous opportunity for job seekers looking to go into digital marketing roles.

Whether you’re still an undergraduate, have a decade-plus of marketing experience, or you want to make a career shift, becoming a digital marketer will require many of the same steps. 

“When looking at digital marketing, it’s a really good time to be coming out of college,” says Steve Peretz, group director of health experience and product strategy at New York City–based agency Appnovation. “What’s intuitive for someone coming out of college is 100% not [intuitive] to their boss’s boss’s boss. Digital is now in every one of our experiences. It’s no longer just a small channel. It can be everything. That’s extremely challenging and powerful.”

The following step-by-step guide can help you get started on becoming a digital marketer:

  1. Build a basic skill set in digital marketing
  2. Find a low-risk space in which to practice
  3. Cultivate soft skills and consider specializing

1. Build a basic skill set in digital marketing

Both to understand what a career as a digital marketer will entail and to land a job in the field, you’ll first need to establish a basic set of skills. Schools such as Columbia University, Wake Forest University, Northwestern University, and Cornell University offer programs to earn certificates in digital marketing. 

But those university-sponsored programs can cost several thousand dollars, and there are plenty of other options worth considering. Organizations such as General Assembly, Coursera, and the Digital Marketing Institute have courses in various aspects of marketing that are either low or no cost, with curriculums rooted in practical skills that could set you up for an entry-level position in digital marketing.

These options were the right for Sydney Stern Miller after she unexpectedly lost her marketing job and realized she hadn’t saved any of her projects to her personal portfolio. “It was such a disappointing place to be,” she recalls. “I had to get back to working full-time, and I stumbled across Coursera.” 

Miller quickly enrolled in three courses, which were free aside from a nominal certificate cost. As a self-described organized self-starter, Miller divided her time between a job search and the coursework, using the Coursera classes to build a new portfolio. Four months later, she landed a job handling all marketing for a small business in Charlotte, and a year later moved into a larger digital marketing role at Deloitte that’s focused largely on strategy, social media, and channel management.

No matter the route you take to obtaining your education, a skills-based approach is important. And building a basic skill set is critical for breaking into the industry, notes Roger Lee, the chief marketing officer at General Assembly. 

“The most important thing you can do is set yourself on a path you can complete,” says Lee. “I do not care if my social media person can explain brand architecture to me or not. Do they understand the ins and outs of social media and can they get my content in front of the right audience?”

2. Find a low-risk space in which to practice

Once you have a basic set of skills, it’s time to put those into practice. One way to do so is through a perk offered by Google Analytics in which the tech giant offers $10,000 per month in free ads to nonprofit organizations, advises Terry Rice, who teaches digital marketing through General Assembly and New York University. He encourages his students to approach organizations they know and love, offering their newfound skills to put the Google grant to work. 

“There’s no budget involved,” he says. “The majority of these organizations don’t know there are free resources available to them. Some of my students have gotten hired that way, and others end up at least consulting.”

In the midst of her job transition, Miller did just that—she volunteered a few hours each week to handle social media for a nonprofit while job hunting and learning on Coursera. “It helped me build my portfolio,” she says. “The best thing is to go out and swim in the water. It can be called volunteering or an internship. It’s a safe space to learn; you get the experience, and there’s a level of accountability.”

3. Cultivate soft skills and consider specializing

While courses and boot camps can provide you with some concrete skills or added expertise, soft skills are equally worth building, Peretz says. “The soft skill set is an entrepreneurial spirit, someone who is ever evolving. What are the new platforms we need to know about? Is someone brave enough to experiment?” 

Maintaining flexibility and being able to collaborate is a big part of what Peretz and Lupo look for when hiring at all levels. Having the confidence to share an idea and the humility to take feedback is also important, given that digital mediums are constantly changing and shifting. And since marketing is driven by research and data, maintaining a blend of flexibility and specialization can take you to the next level. 

“Push through difficult moments and have curiosity to create a deep interest,” says Rice. “I’m seeing a need for people who can really master short-form content. How do you quickly tell a story that helps your audience?” 

Zeroing in on specific skills beyond the basics and owning the ins and outs of a specific platform such as TikTok, Pinterest, or Instagram can help get you a job or move you forward in your career as a digital marketer. Networking is one way to bolster your knowledge base and influence, Rice notes. But networking must be thoughtful and clear for it to really resonate and garner results. 

If there’s an organization or person you follow on social media, engage with them on the platforms they use. Consider the following tactic: Ask questions and remain curious about their brand; show that you’re paying attention to how they operate on various platforms within their brand. Then when you request time to chat or ask for advice or feedback, you’re far more likely to get it. 

“Time is our most valuable resource,” Rice notes. “They won’t give it to you unless you’ve invested in them, as well.” 

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as doctorate in education programs and MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).