Do You Need A Degree In Digital Marketing And Social Media?

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How important is a formal education for a career in marketing?

I get asked this question a lot. Most people want to know where I studied all of this stuff and what type of certification I have. I am certifiable. I am not certified. I dropped out of university because I was (at the time) already publishing magazines. My general train of thought was that it would be easier to go back to school should my career in media not work out than to stay in school and try to manage the workload of running my own publishing company while attempting to secure a degree. Regrets? I have a few. It would be great to have a MBA or degree (of some kind) in business. I think I missed out on the social dynamics of being in university, but I never let my lack of formal schooling get in the way of my education.

What about digital marketing and social media?

Universities and colleges now offer courses in the area of digital media, online strategy, social media, web analytics, search engine marketing and more. Some universities even have diploma degrees. Are they any good? Are they worth it? It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish in your career. From a professional perspective, these courses and degrees are not compulsory to have in order to be successful in digital marketing. On top of that, these courses and degrees have not become commonplace enough (or even prestigious) to have the same cache as a formal MBA or degree in project management. In short, while a degree or course completion may impress a HR recruiter for a digital marketing shop, it is not essential to getting the gig.

That doesn’t mean that they’re bad.

Figuring out if a course is the right fit for your career is not easy, but doing some homework around the university, the instructor and the course outline is mandatory. If you can’t find out information in a general search (on Google, Bing, Yahoo or whatever), leverage your online social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, tumblr, etc…) to ask those you are connected to. It’s also important to see how active the university or the instructors are on the digital platforms. So, if you’re asking a question about these courses and they’re not even listening/responding, that could qualify as an indicator as to how well-versed they are in the digital realm (or how active they are).

Where does this leave you?

Whether it’s an unaccredited course or a formal university degree, I still believe that the best instructor you can have is yourself. If you are truly interested in being successful in social media and digital marketing, there is a simple two-step process that you can take… and you can start today.

  1. Learning. You don’t (just) need a course to learn. Between books and blogs and articles and iTunes U and more, the ability for anybody to learn the basics and have a solid foundation as to how these marketing engines work and perform is unlimited. My good friend, Avinash Kaushik (Digital Marketing Evangelist at Google) has a great startup called, Market Motive that offers self-paced and coached online courses that are well-worth the money as well. For a few hundred dollars over at Amazon to going through the blogroll at the left of this blog post (for free!), you will have years and years of content to help you learn.
  2. Doing. If we have learned anything in the past decade-plus about social media, it is that there is no harm in actually trying things. Start tinkering. Join the online social networks and follow people who interest you. Start using Google Reader as a destination to curate and engage with a handful of blogs that specialize in the area that interests you most (and get active in the comments). Why not start a blog, so that you can ask (and answer) the burning questions that you need answers to. Your perspective many not be fully crystallized, but by the sheer act of creating content, you will better understand how to use and leverage these publishing platforms to get an idea to spread.

It starts with you.

Do not wait for a course to give you the answers. The answers are everywhere. Dive in. Be curious. Show up. Be serious. Be passionate. Be open. You will be amazed by the amount of content at your disposal (some good, some bad) and you will also be amazed by how many likeminded people you will discover on this journey, who can help and mentor you on to the next level in your education. Don’t get me wrong, a formal education has its merits and there is value in certification. That being said, this is still a brave new world, and it is both ever-changing and constantly evolving. The best education (for my dollar) has been in following the people who are smarter than me (again, check out the blogroll to the left) and then doing some of the critical thinking heavy work right here on this blog.

Remember: education is not just about taking a course or getting a degree. Education is about your desire to learn and grow. There has never been a better time (or place) to do that than right here… right now.

(special thanks to Alyssa for the email question about courses and certification for the inspiration).


  1. Thanks Mitch, for answering some of my questions!
    Additional question: If you are interested in going into a specific industry, do you pursue any education in that area?
    E.g. I would like to specialize in social media and digital marketing for the fashion industry. I already Tweet, Pin, Facebook, belong to groups, own a small custom bra and corset making business, etc. I follow fashion sites, read about fashion, and have been into fashion for most of my life (I have no clue why I didn’t actally take fashion at school to being with…..lets call them “bad choices”
    But is that enough for that type of industry? it seems like saying “I’ve alsways been into fashion and here’s what I can do with Social Media” is something everyone can say. Is there any value in investing even in something small, like a certificate in Fashion Marketing? Or is it really just enough to have life experience and knowledge without any formal educational background in that industry? Does it show drive and ambition if an employer sees that you went back to school forsomething you love, or does it even matter?
    I know-more than one question, yet again!

  2. A degree in Social Media! Now that’s funny. A bachelor’s degree takes 4 years, so if I had finished one this year I would have started in the fall of 2008. The university would have needed some time before that to develop some time of curriculum – let’s say 2 years, which I think is a bare minimum.
    So on 2012, I would have graduated from a program teaching me material from 2006. Better start updating my MySpace page! Anyone have a good source for animated GIFs?

  3. Marketing is much bigger than just the promotional side of it. My recommendation would be to get a strong footing (and yes, this includes an education) in business and marketing. Then, layer on top of that your experience and learning from the digital marketing and social media side (like courses from Market Motive, etc…)

  4. Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking about going back to school to learn the specifics of social media. But I don’t think that’s what I need. I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest. I’m doing OK but that’s not enough for me. I follow great people, like yourself :-), but I do feel I need to learn more about the tools and apps that can be used to be exceptional, nothing less… Your post helped me in my thinking process. Thanks.

  5. Sure, but that’s basically marketing fundamentals plus some digital media add-ons. That makes a lot more sense but even then I wonder if it might not be better to just learn the fundamentals in school – the stuff that doesn’t change as quickly – and learn the rest by doing, as you suggest. This field moves way too fast for it to be effectively taught in an institutional setting, IMHO.

  6. Also (I can’t edit my previous comment) I think this is symptomatic of the greater mindset where people think that 1) they need to go to school to learn something, and 2) once they are out of school they know all they need to know. Formalized degrees carry a risk of stagnation built-in to learning things the “right” way, whereas learning organically makes it easier to get in the habit of staying up-to-date.
    I’ll take my own training in graphic design as an example – a whole lot of it is obsolete and in hindsight wasn’t really useful. I started out using Mac OS 9 and building websites with tables and imagemaps, skills that are not only useless today but would be an active detriment to working in the industry. But the basics you get in school, the drawing with Rapido pens and learning about tracking and kerning and leading – that never goes away.
    So I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying “learn the basics in school, learn everything else on your own by doing”. YMMV.

  7. This is a great topic for discussion. In the next few weeks I will be graduating with my bachelor of commerce with option in marketing. There is very little digital and social that is currently being taught in the program. Out of the 40 courses I was required to take, only one had to do with digital marketing. The course focused mainly on websites, online advertising and sales. Social media was definitely a hot topic but growth rates and importance of presence were discussed far more than how businesses are becoming more social. The professor didn’t even have a twitter account.
    In fourth year we had Dave Hale from Soshal group do a guest lecture and he blew everyone away with what is going on in digital. At that point, I realized that everything is moving so quickly in this discipline and many professors don’t have time to keep up. I started looking around for other programs that could help me fill this knowledge gap but was worried that they still wouldn’t be completely up to date. I decided that social media would be my best tool to learn more about social media. Twitter, blogs, and podcasts have such rich content and are an endless source of learning. My twitter feed is filled with tweets from influential marketers, my Ipad is playing a podcast whenever I’m in the car (or doing dishes), and when my hands are free I’m trying to keep up with all the books that Mitch somehow finds time to read and talk about on Six Pixels.
    Now having said all this, I still think a Bcomm was the best choice I’ve ever made and it’s been an amazing experience. I’ve seen it ignite the flame in so many people and for me it started a fire that now can’t help but consume every piece of information that comes my way. It allows you to really figure out what you’re passionate about while forcing you to practice the mundane tasks you otherwise wouldn’t. It gives you the opportunity to think strategically, work in groups, and NETWORK. I can’t even begin to explain the value of sitting in a classroom with 30-300 other marketers/accountants/entrepreneurs/(finance people?) at the beginning of their journey. With this happening 10 times a week for 4 years you really get an idea of who you should surround yourself with.
    An entry level role in a digital marketing or social media position can very well lead
    to a position in upper management. While you may learn the underlying structure of a business in these entry level positions, it’s very beneficial to start a role with as much knowledge as you can. Many firms out there are still very reluctant to invest in social, and even digital. I started at my current firm as a consultant and then moved into “the social media guy” and now onto brand manager in the new year. When I started, the rest of the employees saw social as a department and I’ve been fighting to show that it’s more than that, and that a business as an entity can be social right down to the core, creating products and services worth talking about. Having a good idea of what goes on in the other departments allows for better integration of social media throughout the business.
    I understand that not every case is like mine but I hope this helps anyone that finds
    him/herself in this difficult position.

  8. Fascinating post.
    I learned most of my practical knowledge as a copywriter and medical writer on the job (I lucked into an ad agency summer position as a student halfway through a B.A. and was able to build on that), but acquired some important and relevant basic skills – decoding jargon and critical thinking and analysis – by studying philosophy at the undergraduate level.
    Today, I would need at least an MSc to be perceived as competent as a medical writer because of creeping credentialism, despite widespread recognition among my peers that while a science background is an asset it is in no way an absolute requirement. (Being a complete, unrepentant geek about healthcare and having the patience to navigate technical jargon is.)
    I’m going to pass this on to a couple of friends, one who is thinking about a career in digital media and marketing, another who is looking to change career direction.
    While the examples are specific, the principles are generally applicable.

  9. I am a former recruiter and HR person who has done recruitment in Calgary, Vancouver and Ontario-I haven’t recruited for social media specific roles, which is why I asked Mitch the questions in the first place.
    I agree that with this particular subject the pace of technology is more than most schools are willing to keep up with in order to offer relevant courses, but some have taken on the challenge. My questions were mainly about what education, not specifically a degree, but even a certificate, would be helpful in moving from a current career to a completely different one in Social Media.
    There are things other than Twitter, Pinterest, etc. that go into this kind of role-things like analytics, that are sometimes difficult to grasp without some guidance, as well as Project Management if you are thinking of taking a consultant type role. Education would be very helpful in this area-even if only one or two courses.
    Hiring in Calgary, you need to go far beyond the educational components, because there are a lot of jobs and not enough people-you can get a better job with less education. In many other large cities, a recruiter will often set up their applicants systems to weed out anyone who does not have education relevant to the position-its not always enough to say on a resume that you are self-taught-many times the person with a Marketing or Commmunications degree will win out getting that position. So from a hiring standpoint, education has its value-no, I don’t believe you “have” to go to school to learn something-but I do know the ways many recruiters hire, whether it’s
    right or wrong.
    What was important to me in asking these questions was “Is investing in any education valuable for THIS type of role”-or is it better to get a basic Marketing/Communications degree/diploma and go from there-can anyone offering Social Media specific education give me something that I can’t learn on my own, and if I am looking for an industry-specific role, like fashion, should I pursue education in that area as well.
    Keep in mind-this is for a person coming from a completely different field-doing a complete career change. If I were to be hiring for an IT person and they had a background in HR, and the person had nothing except “I know a lot about computers that I learned on my own”, I would barely look at them-they would have to have some technically related education. Hopefully hiring managers and HR people realize that with this type of role, they ahve to look at it differently-but if you look at many job postings, they often ask for years of Social Media experience-but the majority of people in social media are in a younger demographic (the majority-not all!). I’m not-I’m almost 40-bt I love social media. yet employers are asking for experience levels that don’t make any sense in relation to the role.
    In the end, I think that in order to get your foot in the door in a Social Media role without anything related behind you, it seems to be a combination of the two-acquiring an educational baseline as a jumping off point and combining that with everything that Mitch said-learning from people smarter than you, learning from doing, reading, involving yourself in the subject matter.

  10. That’s great advice, Jordon, and food for thought with this kind of role. Thanks-this helps a lot, in combination with teh great advice from Mitch!

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