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.


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 ch