Becoming a digital marketer is not easy. A lot of us are figuring it out on our own, learning as we go—especially when you consider the dated curriculum in many university marketing programs, that’s not as relevant to the digital trends, tactics, and technology of today and tomorrow. Whether you are looking to capitalize on an in-house position or move into the agency world, figuring out what to develop and what to emphasize can be challenging—and that’s before you factor in how quickly digital marketing tactics and technologies change.

In my experience, the path is different for everyone—but there are some commonalities. There are critical attributes, skills, and experience that make a great digital marketer, all of which I look for when hiring for our agency’s digital strategy team. No matter what you’ve done or where you learned, this is the recipe for what makes a great digital marketer.

What Is a Digital Marketer?

Before we do anything else, let’s clarify what we’re talking about. HubSpot defines digital marketing as “all marketing efforts that use an electronic device or the internet.” Over the last two decades, organizations have jumped in, utilizing these new channels and technologies to their advantage.

As with many job titles, “digital marketer” didn’t really exist in the 90s. Today, digital marketers are responsible for everything from your email marketing and content strategy to analytics and reporting. They guide and navigate your company’s marketing efforts through digital channels to reach the best people through the right channel, gathering customer information and nurturing users through the marketing funnel all while tracking conversions, proving value, and improving the process to get the best results possible.

It’s a really wide-ranging discipline that is constantly evolving, thanks to technology—so much that the term “digital marketing” is losing some value, as more and more of the digital disciplines are normalized and become part of a team’s everyday marketing needs.

All that being said, there are certain things I look for that determine whether a person is equipped to take on the role of digital marketer. Let’s dive in.

What You Need to Be a Digital Marketer

First of all, a note—we’re talking about “digital marketers” a lot, but there’s something important to consider when it comes to that role. In today’s world, the internet is everywhere, and the lines between digital and everything else are blurring to the point they may not even exist. The word “digital” might not be in your job title, but if you’re a marketer in the 21st century, you’re a digital marketer.

That being said, the following traits must be intrinsically present in an individual who wants to work in this field—they are personal attributes that are shared by every successful marketer, regardless of discipline. 

1. Thinking and Learning

Great digital marketers are bloodhounds, driven to learn more and uncover the greater truths within their industries, disciplines, and data. Passion for knowing more matters. It’s part of what makes up our team’s zany personalities and good-hearted but fierce competition to stay on top.

Digital marketers also obviously need to be strategic in nature. It is imperative to be able to review what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what you plan to do and poke holes in it, see it from multiple angles, and improve it. Whether it’s a multi-channel lead generation campaign or content strategy, digital marketers never “set it and forget it.”

In the agency world, you’re only as good as your next project, so you’ve got to be constantly thinking about what comes next. The ability to review and analyze past successes and past failures is crucial to applying those lessons forward and continually improving your work and your results.

2. Self-motivating

There is no such thing as a lazy digital marketer, or at least no such thing as a lazy and gainfully employed digital marketer. This industry changes rapidly. There is no resting on your laurels.

Learning, thinking, doing, testing…the career is littered with constant motion. Any downtime must be spent sharpening the saw, and during the stressful deadline moments, it’s going to be critical that you can take the heat and stay in the kitchen, because your teammates, clients, and employers all demand it.

Forbes sums this attribute up nicely, deeming digital marketing “the most entrepreneurial job in marketing.” We couldn’t agree more.

3. Collaborative

One of the biggest obstacles in digital marketing can be overcoming “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or working with others who may not share your vision. The great ones are those who learn to be a part of the team, value the talents of those around them, and enhance the work of others with data, testing, and improving what’s available to improve.

It’s a balancing act between the analytical and the creative, and the modern marketer needs to see both. Bringing a collaborative attitude is the best first step, and the right approach can build bridges and earn more opportunities. Your best marketing teammates are “pass-first” point guards, so being able to get along and move the ball forward together is part of being successful.

4. Business-minded

The final crucial trait that I’m looking for in any marketer, digital or otherwise, is how strong their grasp on the principles of business is. You don’t have to be a finance or a business major or have experience running your own business, but you have to be able to understand how a business works, and the relationship between marketing and other critical aspects of the business.

This is commonly displayed as a dogged pursuit of goals that matter to the business. If you’re reporting on or geeking out over impressions and click-through rates, but you have no idea if the work you’re doing has had a positive net impact on the business, you’re not there yet.

I’m a big believer in what I call the “Avinash” approach, from Google evangelist and web analytics specialist Avinash Kaushik—that is, “Care. Do. Impact.” If you are showing me a data visualization or piece of information, why should I care, what do you suggest I do about it, and what impact will that suggestion have? I encourage everyone on our team to adopt “Care. Do. Impact.” as a mantra and apply it to business challenges large and small.

Chasing down why it matters—doing the math to connect impressions to a business impact like sales—is what makes a good digital marketer great!

Skills Every Digital Marketer Needs

Traits, personal strengths, and philosophical approaches aren’t the only ingredients in the makeup of a great digital strategist. You’ve got to be able to do the work, too—and that means skills. Again, this applies to all marketers—but especially those who are more digital-oriented.

1. Research and Analysis

A digital marketer is armed with a slew of tools aimed at one giant overall purpose—to hunt for data to solve a marketing or business problem. Every problem we are trying to solve can benefit from research. It relates to all of the work we do.

What is our goal, how has it been achieved in the past by the client and competitors, what’s different about it this time, who is our audience…the list of questions is long and varied. Being able to turn those questions into direction for where to seek data and how to get it out and into something you can manipulate and pull insight from—that’s the start of something great, grasshopper.

But all the research in the world is worthless if you can’t make sense of the data. Whether going old-school in an Excel file with some add-ons or getting high tech with business intelligence software, once you know the problem and have done the research, you have to do something with the data to be able to make those numbers lead to marketing action.

2. Insight

Manipulating the data so you can see trends and results is not the end of the process. A modern marketer has to be able to apply the data—glean insights from all of that research, and put it to work solving your original business problem.

This is harder than it sounds, because it can lead to more research, or even an invalidation of the original problem or a pre-determined solution. Solving the business goal sometimes means finding a dead end, then backing out and taking what you just learned and going in a new direction.

There’s also an art to being able to apply data strategically. Sometimes the absence of a thing is just as important as or more important than the presence of a thing. After all, data is a look at past performance, and if a particular tactic, audience, or other crucial detail wasn’t present before, that data may be able to help you project your way to a solution.

Sometimes an educated guess is all you’ve got, and this can be one of the most challenging situations for data-driven marketers who can’t live without all the data, all the time. But a great strategist uses what he or she knows, infers what he or she can, and then makes those educated guesses to move forward with testing assumptions, staying agile and chasing the goal.

3. Execution

Finally, all of the skills around research, analysis, and insight aren’t worth squat if you can’t do something with them. Whether that means developing a strategic plan, redesigning an email, or installing tracking code on a website, savvy digital marketers need to be able to both learn and execute.

The truth is that the job is equal parts visionary wizard and grease monkey—you’ve got to learn, strategize, and pitch the big ideas, but sometimes you’re popping the hood on your website and tagging events, adjusting alt-tags, and doing other boring maintenance tasks.

It’s all a part of it. Nobody loves content loading. But you’d better be able to do it, because that’s the spoils of war after you’ve fought the good fight to launch that expert remarketing campaign, email strategy, or whatnot. Be prepared to get your hands dirty.

Experience You’ll Need

Finally, the last big thing I look for is what kind of experience a marketer has. Whether you are a tried and true digital marketing vet who’s been doing SEO since comment posting could move the organic traffic needle, a noob who doesn’t know what SEO means, or somewhere in between, your experience matters. These three areas show how we review experience to see if you really know your stuff.

1. How You Tell Your Story

The words you use to tell your story matter. One of my mentors in my career once told me that my job title didn’t mean nearly as much as I thought it did—that putting stock in achieving a “Senior” level title wouldn’t pay off in my overall career as much as being able to tell how I made a difference in any of my roles and situations. Can you describe a business challenge or marketing goal you’ve met head-on and solved, and show your skill and expertise with passion and meaning? Or are you just saying the latest buzzwords and pointing to results without understanding how they were achieved?

I’m going to look at how you show up, both to judge how much you really know and how invested you are, and how you show up to others. It’s crucial in any industry to know how to present—no matter if that’s an informal pitch to your manager or a polished presentation to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that’s depending on your work to meet their yearly revenue goal.

What you say matters. How you say it matters as much or more.

2. Who You’ve Worked With

If you’ve been in the workforce for ten years but are coming from a company whose website looks like it hasn’t been updated in just as long, that’s going to hurt you in the long run.

A variety of clients and/or employers across industries, business sizes and more can be a really good sign of a variety of experience and capabilities. That doesn’t mean I’m looking for a bunch of 3-to-12 month stints in businesses littered across your resume.

Working with companies where you can easily see that work has been done—or where you can tell stories around how you’ve made a difference—is important. And having people that you’ve worked with along the way who will sing your praises doesn’t hurt either.

3. Progressively Solving Bigger Problems

If you’re established in your career, we’re going to be looking for a pattern of solving progressively more challenging digital, marketing, and business challenges. It’s okay for those with just a few years of experience to be doing tactical-level work, but more experienced marketers should be solving bigger problems on a grander scale. There should be a way to see how you’ve grown out of your comfort zone.

Our philosophy for team-building revolves around senior team members helping junior members and mentoring them, established digital marketers managing a book of business and solving client problems, and senior members helping to grow revenues and lead clients into the latest techniques and cutting-edge marketing solutions.

Showing a similar growth pattern for those established in the industry, or even less-seasoned digitally but experienced marketers looking to make a switch, is something that we look at.

A Note on Education

Your education matters. That’s why you did it, why you went to school wherever you did for whatever you studied while you were there. But the aforementioned lack of programs at the collegiate level—somewhat offset by dozens of accreditations and certifications from Google and other industry leaders, but still a concern—means that your education may not directly reflect a “digital marketing upbringing.”

That’s okay. I’ve seen people from all walks of life make their way into digital marketing. On our own team, we’ve had folks with journalism, finance, business, communications, and even design degrees. The key isn’t the field of study, but how you’ve parlayed it into where you are now and where you’re going.

Digital Marketers: Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

Hiring is part art and part science. Getting into digital marketing can be that way, too. It takes a lot of dedication, some creative thinking, and a lot of hunger for what’s next. With so many specializations, new technologies, and more on the horizon, the learning never stops, and those with the insatiable desire to grow, dominate, win, and repeat the cycle will stay ahead and earn their way to the top.

Whatever your aim is—joining a top digital marketing agency in Indianapolis or improving your skill set in-house to make the next jump up the career ladder—I hope this has been helpful in understanding how we approach digital marketing from a career and individual experience aspect. And if you want to feed your insatiable curiosity, you’re in luck—I’ll be hosting a webinar on this very topic in just a few days. If you’d like to learn more about building a marketing team (including thoughts from Conga’s Claire Couch and Powderkeg co-founder Kevin Bailey), sign up now! We’d love to see you there.