Digital Marketing Skills You Need to Succeed in 2021

Digital marketers have the skills and technical savvy to inspire millions of potential customers to buy, use, or believe in a product or service. With the right set of skills, these professionals are invaluable across a multitude of sectors outside of the tech industry, such as healthcare, law, higher education, food, real estate, and entertainment. Even the Census depends on digital marketers to increase participation rates and improve their research!

While some people might roll their eyes at the digital ads that scroll before their favorite streamed shows or throughout their social media feeds, it’s important to note that advertising is a crucial part of doing business. 

Let’s turn to the U.S. Census for an example. In early 2020, the federal program launched a multichannel advertising campaign that spanned 13 languages and encompassed over 1,000 advertisements — all in the hopes of reaching households and communities who might otherwise be missed by the major initiative. 

The campaign seamlessly blends conventional marketing tactics such as billboards and signage with cutting-edge digital strategies deployed across social media channels, web ads, and television promotions. The Census has, as of the end of summer, engaged nearly two-thirds of Americans. There’s no doubt about it; digital marketing skills hold real power in modern marketing. 

But which professional capabilities make these tech-powered communicators so effective in their roles? Which digital marketing skills would you need to build a thriving career in the field?

Don’t worry; we have you covered. In this article, we’ll break down a few of the hard and soft skills that digital marketers need — and explain why they matter.

Hard Skills for Digital Marketers

All digital marketers need a firm foundation of hard (though not necessarily technical) skills. By accumulating these capabilities, aspiring professionals learn how to produce powerful creative work in the field — and, not unimportantly, check off the professional qualifications for digital marketing jobs. 

The list below is by no means exhaustive; however, it can serve as a solid jumping-off point for those interested in learning more about the field. Linked resources are included with each digital marketing skill to empower your exploration.

The most important hard skills for digital marketing

Brand Development and Branding

In today’s crowded online markets, few digital marketer skills are so essential to business success as brand identity and development. 

As defined by the marketing giant Hubspot, “A brand identity is made up of what your brand says, what your values are, how you communicate your product, and what you want people to feel when they interact with it. Essentially, your brand identity is the personality of your business and a promise to your customers.” 

A well-developed brand identity has a recognizable personality. Consumers feel as though they can identify it, even develop a friendly rapport with it. When shoppers like a brand, their goodwill and interest extends to the products that the company sells. 

Once customers feel that they understand “who” a company is, they can build loyalty and trust around that perceived personality. This loyalty offers a business benefit. According to Fundera, 43 percent of customers spend more on brands that they feel loyal to, and, for most brands, 65 percent of business transactions stem from existing customers. 

Conversely, brand development also helps companies understand who their customers are. In doing so, it empowers them to connect with shoppers and make a clear, memorable impression on their target base.

Digital marketers work with their employers to develop a company’s brand, identity, and voice across digital channels. Once established, the personality shared across a company’s social media feeds, website, and even product packaging must be clear and consistent. 

Digital marketers are responsible for crafting advertising strategies that reflect their employers’ brand identities in the market. Their work is essential; after all, while a good branding campaign can propel a company to success and boost sales and customer preference in the digital marketplace, a weak or inconsistent branding job can consign a company to shopper indifference or frustration.

This is one area of work where a robust digital marketing approach can make a world of difference in determining company success.

Learn More About Branding

Competitive Research

All aspiring digital marketers must know how to conduct competitive research and analysis. This kind of investigation involves identifying a brand’s major competitors and researching them to gain a better understanding of their sales, products, and marketing strategies. Digital marketers need to know how they stack up against competitors; otherwise, how could they distinguish themselves as the better choice for consumers? 

During this investigative process, a digital marketer might assess competitors’ online advertisements, set up online alerts to follow media coverage of their brand’s rivals, examine content published by competitors, and develop branding strategies and reports. 

All of these efforts combine to further a single purpose: Ensuring that the brand has the information it needs to develop a marketing campaign that frames its products and services as being better-suited to consumer needs than its competitors’. 

Learn More About Competitive Research

Content Strategy

Crafting a strategic approach to content marketing is one of the most critical skills for a digital marketer to have. While most laypeople might think of marketing content as being blatantly self-promotional, most of the material written for brands takes a more circuitous route to inspiring customer attention. Great content marketing doesn’t hawk a product; it tells a story

Take the toy industry as a case study. In the early 1980s, Mattel created a cartoon television series titled “The Masters of the Universe,” a now-cult classic featuring memorable characters such as He-Man and Skeletor, all with the intent of selling toys. Within two and a half years of the series’ debut, the toy brand had sold 70 million dolls worldwide

If Mattel’s success with He-Man tells us anything, it would be that content marketing isn’t just about flooding the internet with straightforward promotion. Customers were invested not only in the toys but also in the narratives and characters of the He-Man TV show. Content marketing projects can provide meaningful educational value on topics that interest customers, from YouTube tutorials to well-written blogs. As a digital marketer, you can create industry-relevant content that has significant value to your customer, builds customer loyalty, and indirectly boosts consumer interest in your brand and products.

According to Hubspot’s 2020 State of Marketing Report, a full 70 percent of marketers are actively investing in content marketing. Moreover, around 60 percent of those surveyed added that content marketing was a significant part of their overall strategy.

Marketers rate the importance of content marketing

Additionally, a 2019 report from Brafton reported that total spend on content marketing is almost $400 billion annually, and the total market value of the content marketing industry is growing 16 percent every year. Researchers found three drivers behind this growth: greater brand awareness, the fact that digital content marketing is cheaper than traditional, and higher conversion rates.

Having decent content strategy skills is a basic necessity if you want to find success in digital marketing. 

Learn More About Content Marketing

Data Analytics

Data analytics empower digital marketing professionals to gain data-driven insights into customer preferences, brand development, and more. An abundance of readily-available analytical tools has given businesses across all industries the means to reveal and predict significant trends about customer interests, choices, and preferences.

At first glance, data analytics may not seem all that essential but in today’s digital world, it is a must-have digital marketing skill. Big Data and advanced data analysis allow marketers to better understand and tailor their services to current and prospective customers. This capability makes data analytics an essential tool in the modern digital marketing landscape.

Investment numbers reflect analytics’ importance to today’s businesses. According to Mordor Intelligence, the marketing analytics market was valued at $2.3 billion in 2019. It is expected to reach $4.23 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14 percent across the forecast period.

To be clear: you do not need to be a fully fledged data analyst to thrive as a marketer. However, you should have a basic understanding of a few foundational concepts, applications, and tools available in the marketing sector. 

Learn More About Data Analysis

AI and Machine Learning

Artificial intelligence and machine learning may be relative newcomers to the marketing sector, but they stand to disrupt the industry as we know it. Already, digital marketers are using AI technologies to identify trends on social media, conduct advanced customer research, and evaluate enormous quantities of data. 

By using AI and machine learning to understand customers better, marketing professionals can readily connect with their target audience and tap into ideas and topics that are important to them. Indeed, one 2018 PointSource study found that “when AI is present, 49 percent of consumers are willing to shop more frequently and 34 percent will spend more money.”

Having a basic understanding of AI and machine learning is a necessity for digital marketers. Those looking to break into the field should spend at least a little time educating themselves about both. 

Learn More About AI and Machine Learning

Customer Data Security and Privacy

As more and more of our transactions occur online, the risk to consumers’ personal information grows. It is crucial for digital marketers to understand their customers’ privacy concerns and protect their data as best they can. 

After all, a severe data breach or violation can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation for years — and often, it can do far more harm than a single effective marketing campaign could offset. According to a recent survey from PwC, only 25 percent of consumers believe that most companies handle their sensitive personal data responsibly. Interestingly, 72 percent of consumers also believe that businesses, not the government, are best equipped to protect them.

As one writer for Treasure Data puts the matter: “Privacy and security have become major marketing challenges — and digital marketing teams are finding themselves on the front lines, given their growing reliance on user data and all the vulnerabilities that come with it.” 

Good cybersecurity practices are essential to successful digital marketing campaigns. Learning how to treat customer data responsibly and protect it against cyber attacks is a critical part of an aspiring digital marketer’s education.

Learn More About Customer Data Security and Privacy

Search Engine Optimization and Marketing

A brand might have the best products on the market — but without a good search engine optimization (SEO) strategy to draw consumer attention, they may never achieve their selling potential. In early 2020, researchers for Ahrefs found that 91 percent of content receives no organic traffic from Google. These statistics indicate that if a business has excellent content but subpar SEO, its marketing efforts might not be seen by anyone who isn’t already aware of its brand. 

SEO marketing encompasses the technologies and techniques that skilled marketers can use to direct customer eyes to a brand via search engine traffic. Search engine optimization gives a business’ website and content a boost in search engine results, thereby drawing customer searches to your social, web, and video content.

More and more businesses today are beginning to view SEO as imperative — and it is. A 2019 study from Clutch further found that more than one-third (36%) of small businesses already had an SEO strategy at the time of survey, and an additional 23 percent planned to develop one within a year. For digital marketers, understanding SEO is critical to success in today’s search-engine-driven buying environment.

Learn More About SEO

Soft Skills for Digital Marketers

Soft skills matter. While technical talents often steal the spotlight, aspiring digital marketers can’t forget to hone their less-tangible people skills. Digital marketing is very much a team-oriented profession; you need to be capable of communicating with your peers, target audience, and business leaders alike. Remember that honing soft skills is especially crucial if you plan to eventually take on a leadership role and become a marketing manager. 

Let’s highlight a few of the soft skills you’ll need to succeed in the field. 

Empathy

Exceptional marketing campaigns understand their target consumers. They have a grasp on what motivates their target consumers to buy and they have a nuanced understanding of their audience’s primary concerns, feelings, and desires. 

The key to that comprehensive and useful understanding? Empathy.

Empathy refers to a person’s ability to step into another’s shoes and share their perspective. Digital marketers use their empathetic skills to gain a sense of what their target consumers want or need — and then craft a branding campaign that presents their brand’s products as a solution to those desires. Content marketing, in particular, is heavily reliant on a marketer’s ability to forge a connection between a brand and its consumers. 

Take LUSH’s recent promotional videos as an example. As writers for Hubspot recently shared in an analysis: “LUSH customers want to buy beauty products that are truly natural. They care about using fresh, organic, and ethically sourced ingredients — hence why the videos feature colorful, close-up shots of those organic lemons and sea salt to drive that point home. Taking customers inside the factory and showing them every part of the process — with a human face — assures them that they can consume these products with peace of mind.”

Digital marketers need empathy; otherwise, they can’t achieve the primary imperative of their role — to connect with consumers. 

Learn More About Empathy in Marketing

Curiosity

A successful marketer always wants to learn more about their products, customers, and new branding strategies. It’s almost impossible to be innovative and effective without fostering a passion for curiosity and following your desire to explore new ideas. Indeed, customers tend to gravitate toward brands they view as interested in their ideas and wellbeing. 

To borrow a quote from Inc.’s Geoffrey James, “People are drawn to those who show interest in them. Having an abiding fascination in others gives you the opportunity to learn new things about them, thereby making a deeper connection.” 

And connections, as we’ve already established, are a necessity in marketing. 

Don’t be afraid to follow your interests! Foster your curiosity; it will serve you well as a digital marketer. 

Learn More About Curiosity in Marketing

Persuasiveness

The importance of persuasion makes intuitive sense — after all, marketing is all about persuasive communication. If you understand how to convince people to trust your brand and its products, you have one of the characteristics of a great marketer. 

But let’s clarify a key point — the power of persuasion isn’t just about making a sale; it is about influencing how a customer feels after the sale, too. When a customer concludes a transaction, they should walk away feeling satisfied and excited about their purchase. Successful persuasive marketing helps customers feel like they are getting a great deal with a great business.

Learn More About Persuasiveness in Marketing

Communication

Communication is key. Yes, that’s a cliche — but for a good reason. As a digital marketer, you need to be an adept communicator across a variety of contexts. You should be able to craft a content marketing blog and email copy with equal ease; verbally conveying a campaign plan to your teammates or superiors should be a snap. 

Strong communication skills are worth building, and building upon. After all, without them, you’ll have difficulty developing strong relationships with your coworkers, partners, and customers. Moreover, employers strongly value communication. One 2017 survey conducted by GMAC Corporate Recruiters not only found that hiring managers ranked oral communication and listening capabilities as the top two most important qualities for a candidate, but also noted that interviewers expected ideal candidates to be an expert in both skills. 

Learn More About Communication in Marketing

Adaptability

Modern marketing is in a constant state of flux. New technologies develop, customer needs change, and social trends shift in an instant. As a digital marketer, you may one day need to retool your strategies and rethink your campaigns on the fly. 

Given all of this, adaptability and openness to change are vital qualities for today’s digital marketers. You need to be able to move with social shifts and be ahead of the curve — even when that means making a change in existing plans and strategies. Don’t fear change; instead, embrace it when it comes. Keeping an open mind will make you a better marketer. 

Learn More About Adaptability in Marketing

How to Gain These Skills

While the resources linked above will help kickstart your academic exploration, they won’t teach you all you need to know to break into the field of digital marketing. If you want to quickly accumulate your foundational skills, you may want to consider enrolling in a formal educational course. 

However, not all formal options follow the same educational blueprint. Generally speaking, your learning journey will take one of three paths: college, boot camps, or self-directed study

Many people may choose to complete a college or university degree in digital marketing or a related field. If you have the means and time to commit to a four-year degree program, this route may be a great choice. You’ll receive a comprehensive education in the field and have the opportunity to make valuable professional connections. 

However, if you prefer a more consolidated educational experience, you may want to consider a digital marketing boot camp. These courses provide structured training with direct access to skilled instructors and, often, support for certification programs and industry networking.

You can complete a digital marketing boot camp in a few short months. These courses are geared toward people looking for a career change, with convenient scheduling and an accelerated, skills-based learning style. For example, Columbia Engineering Digital Marketing Boot Camp combines education in website optimization, advertising and analytics with brand and content strategy development.

Lastly, those who want a self-directed experience may want to look into independent online tutorial options. With this route, learners are essentially self-taught. While this can be a fantastic option for those who are price-sensitive and prefer educational autonomy, self-directed learning requires tremendous personal accountability and motivation. Think carefully before you commit to a course!

No matter which route you eventually choose, your destination will ultimately be the same: a rewarding career in digital marketing.