Figuring out how to become a digital marketer is not easy, especially when there are still few universities offering degrees and specializations in digital disciplines within their marketing curriculum. Sometimes it feels like rocket science, with a dozen or so individual disciplines within the field. And whether you are looking to capitalize on an in-house position or move into the digital marketing agency world, knowing what to develop and what to emphasize can be challenging.

In my experience, the path is pretty different for everyone—but there are some critical traits, skills, and experience I look for when hiring for our agency’s digital strategy team. Regardless of previous titles, roles, and education, these are the indicators I’m looking at to see if you’ve got what it takes to hang with the challenging demands of an ever-growing and fast-paced industry, where your peers and clients are expecting you to be at the top of your game.

Traits and Strengths

The following traits are something intrinsically present in an individual—they are personal attributes that are shared by every successful digital marketer.

Insatiable Curiosity

Great digital marketers all have this trait in common—they are bloodhounds, driven to learn more and uncover the greater truths within their industries, disciplines, and data. All the platitudes about lifelong learning apply, but this is something deeper. It’s not just improvement of self, but of anything related to what you’re doing.

Passion for knowing more matters, and often can be manifested in the desire to be the absolute best, and can even get a little chippy at times as egos come out to play. It’s part of what makes up our team’s zany personalities and good-hearted but fierce competition to stay on top. Every current and future digital marketer needs this or they’ll be lapped by the time the next algorithm update or new advertising technique comes out.

Critical Thinking

It’s pretty safe to say that digital marketers need to be strategic in nature. As we’ll discuss in the skills section, 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.

In the agency world, you’re only as good as your next project—so you’ve got to constantly be thinking about what comes next. Being able to review past successes and past failures and derive insightful analysis from them is crucial to applying those lessons forward and continually improving your work and your results.

Self-Motivating

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous two traits. There is no such thing as a lazy digital marketer, or at least no such thing as a gainfully employed digital marketer. This industry changes rapidly. There is not resting on your laurels or waiting for the paint to dry.

Learning, thinking, doing, testing… the career is littered with constant motion. Any down-time between work 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. If you don’t demand it of yourself more than they do, this isn’t the industry for you.

Collaborative

One of the biggest obstacles to digital marketing can be overcoming tried and true methods or working with others who may not share the vision. The great ones are those who learn to be a part of the team, value the talents of those around them, and learn to enhance the work of others with data, testing, and improving what’s available to improve.

It’s a balancing act, but the right approach can build bridges and earn more opportunities and eventually the support and cheerleading of your non-digital co-workers. Your team is your family in the agency world, so being able to get along and move the ball forward together is part of being successful.

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 such as sales and finance.

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 That Kill

Traits, personal strengths, and philosophical approaches alone 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.

Research: Go Get That Data!

A digital marketer is armed with a slew of tools aimed at one giant overall purpose—to hunt. Like Captain Ahab hunting that great white whale, the digital marketer is on the hunt for data to solve a marketing or business problem. Every problem we are trying to solve—every problem, every time—can benefit from research. It relates to all of the work we do, whether it’s creating a new website, testing an email layout and design, or generating leads. Every problem. Every time.

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.

Analysis: Make Sense of the Data

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.

Insight: Pull Meaning From the Data

And yet, manipulating the data so you can see trends and results is not the end of the process. A digital 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 doing some research around a proposed solution, 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 only 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.

Being able to learn both from what is and what isn’t there is a skill that must be present and cultivated to get to the next level.

Execution: Do Something Already!

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

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.

How You Tell Your Story

The words you use to tell your story matters. 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.

He was right. Whether your title includes assistant or director, it’s what you’ve done and what you’re doing that matters. 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 agency life to know how to present—no matter if that’s a pitch for work to an account executive or 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.

Who You’ve Worked With

Learn this now: who you’ve worked with and for matters. 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.

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. In my personal experience, 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.

Greater Than the Sum Of the Parts

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. 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.

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Dustin Clark

As the Digital Marketing Director for Element Three, Dustin works with the Element Three digital marketing department to determine the best combination of data analysis, marketing technology, and storytelling for driving our clients’ bottom line. His background in journalism, digital communication, and ecommerce positions him as a unique voice in the cluttered digital marketing industry. When he’s not writing about the forefront of digital marketing, you can find him jamming with a guitar or at home with his wife and two children.