Working between the digital marketing space and the mentorship and personal growth sector means that we’ve been asked a number of times whether it is possible to work in digital marketing without a degree.
It’s a common enough question that we’ve decided to put a quick blog article together on the issue.
In short you do not need a degree to get into digital marketing. In fact a lot of the formal education programmes out there are old fashioned and are likely to be teaching you out of date and unhelpful techniques.
Instead there are a HUGE amount of resources out there for learning the ins-and-outs of digital marketing yourself. The key is what to focus on and what resources are worth your time (and money).
Finally, we recommend proving your value to potential employers by showing off your chops with a real property – namely, yourself.
Let’s jump in.
Not worth the paper it’s written on – digital marketing without a degree.
There are an increasing number of digital marketing courses at universities and colleges around the world. We did a quick review of their curricula and materials and were not terribly impressed with what we found.
One note – this is primarily focused on degree granting institutions. There are a number of more vocational based outfits like General Assembly (in the US) which seem to have far more up to date curricula.
The problem with university based courses is the reliance on textbooks and non-industry professors.
Textbooks take time to write. A long time! Often they require a team of people over a number of institutions compiling information about different areas of expertise.
A lot of textbooks release yearly editions but for the most part these new editions are merely reshuffled (especially exercises and question numbering) just to make sure new students need to buy the new edition instead of just buying a second hand one. The content itself doesn’t change much.
The problem with the length of time it takes to publish and revise textbooks means that the information is always at least a year old. This is fine in most fields – the date of the battle of Waterloo isn’t going to change in your history textbook.
However, digital marketing does change. And it changes rapidly. A recent (2019) example would be Facebook advertising for real estate in the USA. A March 2019 rule changes mean that it’s now required to declare real estate advertising and this leads to a restriction in the tools available in the interface.
Any 2018 textbook (or even 2019!) would not be able to include this change. The way textbooks are published simply doesn’t allow information to be amended this quickly.
The second issue with in-class instruction of digital marketing is that often (and this may sound a bit mean, sorry!) the instructors are teachers first and digital marketers second. This is the norm in educational institutes and normally does not matter.
However, having hands-on experience in digital marketing is essential for efficacy. It’s not enough to read about the tools and techniques. Digital marketing is far more a craft – it requires getting in there and getting your hands dirty.
To be fair, a lot of teachers will be from the industry initially. But again if the information they are teaching is out of date (even by a year or two) it could be actively unhelpful for them to be passing it on to students.
What about the degree itself? Degrees are primarily a signalling device. They show that you’ve been able to concentrate and get through a programme of x number of years. This shows a potential employer that you are reliable, you’ll turn up and do the work.
There’s a concept called the “sheepskin effect” which explains an awful lot about how society treats degrees. If a person completes multiple years of their degree but does not get their final certificate (for whatever reason) they are treated as if they had no degree at all. Even if they have completed 5/6th of the course and have 5/6th of the knowledge – they are treated as if they have 0/6th of the knowledge.
The piece of paper itself (the degree) is what matters. Not the knowledge acquired. This is the main value of a degree – not what is learned per se but the signalling power of the degree itself.
This may mean that some employers will require a degree. This is one argument for getting a degree. However, there’s another way to see this requirement.
This is primarily them being lazy employers though – their HR department are weeding out applicants based on a false flag. You could have the same or more experience in the field but do not have a degree and they wouldn’t even see you for an interview. I would argue that this is not a company you should want to work for. Your skills and knowledge will not be appreciated for what they are. In the next section of this article I’ll show you how to build those skills and then prove those skills to the job market in a far more impactful way.
Skill Up – how to learn digital marketing
Let’s say that you’ve decided to go ahead and learn digital marketing yourself. Even if you are going to apply for a degree it’s still important to skill up before hand. By gaining knowledge and skills you’ll know what parts of digital marketing you actually enjoy. It’s a BIG field and having this knowledge early will allow you to not waste time studying everything.
First of all remember that digital marketing is still marketing. A lot of people forget this. Get yourself a solid foundation in the core concepts in marketing early on. Learning fancy digital tools and techniques is all well and good but without knowing the basics of marketing your work (and results) will remain surface level.
The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman is a good place to start for basic business and marketing knowledge. The whole book is available free online section by section or you can grab a copy at any bookstore or Amazon.
Oglivy’s books on advertising are also fantastic resources. Advertising is not the same as marketing but his books are really about marketing in its entirety. Both his original book and the version update for the digital age are worth reading.
Online start following Gary Vaynerchuck and Seth Godin.
Combined these resources will give you a very solid knowledge of core marketing. Don’t go chasing the pretty lights of specific tools yet. Get the basics down with a little reading and exploration. “What works now” always changes – learning the fundamentals will help you to decide for yourself what specific techniques are worth pursuing in the future.
Once you have a foundation in marketing you need to build up the basic skills of digital marketing. Very briefly these will be:
- Social media marketing
- Basic design
- Blog writing
- Understanding data
Each of these takes years to master. That’s not what we need now. You need to be familiar with the basics of each. As you learn the basics of each you’ll be able to decide what particular areas you are actually interested in.
Depending on your first job in digital marketing you may need to know ALL of this or just ONE area.
If you are going into a big company very likely you’ll be hired for a very, very specific role and will need mastery in one area.
If you are going into a small company you’ll be expected (rightly or wrongly) to have experience in all of these areas…and maybe more.
What’s the right way to learn? This is the perennial question of depth vs. breadth of knowledge. Should you be a specialist or a generalist?
This is too large a question to answer right here. The practical advice I’ll offer is that for now go general so you have a foundation in all areas and, more importantly, can start to focus in on what it is you actually like doing.
Best digital marketing resources
Thankfully today you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money to access educational information. In fact a HUGE amount of the information you need about these areas is free online.
The problem is not access to information. The problem is that there is too much information out there. We need curation. We need selection. We need a guide through what’s out there.
This can be very difficult when we are new to the area – how are we meant to decide the best way to educate ourselves without knowing what’s best to learn? Catch-22.
If you can, find a mentor or coach. Someone a few years ahead of you professionally. This person can help to guide you through your learning and will be far more valuable than any formal university lecturer.
Otherwise Udemy.com is your friend here. There are many courses on ALL of these subjects available, all for around $10. Udemy has constant sales – there’s no need to ever buy anything at full price there (which is why I don’t sell courses there in general!).
How to find the best courses? First, check the previews. Very few people bother to do this. There will be a handful of free lessons in each course. Does the lecturer’s voice annoy you? Do you hate powerpoint slideshows? Are the videos too long for your schedule? Then don’t buy the course!
Check the ratings and number of reviews. It’s easy to have 5 stars if you have 12 reviews. But to have 5 stars and thousands of reviews? Chances are the course is legitimately good!
Try a few courses out and then check the other courses that a particular teacher offers. Quite often you’ll find they’ll have other digital marketing courses – quite often in all of the above highlighted areas of importance.
Later I’ll add specific guides on how to learn the topics step by step but for now use your judgement on udemy.com and you’ll be able to find more than enough fantastic material.
Putting it into practice – build it yourself
As you start your learning it’s super important to put everything into practice. Don’t just learn abstractly. Make sure you apply. This is how you convert knowledge into skills.
I’d recommend choosing a project. It could be a personal blog. It could be an Etsy store. It could be a youtube channel. It could be a combination of multiple digital marketing tools – hopefully it will grow to be this because then you can practice across the whole range of tools.
As you work through the courses you can apply what is useful to your project. This is helpful for learning but also for two additional reasons: employability and unemployability.
What do I mean by this?
First up the best calling card you can have is living, online proof that you can market online. If you go to a job interview and are asked about your relevant Instagram skills imagine pulling out your phone and showing the interviewer your Instagram account with 30,000 followers. Boom, game over – pop the champagne.
The best demonstration of ability is…doing it.
People are very good at talking and self-promotion today. It’s as if people have forgotten about the power of just getting on with it.
You showing me your successful Instagram account will land you the job over 50 other applicants (with impressive degrees!) who can only answer my Instagram question in the abstract.
Doing the work makes you employable.
The second effect of your online work though is making you unemployable.
Oops! That’s not the goal is it? You wanted a digital marketing job initially right?
Well, once you’ve learned the skills and set up your own online properties you may decide that you don’t actually want to work for someone else. If your online work is generating an income it becomes increasingly difficult to return to “ordinary” employment. You’re on your way to becoming an online entrepreneur.
Of course you can balance the two – working at a job whilst building up your online presence and business too. If you are really smart you’ll leverage the two so that your success in one helps the other.
The main thing is that having your own digital assets gives you far more control over your relationship with a potential employer. Nothing is more powerful than having options. Use your education experience to build those options so that when you do talk with employers you have power.
Tying everything together:
- Formal degrees in digital marketing are not worth it
- You can learn digital marketing through self education
- Learn the basics of marketing first
- Use udemy.com and similar resources to get a broad base of experience
- Apply all your learning into your own projects
- Be more employable by having walked the walk
- Be unemployed by not wanting an employee!
- Digital marketing gives you options. Options are power