The 2021 Guide to Digital Marketing: What It Is and How to Get Started

From viewing an ad on Facebook for something you’ve recently Googled, to receiving an email from a company you’ve purchased from, or clicking on a “sponsored” product when searching online; digital marketing influences our lives every day. If you’re interested in learning more about the skills and tools digital marketing professionals need to be successful, you’ve come to the right place! In this guide, we’ll explore what digital marketers actually do and what is important to a digital marketer’s success

Explore the answers to these questions in this article:

What Is Digital Marketing?

Let’s start by defining exactly what digital marketing is. The term “digital marketing” refers to how companies brand themselves via their online presence. This guide will explore the many different ways this can be accomplished. 

A decade ago, people flipped through magazines and newspapers to find new products, and marketers were able to leverage that printed media to communicate with consumers. Now, consumers are much more likely to discover brands and products simply by scrolling through social media posts or listening to podcasts. Marketing professionals realized that an opportunity existed to advertise within these platforms in the same way they once did in newspapers. 

Digital marketing embodies the same concepts as traditional marketing, but instead of existing within a physical newspaper or magazine, it’s digital. Like many facets of the tech industry, digital marketing continues to evolve regularly as technological capabilities — and the capabilities of everyday users — advance. Digital marketing professionals use skills like writing, research, creating email campaigns, data analysis, and social media utilization — just to name a few. 

What Are the Benefits of Working in Digital Marketing?

There are many advantages to working in a field that is growing rapidly. Some benefits of working in digital marketing include:

  • A degree is not a requirement to be hired.
  • You can apply your skill as a freelancer, working for a company, or in your own business.
  • Your skills can be applied in any industry.
  • Businesses need a solid digital marketing strategy to communicate with clients, drive business, and build brand awareness.

Are Digital Marketing Jobs in Demand?

Since we know that digital marketing will continue to grow, we can assume that jobs in the digital marketing industry will do the same. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that this industry will grow 7% between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than average. A LinkedIn report also listed digital marketing as one of ten jobs with the highest number of job openings, steady growth over the last four years, skills requirements that can be learned online, and a self-sustaining salary level. 

Thanks to technology’s advancements over the last decade, digital marketing has evolved to be more useful, efficient, and cost-effective than traditional marketing. If a company posts a traditional ad in a newspaper, they have limited targeting ability, aside from knowing the general circulation demographics of that publication. Alternatively, with the help of digital marketing tools like search engine optimization (SEO) and social media targeting, companies can identify ideal customer persona(s) for their ads, more specifically target those customers online, and gather specific metrics indicating whether customers read and acted upon their advertisements. 

Here’s an example of how quickly and efficiently digital marketing has evolved to target specific customer personas or types: While browsing online, you see a flower arrangement that might make a nice gift for an upcoming occasion. After viewing the arrangement and entering the delivery zip code to see if it’s available, you exit the product view as you want more time to think about it. At that point, you receive a pop up message offering you 20% off if you complete your purchase within the next 30 minutes. Digital marketing has enabled the retailer to not only instantly react to the sale interruption, but also incentivize you to complete the sale based on a variety of data attributes (e.g., cookies indicating where you first viewed the arrangement, IP/login info determining if you’ve purchased from them before, the timeframe to any upcoming occasions/holidays). While one could argue that you might have come back and made the purchase at full price, the retailer has already calculated the exact amount of profit they are willing to invest in closing the sale now, versus risking the loss of your purchase to a competitor or an entirely different product line. 

How Do I Get Started in the Digital Marketing World?

Let’s break down some of the steps you’ll need to take to enter the world of digital marketing and start building your career.

Step 1: Build Your Technical Skills

Here are some of the skills you’ll need to develop to be a successful digital marketing professional:

  • Digital analytics 
  • Content creation and strategy
  • Social media strategy
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)

Step 2: Build Soft Skills

Like most professional industries, bringing soft skills and emotional intelligence to your role will be crucial. Here are some important non-technical capabilities needed by successful digital marketing professionals:

  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Innovation
  • Adaptability
  • Strong relationship building skills

If this sounds like you, making a shift into digital marketing could be a great fit.

Step 3: Build Your Own Personal Brand

Brand creation and strategy is vital to digital marketing, so there’s no better way to hone this skill than by starting with yourself. Some initial ways to begin building your brand include:

  • Polishing your online presence (LinkedIn and social media)
  • Connecting with digital marketing professionals (following them on LinkedIn or social media and engaging with their posts)
  • Creating content via a blog platform, like WordPress, where you’ll become more familiar with web design, analytics, and content writing

Step 4: Build a Marketing Portfolio 

If you decide to apply to jobs in the digital marketing field, interested companies will want to see a portfolio of your work. Learning and enhancing the technical skills we mentioned above will be a critical component to building your portfolio to demonstrate your skills. Your personal blog is a great place to showcase those skills and promote yourself at the same time.

Can I Learn Digital Marketing Skills on My Own?

You can certainly learn on your own with the help of online digital marketing tools. Here are some resources that will help you learn a variety of platforms and technologies digital marketing professionals use:

Companies want to see a portfolio or a project you’ve worked on to assess your technical skills. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are limitations to teaching yourself through self-directed learning, as it can be challenging to figure out a way to apply what you’ve learned. Not to mention, there are some digital marketing tools that are very pricey and may be cost prohibitive for a learner to access on their own. While the above resources can be a great way to learn the foundations of digital marketing, you might need additional guidance in applying them to real-life scenarios and client initiatives.

Can I Get Into Digital Marketing With No Background Experience?

As we’ve noted, companies that hire digital marketers like to see projects you’ve worked on to evaluate skills and ensure fit. However, they also value business skills that you may have acquired in previous jobs, in different fields. This means that if you have valuable business skills that you’ve honed in a previous role, you could be an asset to a company looking to bring in a new digital marketing professional. Strong communication and collaboration skills, for instance, are crucial for an outbound digital marketer to understand what clients need and help proceed with a strategy. A versatile skill set is especially valuable for digital marketers working in-house at a small agency, as they’ll likely need to wear several different hats. All that said, you’ll still need to find a way to gain the necessary technical skills we’ve discussed and find a professional way to demonstrate them.

What Is the Fastest Way to Learn Digital Marketing?

You may have picked up on the fact that a candidate possessing a combination of soft skills and technical digital marketing skills stands the best chance of being noticed by employers. Enrolling in a boot camp taught by industry professionals can help you successfully master these technical skills and get the most out of your learning experience in a short time frame. If you decide to attend a digital marketing boot camp to level up your skills, they will have a standard methodology and a market-driven curriculum. 

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What Digital Marketing Skills Should a Digital Marketer Know?

There are a variety of technical skills that an aspiring digital marketing professional will need to learn in order to successfully advance in the field. Top skills include:

Search Engine Optimization (SEO):

SEO allows you to create content that will appear in search engine results. It’s a free way to drive traffic to a brand’s website and convert a user into a potential customer. The main way to optimize search engines is to first understand what your customers are searching for — known as “keywords” — and then utilize those keywords in your content. The stronger the match between your keywords and a user’s search query, the greater the likelihood of that user clicking on your website link. There are several products available to help digital marketing professionals analyze search results to optimize their keywords further, like SEMrush and Moz Pro, but there are also free options available, like Google Analytics.

Content Marketing

Content marketing is an approach involving creating and sharing online content to attract and retain a specific audience, thereby creating a new customer base. Advantages of content marketing include an increase in sales, saving on expenses, and cultivating a loyal customer base. Content marketing encompasses the following:

  • Infographics — A great tool to convert long-form written content into engaging visuals for your audience, infographics have the added benefit of being easily shared on social media.
  • Blogs — Blogs are a popular way to share content as they are a great way to engage with a target audience on a frequent basis. Digital marketers also use analytics to determine what an audience is connecting with by analyzing their clicks, shares, likes, comments, and other metrics.
  • ebooks/Guides — eBooks are a tool that marketers use to provide an audience detailed content (usually as a guide) and generate new leads. As such, they should be visually appealing, accessible or free, as well as an effective learning tool for a business to generate qualified leads. Marketers can use PDFs or other tools like MOBI (used by Kindle), ePub, or HTML5 to create eBooks.
  • Whitepapers — Whitepapers are used as a content marketing strategy to advocate for a solution to an issue. They are typically designed to sway the public’s opinion into thinking the solution being promoted is the best solution.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

If you’ve ever seen a “sponsored” section at the top of the results page when conducting a search, it’s because the companies marketing those products used SEM (Search Engine Marketing) by paying for those spots. This approach involves buying traffic through paid search listings, which requires a company to determine specific keywords to bid on in the hopes of optimizing their results in a prospect’s search. Companies identify a search network, like Google, to create an account and analyze their traffic and results for continual optimization.

Email Marketing

Companies email prospective and current customers to convert them or retain them, respectively. For example: a prospect visits a company’s website and a pop-up box appears on the screen, asking the prospect to enter their email address to receive 10% off their first purchase. Because the prospect already demonstrated an interest in the brand by visiting their website, there is a higher chance that they will convert into a customer with the added encouragement of an initial discount.

Informational email marketing also has the power to drive customers to a company’s website. If they send out an email campaign alerting their audience about a new product, service, or sale, it increases the likelihood that customers will visit their website. Platforms such as MailChimp and Constant Contact have revolutionized email marketing, as they allow marketers to create a campaign and access analytics to optimize future campaigns easily.

Email marketing is a low cost way to connect with potential customers on a regular, even daily basis. In fact, research shows that email marketing can be up to 40 times more effective than marketing on Facebook or Twitter and 66% of customers make a purchase as a result of a marketing email.

Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing involves strategizing and developing content across a company’s social media channels, engaging with followers, creating campaigns, and analyzing results. Businesses use social media analytics to determine their audience, reach, engagement, and sales. Companies can also use the same information to determine how to effectively tailor a strategic campaign to their target audience. Analytics can also highlight which posts have a wider reach and which posts yield more engagement from followers; resulting in more effective marketing campaigns to drive brand awareness and business.

The main social media channels that a brand will leverage to create content and grow its following are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.

Pay-Per-Click (PPC)

PPC is a form of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) that involves advertisers paying a fee each time one of their ads is clicked. The most popular approach to PPC is using search engine advertising, where advertisers can bid for an ad placement within a search engine’s list of sponsored links. These sponsored links typically appear at the top of the page of hits when a user performs a search. The company pays a small fee to the search engine each time the sponsored link is clicked, allowing the business to make a relatively negligible investment for a large profit in the long-term.

Market Research

Market research involves the process of gathering information about customers through surveys or interviews and can be conducted quantitatively and/or qualitatively. This process typically starts with identifying a target audience and researching that group’s needs and wants. Digital marketers then use the data to develop campaigns and inform companies on what their potential customers are looking for in products, services, or brands. 

Additional Skills to Further Your Knowledge and Career:

Like many industries in the tech sector, digital marketing skills continue to evolve as well. Once you get started, you’ll realize that the skills discussed above really just skim the surface. If you decide to pursue a digital marketing career and want to remain competitive in the field, you’ll need to continue learning the latest tools and techniques. Here are a few of the areas you’ll want to continue learning about throughout your digital marketing career.

Data Analysis

Someone needs to analyze all the data collected by digital marketers to inform marketing strategies — that person could be you! A large portion of digital marketing involves analyzing the data collected from pay-per-click (PPC), social media platforms, SEM, and other tools we’ve explored, in order to demonstrate how the brand’s audience behaves. It’s a valuable skill set in the field since many of the tools we’ve discussed rely on collecting data that needs to be analyzed.

Writing and Editing

Clear, effective writing is also a critical component of digital marketing and can be applied within SEO, SEM, social media marketing, and more. Digital marketers need to write content with which an audience will connect: blogs, eBooks, whitepapers, emails, and other materials. Copywriting is another important feature of digital marketing that involves writing content to persuade a consumer to take action. For example, writing product details to entice customers to make a purchase or writing engaging copy to drive more customer traffic to the website.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) 

CRM refers to a database that collects information about customers, sales, and marketing in a central location to manage customer interactions, track potential leads, and ultimately assist a company in strengthening customer relationships. Tracking customer behaviors leads to stronger data for the company and stronger customer relationships — being able to use CRM is an essential skill for amplifying a company’s digital marketing.

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

CRO focuses on increasing traffic to a company’s website by asking users to take a desired action like supplying their email address, registering for an event, providing personal information, or purchasing a product. CRO involves skills we’ve already discussed, such as market research and data analytics, but there is specific software that exists to optimize conversions and increase traffic such as Google Analytics, Heap, and Adobe Analytics.

Graphic Design

Graphic design is essential for building brand awareness and creating visual content that complements a company’s written content. Digital marketers spend a lot of time developing aesthetically pleasing graphics to attract the maximum views and clicks, whether they’re in an email, on social media, within blogs, or on their own website. 

Web Design

Your website is likely going to be the most substantial piece of your brand that a consumer interacts with, so it’s crucial that it’s easy to use, visually appealing, and gives the consumer the information they’re seeking. Web design encompasses many of the skills we’ve listed — like content writing, search engine optimization, CRO, and graphic design — so it’s a good idea for digital marketers to brush up on those skills if they want to become more employable.


UX, or user experience, refers to the experience a user has when interacting with an app or website — an optimal experience means they’re more likely to spend more time interacting with your brand, but a bad experience can result in a negative impact to business. Think — have you ever closed out of an app or web browser because it was too challenging to use? As we spend more and more time online, UX is becoming increasingly important to business’s bottom line. UX designers rely on many of the skills we’ve discussed, like market research and analytics.

Digital Marketing Learning Resources 

Luckily, the internet is an endless pool of information on most topics. Here are a few resources to help you get started in digital marketing!

What Are the Different Digital Marketing Jobs?

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably interested in specific types of roles digital marketing professionals seek out and how much money they stand to earn. Let’s explore some roles below:

  • Social Media Coordinator

    • Social media coordinators are responsible for creating and developing content across a brand’s social media channels. They track and report on metrics for social media campaigns and ideate solutions for growth and increasing traffic.
  • SEO Specialist

    • SEO specialists conduct keyword searches and use tools to improve company website rankings on search engines, and ultimately convert the results into SEO marketing strategies.
  • Marketing & Communications Manager

    • Marketing and communications managers create and execute company-wide content marketing strategies, using email and social media to drive awareness, engagement, and sales. They also build customer relationships, analyze data, and write or edit copy per organizational SEO strategy.
  • Brand Strategist

    • Brand strategists collaborate internally to drive market research with current and future audiences and landscapes. They use this data to develop campaign tactics, case studies, and strategic proposals.

Things to Do to Prepare for a Digital Marketing Career

As you can imagine, there are a number of actions you can take to prepare for a career in digital marketing. 

  • Create your own brand (online presence)
    • Creating a brand will not only make you more marketable as a job seeker, but also give you a taste of the work you’ll do as a digital marketer since developing and strengthening an online presence is at the core of digital marketing.
  • Write an outstanding resume
    • This is essential for beginning any career, but especially for digital marketers. It’s a competitive field and, as we’ve explored, digital marketers need to have a knack for creating text that is attractive, visually appealing, and drives the reader to the original source (in this case, makes a recruiter want to follow up with you for an interview). 
    • Digital marketers need to master the art of understanding what their audience is looking for and providing it within their content, so you’ll need to craft your resume for each opportunity accordingly.
  • Network 
    • Networking is also essential for job seeking in most industries, but if you’re new to the digital marketing industry, it can be a great opportunity to connect with other industry professionals. You can learn so much from networking, including:
      • Discovering free resources or platforms you can utilize to grow your skills.
      • Conducting an informational interview with an industry professional to learn more about their role, challenges, strengths, and any steps you can take to become a more competitive job candidate.
      • Finding out which companies are hiring.
      • Building your brand and online presence (e.g., write a LinkedIn post about an event you attended to increase your views.
      • Connecting with other like-minded people (and meeting a potential mentor).
  • Start following digital marketing professionals
    • A current expert in the field is a great resource for finding out what digital marketers are doing to stay on top of industry trends.
    • Following digital marketing professionals (on LinkedIn, Twitter, personal web pages, Instagram) is another way to obtain free resources and materials from an industry professional. 
    • You may learn tips about certain platforms or tools that can help you level-up your skills.
  • Continue learning on your own or taking courses
    • Commit to lifelong learning, understanding that this rapidly growing and evolving industry will always require new skills and mastery of new technology and tools.
  • Get your feet wet (volunteer, do internships, start a blog, etc.)
    • There’s no better way to learn than by doing, and if you’re not ready to apply for jobs in the field, get your foot in the door through a volunteering opportunity or internship. Companies are usually in need of extra hands and looking for eager individuals who have a passion for digital marketing.
    • We’ve also discussed how companies want to see a portfolio of work when they’re considering hiring. Nonprofits and small businesses that don’t have a digital marketing budget are always scouting for someone to assist them create materials and campaigns. Working for free to create content for someone can be one of the easiest ways to start building a portfolio without a full-time job. 

By now, you may be convinced that a career in digital marketing is for you. If you are creative, adaptable, analytical, and you’re ready to take the next step to start a career in digital marketing, find out more about Columbia Engineering Digital Marketing Boot Camp and start your journey toward becoming a digital marketing professional now. 

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