With the number of media channels that marketers oversee growing at an ever faster rate, there are few roles in the industry that do not demand online expertise, from social media and pay-per-click to search engine optimisation and content creation. However, training in these and similar digital media skills has lagged behind the adoption curve.
Many marketers have been forced to pick up these skills on the job, which increases the risk of missing out on multichannel opportunities. But demand for formal training is strong, and the profession is intent on catching up.
At the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), the most popular type of training is foundation courses in digital skills, according to director of research and professional development David Thorp. And at Guardian News and Media’s training centre, the Media Academy, about a quarter of marketers going on courses are digital specialists. Head of seminars and training Lucy Haire confirms that social media training is particularly in vogue.
One marketer to benefit from the increased availability of digital training is Debbie Reeve, marketing communications manager at Mitsubishi Electric.
She signed up with the Social Media Academy in preparation for using the channel to promote her brand’s Green Gateway renewable energy initiative.
Mitsubishi Electric wants to start an online debate about green technology and the training Reeve received means she can now identify which social media sites will fit the brand’s objectives and how it should go about posting messages to each one. She also intends to spread the knowledge she has acquired among her team of nine marketers.
For Betfair, the best way to use social media is by instinct, according to head of central online acquisition Ben Carter. “You cannot learn how to have that conversation. You know what your brand stands for, what drives growth for your business and what your customers want.”
Carter says the majority of Betfair Poker’s Twitter followers are not actually customers or poker players. However, their enjoyment of the account’s humorous stream of consciousness means that whenever they are in conversations about poker, they might mention Betfair and trigger someone else to consider the brand.
Betfair global head of customer engagement Jeremy Sulzmann adds that much of the learning about how to manage social media accounts has been gathered on an ad hoc basis. “We have found out through trial and error how frequently to update, whether to post proactively or reactively and what tone of voice to use,” he says.
Social media is not the only digital skill that makes a successful marketer. There are many more involving technical knowledge that is emphatically teachable. Without training in pay-per-click (PPC) and search engine optimisation (SEO), for example, a marketer would probably waste a lot of time with guesswork.
Saxo Bank online marketing co-ordinator Michaela Petrikova says she had no digital training prior to applying for a course at 77Academy. Petrikova’s degree is in economics, but she had ambitions to work in digital marketing and says that training in PPC and SEO was both useful in confirming her interest and indispensable to her eventual role.
“It is one thing to understand the mechanics of how PPC and SEO work, but it is another being able to implement it, identify opportunities and test it. I would have struggled to acquire those skills by myself without any training.”
Seeing a demand for these skills from the marketing industry was one reason Google began its Digital Experts training programme, delivered through agency Livity.
Google EMEA director of business marketing James Elias says the initiative is intended to “kill two birds with one stone” – serving the market’s need for young talent and offering a learning opportunity to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is the second year that Google has run the free programme, which has trained 24 graduates and placed apprentices in new positions at brands including ASOS, Barclays and Unilever.
This year, there has been a greater emphasis on online marketing, says Elias. “We were keen to focus the programme on the digital skills element. The first time it was more around broad-based commercial skills and we realised that was perhaps a little too ambitious.”
Despite the current boom in demand for standalone training in online skills, the CIM’s Thorp says that knowledge in this area will eventually catch up with practice and it will become an integral part of a marketer’s skills.
He suggests that many of those taking courses in digital media are likely to be senior marketers who did not grow up with social media, blogs and other online tools and who did not come into the marketing profession ready-trained in them. Marketing degrees also need time to bed in modules in what is a fast-developing area, he adds.
Just as importantly, though, marketing jobs with digital responsibilities are beginning to require skills or qualifications that may originate in fields other than marketing. Confused.com head of content Sharon Flaherty, for example, says she only hires former journalists to her department, which takes care of all branded content and communications, including social media.
Flaherty, herself a former journalist at the Financial Times, says: “I think that is the right thing to do because they are specialists in content.” She adds that with content creation there is “an element of gut instinct” and journalists tend to “know a good story”.
Ultimately, she argues that the marketing profession needs to cultivate these specialist skills and to hire from outside traditional pools of experience in order to strengthen its ranks.
Ben Carter, head of central online acquisition at Betfair, and Jeremy Sulzmann, global head of customer engagement at Betfair
Marketing Week (MW): How important is training in keeping up with developments in digital marketing?
Jeremy Sulzmann (JS):
A lot of this is developing so fast that you would be hard pressed to find an established curriculum that either brings you up to speed with where things are, or that would get you to a point when you graduated where things had not moved on. You figure out what is working through trial and error. A lot of companies out there do not know what they are doing and get it wrong, but they learn and the next campaign they come to market with could be a winner.
Ben Carter (BC):
For me, you would not go to university or to the CIM to do a course on social media. You would either go and work in an organisation where you talk to customers through social channels, or you would plan social campaigns at an agency. You need to cut your teeth and see not only the good side of social media but also the bad side – and how quickly it can go bad if you get it wrong. No amount of hours in the classroom is going to teach you that.
MW: How do you identify whether someone has the ability to execute a social media or digital marketing strategy?
JS: Who you trust with that channel is a massive thing for a business. We are not at the point where you would look for someone with a degree in social media, but you would look for someone who can communicate. They can do it accurately, they can stick to brand guidelines, they can take a steer from the business and they know not to get riled if someone is pissed off about the product or the difficulties they are having.
BC: You have to be incredibly adaptable. From a digital perspective, you not only have to know where the customer is in terms of the media channels they are consuming and the platforms they are using, but also what developments are coming around the corner and the impacts those developments are having on how people consume. Because of how fast digital is moving, it is very hard to sit in a classroom and learn that. You have to be reading blogs, speaking to people, networking and then overlaying that with traditional marketing skills.
MW: What are the most important digital media skills for a marketer?
JS: The ability to create, identify and curate content that is going to be interesting and carry across multiple channels is quite useful. Optimisation and multivariate testing is an area that a lot of the more profitable and successful start-ups in Silicon Valley are focusing on. They are optimising thousands of things at any one time, but a person that has those skills, especially in the UK, is hard to find.
As the internet and content continue to grow at such a rapid pace, numeracy and the ability for a marketer to deal with huge amounts of data are crucial. The ability to sort through all that and find the one thing that is going to make the difference, the one small change you make that could have a massive effect on the bottom line, is crucial.
Top trends 2012 predictions
Sharon Flaherty, head of content, Confused.com
There is definitely a need for content specialists as well as marketers. They are different disciplines. Just because you are in a marketing department does not necessarily mean you need to have a marketing degree or qualification. Content marketing is still quite new to the industry. Businesses are becoming more like publishers than before, and therefore we need to consider taking skills from them. It is like SEO for journalists – three or four years ago they never would have considered it important. Now journalists are almost like marketers, pushing out their content through social media.
James Elias, EMEA director of business marketing, Google
It is really important that people have a thorough grounding in digital marketing for the future. I do not know if we are heading for a skills gap, but that is something we need to be aware of – making sure we have enough people with the right skills to meet the needs of those who we work with.
Debbie Reeve, marketing communications manager, Mitsubishi Electric
Social media is changing all the time, as the internet did in the early days. We will remain cautious in how we use it, but I think we will gain confidence when we see it does not do as much harm as we think. We are probably a bit paranoid about it and I think that is the case with a lot of people.
If I were employing someone now as part of the marketing communications team, I would want them to have a basic understanding of all the different kinds of social media. It is becoming part of the standard marketing mix and the internet sits at the heart of all our campaigns.
Lucy Haire, head of seminars and training, Guardian News and Media
There are at least another two years of demand for basic, entry-level social media training – platform-specific beginner stuff. Then it will get more sophisticated in specific sectors.
But we also need to be on the ball because you just do not know what is going to be the next big thing. A large corporate might do something, Google could release new software or Microsoft could launch a new platform.
No one predicted Twitter – it just appeared, then took off. You have to be nimble. Lots of people talk about mobile developing very fast. That may well be right.
Michaela Petrikova, online marketing co-ordinator, Saxo Bank
Digital skills will become more important to any business that wants to stay ahead of or keep up with its competitors.
Whether every marketer requires those skills is a different question, but I would definitely say that every marketing team that is serious about the brand’s online presence needs a few people with highly analytical skills who are able to monitor and optimise pay-per-click advertising accounts, for example, on a day-to-day basis.
David Thorp, director of research and professional development, Chartered Institute of Marketing
Ten or 12 years ago, the internet became subsumed into conventional marketing logic. This will happen to all digital media. If I were giving a lecture in ten years’ time at a university talking about digital, the kids would say: “Of course, that’s marketing. Why are you making a big deal out of it?”
It will become part of mainstream marketing thinking. There will be something else that comes along in ten years’ time that takes us on another quantum leap.