How to become a digital marketing manager: thoughts after 6 years

How to become a digital marketing manager: thoughts after 6 years

The term “digital marketing manager” can feel misleading nowadays as it is used broadly for someone working with digital marketing.

In reality, we often see them working as sort of a project manager specializing in digital marketing or as a specialist for a marketing channel like search engines, email, or ads.

It’s both an art and science and we need both to do a good job. I’ve worked as one for six years and in this article, I’ll share how to become a digital marketing manager with specific steps, what makes a good one, and my own experience working as one.

Is work as a digital marketing manager a good fit for you?

Let’s first dive into whether being a digital marketing manager is a good fit for you by looking at the day to day tasks and decisions you make in the job.

The overarching goal of the job is usually to help drive more revenue and sales for a business. Let’s use one of my clients as a real-world example.

Out of respect for the business, I’m not going to name it here but it is similar to the app Duolingo that most people know. You can use the app to practice a foreign language and the overall goal for me has been to help drive more customers.

We tend to do that by analyzing where the existing customers come from to understand where we might want to go to find more.

Most of the time they don’t come from a single place and so we have to decide which place is the best to go after first.

Digital marketing managers early in their career tend to focus on where they can get the cheapest results. More experienced ones put more and more focus on the quality of the customers because they know that they can often drive more revenue by selling something to an existing customer rather than getting new customers in the door.

Of course, there are exceptions depending on the business itself and the stage it is in.

A day in the life of a digital marketing manager

Day-to-day that means you’ll be looking at many different tasks. In the morning you might be preparing new images and content for a marketing campaign on Facebook and in the afternoon, you might be speaking with customers to gather insights or planning which campaigns to launch a few months from now.

It differs whether you want to do design-work, copywriting, and other ad hoc tasks. To give you an example, the businesses I work with know that I’m colorblind and suck at design tasks, so we also have a designer on the team.

Let’s look at a typical day in my life as a digital marketing manager:

I have a few different clients that I work with consistently as an external digital marketing manager, so I might work on tasks for all of them during a particular day but there will also be weeks where I might work on projects for one client the entire day – or even a balance between the two.

how to become a digital marketing manager
My office view

I get up early and check Instagram. I’m running a personal experiment and so I spend the first hour waking up and slowly scrolling through my feed to check new comments and upload the new posts I’ve prepared in advance.

Next, I’m working on a client project investigating why the sales numbers aren’t the same across different reports.

That is a mix of talking with customer service for the platforms we use and reverse-engineering the problem by creating test-orders before looking for a solution.

This is where things get creative. Because this is a new industry and most of it relies on tech and different tools that are being built as we speak, there are usually no finite answers to these challenges and we either have to live with things not being perfect or think up some creative solutions.

That’s why we spend a fair amount of time reading blogs. Often someone else has had the same problem before and wrote about the solution somewhere online. That is commonly understood among most businesses and marketers.

After lunch, I’m working on a project for a different client looking to spice up their articles to drive more traffic from search engines like Google. I have a call with another freelancer on the team who happens to be back in Europe so we use Zoom to go through the content easily.

The type of decisions I have to make here is which articles on the ten-year-old blog are worth making better and what the best approach is to do that.

That is a mix between researching the competition, talking with the team to understand which topics are relevant to talk about when someone is learning a foreign language and how to prioritize them.

This is where things might feel confusing. I don’t write the articles themselves. We have expert language coaches to make sure we offer great advice. Instead, my part is deciding which topics to talk about in the first place, why those, and how to make them attractive.

With digital marketing the results of our ideas can be tracked, so we can evaluate what works best and do more of that. That is the science part.

I’ll use tools to look at which topics are more popular than others, compare them with the competition, and based on basic math, decide what is most likely give us a good result. We’ll then experiment with that and compare the results with other ideas after.

The last thing I do is prepare for tomorrow.

I hope that helps you get a better understanding of what you might be doing if you decide to work as a digital marketing manager. Next, let’s see what success looks like for someone with our type of job.

What success looks like as a digital marketing manager

You can earn good money especially if you deliver results because all business owners want someone who helps drive more revenue than they cost. As a digital marketing manager that is our job.

Success is usually two-fold. You’ll want to deliver results and the tricky part is that everyone has an opinion of what promotions should say and where they should be. We also have the limitations of the product itself, so a hidden part of it is figuring out how we want it to be and managing all the inputs as well.

The second part is being good at managing experiments like you might in a lab. You’ll be surprised that most of us don’t always know what works and so smart ones focus on running a “portfolio” of experiments, picking the ones the performs the best and exchange the rest for new ideas.

Over time, that will bring consistent results. That is all about deciding how long an experiment should last for it to be good enough for us to take the result seriously along with the much harder decision: which experiments are even worth running.

You’ll see a lot of marketers talk about testing which design the “buy now” button should have on a page. The more challenging question is to ask ourselves what the outcome will be of the test and how that helps drive more revenue.

We might realize that even with the best result of the test the difference will only be marginal and instead we could spend our time on getting more people in the door.

Is remote work a good option?

Yes and I recommend it. The goal is usually to reach new customers via online channels, so many of the tasks are completed using different web tools but there is also a creative side to it e.g. writing copy, thinking of strategy, customer research, etc.

Everything we do is digital so it can work from a computer although some tasks like copywriting and strategy might be done by hand before they are written digitally.

I’ve worked as a digital marketing manager both in-house and as a freelancer. Both work well as a career but if you want to be remote, this is a great option particularly as a freelancer. More on that later.

It fits well with traveling although you do need a good internet connection and to plan things out in advance. It isn’t a great fit for backpacking but for slow travel or living abroad, working as a digital marketing manager is a great choice.

My real-world experience as a digital marketing manager

If you are still reading, I’ll assume that you are interested in becoming a digital marketing manager, so allow me to share some of the good and bad sides with you from my experience working as one.

As a digital marketing manager, I’ve been lucky to travel and move abroad to exotic locations where it’s nice and sunny almost every day, I get to work from cafes, my home office, or wherever I can find a good internet connection – my clients don’t care.

Right now I live in a big city but I’ve also been working from an exotic island. It’s about experimenting to see what you prefer.

It has allowed me to save up more than 50% of my salary yet still have a nice lifestyle and eat out all the time.

I’m not saying this to brag but rather to point out that working as a digital marketing manager offers a lot of flexibility. We can use it in any way we prefer and if we choose to, we can turn it into some serious benefits.

Some of the potential downsides (but might be upsides to others) are that we do spend a lot of time with the computer since we work with digital channels. There are a lot of random things that don’t work that well because the industry is so new and everyone is building new stuff all the time. 

That is the charm to some but that means that there are no generations of experience to ask for help. Oftentimes, we have to research a certain problem and talk to friends with a similar job to see if anyone has run into it before. It is also a benefit because you can enter the field much easier than to, say, be a lawyer.

Two of the common mistakes I’ve noticed is that new digital marketing managers often people work with companies that are too small. The work is more or less the same no matter the size of the company since you can contact many customers at once via e.g. ads, email, etc. Yet, with a small business, it is almost impossible to drive as much impact as you could with a larger one (and thus get paid well).

Many newcomers also think that we have to specialize in a particular channel or tool. That’s just not the case although we do manage tools instead of employees a lot of the time.

How to become a digital marketing manager

Next, let’s dive into how to become a digital marketing manager. The first question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want to work on freelance-basis or as a traditional job.

There is no right answer, it depends entirely on your preferences. If you want the following, it is a good indication that you might like freelancing:

  • Freedom from going to an office and answering to managers
  • Freedom of having your own routine where you don’t answer to a lot of people
  • Freedom to take a holiday whenever you want to
  • Freedom to work from cafes, in your shorts
  • Freedom to work on a Sunday and chill on a Tuesday because YOU want to

These are specific points from one of the success stories on this blog and what they love about freelancing compared to a traditional job in digital marketing.

You can be remote both as a freelancer and with a traditional job, so you depend less on which city that has good jobs and what the office is like except for large corporations or startups. They tend to want people in-house for this type of stuff.

If you prefer to work remotely, you might want to focus on companies that are remote-first or smaller businesses that are more comfortable with it.

Next, let’s look at an overview of the specific steps it requires, so you know how to become a digital marketing manager before we dive deeper into each step.

Overview of the 7 steps: how to become a digital marketing manager

  1. Pick your path (you can always change it later)
  2. Experiment with it to see if you like it
  3. Decide on the type of company you’d like to work with
  4. Research the companies
  5. Contact the companies
  6. Discuss the details
  7. Help them with their projects!

Let’s dive deeper into each action step.

Pick your path (you can always change it later)

With digital marketing, everyone tells us to specialize in something. Most of the time they are right but it can feel crippling if you are new and not really sure which path to pick.

The only way you’ll know for real is to try it out. That’s why I suggest you read about the common paths and simply pick one that seems interesting to you. You won’t know for sure anyway and you shouldn’t get stuck here.

Popular paths that digital marketing managers often specialize in:

  • Branding or performance-based online marketing
  • In a particular industry like travel, healthcare, etc.
  • In a particular channel such as Facebook ads, search engine optimization or email
  • In a specific tool like Shopify
  • In a specific business model like ecommerce, online courses, SAAS, etc.

Experiment with it to see if you like it

The next step is to experiment with it to see if you like it. That was one of the biggest traps I fell into when I first started out. I jumped head first into an industry without researching it and as a result I realized it sucked and I had to start over after a year.

You can either do that by doing a personal project or by contacting businesses and ask if you can help out with some projects. If you can get paid for it, that’s great but remember the point here is for you to figure out if it’s something you could do for a while — not necessarily your ultimate passion in life.

To give you an example, I’ve been wanting to learn more about search engine optimization, so I did a personal project on the side for a week to better understand the core tasks, how results are best generated, etc.

Remember, that you will not be great at first. That’s normal, the point is to figure out if you’d like to work with it more since it will be easier for you the more you practice. If not, pick a different path and repeat the steps.

Once you have found a path that is interesting to you, let’s move forward.

Decide on the type of company you’d like to work with

The next step is to decide which type of company you’d like to work with. If you are interested in remote work, this is a particularly important step.

You might decide by industry, location, company size, business model or simply because a particular company has a leader that you admire.

If you are looking for remote work, the business and company size is particularly relevant. Business models like SAAS (software as a service), online education and ecommerce will often be a good fit because they rely on the internet to connect with customers and their products or service is usually delivered online as well.

In terms of business size, I’ll just say that you probably shouldn’t work with business that earn less than $100,000/year (in many cases that is even too little) because they won’t be able to pay you and they won’t get much benefit from your work since the key benefit of our work is that we can reach many people at scale.

Research the companies

Once you’ve found some interesting industries, it’s time to figure out what specific challenges the companies you are interested in have.

It is so much easier to get work if you understand where the businesses are coming from when you speak with them. That way, you can also avoid wasting time machine-gunning your CV out to companies and never hearing back.

You can find word-for-word scripts you can use to contact businesses in this guide. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to help if you show that you come from a place of wanting to learn rather than secretly wanting to sell something to them.

I like to send them 3-5 questions asking if they’ve hired a digital marketing manager before, if they have someone in-house or if they use a contractor and what kind of challenges they face.

You’ll be able to find more ideas for questions in the guide above.

Contact the companies

Once you’ve heard back from a few companies, you’ll start to notice similar answers. That means you are ready to send over ideas to, other, similar businesses that you might be able to help.

I know that this sounds overly simplistic but that’s because it is. We often tend to make things more difficult than they have to be.

In the guide above, you’ll see how I’ve followed the exact same approach to land well-paying clients that I help as an external digital marketing manager, and the same approach works if you are looking for a traditional full-time job.

Discuss the details

Next, when you hear back from someone who is interested, it is time to talk about the details like pay and deadlines. 

I’ve written how to go about this step specifically on the blog a few times before and if you’d like more details, leave a comment below.

Help them with their projects!

The final step is to help them with the projects and find ways you can give them way more than they asked for — it makes the world of a difference.

It is difficult to expect that we’ll create the world’s best campaign the first time we try. It’s a popular catch-22: how are we supposed to get hired without experience and how are we supposed to get experience if we are never hired?

I had the same challenge early in my career and after experimenting I found an awesome way to solve it and get hired anyway.

Instead of focusing on your experience, focus on drive, working hard, and trying hard. Just like in Hollywood movies where we can relate to Batman and Superman but not because they are similar to us… because we can relate to the struggles they go through and how they try hard and fail before succeeding.

Hiring managers and business owners are the same. If you show them that you took initiative and worked hard, they will usually help you learn business details since the motivation to work hard and take initiative is MUCH harder to find in a team member than someone who knows how to use a certain marketing tool.


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