How to Learn Digital Marketing. I went from zero marketing knowledge to being a professional digital marketer for a major company in nine months—and you can too
How to Learn Digital Marketing: One day, at the start of my senior fall semester of college, I realized that I lacked any valuable skills. The startup I had been working on had folded, and the experience showed me that I knew nothing about marketing (among many other things), and so I decided that I’d try to get good at that at least before graduating.
the next few months, I spent most of my time learning everything that I
could about digital marketing. Three months in, Justin Mares and I
started Programming for Marketers. Four months in, I landed an
internship with Zapier on their content team. And nine months after
starting to teach myself digital marketing, I was hired by Sumo to start
their blog and lead their marketing.
had a shallow understanding of content marketing going into this
process, but I learned over 90% of it within those few months. It was a
whirlwind of knowledge acquisition that I’m not sure I’ve felt quite so
intensely since then, and it’s led to all of the work that I’ve done in
the last two years.
then, many readers, students and not, have reached out and asked about
how they can learn digital marketing. It’s a field that’s been ravaged
by spammy information and bad ebooks, and it’s difficult to know where
to start and what’s worth learning. I’ve been giving out some form of
this advice for the last two years, so I figured it would make sense to
organize it and provide it here for anyone motivated enough to follow
is a system that you can use to teach yourself digital marketing in a
few months using mostly inexpensive resources and personal projects. I’d
expect that anyone could take a game plan like this and go from zero to
hireable digital marketer in 6 months or less, so long as you work hard
at it and don’t get too distracted.
Step 1: Pick Your Initial Focus (10 Minutes)
marketing comprises all the strategies you have available to try to get
people to a website, get them to return, and get them to take an
can call these three phases Acquisition, Retention, and Conversion. To
be a good specialist digital marketer, you need to be good at one subset
of one of those areas. To be a good generalist digital marketer, you
need to be good with at least one strategy from each of the three pieces
of the funnel.
you’re starting out, focus on being a generalist. You won’t know what
you’re most interested in yet, so building up a general digital
marketing skill set will help you hone in on the areas that excite you
most. You’ll also be more hireable since a digital marketer who can wear
a few different hats is much more useful than one who only knows how to
do Instagram ads.
for what those focuses are, we can break them down by category. Some of
the focuses overlap, of course, and can be useful at multiple stages of
Within Acquisition, you have:
Search Engine Optimization
Search Engine Marketing
Within Retention, you have:
And within Conversion, you have:
Landing Page Design
getting started, you should pick one or two areas from each category to
focus on, ideally within one of the typical “stacks” that you see from
generalist digital marketers.
The Nat Stack
Search Engine Optimization
Landing Page Design
The Ads Stack
Search / Social Ads
Landing Page Design
The Community Stack
The Pyramid Scheme
Landing Page Design
Landing Page Design
stack you choose, it will always help to have some copywriting to
complement it. If you don’t learn some copywriting, your effectiveness
in all other areas will be hindered. But if you do, you’ll see your
efforts multiplied by being an effective communicator.
choose which stack you want to start out focusing on. And if you can’t
decide yet, then feel free to move on to the next step first and then
see which stack will fit the best with it.
Step 2: Build Your Sandbox (1–7 Days)
need a place to practice digital marketing—it’s the only way you’ll
learn. Too many people spend all of their time reading blogs and books
without implementing or testing what they’re studying, and as a result,
they learn nothing.
Don’t be one of those people!
best way to practice is to have a sandbox to bring your research back
to. A place to apply what you’re learning. The sandbox should have a few
Low-cost or free (aside from startup equipment such as hosting)
Low-stakes, so you’re not afraid to fail or show your work
Public, so that you have to put your work out there in some manner
gives you the freedom to test everything you’re learning without having
to worry too much about the consequences of screwing up, while at the
same time, getting you comfortable with putting your work out in the
wild and being open to feedback.
for what your sandbox should be, you have a few options. The easiest is
to start a blog. That’s what this site was started as: a sandbox for
learning content marketing, and it only became my full-time job by
accident. A blog is a perfect sandbox for learning digital marketing
since you can test almost all of the tactics on it, it’s low-cost, and
you’ll improve your writing in the process.
If you do decide to go with a blog though, please, for all of our sakes, do not start a marketing blog.
The Internet is littered with unhelpful marketing blogs by novice
marketers. Starting one will be discouraging to you since it’ll be much
harder to get traffic, and you’ll be writing about things you know
nothing about, so please, don’t start a marketing blog.
write about something else you’re interested in. Some hobby you want to
get better at, or some area of interest to you like psychology or
history. Or write about current events. Or comedy. Whatever it is, just
make it something you’re interested in and already know a bit about.
Obviously, your sandbox doesn’t have to be a blog, though. You could also start a lifestyle business,
or find a local startup that will let you work on some of their
marketing. I don’t recommend trying to start your own “big” startup as a
way to learn marketing though; there will be too many other things to
you are going to go more of the lifestyle business route, make your MVP
the sandbox, and build it as quickly as possible. We made the
Programming for Marketers landing page in a few days. That’s how long it
should take you to get your initial sandbox setup.
Once you’ve found your sandbox, you can narrow down the stack you want to apply to it. As I mentioned in my Wiki Strategy
article, it helps to be very focused on your growth channels, so if you
said “social media” before, try picking just one social media channel
to put most of your focus on. For ads, pick one platform (Facebook or
Google) and focus on that. You can always expand your channels later,
but if you try to do everything at once in the beginning, you’ll burn
learning to advertise without someone else’s budget funding you will be
expensive and frustrating. I would not recommend starting with learning
ads unless you have a lot of money to burn, or are being funded by
someone else. Try the “free” acquisition channels first.
Step 3: Initial Practice (2 Weeks)
this point, you should have your sandbox in place, and have a few
channels you want to focus on learning how to use to get traffic,
retention, and conversions to your sandbox.
It should only take you an afternoon, and once you’re done, you’ll have a few things:
A framework for setting and testing goals as you’re practicing
A high-level understanding of the different areas of digital marketing
Examples and ideas for further reading and experiments to try
going to slightly modify their approach, though. The Bullseye Framework
is an excellent tool for finding certain channels to try for your
product, but it’s also useful for running experiments within
a certain channel. For now, you want to stay focused on your stack, so
you can use the Bullseye Framework to run certain experiments within
example, let’s say you want to use Instagram as an acquisition
strategy. You would go research all of the ways you can grow your
Instagram and drive traffic from it, put them on a spreadsheet, rank the
different ideas, then for the three that seem to be the best
opportunities, design a small inexpensive test with a specific goal that
spans over a week or two. At the end, check back and see how you did
relative to your goal.
is just your initial test run, and since you’re just starting out,
focus on your acquisition channel first. You can worry about conversion
optimization later. Set up a basic email capture on your sandbox, then
work on the way you want to get traffic to it.
may be wondering exactly what to do for these initial tests, so I
recommend finding someone else’s recipe and following it to a T. Don’t
try to improvise right now, you’re still a novice, and following someone else’s plan will be extremely helpful.
Here are some of the best “recipes” for learning acquisition channels:
the one you’re interested in and start following it, continuing to
record and track the experiments in your spreadsheet as you go.
Alright, quick check-in. At this point you should have:
Picked a few specific areas to focus on initially
Built a sandbox to learn in
Started your marketing experiments spreadsheet
Run your first few experiments
you do all of that? It’s important that you do before moving on,
because if you don’t, then you’ll waste a ton of time in the next
section, falling prey to the infomania and artificial complexity traps that trick so many people out of good marketing.
Step 4: Research and Iterate (2 Months / Till You Die)
Now that you’ve made it into the novice stage
and started trying some initial experiments, it’s time to see what else
you could be testing and experimenting with. The goal here is to keep
expanding your understanding of the areas of marketing you want to get
better at, and again, the only way to do that is to try to apply it
yourself as you’re going.
Your process at this stage should be:
Run a few marketing experiments (usually for ~1–2 weeks)
If an experiment succeeds, turn it into a system and keep doing it
If one fails, find another one to run
third step is where the research comes in. For each of the areas you’re
trying to improve at, you want to find experiments you can run with
that skill in order to get better at it. To find those experiments, look
for case studies. Don’t read guides or listicles if you can help it;
case studies will be more informative. You want to see specifically what
worked for someone else, then turn that into your own experiment you
make sure that you keep having new ideas for experiments, set aside one
hour a day for research and reading. Spend this time reading blogs on
marketing and writing down new ideas for tests you could run in your
sandbox to augment your skills.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of great blogs on marketing, since most of it is spammy repackaged content. But here’s a solid list to get you started:
should also spend some of this time reading books that will help build
your foundational layer: your ability to write good copy, understand
human psychology, communicate effectively. Here’s a good starting list:
you must be careful to avoid is spending all your time reading and
thinking up new experiments and not spending enough of your time
implementing and testing them. Many of these experiments will require
iteration and patience, and it’ll be tempting to look around for quick
wins instead. You’ll have to avoid that temptation and stick to the plan
if you want to learn.
Eventually, as you get more comfortable with the skills, it may be helpful to try freelancing with them as well.
How to Learn Digital Marketing
Step 5: Freelancing
step isn’t strictly necessary, but spending some time freelancing can
advance your skills considerably. When you’re trying to help another
company or person do what you’ve done on your own, it’ll expose areas
that you aren’t as familiar with, and can help you round out your
understanding of the skill. And if you’re able to find someone you can
freelance for who’s more skilled than you are, they can point out areas
for you to improve that you might have missed on your own.
was extremely helpful for me in the beginning for getting feedback on
my content. By writing articles and content for Zapier and HubSpot, I
could lean on their experience to get coaching and get
paid for getting coaching! Freelancing is one of the only ways you can
do that, assuming you find a good company or expert to work for.
You can find these jobs through Upwork, friends at other companies, or even by using the method from Recession Proof Graduateby Charlie Hoehn.
An in-depth guide to landing freelancing jobs is beyond the scope of
this article, but it’s not as hard as you might think once you have some
of this initial practice under your belt.
Step 6: Keep Expanding, Keep Experimenting
The basic cycle we’ve covered here will serve you well from Novice to Expert.
Keep experimenting, testing your assumptions, and researching for new
experiments to run. If you keep learning and testing this way, and keep
being diligent about not letting yourself get lazy in your learning, you
can easily land a digital marketing role at a company—or be able to
market your own products—in less than a year.
if you want more on self-education, including how to make the jumps
from Novice to Expert, how to self-educate, and how to practice more
deliberately, be sure to get my free Learn Digital Marketing Bundle with
all of the resources you need.