How to Start a Career in Digital Marketing (Step by Step)

by | Jan 19, 2021

Digital marketing is one of the hottest careers this year with skilled marketers in extremely high demand.  According to a January 2021 LinkedIn jobs report, hiring in the digital marketing industry increased by 33% over last year.

It pays quite handsomely too.  According to Indeed, digital marketers earn over $74,500 annually and experienced marketers can easily earn more than $100,000.

Digital Marketing Manager Salaries
Digital Marketing Manager Salaries in the US

But as a beginner, job hunting for your first digital marketing role can be extremely difficult.  Posted openings may get 100’s of applicants and if you’re just starting out you may not have the skills and experience to break into your first role.

So how do you get started with a career in digital marketing then?

Well, follow this complete guide of course.  If you take the actions I outline here you are going to have the resume, skills, and attitude to land and crush your first gig.

So who am I and why should you take my advice?

Hi, I'm Ryder!
Hi, I’m Ryder Meehan, Upgrow Co-Founder

I’m writing this article from the perspective of an agency founder who has interviewed 100’s and hired dozens of marketers.  And before I was on this side of the hiring table, I was a digital marketer applying for jobs myself.  So I’m sharing insights on what worked for me to land my early roles at leading digital agencies as well as Fossil, Samsung, and Tatcha.  But I’m also sharing from an employer’s perspective of what I look for in interns and new hires, as well as how to excel in your first or latest role.

Now that you know a bit about me, let’s get back to the point at hand…

How to start a digital marketing career step by step.

Table of Contents:

Choose your digital marketing discipline

Before you just start diving into the broad topic of digital marketing and attempting to simultaneously learn all channels and strategies at once, I highly encourage you to start with a narrow-and-deep approach.

By that I mean choose a single channel (i.e. SEO, PPC, Paid Social Ads, Content Marketing, Email Marketing) and learn it from a foundational, strategic, and practical level.

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So which discipline is right for you?

You may already have an idea of what you’d like to master first, but if not I can highly recommend the Greenfig Digital Marketing Science course and certificate.  This program covers each channel with a one-week preview and overview accompanied with hands-on practice.  You also get to see my smiling face as one of the instructors. ?

Personally, when I started my career in 2004, I went into Pay-Per-Click ads (also known as paid search, Google Ads, search engine marketing, or SEM).  This has served as an incredible foundation for me and I believe a single-discipline focus is the best approach.

Side Note: I’ll cover more later on what employers are seeking for entry-level and internship but specialization is a big one.  Strong marketing teams at top companies are more likely to need channel experts over generalists.  Doing one thing really well is more valuable than doing many things so-so.

The most common and widely used digital marketing channels are SEO, PPC, and Paid Social Media Marketing. So I suggest starting with one of these to have the skills for the most digital marketing jobs.

  • SEO is for content writers, researchers, and code lovers.  SEO has sub-specializations including content creation (writing), link-building, and technical.  But generally speaking, SEO is a good channel for writers as well as technical people.  Content marketing could also fall under this category.
  • PPC appeals to the analytically minded.  It involves a lot of data, spreadsheets, organization, and identifying trends.
  • Paid Social is for the creatively minded.  With images, video, audience targeting, and ad writing, ads on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn appear to the artistic marketer.

Spend some time researching the channels and pick the one you think would suit you best.  You can also check out our Digital Marketing Channel Cheatsheet to see the pro’s, con’s, use cases, and summary of each.

After picking a channel it’s time to start learning it and using it to the point of mastery before working on the next.

Where to learn digital marketing

Learn digital marketing online

A simple Google search will lead you to a seemingly endless number of learning blogs, Youtube channels, courses both in-person and online, and books on all areas of digital marketing.  There is no single path that is exactly right, but the resources are all there for you and either free or very affordable.

However, rather than cobble together your training by jumping around these resources, I strongly recommend you choose a single foundational course to give you a full overview of your channel of choice.  This will ensure you learn it from the ground up and in the future can dig into more specific strategies or advanced tactics in the blogs and Youtube videos.

Another important bit of advice.  Before your begin your foundational course, get your online business website launched first.  You will then be able to follow along with the digital marketing course and actually build marketing campaigns for your business.  This hands-on learning is crucial, so complete the next section of getting your site live then implement what you learn during the course for your online business.

SEMRush PPC Course

These are some of my recommended foundational course:

Note: There are also training materials that accompany the Google Ads and Facebook Ads certifications later in this article.  You will want to complete these as well but I suggest supplementing your training from the ad platforms (i.e. Google, Facebook) with these non-bias resources.

BONUS

Now when you do begin that course (or any learning program), let me give you suggestions to get the most out of it and increase your chances of sticking with it.

  • Print out a 100 days goal sheet like this one.  Each day you study 30 minutes or longer, mark a day off.  Psst, this also works for any good habit you want to build.
  • Study Seriously.  When you work on your channel course, be in a quiet study environment just like you were in school.  Take notes under columns like How Can I Use This, Why Must I Use This, and When Can I Use This.  Also, write down definitions and note other resources mentioned to come back to later.
  • Don’t Jump to Different Resources.  Complete the full foundational course or courses first.  Don’t jump to topic blogs or expert topics until you complete the foundational program.

How to get hands-on experience

Once you have chosen your marketing disciplines and picked a comprehensive course, it’s time to arrange access to get hands-on experience.  As you’re going through your course, it will be infinitely more valuable if you can actually follow along by doing.

Quick story: last year when hiring for a new intern, I received over 500 applicants.  One resume stood out though and this candidate would ultimately land the job, let’s call him TK.  So what was it about TK’s resume that jumped out at me?  He had built and grown a Minecraft blog to thousands of visitors daily through SEO.  I know that isn’t easy and he didn’t have any formal training to achieve that.  What can you do to earn then show off your new skills?

Start a web business that you can market

I realize this is A LOT to ask and might feel like a misdirection from your focus on learning digital marketing.  But, having a place to practice and implement digital marketing strategies is crucial.  Even as you go deeper into your digital marketing career, you will still benefit from this safe practice space.

Additionally, learning how a website works and showing recruiters you are capable of learning on your own with a relevant side hustle is huge, especially when you’re just starting out and have an actual website you can show them that you built and ran marketing for.

Plus, by starting your own business you don’t have to worry too much if you crash the site, have to get permission from a boss or client, or your campaigns don’t perform.

First, figure out what your business will be.  Ideally, you want something you can launch quickly and can be operated fully online (you don’t want to spend time shipping products).

And personally, many of the digital marketing strategies and skills I’ve learned were from my side-hustle projects!

For inspiration, check out 29 Online Business Ideas That You Can Start Today.  Some simple models are drop-shipping, affiliate marketing with a content website, sell digital products, become an influencer (great for social media), or offer an e-class.

Alternatively, you could buy an existing web business on Flippa.  Just don’t blow all your budget on launching a website since the goal here is really just to create an environment to grow your digital marketing skills.

Create a WordPress site following this complete guide or hire a developer to build one to your plans if you have more money than time.  If you want to build your site on another platform like Squarespace, Webflow, or Shopify that’s fine too but Wordpress is the most popular (outside ecommerce where Shopify reigns) so try to gain experience on a platform that is applicable in the future.

No matter which channel you chose, I want you to do these things to your website.  Any good digital marketing will need to do these at some point so you might as well learn them now.  Data analysis and tracking are crucial for all digital marketers.

  1. Install Google Tag Manager (also known as GTM)
  2. Add Google Analytics (also known as GA) to Google Tag Manager
  3. Set up GA conversion goals
  4. Add the Google Ads/LinkedIn/Facebook pixel for your channel
  5. Verify your website with Google Search Console

Follow along with these videos.

Ok, at this point you should have a web business, live website, and analytics in place.

Let’s get into the actual marketing of the website.

This is where you’ll want to begin your foundational course since you now are ready to follow along implementing the strategies on your own website as you learn them.

If you chose a paid channel (i.e. Google Ads, Facebook Ads, LinkedIn Ads) then you will need to spend some money.  But hey, learning is free.  Budget no less than $1,000 to invest in learning and if you have even a little bit of success you’ll offset those ad costs with sales from your website, hopefully even net a profit!

As you’re marketing your own website here are few tips:

  • Join a network to ask questions as they come up and share strategies
  • Post on LinkedIn about what you’re working on
  • Use Google and YouTube, you can find answers to almost anything
  • Keep notes on what worked, what flopped, and what you learned

Getting marketing certified

There are industry-recognized certifications that can really make you stand out on a resume and also will ensure you learn the channel well.  These will require that you go through extensive online study materials and then complete (and pass) an online exam on those materials.

Here the most widely recognized certifications:

Even though your resume will be short as a new digital marketer, having a certification shows employers a few things:

  • You already know more about your digital marketing specialization than 99% of other applicants
  • You take initiative to gain valuable skills
  • You are able to self-teach
  • You aren’t just looking for a job, you are starting a career in digital marketing
  • You can help agencies earn Agency Certification

Are you convinced yet?  Go get your certification!

Build your network of marketing professionals

Have you heard “your network is your net worth”?

It’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.

Start on LinkedIn.

Create a well-written LinkedIn profile.  That means having a professional-looking headshot, a complete bio, adding your certification, and any other information about yourself professionally.

When you start applying for jobs or asking for network connections, people are going to check out your LinkedIn profile.  So make sure it’s fully built out.

Connect with people you know and others that might be able to help you.  Like, share, comment and engage with posts.  Share industry-specific blog posts, updates on your side-hustle, marketing strategies, industry news, and other updates that show you have passion for your field.  And feel free to add me as a connection too!

LinkedIn Profile Example

Tell People About Your Career Plans

Tell friends, family members, and anyone else you know that you’re planning to start a career in digital marketing.  Let them know about all the studying you’ve been doing and the certification you already earned as well as the side-hustle website you’ve been learning with.

But most importantly, let them know you’re looking for an internship if they know anyone hiring.

Create a resume that employers will love

I’ve reviewed probably 1,000 resumes in my 16-year career and can tell you that 90% of them are a mess.

So let me first tell you what an employer is looking for and then we’ll cover how to write a resume that gets a callback.

What employers look for:

  • Relevance – this is at the top of the list.  If they are hiring a PPC Intern then you better have PPC all over your resume.  Get it?  They are scanning potentially 100’s of resumes looking for relevant words.  Lucky for you, you’ve gained the skills and certification to earn relevant skills – just be sure you highlight that on your resume.
  • Ambitious – experience and skills can be gained quickly by someone ambitious who wants to learn and achieve greatness.  Highlight your ambition with a list of the new skills you’ve learned and your certifications earned.
  • Purposeful – employers don’t want someone just seeking the first job they can get, we want someone launching their digital marketing career and who specifically wants the role they applied for.  This is where a great cover letter can also help.  Write a few paragraphs in a cover letter explaining why you specifically want their digital marketing job.
  • Professional – employers want someone reliable and who makes the company look good in front of clients.  Consider a headshot of you professionally dressed and groomed.  And of course an organized resume.
  • Quantifiable Achievements – show the stats on your success.  An example could be “Grew website traffic by 50% in 30 days using SEO”.

Resume Mistakes:

  • Typos – triple check your resume and have a friend or proofreader check it to.  Having typos tells me that you don’t care about details and aren’t professional.
  • Informal – this includes improper capitalization, use of & instead of “and”, short-hand, and other writing styles you might send in a text message but shouldn’t have in your resume.
  • Walls of text – some job postings getting 100’s of applicants.  No employer wants to read a book, they just want to get a summary of your capabilities and experience.  Use a bulleted, scannable layout.
  • Not PDF file – always upload or send your resume as a PDF.  This ensures it won’t get misformatted when the employer opens it.

BONUS: FREE RESUME TEMPLATE

To help you get started with creating a killer resume, I’ve put together the template you can download now for free.

You’ll see that it’s easily scanned for key information, highlights your certifications, includes quantifiable achievements from your side-hustle web business, and even has a spot for your smiling mug to add some personality.

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Job hunting and applying

If you networked your way into a job then that’s awesome.  But even if you didn’t, or just want to land a more specific role, here are some ways to land your first or next digital marketing job.

Pro Tip: Focus on making a great impression for a few roles rather with a thoughtful cover letter and even tailoring your resume slightly to match the job description.

Apply for Posted Openings

LinkedIn Job Search
Search LinkedIn for Jobs (see link at the bottom of this article)

Sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, Glassdoor, ZipRecruiter, and Internships.com all have 100’s of entry-level digital marketing job postings at any given time.

Because you’ve chosen to specialize in a marketing discipline, gained side-hustle experience, and earned a certification, you can narrow your search to marketing jobs within your chosen channel.

As you’re searching these websites for digital marketing jobs, search for your discipline in it’s multiple terms (i.e. paid search/PPC/SEM, social media marketing/Facebook Ads/paid social marketing, SEO/search engine optimization, as well as general digital marketing) and filter the years-of-experience to 1.

You can consider remote roles or local in-office roles depending on your preference and access to digital marketing jobs locally.

Apply to Your Dream Company (Even If They Don’t Have a Posted Job Opening)

If you can’t get your foot in the door for a posted job or you want to land your dream job but they just aren’t hiring, then you can always reach out to the company and send along your resume.  This is actually how I landed my first full-time digital marketing job.

Send in your resume, cover letter, and a message on why you’re specifically applying for their company.  They may be so impressed they give you an interview or keep you in mind for when something does open up.  Most successful companies are “always hiring” when a great candidate comes along.

Start by Working at a Digital Marketing Agency

Digital marketing agencies are the best place to learn for a few reasons:

  • They hire more entry-level roles than in-house marketing departments or ad networks
  • You can work on multiple industries and clients
  • You will not be the only digital marketer in your channel, but work with others in your same role and discipline.
  • Agencies use more advanced strategies and move faster

When I began my career, my first two roles were at agencies.  The breadth of experience and network connections served me very well throughout my career in digital.

Interested in interning at Upgrow?  Learn more about careers at Upgrow and apply for our internship after you’ve completed this guide!

How to nail the interview

Interview Photo
Prepare for the interview, here’s how…

If you’ve completed all the steps up until this point, you can go into your job interview with a load of confidence knowing that you’ve done what it takes to stand out.

But you do still need to impress during the interview.

Here are some things to prepare before your interview:

  • Research the company and the role.  Including thoroughly reading the job description, visitng their website, reviewing their social media, and even check out their digital marketing channels (especially the one you’re applying for!)
  • Prepare at least 5 questions to ask about the role.  Good ones include: Why is the company hiring for this role now?  What does the ideal candidate look like?  What is the day-to-day for this role?  I saw [something specific] in the job description, can you please explain that further?
  • Prepare to answer the most common interview questions.  These include: Tell me about yourself.  Why do you want a career in digital marketing?  What is your experience in PPC/SEO/Social Media Marketing?

Basic Interview Etiquette:

  • Look professional (even for a Zoom interview).  That means a suit or dress and styled hair.
Business Professional in Suit
Business Professional Woman
  • Your Zoom setting.  That means a well-lit, quiet space.  Use a headset and make sure everything is working before your meeting.
Zooming Marketing Interview - Professional Dress
  • Be on time.  Even be a few minutes early to be safe.

During the interview here are some tips

  • Let the interviewer lead.  Allow them to ask you the questions and provide answers that are succinct and concise (avoid rambling).  They will prompt you when to ask some questions or you can bring up your questions later in the meeting.
  • Be passionate (but not fake) and tell them about the website you’ve been marketing, the training course you completed, the other learning resources you’ve studies, and the certification you earned.
  • Be Specific.  Since you should have taken a look at their digital marketing and website, you can tell them a few things you like or ideas you might have they could try based on your learnings.

After the interview, follow up with a thank you message.  Send an email or mail a letter immediately to thank them for their time and the opportunity.  As with all communications, make sure it’s free of typos and in a professional tone.

Plan on a few rounds of interviews and try to find out who you’ll be meeting with at each one.  You can do some research on your interviewer to tailor your answers and questions to them as well.

How to succeed in your first marketing job

Before long you will no doubt land your first gig to launch your career in digital marketing.

You probably want to move beyond intern or digital marketing coordinator and up the ranks quickly.  Here are a few things to ensure you make the most of the opportunity every day on the job:

  • Take initiative.  When you are assigned a task, go beyond just doing it but try to find the best way to do it.  For example, if you’re asked to make a report, see if you could actually automate the report, add notes of trends in the data, or include more useful sections in the report.
  • Ask for more.  Move up your digital marketing career path means adding more skills and responsibilities.  Find ways you can be a bigger contributor.
  • Build relationships.  Network with your coworkers, clients, and vendors.  Learn from them and be a good resource for them too.  Add them on LinkedIn, invite them out to lunch or for coffee, and make referrals where you can.
  • Keep learning always.  Just because you landed your first gig doesn’t mean you can stop progressing with books, podcasts, training courses, or reading industry news.  The best digital marketers are always building their marketing skills and experience.

Resources to bookmark

General Digital Marketing Resources:

Social Media Marketing Resources:

Search Engine Optimization Resources:

Google Ads Resources:

Where to Find Digital Marketing Jobs:

Interview and Resume Tips:

More Digital Marketing Courses and Certifications

Conclusion

Whew, we covered a lot, didn’t we?

I hope you find this guide to be helpful and give you the advice I wish I had when starting out.  Following these steps will put you miles ahead of 99% of other applicants and make you a 10X better digital marketer at the same time.

Consider how far ahead of the crowd you will be even before you land your first digital marketing job?

Whether your long term goal is to progress to a digital marketing manager, start your own marketing agency, head up marketing for a company, or grow your own venture, the skills you gain to execute effective digital marketing will serve you well throughout your entire career.

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Ryder Meehan

Ryder has been on a 16-year journey to master digital marketing from every aspect. His resume includes Razorfish, Slighshot, Fossil, Samsung Mobile and Tatcha before launching Upgrow. Ryder is the acting CEO, heading business development and account services. He has been featured as a digital marketing leader on Forbes, PRNews, Business.com, Workamajig, Databox, Fit Small Biz and other outlets.

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