6 skills you need to learn to become a digital marketing specialist

6 skills you need to learn to become a digital marketing specialist
Image by Porapak Apichodilok

There are way too many “specialists” and “experts” out there, especially in the field of digital marketing. But what makes a real digital marketing specialist? I think, you need six essential skills to excel in one of the various online marketing jobs.

In my 15 years of experience holding various digital marketing jobs I already had the job title “digital marketing specialist” (that label was not my idea) myself. So I guess I know what I’m talking about—at least a bit. Digital marketing is a broad field. I think the term “specialist” is a bit misleading. If you don’t have a huge team or an armada of service providers at hand, a lot of the jobs require you to be a generalist rather than a specialist.

Typical digital marketing jobs include social media marketing, email marketing, search engine marketing (SEO and SEA), display ads, affiliate marketing, content marketing, lead generation, lead nurturing, web analytics, web design and more. It sounds like the job description of a jack of all trades. And to a certain degree it actually is.

If you are serious about making a career as a digital marketing specialist, I think you need two things: a true passion for online marketing and the right skill set. You need the former in order to gain digital marketing experience (in part outside of your day job) as well as to stay curious and motivated to learn the required skills.

Working in the field of digital marketing means that you need to learn something new every day. The work environment and circumstances change at a rapid pace. Often the traditional education system can’t keep up with it. This means that you have to acquire the required knowledge mostly on your own. Beside of reading a lot, I also recommend building some personal projects which you can use as a kind of testing area. A personal blog or a niche website are a safe playground. There you can test even some of the shadier practices which you don’t want to apply to your company’s website.

Let me illustrate this with an example: I landed none of the jobs I had in the last ten years because of anything I learned in school or university. My experiences as well as the things I learned mostly from blogs and specialized literature were the critical factor.

Let’s turn to the six core skills you need for a career in digital marketing.

#1: A digital marketing specialist needs to know the basic psychological principles of persuasion and decision making

Symbolic image of a brain
Image by Gerd Altmann

As a digital marketing specialist it is your job to make people do certain things: fill in a registration form, like a facebook post, share a blog article, open an email or click the buy button in an online shop. All of these actions are based on psychological principles. Most of it happens subconsciously. So it is a good idea to learn a little bit about the weird and winding paths in our brains.

My recommendation is a book written by psychologist Dr. Robert B. Cialdini: “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. I think, every marketer should have read it. It provides you with a full arsenal of psychological principles to persuade people. You may also call it “psychological tricks to manipulate people”. But like always in the business of marketing, advertising and sales, it depends on the intention and the dosage. Of course there are a lot more books about sales psychology and decision making. But I think this one is a good start.

By the way: No sure formula exists, although most of these basic principles work amazingly well in a lot of situations. But A/B testing or multivariate testing is still required.

#2: Learn how to write editorial and advertorial texts

Image by Markus Mäder

The Internet is still very much a text based medium. Photos and videos account for a lot of today’s Internet traffic. But in many situations, well written text is still a must-have. Whether it is a long blog article, a lead nurturing email or just a few lines of descriptive text in a social media posting: Working with text is still one of the bread-and-butter tasks of most digital marketing specialists. So you better know how to juggle with words. This even applies if you don’t do all the required writing yourself.

In this context it is important to mention that there are basically two different types of text a digital marketing manager has to deal with: editorial text and advertorial text. Editorial text typically informs its readers. Most blog articles fall into this category. Advertorial text is typically used with the intention to make somebody do something. A sales email, an AdWors ad and even a lot of social media posts are advertorial texts at the core.

Which of these two types of text you’ll need to deal with more often depends on the specific position you are in. In most cases advertorial texts are more common, I would say. But for most people they are harder to write. That’s why I recommend learning some of the basics, even if you don’t see yourself as a passionate writer. Ann Handley’s book “Everybody Writes” or Maria Veloso’s “Web Copy That Sells” are a good beginning.

#3: Learn how to edit images and work with graphics software

Laptop and graphical tablet
Image by NegativeSpace

You don’t need to be a graphic designer. Usually you have people at hand who are specialized in this kind of work. But as a digital marketing specialist you should at least be able to do a bit of basic image processing or to create a simple static call-to-action banner graphic. It makes your work easier if you can do some of these things yourself.

There are lots of online courses, books and video tutorials you can use to learn basic graphic design skills. Some examples are the Design & Illustration courses by Envato Tuts+, the Graphic Design and Design Tools courses at Udemy or Heidi Pun’s “55 Hand-Picked Resources to Help You Learn Graphic Design Quickly”. Being a typography nerd myself, I also highly recommend Matej Latin’s free email course “Better Web Type”.

#4: As a digital marketing specialist you should know how to code

HTML code
Image by Lawrence Monk

Naturally digital marketing has a lot to do with technology and coding. Although you don’t need to become a full-stack web developer, a certain degree of coding knowledge is helpful if not required.

Basic HTML and CSS knowledge are a must-have for a digital marketing specialist. You just need it in so many places around the web. Some basic understanding of JavaScript is extremely helpful if you have to deal with tracking code snippets, A/B testing or any kind of external code snippets. Sooner or later you might want to create a little bit more sophisticated setups using highly configurable tools like Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager. Then it comes in handy to be at least able to modify the provided snippets to your liking. And last but not least some basic PHP knowledge can be helpful. A lot of the popular content management systems like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal are programmed in PHP and also use PHP to create page templates.

You can find lots of interactive courses, video tutorials and blog articles on the web, packed with information about all kinds of coding skills. In fact I guess that I learned at least 80 percent of my own web development knowledge from free resources on the web. If you are a beginner you might want to browse the course catalogs of Codeacademy, Lynda or Treehouse. Or try the free interactive courses at learn-html.org, learn-js.org and learn-php.org.

#5: Learn how to manage projects and service providers

Man in front of a whiteboard with pinned notes
Image by Startup Stock Photos

Project management know-how is a must have for a digital marketing specialist. Either you have to manage a bunch of agencies and external service providers. Or you are mostly on your own and have to organize yourself in an efficient way.

In both cases I recommend David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”—if you haven’t already read it. You can find dozens of excellent books on productivity and project management. But the GTD methodology helped me most.

#6: Learn how to apply appropriate analytical methods and present your achievements

Laptop screen showing diagrams
Image by Marc Chouinard

Chances are that your job as a digital marketing specialist is not only to publish fluffy social media postings. You have to produce leads, sales or whatever the currency of success is in your business. That’s why you better track and measure the hack out of your activities. Believe me, you will need this data later on. So you better think about which numbers and charts you want to present to your boss before you start collecting data. This ensures that you collect the right data.

But it’s not data alone. It’s not the worst idea to acquire a bit of statistical knowledge and a little know-how about data visualization. Have a look into the book “The Science of Marketing” by data scientist Dan Zarella. You’ll find a lot of suggestions there, e. g. which questions to ask and which numbers to track.

Other aspects

Of course these six tips cannot cover all of the aspects which are relevant for a career in digital marketing. In the following video Brandon Hassler from Market Campus discusses what you can do to land a job in digital marketing.

How To Get a Job In Digital Marketing | Marker Monday

I hope this little compilation of tips was helpful for you. If you work in the field of digital marketing yourself, I’m interested in your comments and your opinion on the essential skills for the job. Just click on the social media comment links below and tell me your thoughts.