I love this quote from The Office’s Dwight “I signed up for Second Life about a year ago. Back then, my life was so great that I literally wanted a second one. Absolutely everything was the same… except I could fly.”
At some point, I discovered a game called life simulator and like any weirdo I discovered that there were two ways to play it.
One was the traditional approach of imitating your own life with a few fun twists like having a pet penguin or owning a boat.
The other… well, let’s call it the weirdo-way.
The weirdo way is to pick a goal and work your way backward to understand what needs to be done step by step in order to reach the goal.
After getting bored with the standard approach, I decided to try the weirdo way. For some twisted reason, the highest earning job in that game was in the military. I planned out the steps needed to rise through the ranks of the military and reach that level…
Only to realize that the game rewards a professional musician or beginner racket sports athlete more. But it wasn’t possible to engineer a path there. It was only possible to increase the chances by taking certain steps to help but the rest would be up to fate.
We can use the same approaches for our digital marketing career path. I’ve mapped them out for you in this guide.
Let’s jump in!
The dangers of researching your digital marketing career path
As I was preparing this mini-guide, I wanted to show you the different paths available and include specific salary examples at each step of the way, so you can get a lay of the land and understand which path best suits you.
There is so much advice out there that is not backed up with trustworthy sources, so it can be challenging to figure out what’s real. If you are looking for something specific, you will find it but that doesn’t mean it will be accurate for your specific situation.
A fresh grad in digital marketing earning $100,000 per year? You bet!
A digital marketing manager with many years of experience earning $50,000 a year? You’ll find those too!
Don’t let that confuse you. That means that there are many different paths and if you are interested in the digital marketing-field, there will be a right path for you whether you are looking for work-life balance, getting rich or a work on projects you love.
And because there are many salary numbers being thrown around, I decided against adding specific salary examples for each role and throughout the path because the range will be too large.
To give you an example: one person might be very career-focused, taking classes in negotiation, networking often and focused on moving up while someone else might have just become a parent and focuses on flexibility and work-life balance. By only looking at the salary ranges online we will never know.
One might earn $50,000 per year while the other earns $100,000 per year. So taking the easy way out and either sharing a broad salary range isn’t useful for you or claiming an unusually high salary to attract attention will be misleading.
As I’ve mapped out in this guide, you’ll get the most accurate estimates by taking people out to coffee in your city, or the city you plan to work in, since that’s how you’ll get the most accurate, REAL, salary ranges for your specific situation.
I’d also like to point out that there is a difference between the traditional corporate-path and the startup world.
Below you’ll see the path for corporate or generally established companies but keep in mind that it is impossible to create a one size fits all-path for the startup world since everything moves fast and traditional rules don’t apply. If you’d like to get specifics for the startup world, please leave a comment below.
The popular and most common digital marketing career path
Let’s first look at the standard and most popular digital marketing career path. In this approach, most people base their career path on their skills and interests.
There are a few different career levels that we have to go through:
- Team lead/manager
- Digital marketing manager/director
- Marketing director or Chief Marketing officer
As you might notice, we tend to start out in a specialized role before moving on to broader roles as we advance in our career and move up the career ladder.
First we start as a specialist. A specialist focuses on mastering a specific marketing channel or type of project like ads, partnerships or SEO. It’s technical. We get good through practicing on hobby projects, coaching, training and through projects at work.
If the channel or skill we’ve chosen is a good revenue, sales or leads-driver for the company, we can help build it out and become a team lead or manager of that sub-department within the digital marketing team. For example as a SEO team lead or SEO manager.
We can also go to a different company to build this out although it tend to be easier to move up internally since there is trust within the company and you get to prove you can handle the new responsibility.
Compared to moving to a different company where they may feel a risk by hiring you to a new manager level without knowing if we are ready for the responsibility, It can be easier to switch companies at the same skill level but for higher pay.
Being a specialist is the easiest place to start because you have a lot to contribute in exchange for the lack of relationships and experience. At this stage there is little strategy and planning work but more implementation.
After starting as a specialist we might become a team lead/manager. It’s half technical, half manager, with focus on reporting and numbers and a bit of team building.
I know it’s an annoying answer but it depends from company to company what they need. This stage is often similar to the specialist role with some added responsibility like planning and basic strategy within the channel of your choice.
Digital marketing manager/director
Next we move up to become a digital marketing manager or director. The director level is usually seen as higher than the manager level but the titles are sometimes inflated and it isn’t always clear what’s what.
This title is sometimes used for the first hire at small companies e.g. startups but at more established companies it is the next path after being a specialist.
Here you are less hands on although likely still 30% or so depending on the company. It’s tempting to let go of the hands on stuff and delegate it to the team but that’s also where we might lose out in a few years because the industry moves so fast.
Following everything at a basic level is important here. Relationships begin to matter more and more. There are also more meetings, strategy and reporting, and team building to do instead of hands on technical work.
Here we might manage both the SEO and ads teams along with other channels, and have to balance which channels should get more budget based on their performance.
We move from specialized to more broad which can feel confusing because if we do a side business like freelancing, we will often earn more by specializing as we did early in our career.
This is also the time when many remove themselves from their career job and start a side business.
Marketing director: The next natural step up here is to a general marketing role that includes both digital and non-digital marketing like marketing director or chief marketing officer depending on the company structure and size.
You can move further from here but usually you move out of the digital marketing circle, so I’ll stop the path here as I don’t have direct experience to share with you at this level.
Industries that are interesting to you
On this digital marketing path, you pick the industry based on what you are interested in and what’s available based on your other priorities like what’s available in your city, if you don’t want to move, or if you want to relocate to a different country, where you’ll be able to work.
I can’t guide here since it is a personal choice but we will be looking deeper at industries in the next section. Often people pick what’s convenient or sexy.
My own digital marketing career path
Let’s use my own path as an example. I started in digital marketing through an internship at an agency in the planning department preparing research and planning campaigns.
That was followed by another internship at an outsourcing company as the main/only digital marketing person before I built a small agency while learning how to run ads online. I also interned at a hot travel startup as an ads campaign specialist somewhere in-between.
I later joined a large agency with corporate clients as the main digital specialist in one of their regional offices while freelancing on the side or creating digital marketing hobby projects to build skills.
And finally, I joined a startup as a digital marketing director and built a small team to manage all digital growth for the company as it grew.
The mistakes I made and what I would change if I were to start from scratch again
Because the industry was so new, and because I didn’t know any better, it felt as if I was stumbling blind with no one to ask for career advice to find the best path forward. Back then, the advice online was deceptive and with lots of blind spots and caveats that weren’t mentioned in exchange for profit.
I hope that this can help change that for you, so you can avoid some of the mistakes that I made. Many influencers argue that when we are young and early in our career, we should start our own stuff because even if it fails we don’t lose much but the upside is huge potentially.
That’s exactly what I did and looking back, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a specific situation that makes you think you can succeed with it.
Instead, get a job to learn from your team members — you’ll learn a lot faster than trying to go at it on your own. You’ll also build savings and you can easily start building something on the side. Starting something on the side will teach you a lot and is totally worth it. I recommend freelancing.
Job-wise, I suggest avoiding joining an agency even though it will likely be the easiest choice at first. You’ll be spread thin across many different projects and often won’t build hard skills unless it’s an agency specializing in something e.g. SEO, Facebook ads, etc.
Often agencies compete on price even if they say they don’t and the discounts have to come from somewhere, which is often our salary.
Instead, working for an established brand will usually offer you more money both in terms of salary and budget to spend and learn from.
A digital marketing career path to earning $100,000 per year
This is another approach that I wish I had known about earlier. Instead of going based on what we feel is nice, we can pick a goal and reverse engineer the path there. If you are ambitious and seriously want to increase your income, this is the best approach I know of.
In this example, let’s set a goal of earning $100K per year and reverse engineer the path there so we know what to do.
If we look at the average salaries in digital marketing, we’ll see that it varies quite a lot based on skill, experience, industry and country/city.
Especially, tech hubs like Silicon Valley pay well but also have a high cost of living which means that we won’t take home as much of our earnings as it appears on the surface.
What ultimately matters is what we get after taxes and I like to use the savings rate as a good rule of thumb because it shows a realistic relationship between cost of living and earnings.
For example, instead of going to a city where we might earn the absolute most, we might go to a city with a slightly lower salary if it offers us a significantly lower living cost.
For example, instead of earning $100,000/year and having a living cost of $55,000 per year ($4584/month), we might go to a city where we “only” earn $80,000 yearly but also can live for $25,000 per year ($2,083 per month).
If we assume that tax is the same at 30% in both cases, we would get $70,000 and $56,000 per year after tax in the two examples. But we would be able to save $31,000 instead of $15,000 per year by taking the city with a lower cost and a lower salary. Of course, there are other factors that play into the decision as well.
Digital marketing skills that pay the most
Looking at salary research, we can see that many of the specialist skills bring home a similar salary.
These numbers appear fairly low and they vary a lot as you’ll see, so take these numbers with a grain of salt.
They differ a lot and when you do your own research, you’ll notice that there is every possible option out there: the specialist role you are looking for with a salary closer to $100K/year with little experience and on other sites, you’ll see the same role with years of experience earning half.
The only thing we can really conclude from the salary data we can find online is that it varies a lot because research numbers like these don’t take the industry and other factors into account. That also means that no matter what we are looking for, we will find it and data to support it.
The important part here is that we focus on skills that contribute to revenue as directly as possible since the closer we are to the company revenue and profits, the more we tend to earn.
SEO is traffic generation and a decent choice since one of the biggest levers in any business is getting new people in the door.
General social media work tends to pay less since it’s hard to track the performance and tend to be more brand oriented and fluffy.
Conversion rate optimization is a good choice since it is directly correlates to important metrics like sales or leads generation but you will experience diminishing returns with less and less impact on the revenue as you start with the biggest levers in the funnels and work your way down to smaller and smaller gains over time unless you move up, change job or the business launches new products.
Sales/direct response copywriting is a good choice since it relates to revenue directly but many brands are concerned about being aggressive and more focused on being on brand, so it might be challenging to produce good results and you have to select your employer carefully.
Industries that pay well
The next thing to look at is the industry you choose to work in as that can have a massive impact on your salary.
The general rule of thumb is that businesses that have high margins, expensive products and lots of repeat sales to customers tend to pay more.
Examples are the insurance industry, healthcare and B2B SAAS (business to business, software as a service) whereas industries with low margins and with focus on cost tend to pay less, such as travel, tourism and language learning.
As I was researching to provide examples here, I ran into the same problem as above: there are examples of everything – even high paying jobs at language learning startups like Duolingo and Babbel.
The difference with them is that they are a startup and normal salary “rules” tend to not apply or apply differently there as startups often have a “growth at all cost” point of view.
You’ll get the best result by aiming towards these industries. First, list companies in them that are also in your area, or the area you are looking to move to, and then look up salaries or salary ranges for posted jobs.
For example, an airline might fight with the competition for every new sale since the cost of a flight ticket is often a major consideration when someone buys.
Compare that with an insurance company that might have figured out how to sell a customer a product from cradle to grave. They will be earning a lot more per customer and thus have more money to pay their team and to get new customers.
That way, you’ll get a more accurate result since it’s impossible to prove anything by looking at the broad salary ranges.
Matching your skills with the right industry
In your research you’ll get the best results by talking with people. If you ask a digital marketing manager who works at an insurance company out for coffee, you might discover that they get most of their leads for search and so that might be a good match.
The same goes for B2B SAAS businesses and content marketing or healthcare and partnerships.
Most people don’t bother asking out experts for coffee and would rather spend years moving in the wrong direction. If you spend a bit more time before deciding which digital marketing career path to pursue, you will be leaps and bounds ahead!
… you might also avoid the mistakes that I made 😉
Peninah Lucy Wachuka
Hello, I am very new to digital marketing and I am willing to learn with growing businesses and get guidance. I would like to get specifics for the startup world.