Guide to a Career in Digital Marketing Without Formal Education

Popular misconceptions about starting a career in digital marketing

Some people will suggest that if you want to learn digital marketing or to become an expert in this field you HAVE to go to the university and get a degree. What a bullshit.

Internet is growing a lot faster than any university could keep up with the changes. More importantly, all the information you need to learn this subject is online for (mostly) free. Some courses and resources are paid, but these investment costs are reasonable in majority of occasions.


A short summary of the steps of starting a career in digital marketing from scratch:

  • Step 1: Start following world experts on marketing and follow industry leading blogs
  • Step 2: Try out different skills and start learning copywriting, basics of design and programming, analytical abilities and improve your numerical skills
  • Step 3: Get some “unofficial” experience – start your own blog, create fake marketing strategy and create mockups of its implementation
  • Step 4Give some free advice and help for businesses around you. Start building relationships, name credibility and test your skills in the real world
  • Step 5: Get some paid experience and move forward. Congratulations, mission accomplished.

Marketing is a set of skills that you can learn

Marketing skills are dead-simple, and you can master them quickly. As long as you’re willing to learn, established experts are giving away their secrets for free online.

Quick tip before we begin: when you subscribe to these people and blogs I will recommend, pay attention to two things:

  1. What they say and teach
  2. How they say and teach. The way they craft headlines, structure newsletters, link to other people and products are valuable lessons, but very few people notice and understand that.

Step 1:

1) Sign up for these newsletters. They will help you to develop your marketing mindset that will change how you understand and do business:

  • Seth Godin: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/.
  • Jay Abraham: http://abraham.com/
  • Noah Kagan: http://okdork.com/
  • Gary Halbert: http://www.thegaryhalbertletter.com/

2) Subscribe to these blogs:

Master Social Media and get to know your customers:

  • http://socialmediaexaminer.com

Get on the top of the google:SEO:

  • http://moz.com/blog

Make your website a customer magnet:

  • http://www.thinktraffic.net
  • http://blog.kissmetrics.com/
  • http://www.quicksprout.com/
  • http://unbounce.com/blog/
  • http://www.hubspot.com

2) Every week read one of these books.

“Oh, but here’s a lot to read” you may think. And this is exactly what separates good marketers from the poor. These books contain years and years of experience, practice, costly mistakes and great success of the top performers in the industry who put all their great tips into a well researched and edited piece, so it would be easy for you to pick it up and just get everything into your head.

Step 2:

Learning specific skills:

Marketing isn’t a skill on it’s own. It’s rather a combination of various skills. You can’t just come and “do” marketing. To be actually useful you will need to be able to perform more than one skill well. Being well organised, have a logical and structured approach to complex problems and being able to use Google like a god will be absolutely essential in any area of marketing. There are a few types of marketers: some just manage projects, others are exceptional writers, some are awesome at generating and pitching ideas (hint, hint: Steve Jobs).

Having a set of tangible skills is often overlooked by aspiring digital marketers. This is exactly what separates those, who find a job with ease between those, who struggle.

The good thing is – you can pick and master any skill individually. Where to start?

These are the most important skills for digital marketers:

  • Writing (content / copy / email)
  • Time & project management
  • Basics of programming
  • Making good presentations and pitching ideas
  • Analytics (making sense of the data) & strong numerical abilities
  • Evaluating situation, raising objectives and creating strategy. This is where “general” marketing theory comes in use
  • Making friends and new contacts
  • Keeping contacts via email & in person
  • Researching with Google like a pro
  • Staying on top of the news and industry trends

How?

One of the best methods of acquiring a new skill quickly is explained by Josh Kaufman (best selling author of Personal MBA) in his latest book “The first 20 hours. How to learn anything…fast”:

10 principles of rapid skill acquisition:

  1. Choose a lovable project
  2. Focus your energy on one skill a time
  3. Define your target performance level
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills
  5. Obtain critical tools
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice
  7. Make a dedicated time for practice
  8. Create fast feedback loops
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed

Using these 10 steps you will be able to pick skills that are essential to marketing and master them one by one.

Step 3:

Get “unprofessional” experience.

The most common problem why aspiring digital marketers can’t find a job is that they don’t have experience. But you if you want any experience, you need a job in the first place…right? Not quite. You can get marketing experience without a job. How? Start with a simple blog. Not only it’s almost free and simple to start, it will have two benefits:

A) You will be able to test your newly gained knowledge in a real world environment. This is by far, the best and easiest way to implement the advice “put theory into practice”.

B) It will work as your accountability-journal, motivator and greatest teacher. It will show you your progress and will inspire you to move forward.

Most importantly, you will have a face online. This will instantly differentiate you from thousands of other people who want to enter the marketing world, but are too weak to put some effort in. Your blog won’t be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.

Your potential employee or future client will be able to see that you’re a real person it will build a lot more trust, it will show your history, it will show exactly how hard working you are and what others can expect from you.

It will be the best resume you have ever had. You can be sure your employer will check it.

Make your “unprofessional” experience even better:

Social media.

Marketing can be very difficult, complex and overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. There is a temptation to try to be “everywhere” online. However, when starting out – pick one social media channel and make the most of it. Twitter or Google+ or LinkedIn is a great start. Follow 10-15 people who are thought leaders (high subscribers count will be a good indicator) in the industry that you’re interested in and start reposting/retweeting their content, send personal “thank you” messages to them, ask their help. This is how you use social media. Once you have at least a few people following you, start sharing your own content from the blog. But be careful, you don’t want to spam or become a “me me me, everyone look at me”.

Get outside

Participate in networking events, conferences, meetups. By staying on top of the industry news, reading books, reading blogs you will be interesting and will always have something to talk about.

More things to do

Participate in online communities. This time I won’t give you any specific examples. Get used to googling. Try “[your interest] forum” or “[your interest] community]” or “top [your industry] forums”.

Step 4:

Get a taste of a real world experience:

Start offering free help for businesses and try to get some professional experience – get paid, no matter how little. Then, move forward from there. There is a debate about whether or not you should work for free. If you can – don’t. But if you’re left with a choice – get unpaid experience or don’t get experience at all – go with the unpaid.

You may hear people suggest that it’s not worth doing this or that you will earn your name as a free-worker. Don’t let that happen. Work for one company a month or two for free, to show that you know your stuff. If you don’t – work until you do. When you can actually demonstrate that you can bring value and results – start charging. If anyone asks for a favor – don’t refuse if thats a short question, but don’t start doing free work. Ask (literally) ask for little respect and tell them, that you did some free work in the beginning to show, that you’re capable of doing stuff and that now it’s time to charge for work, because it brings value to business.

Step 5:

If you come this far, it should be one of the easiest steps. Start keeping an eye on job boards, use your new connections asking about paid experience and prepare your formal CV. There is a whole new set of tips and tricks for applying successfully for a job, but that’s a story for another day.

Some extra tips:

Finally, don’t worry about doing everything at once. Start with following leaders and get the general taste of what modern marketing is.

Get comfortable with the terminology. Read a few books (start with “Launch” by M. Stelzner and Tribes by S. Godin).

After 2 or 3 months, you’ll be ready to start your own blog. Pick anything you like. It can be your hobby, it can be your personal learning journey. Get into habit of writing, test out different ideas that you learned from the books and blogs, grow your own readership, 10 or 15 followers is a win. Grow from there.

Once you have a simple blog and some content, start talking to other blogs, other marketers, write to people you admire. Nothing will be easy or simple, but you will learn A LOT. Then, start attending conferences and meetups, blog about them, vlog about them, tweet about them. This is how you start from scratch to learn digital marketing and get into the industry without formal education or any connections.

If you read the whole thing – thanks. It’s hard to write something longer than 1000 words that gets read. However, if you read the whole thing, I hope it was useful. If you have any questions – make sure you ask them in the comments. Your feedback and questions is the biggest reason why I wrote this in the first place.

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  • Oscar Gil

    I read this article back in 2012! This was the very first article I ever read on marketing… which got me into sales/advertising/personal development. THANKS!

    • Justinas Vaiciulis

      That is awesome. So happy this was helpful! Are you working in marketing/sales at the moment?