How to Become a Digital Marketing Generalist

This is a guest post by Lauren Tonge. She runs The Mission Marketer, a resource for anyone wanting to learn digital marketing. In this article she’ll go through the importance of being a digital marketing generalist, what you skills you should know, and resources to help you learn.


Digital marketing is not a one-and-done job.

You don’t go to school, get your degree, find a job, and that’s that. The best marketers out there have a passion for learning, testing, and experimenting.

That’s because digital marketing is constantly changing. Google updates their algorithm and SEOs scramble to figure out what changed. A new ad platform pops up and now you need to dig in and find out if it’s a viable strategy.

Depending on where you end up working and your position, it’s quite possible you’ll be wearing a ton of hats at the same time: writer, strategist, designer, copywriter, data analyst, experimenter, coder.

To be a truly great digital marketer, you’ll want to be a generalist at your core, even if you end up becoming a specialist in something like copywriting or marketing automation.

It never hurts to know a bit about everything.

The T-Shaped Marketer


This is the typical digital marketing hire that many startups want as their first hire. They want someone who knows it all, they’re often not in need of a specialist in the beginning stages.

The T-Shaped marketer is based on the diagram below, courtesy of Moz:

t shaped marketer

Most marketers know a bit about each discipline above, then choose to specialize in just a few (sometimes based on market needs, sometimes based on personal preference).

People enjoy mastering a craft, which leads to the pull-down menu part of the T. This is where you go in-depth into a certain subject and become a specialist.

At work, you’ll likely be known for this specialty, but lucky for you, you have the wide breadth of knowledge needed to work in a cohesive marketing team and provide opinions, feedback, and ideas in areas that aren’t necessarily your specialty.

The Foundation All Generalists Need

To be a great generalist, you need to have a foundation of core skills in place. This isn’t where I come tell you to learn PPC, social media, CRO, etc... I’m talking about skills that span across every specialty of marketing:

  • writing,
  • research and analysis,
  • problem solving,
  • and curiosity.

It’s not easy to study and learn these skills like it is with something like HTML and CSS, where you can easily find resources and courses. Let’s try to dissect each.

Writing

Writing in marketing is much different than the writing we’re all taught in school. Really great writing is developed through lots of practice, and that means lots of writing! It’s easy for everyone to say they’re a great writer, but when it comes down to it, many of us are average. But we can get better -- it just comes down to really wanting to hone your skill.

The best way to develop your writing style is to find it first.

Read a lot: books, articles, headlines, copywriting, magazines, product descriptions, websites, blogs, case studies. Pick out things you like and create your own swipe file to reference later. Swiped.co and is a great site for copywriting and marketing pieces you can use for inspiration.

copywriting

Your writing needs to be coherent and make sense, and this is often based on your thought process. If you know your mind wanders, you’ll need to make a concrete outline before you write. It also needs to make sense to your audience. You’re not writing for yourself as a marketer, you’re writing for your customers. You’ll need to put yourself into your customer’s shoes and understand their needs, wants, fears, desires.

Learn the basics of copywriting! You may never be tasked with writing more than a product description or the homepage headline, but these are still valuable pieces of a business and it’s important that you know how to write and get yourself in your customers’ mindset.

regard

incendium strategies

Just take a look at the two websites above. Regard’s headline and subheader quickly explain what the company offers. Can you figure out what the second company offers? There’s no concrete value proposition which drives users to dig through the site to find out more.

Their value propositions are a key part of the homepage, but only one of them nails it. How many visitors do you think bounce because they don’t understand what the second company does?

This is just one of many examples as to why writing is such a key skill for a marketer.

Writing resources:


The Boron Letters by Gary Halbert

Writing Copy for the Web: The 80/20 Guide for Copywriting for Entrepreneurs by Chase Reeves at Fizzle

The Ultimate Guide to No-Pain Copywriting (or, Every Copywriting Formula Ever) by Joanna Wiebe at Copyhackers

GrowthLab’s Ultimate Guide to Email Copywriting by GrowthLab

My system for writing a 10,000 word blog post in 5 hours by Bryan Harris at VideoFruit

How to write if you suck at writing by Bryan Harris at VideoFruit


Research & Analysis


Research is a crucial part of marketing. No matter if you’re a copywriter, social media marketer, content writer, or email marketer, you’re going to need to do research to understand your market, their needs, pains, desires, emotions.

Without this basis in research, you’re going off your gut, which isn’t always the best idea. You may think that your audience wants a ton of features, but upon further research you discover that 80% are just looking for feature A and B.

So how do you go about researching your audience?

Qualitative Research

This means digging into the emotions, feelings, thoughts, and motivations of your customer and target audience. This can be done using surveys on your website or by email, calling your customers and doing interviews, user testing, and more.

This doesn’t mean you should just throw up a Hotjar survey on your site with a random question.

hotjar survey (Source)

Often times, we’re not even asking the right question. Asking something like “Do you like this homepage: yes or no?” is a useless question. If someone says yes, what do they like about it? Why do they like it? If someone says no, why did they say that? Even more, is this question even helping improve your business? If visitors hate the homepage, yet they still convert, does it matter if they hate the homepage?

These are all things you need to stop and think about to become a great researcher. You need to determine the right questions to ask.

Question Tips
  • Make your questions open ended (Not multiple choice)
  • Don’t ask leading questions (What about this site do you hate?)
Useful questions to ask
  • What made you decide to buy from us?
  • What is stopping you from purchasing from us?
  • What was your reason for coming to the site, and did you find your solution?

Quantitative Research

It’s all about the numbers in this phase of research. You’ll want to have a foundation in Google Analytics at the very least. Take the Google Analytics Academy Course if you’re completely new, and get certified. The least you should know is how to properly set up Google Analytics, how to create and verify events and goals, what views are, what each report contains, and the difference between metrics and dimensions.

google analytics

You want to be able to jump into data and pull out the wheat from the chaff. Don’t fall for shiny metrics that look great on paper but have little bearing on the bottom line.

Become a master at Excel. If you aren’t sure how well your skills stack up, try out Ladder’s Excel test, which they give to all new digital marketing applicants. If you can’t complete it, then you should spend some quality time with VLOOKUP and SUMIF functions. These skills will help you make sense of a spreadsheet of seemingly random data.

It’s not enough to be able to pull in the data with A/B tests, heatmaps, scroll maps, and other testing tools. You need to be able to accurately make sense of those findings and decide whether or not they’re important for actual business goals (and that they’re statistically significant!).

Practical Application

If you want to try out some research methods on your own site (it may be difficult to attain statistical significance if you have a small amount of visitors) you can use a tool like Hotjar which allows you to implement heatmaps, visitor recordings, conversion funnels, form analysis, feedback polls, surveys, and recruit test users.

Resources for doing research:


How I Optimized the Crazy Egg Home Page by Joanna Wiebe at Copyhackers

Customer Development Labs -- Their articles will help you learn how to interview customers and refine your product market fit

How to Test Drive Your Business Idea Before Quitting Your Job by Michael Taylor of Ladder How to Come Up with More Winning Tests Using Data [ResearchXL model] by Peep Laja at ConversionXL

Marketing Experiments -- "discover what really works in optimization"

Problem Solving


Problem solving seems like such a nebulous term used in grade school but it’s a key component of your day to day skillset. If you’re not interested in the challenge of solving problems, then digital marketing may not be for you. It’s a field where you’re going to get impossible-seeming challenges from bosses, clients, and your customers. They'll expect you to just figure things out.

Let’s say you notice that over the past few months, conversions are on the decline. Now, why is that? As a digital marketing generalist, you’re going to need to pull from your bank of knowledge to figure this out. It could be outside forces like the time of year, your industry’s sales cycle, or a downturn in the market. But it could also be a recent favorable press piece that is now dying down in popularity. Did you make changes to your website?

All of these things need to be methodically looked at and analyzed. You need to have a problem solving framework in order to figure out the solution.

Problem solving can’t really be taught through a course or a book. It’s learned over time.

Curiousity


While this isn’t necessarily a skill you can learn, but it’s an important characteristic of most great digital marketers. You want to have a natural sense of curiosity about the space and a love of learning. The field is constantly changing, and if you don’t enjoy learning it’s going to be hard to keep up with everyone else.

The Skills You Should Know


I won’t go in order here, there really is no order of importance when it comes to different fields of digital marketing. In this section I’ll discuss content, SEO, social, analytics and optimization, email, and growth. The digital marketing space is not limited to these topics, but right now these are the most common ones you should know about.

Content Marketing


It’s become so overused that you now see your hometown drycleaner doing “content marketing”, which usually means they threw up a blog and write 300 word “mirage content” about dry cleaning. Content marketing is getting more sophisticated as audiences’ appetites for great content grows.

Below are screenshots from two content marketing pieces on stain removal.

dry cleaning (Source) stain removal (Source)

It’s not enough to write a 300 word article on “stain removal”. To get the attention of your audience and become an authority (a key reason you want to do content marketing) you need to be adding a great deal of value in your content. That’s not to say that length of an article necessarily means it’s the best. But the more time and effort you put into research, writing, curating graphics, and adding in unique viewpoints or ideas means your article is much more likely to get read than a competitor who spent 30 minutes writing something on a similar topic.

If you’re ready to become a master at content marketing, read these resources:


What Is Content Marketing? by Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger

The All-in-One Content Marketing Playbook for Startups by Melani Dizon at Copyhackers

How to guarantee at least 120 people read your first blog post by Bryan Harris at Videofruit

How to Generate Strategic Content Ideas for Each Funnel Stage by Tyler Hakes of Optimist, guest post for Ladder

The Content Marketing Study Guide on The Mission Marketer

How To Boost Conversions by 785% in One Day (The Content Upgrade) by Brian Dean at Backlinko

Content Promotion: How We Grew from 0 to 32,977 Users in 5 Months With Zero Paid Traffic by Benji Hyam at Grow & Convert

Behind the Scenes: How We’ve Built a $5M/Year Business in 3 Years With Content Marketing by Alex Turnbull at Groove

SEO


Search engine optimization is nowhere near as easy as it once was. You can’t keyword stuff your way to the top of the SERPs, it’s much more nuanced. To become a truly great SEO, you need to geek out over XML sitemaps, backlinks, meta descriptions, and more. Even if you don’t plan to do SEO or become an expert, it’s still important to know the basics. You should be able to understand, in general, how search engines work and how to optimize properly, and the negative impact that a bad SEO strategy could have on your business.

Below is a screenshot I took of a site that clearly used old SEO tactics. The content is being used to add in tons and tons of keywords (BOLDED!), just in case you didn’t notice them, and the result is unappealing. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates what could happen to your site if you don’t know enough about SEO when outsourcing the work.

SEO (Source)

Here are the resources you need to learn SEO:


How Search Works by Google

White Hat SEO Case Study: How To Get a #1 Ranking by Brian Dean at Backlinko

A 16-Step SEO Audit Process To Boost Your Google Rankings by David McSweeney at Ahrefs

SEO Content Strategy: How to Skyrocket Your Traffic By 594% by Nathan Ellering at CoSchedule

The Ultimate SEO Study Guide by The Mission Marketer

Social Media


Managing and creating content for social media has almost become a get rich quick scheme. “Get $900 passive income each month!” Yes, a site trying to sell you a course on social media marketing actually says that.

Although it sometimes gets a bad rap, social media marketing is a big part of many companies’ digital marketing strategies. Taco Bell is probably the best in the game (seriously, go study their Twitter feed). Not only do the best brands have unique content, it’s stuff their audience actually wants to engage with. Managing these accounts is a full time job.

In order to create great content, you need to understand your audience. Figure out what they like, where to pull great content from, what unique content you can create that isn’t out there yet, and how to entertain, inform, and engage your audience. Social media isn’t necessarily about sales, but it is about creating a connection with your audience. Use tools like Hootsuite to monitor your social media accounts and respond quickly to customers, and Buffer to schedule posts.

delta airlines

This post from Delta highlights what they’re doing with old seats (Source)

Learn from Buffer on how to use social media as a marketing channel:


How to Create a Social Media Marketing Strategy from Scratch

How to Get Your First 1,000 Followers on Every Major Social Network

How to Build Social Media Into Your Sales Funnel

Analytics & Optimization


I touched upon this a bit in the research section above, but it should be reiterated anyway. Not enough digital marketers understand how to use data effectively. Data and the insights you pull from it should be a guiding force in your business. Even just a basic foundation in Google Analytics and Excel will put you above and beyond many generalists out there.

Below are some resources to get you started. At the least, you should go through the Google Analytics Academy videos (they’re free) and take the certification test.

Besides Google Analytics, there are tons of other analytics and optimization tools worth learning. They're all accessible if you have a baseline knowledge of analytics.

Here’s what you should be learning:


Google Analytics Academy

The Excel Tutorial We Made For Our New Marketing Hires by Michael Taylor ofLadder

The Definitive Guide To Marketing Analytics by Buildfire

ConversionXL -- The best conversion optimization blog out there

Hotjar -- A tool (free & paid versions) for heatmaps, visitor recordings, conversion funnels, on site surveys, and more.

Email


Email marketing is a huge part of having a successful business online. Whether you’re an eCommerce site, a blog, a SaaS company, or a freelancer, you should be trying to grow your email list.

Email marketing is about keeping your audience informed and engaged (a bit similar to social media marketing, but much more effective). Email is not only great for engagement, but also for sales! You don’t have to have a huge product launch to make sales through email. Putting in customer winback campaigns, an abandoned cart series, and other automated emails can help improve your business’s bottom line.

With the resources below, you’ll learn how to get people to sign up for your email list, how to properly segment contacts, how to send the right emails, and how to get people to engage with them.

Here are some resources to learn email marketing:


The Ultimate Guide To Successful Email Marketing by Chris Hexton at Vero

The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing Apps by Zapier

A Beginner’s Guide to Email List Segmentation by Smart Passive Income

Really Good Emails -- a great resource for email inspiration

Growth


Not every company wants to grow to be a huge, but you still probably want to grow your traffic and get some more customers or clients, right?

Growth marketing is all about using strategies that focus on growing your business. Some people use the term growth hacking (and others hate it), just know that it’s about finding and implement strategies that help grow your business.

Growth marketing resources:

Growing a Site from 0 to 10k Visitors in a Month: Noah Kagan Edition by Sarah Peterson at Sumo

8 Essential Tools You Need to Grow a Booming eCommerce Business by Timothy Masek at Ladder

2017 Update: 209 Actionable Growth Strategies for Your Business by Stefan Mancevski at Ladder

Growth Hacking Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide by Neil Patel

The Growth Hacking Process That Drives Everything We Do by Michael Taylor at Ladder

Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

How to Practice These Skills


It’s not enough just to read all the resources above -- you have to put them into action. I’ve gotten quite a few job seekers telling me, “Nobody will hire me because I don’t have experience.”

The great thing about digital marketing is that you can get experience on your own, no job necessary. Here's how:

Create Your Own Website for less than $100

The best way to get experience is to try out the things you’re learning on your own website.

“But I don’t have a website.”

That’s easily solved.

  • Step 1. Think of something you wouldn’t mind spending 10-20 hours per week on (My site is about helping people learn digital marketing, since I enjoy learning and working on digital marketing.)

  • Step 2. Do a little research to see how to position yourself amongst your competitors (There are tons of marketing sites, but I couldn’t find one that teaches you the basic skills all in one place.)

  • Step 3. Buy a domain (Cost should be $12 or less)

  • Step 4. Set up hosting (Shouldn’t be more than $50 a year for shared hosting)

  • Step 5. Install WordPress (Free!)

  • Step 6. Get your theme and tweak it (Use a free one for now)

  • Step 7. Install necessary plugins and tools (Google Tag Manager, Google Analytics, SEO Yoast, etc.)

  • Step 8. Start developing your marketing plan

Alright, step 8 is pretty vague, but the whole point of these steps is to show you just how easy it is to set up your own testing ground. Now you have your very own site where you can try out all the digital marketing skills you’re reading about. You also now have a case study you can show future employers.

If you are confused as to exactly how to setup a WordPress site, use this free tutorial. If you don’t want to use WordPress, there are other alternatives like Squarespace, Wix, or Weebly. These will likely cost more than $100 since they’re often a full service website builder (hosting, domain, theme).

Freelance

Freelancing is another way you can develop your digital marketing skills. Whether you feel comfortable charging or not is up to you. What’s important is that you know you can provide value to your client.

If you want experience doing social media management, offer up your services to a local business (if you’re nervous, don’t worry -- the worst that happens is they say no!). Create a strategy and a pitch and let them know how this will benefit them. Of course, if this is for a laundromat, social media marketing may not be the most beneficial marketing strategy, so think about where you can provide the most value. Could you offer AdWords support or Facebook Ads management? If you go to a restaurant, maybe you’ll check out their social media and see it’s non-existent and can offer the help build it out and manage it for them.

upwork

You can use sites like UpWork or CloudPeeps, but don’t price yourself based on what everyone else is charging. Price based on the value you provide. If a client would rather pay someone $3/hr than $30/hr, that client may not be a great fit for you anyway.

Freelancing is a great way to get your foot in the door if you just graduated or if you’re looking to switch careers to digital marketing. Learn as much as you can, and go out and help businesses. Make sure you create case studies around what you’re doing, document your progress (successes and failures), and collect testimonials.

What’s Next?


I packed this article full of resources and ideas to help you become a more well-rounded digital marketer. Whether you’re a startup founder, a new grad, looking to switch careers, or just love the idea of marketing, you should be able to walk away with at least one or two resources that you can dissect and try to implement into your own business, project, or job.

There’s no excuse as a digital marketer not to be able to grow your skills or learn more. Nobody out there knows it all, and everyone else in the field is constantly learning as well.

In order to become the best marketer you can be, learn from the best, test of what you learned, and refine your skills.

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