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Digital Marketing   |   Clock Icon 18 min read

Digital Marketing Career Advice for New College Grads

by Andrew Miller   |   Mar 13, 2020

So you want to pursue a career in digital marketing after college?

Good choice! Our industry is expanding quickly and there is a shortage of qualified, experienced digital marketers. You can check job security off your list of requirements.

First, the good news. You have an endless stream of free resources and information at your fingertips. A few Google searches (or Bing if that’s your thing, no judgement) will surface enough guides, ebooks, blogs, videos, tutorials, and online courses to keep you busy for years. Our community is extremely welcoming and shares knowledge almost too transparently sometimes.

Now, the hard part. All the book smarts you gain by reading other people’s content won’t adequately prepare you for your first day on the job. Reading and learning will give you a leg up in the interview process and a head start on your first day, but it cannot replace hands-on experience.

Why? There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty in the data and working on real life digital marketing campaigns. Our industry is evolving so quickly that online articles written last year may already be obsolete or completely inaccurate. College courses or textbooks are too slow to keep up with the times. Even well-intentioned professors’ knowledge gained in the trenches with a digital marketing team starts to fade after just a year or two.

Here’s a compilation of advice I have given to college and high school students over the past decade. Most of this may sound like common sense (and it should be), but you may be surprised how uncommon this knowledge can be in the real world.

On learning digital marketing

  • Take advantage of free resources and training. It is abundant. Look for certification programs on major platforms such as Google Analytics, Google Ads, and Facebook Ads. Even though these certifications aren’t going to make you immediately ready to jump into the deep end, they will show your potential employers that you have exposure to our world and are motivated enough to pursue it on your own time.
  • Read Web Analytics 2.0 and subscribe to Avinash Kaushik’s newsletter. Trust me. The screenshots in the book are a bit dated but the concepts are timeless.
  • Learn Excel functions and macros. They may seem intimidating but think of them as superhuman powers that save time and improve the accuracy of your work.
  • Learn coding basics on codeacademy.com, Udemy, or Coursera. Even though you may not dream in HTML or SQL, someday you will work with people that do. It will be helpful to share a common vocabulary. Don’t know where to start? HTML+CSS helps you understand how websites display information, R makes data analysis easier, Python automates tasks and scripting, JavaScript does just about anything, and SQL helps with accessing databases.
  • Learn statistics and probability on khanacademy.org. Much of what we do is making educated guesses based on analysis of previous work and future probabilities of success.
  • Understand the basics of machine learning and how it differs from artificial intelligence, especially inputs/outputs and what is/is not possible. Robot terminators that perfectly mimic humans? Probably not going to happen soon. Computers that analyze huge data sets and predict future outcomes better than humans can? Welcome to the modern age.
  • Keep up with your industry trends by subscribing to newsletters, following other smart people on social media, and attending events or conferences. Digital marketing is changing rapidly and what works today may not necessarily work in a year or two.
  • Study people! After all, all of our customers are people. This could include the art and science of persuasion or the frameworks of decision-making. Even though the technology has advanced, humans still make emotional decisions with a million-year old lizard brain.

On customer service and client relations

  • Whether your customer is an external client (if you work in a digital marketing agency) or an internal boss (e.g. a CMO over an in-house marketing team), your job is convincing that person that your work is helping accomplish her/his objectives. Make sure you understand their objectives and how digital marketing is expected to contribute.
  • Dig into the digital marketing metrics that matter to their business. Which Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) really drive measurable business results? What can you do to make your client a hero within their organization?
  • Adapt your communication style to suit your client’s style. Some people are visual and must be shown, not told. Some have a strong creative streak and respond to self expression. Others simply need numbers and charts without the fluff. When in doubt, ask! You’ll save yourself and your client a lot of headaches.
  • Be dependable. Show up on time. Set realistic deadlines (then don’t miss them).
  • Remember that bosses and clients are humans, too. Whether you know it or not, they have stressors inside and outside of work, good days, bad days, and maybe even personal issues. Have a little empathy for the person that might be a little challenging to get along with.
  • Resist the temptation to badmouth a client or company behind their backs. Even though it may feel good to vent, it creates a negative vibe in the office and makes other people wonder what you say about them when they are not around.

On applying and interviewing

  • Job titles are very inconsistent between different companies. A Digital Marketing Specialist in one company could be a Digital Marketing Manager in another. It is OK to ask for clarification about role expectations and desired experience levels to understand where you might fit in.
  • Focus on outcomes and answering the “so what?” question when sharing examples of your work. For example, if you led a successful student project, don’t just mention that you were the team leader. Talk about the changes that you created, the positive (or unexpected) outcomes that sprang from your efforts, and what you learned/plan to do with that information.
  • Make sure you are aligning yourself with a company that can provide growth opportunities. Ask about their approach to staying relevant in our changing industry and what type of training opportunities they provide to keep their teams up to date. Hint: stagnation is bad and will quickly result in your skills being outdated.
  • Check a company’s reviews on Glassdoor.com. You’ll get a wide range of opinions and experiences from actual employees. Just like Yelp, you’ll want to take each review with a grain of salt and look for trends rather than focus on one or two disgruntled trolls.
  • Read the company’s blog, newsletters, and social media posts to get an idea of how they talk about themselves and engage with their customers.

On building a network

  • Start building your professional network on LinkedIn as early as possible. Don’t be shy about asking people to connect but make sure there’s something in it for them as well. Maybe you share an interesting article or respond to their posts before hitting them up for a coffee meeting. Just make sure there’s a healthy balance of give and take.
  • Digital marketers are very active and savvy online, naturally. If your social profiles don’t exactly *ahem* portray a professional image *ahem* you might consider deleting old posts or starting over with a more mature version of your adult self. I’m not saying it has to be sanitized and boring, but realize that employers, HR folks, clients, and coworkers are likely going to form first impressions of you based on your digital persona.
  • Seek out local events to begin meeting professionals in person. Invite yourself along or just show up and be prepared to listen and learn. Find events in your area on meetup.com, Facebook events, or by searching for a local digital marketing meetup group.

On career growth and advancement

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I’ve been in the game for a dozen years, and there is still a TON I don’t know. I learn something new every single day simply by asking coworkers and clients to explain what they are working on and why it is important to them. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know everything.
  • Align your work and growth path with your company’s stated goals. You’re much more likely to advance if you are helping move your company forward. You may be tempted to follow managers or coworkers with their own agendas, but if you stray too far from the company’s path, you may find yourself left behind or left out.
  • Remember that your digital marketing team is just one piece of a larger business. Your priorities are likely different than other departments’ priorities. You’ll get more done across departments by building consensus and telling stories with data to help others make more informed decisions.
  • Make sure you understand what success looks like in your current role. While you’re mastering your day job, be sure to ask what success looks like in the next role you want to obtain. Work towards that.
  • Get to know people outside your team or department. Learn from their perspectives on your company’s products or services and build empathy for other teams’ challenges.
  • If you are not having performance reviews and career advancement conversations with your manager, ask for them.
  • You will occasionally run into jerks or outright negative people. Distance yourself and focus on your own values and goals rather than get dragged into a negative headspace.

On being a good team member

  • Be a force multiplier by sharing knowledge with your team and teaching them how to do new things.
  • Don’t keep information to yourself just to have a monopoly on knowledge or hold anybody else back.
  • Hold yourself accountable to deadlines, policies, and core values even if nobody else is watching.
  • Assume other people have a good intent before judging their actions too harshly.
  • Offer to help when somebody is swamped or needs a break. You’ll likely get the same offer from that coworker when it’s your turn to pull long hours or get overloaded with too many tasks at once.

Looking for more? There are libraries, conferences, social media, online courses, and an entire internet full of other data sources that will help you be successful in your first digital marketing role. Become a lifelong learner and make sure to poke your head up every now and then to make sure you are on the right path to accomplish your own personal goals.

Shameless plug—we’re hiring! If you are still interested in a career in digital marketing after reading all of this, we should talk.

portrait of Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller

Andrew co-founded Workshop Digital in 2015 and serves as the Director of Client Services. He oversees our client relationships and ensures our SEO and PPC teams have everything they need to provide amazing results. After growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta during the 1980s, he decided it was time for a change of scenery and moved north to attend The University of Richmond. Armed with dual degrees in Computer Science and Spanish, it made perfect sense to seek another course change and begin a career in advertising and marketing at The Martin Agency and later, CarMax, before venturing out on his own in 2007. Andrew collects hobbies and devotes his time to his family, training for triathlons, and trying to grow vegetables in an expanding backyard garden.