Professional Development for Digital Marketers: How to Up Your Game in 2014

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With some free time coming up during the holidays, and a new year not far behind, it’s time for every SEO and digital marketer to ask themselves one simple question:

“How am I going to up my game in 2014?”

That’s what we’re going to cover in today’s post. (And as it’s also the topic of #SEOChat today, a popular Twitter chat, I’ll add some of the best suggestions from the chat into a Storify at the end of the post, to share some of the best ideas from the community.)

What New Skills Should I Learn?

Digital marketing consists of timeless elements (copywriting, strategy, psychology), combined with elements that change weekly, if not faster (SEO techniques, ad tactics, subtleties of social media and analytics platforms).

This means that as marketers,  we’re either getting better or getting obsolete.

So how you can you keep up in a time of such extreme change? And how can you keep your edge knowing that there are kids in bedrooms and basements, building sites, working every day to take the edge from you?

When I look at skill development, I see it falling into a few different buckets:

Going Deeper into Your Core Skills

Any aspects of SEO (or PPC, or Social, if that’s your core skill) you need to brush up on? Be it something like and the related new snippet presentation options, or building a really thorough understanding of personalized search, or working to understand new Image-first social platforms and their API capabilities, it’s always worth making some time to do a deep dive into areas core to your specialty.

Hopefully these areas have some relevance to your business. (For example, as much as I’d like to become an expert in Instagram, this wouldn’t have a ton of relevance to what we do at BuzzStream.) Additionally, try to look at something that will still be valuable in a couple years – you only have so much time to work on professional stuff, so try to look at existing market trends and figure out what will be working well in 2-4 years and study up on that.

Learning Complementary Online Skills from Other Disciplines

If you only do content/SEO/social/PPC/etc, you’ve probably noticed an increasing demand to work effectively with other specialists and understand how other channels work with your own. Building up some chops in related but different disciplines can usually lead to some cool new ideas for integrations and ways to make channels work together.  The synergy between paid search and organic SEO should be pretty natural by this point, but the combination of paid and organic social media, and retargeting and content marketing all open up great opportunities for marketers.

It’s great (and usually pretty easy) to learn specialties adjacent to yours and become a ‘T-shaped Marketer.’

tshaped marketer

(Image from Brian Balfour, who has also curated a great selection of resources about learning digital marketing.)

Building Your Creative Marketing Skills (like Copy & Design)

While an early version of digital marketing didn’t place marketing creativity and the conventional advertising thinking (that the Mad Men and their forebearers spent tens of thousands of hours and many more scotches developing), today, especially with the rise of visual placements, lack of effective visuals is no longer an option.  And as marketing becomes closer and closer to real time, waiting days for diesign turn-around isn’t an attractive option.

Great design needs great copy to convince people to trust your brand buy your products.  Personally I think copywriting should be a core skill in all marketer’s toolbelts, and I recommend always working on improving it.

Improving Your Technical Skills (like Development and Data Analysis)

Increasingly all marketers are told to be technical. (Whether being able to write ruby scripts will be a better investment of your time than say, getting better at marketing, is left to the reader.) And I think learning some basic front-end and back-end development (even if you don’t end up slinging code in practice) is great for developing critical thinking skills, understanding what can be done, and helping you better work with your more technical colleagues.

The closely aligned skill here is data analysis – just about every tool and platform we have throws off buckets of data, and if you can write a simple GET to the API, you can get even more. But what does it mean? And how can it make you a more effective marketer?

The next piece of this is being able to take the data that all of these platforms produce, put it together, clean it (often the hardest part), and visualize and analyze it.  As analytics moves from a defined role to something every marketer has access to and needs, this area is one of the ripest for growth (especially combined with some of the channel expertise described earlier.)

Growing Your Strategy, Psychology, and Business Skills

Sometimes we can get too engaged in the day-to-day of running campaigns and miss the bigger strategic goals of our profession: Driving Profitable Revenue Growth to Win Markets.

Some reading on the strategic side – which, while not helpful in your day-to-day like some of these other suggestions – can help you understand the big picture, get new ideas, and see things differently.  Perhaps the best reason to study these areas is that they’ll help you persuade clients and internal executives to fund and support your projects.  Often online marketers aren’t great at building business cases, and this is a great skill to develop.

How Can I Actually Learn These Skills?

All of us have strings of failed commitments, promises, new year’s resolutions, and probably an inbox full of re-engagement emails from Codecademy or Udemy about MOOCs we enrolled in and never finished. (If you’re like me, you never even got to the second lecture.)

So let’s look at how to actually achieve your personal development goals:

“Losers Have Goals. Winners Have Systems.”

Scott Adams, the cartoonist between the Dilbert empire, has a saying: “My philosophy is that losers have goals and winners have systems.”

To use Adams’ examples on something practical, like learning to draw, a goal might be: “By 1/31/14, I want to be able to draw a really good picture of a koala.” (Don’t judge, I have some weird goals.)

By contrast, if I said “Every day between now and 1/31/14, I will spend at least 15 minutes a day working through the exercises in “Learn to Draw by Drawing Koalas (and Perhaps Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too)”, that’s a system.

Not only can my system fail only by my laziness, I’m guaranteed some modicum of success. Even if my Koalas still suck at the end of January, I will have made some good strides in my skills, and hopefully created a positive feedback loop that encourages me to spend even more time on it.

Having  a system makes skill development easier, and far less stressful. And over time, you’ll see some incredibly cool results.

The Seinfeld System

Even creative habits – which we have this societal delusion that creative moments come from odd moments of inspiration, instead of hours of hard work – can come from pure, daily hard work.

Jerry Seinfeld, creator of the eponymous show about nothing, has shared his method of producing high-quality creative work – day after day. And the simple answer isn’t some rare and strange technique for getting creative inspiration – it’s about working every day.  There is no ‘one weird tip’ for skill development – the only tip is hard work.

[Jerry Seinfeld] said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it. (italics) He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

(From a story recounted by Brad Smith on Lifehacker)

Again, even if your aspiration is to create the most commercially show about nothing ever, again, a daily work practice on improving your skills is the key to success.

Setting Daily Habits and Goals

But we all have 10 million things going on in our lives – it can be hard to make time for work skills improvement – especially if you already came home from work.

So the key to develop these new skills is:

  • Do it every day.
  • Make a system – like “I will read Data Smart and apply it for 15 minutes a day.”
  • Use something to track the habit, and don’t break the chain.  While a simple Google Calendar update can work wonders, some people who like gadgets and trackers might enjoy the Lift iPhone, Android, and Web app.
  • If it’s more a practical skill than a learning skill, try to apply it to some project as soon as possible to create a positive feedback loop.

Resources and Ideas

Now there’s not a shortage of digital marketing resources out there to use to learn more, but here are some I’ve found to helpful and penetrable. (Unlike, say, Godel, Escher, and Bach, which I’ve now tried to read unsuccessfully 3 times.)

Special Topics in SEO

If your core expertise is in SEO, it definitely makes sense to spend time studying new specialties that are going to become important in the new year. Some of them are:

Knowledge Graph, Entities, and

While schema. the knowledge graph, and moving to the ‘web of entities’ instead of the ‘web of documents’ are a vast and complex topic, if you intend on continuing to be a search engine optimization expert, this material is key to understanding how search engines understand modern queries – and how they return results for them.

This is a rapidly expanding and changing field, but there are a few people in this field (Aaron Bradley, Matthew Brown, Bill Slawski, Andrew Isidoro and a few other bloggers) who have written some great pieces on this topic:

Basic Vocabulary for and Structured Data & Semantic SEO: Making the Shift from Strings to Things – Aaron Bradley introduces structured data and semantic SEO.

How Google Find ‘Known For’ Terms for Entities & Do You Have a Named Entity Strategy for Marketing Your Web Site? Bill Slawski gets into entity analysis and how to incorporate named entities into your strategy. and Semantic Strategy for Heavyweights & Strings to Things & Strings to Things – the Move to Semantic SEO – Matthew Browns gets into more actionable semantic SEO tactics.

I am an Entity: Hacking the Knowledge Graph – Andrew Isidoro shows you how to use Freebase to influence the knowledge graph.

Mobile App SEO & Mobile SEO

Mobile and tablet usage has thrown something of a wrench in the web marketing works – whereas previously marketers had to cater to one usage scenario and a narrow set of large screen sizes with full keyboards, now there are tons of screen sizes, devices, and use contexts to support. This represents a sea change, and understanding this new landscape will be a critical differentiator for digital marketers in the next 24 months. (Personally, it’s a skill set I’ve been working on significantly, along with improving my data analysis and graphics skills.)

Mobile SEO:

Good Practices to Maximize Your Mobile SEO & Mobilize Your SEO: Making the Most Out of the Mobile Search Opportunity – Aleyda Solis gives a good intro to mobile SEO.

The Definitive Guide to Technical Mobile SEO -Vanessa Fox writes about how to best get bots around the various ways of implementing a mobile site.

App Store Optimization:

AppStore Optimization (ASO) is literally changing monthly, so the best way to keep up with it is through following publications in the space:

App Store Optimization Articles, Tutorials, and Insights from MobileDevHQ

App Store Marketing Insights from App Annie

Psychology of Content and Outreach:

If you’re more of the link building type, you’ll probably want to work on your prospecting, content marketing, and outreach skills. Success in these endeavors comes from better ideas, better planning, and better execution

We can all stand to be more persuasive and make our content and outreach more engaging:

And as with everything in digital marketing, and more specifically everything in SEO, test things and perform experiments. Reading is not a substitute for testing new concepts and doing real marketing.

Digital Marketing – Beyond SEO

We can all stand to constantly up our game in related digital marketing topics.

While ‘digital marketing’ is too huge and rapidly changing a field to get an expert-level knowledge in all topics, here are some of the things I’m studying this year to become a better marketer:


Retargeting – especially when combined with effective other marketing – can be an important, highly flexible, highly powerful tool in a marketer’s arsenal to re-engage lost customers, engage new customers further, promote permission marketing assets, and move people further along the customer purchase journey.

Retargeting comes in dozens of flavors and changes fast, and I suggest you learn about it from a combination of vendor blogs and

Ultimate Guide to Adwords Remarketing

Remarketing: How to Make Your Content Marketing and SEO Up to 7X More Awesome

Social Ad Platforms

While search-driven PPC is useful and a generally necessary tool in most marketer’s toolbox, i’ts hard to say the channel isn’t highly saturated.  (RKG found in an annual report that while click prices have increased every year, overall paid search ROI is flat.)   Now, social ads represent a new channel that isn’t yet saturated, and often has some very high ROI opportunities. (See, for example, our case study about Twitter Ads for ebook promotion.)

This is another area where things change weekly as the platforms produce new ad products.  Study the documentation from the platforms themselves, run some test campaigns, and check out blogs like:

FBPPC – the only blog I’m aware of solely dedicated to Facebook advertising.

The AimClear Blog – Marty Weintraub and his team are dedicated to exploring new channels and strategies, including integrating paid social into community management, content marketing, search, and more. (Marty also has a great book out on Facebook Ads, but I’m not sure how much it has been updated since its writing.)

Interactive Content

If you haven’t implemented content marketing strategies yet, you’re probably incurably behind. If you have implemented content marketing strategies, you’re wondering how to get more views, more engagement, and a better ROI from the your content.  One way is to make your content more interactice – and thus more remarkable – increasing its memorability, along with its engagement metrics.

My favorite resources on this topic are:

TutorialZine – Great tutorials with modern technologies on front-end web development. It’s hard to read this blog without getting ideas for new site features and content forms.

Technical Hacks for Content Marketing – Great overview from Justin Briggs on D3.Js, JQuery, and other front-end technologies you can use to improve your content.

Art & Copy 

I put traditional ad skills into 2 categories: design and copy.


Design has incredible influence on perception of value, and whether visitors trust content enough to like it, share it, or make a purchase decision from it.

The best set of resources I’ve found on getting some design and art chops is Karen X Cheng’s post on How to Become a Designer Without Going to Design School. Everything someone exploring making things usable and beautiful can be found there – from drawing through UX design.


While we like to say the web changes everything, most of the best material on copywriting has been written by people who never touched a computer. My favorites are:

Development and Data Analysis


There is no shortage of people exhorting you to learn to code, or startups excited about teaching you Ruby, Python, JavaScript, or another language.  (Codecademy’s founder recently appeared on the Colbert report, so these resources aren’t exactly under the radar.)

The resources I’ve dabbled with in this area are:

All of these resources have advantages and disadvantages – you can find the one that works the best for you.  Often the best way to work through these resources is to select a small project and try to build it, and then use the instructional resources when you get stuck.

Data Analysis

While dozens of startups seem to be excited to teach you about variables and if-then loops, fewer good resources exist to learn data analysis. (This is a pretty good market opportunity, if any founder-types are reading this.)

My favorite books on the topic are:

Data Smart – Mailchimp’s data scientist John Foreman teaches you advanced analysis with Excel, and introduces R in the last chapter. (You might remember him from the Wire of Data Analysis Blogs, Analytics Made Skeezy.)

Data Analysis with Open Source Tools – Philip Janert goes into visualization and analysis tools (all free and open source) in great detail in this O’Reilly book.

Data Mining Techniques for Sales, Marketing, and Customer Relationship Management – Exactly what the title suggests – a somewhat dry tour through data mining algorithms and applications for sales, marketing, and service.

Business Strategy 

Business strategy is a big topic.  Literally tens of thousands of business books have been written, espousing every possible view point, on just about every aspect of running a business.  While which books you find valuable will depend heavily on your vertical and business model, here are some of my favorites:

For Agency and Consulting Types

Managing the Professional Services Firm – Great book on business architecture for professional services firms, with lots of case studies. You’ll definitely learn some ways to improve your agency.

Million Dollar Consulting – More appropriate for solo consultants, Alan Weiss writes about how to create a multi-million dollar consulting business.  There’s some good tips on business management and marketing for solo practitioners in here.

For Everyone

Execution is the most powerful lever in business – lots of people have great strategic ideas, but only a few execute it.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done – Worthwhile book to learn to execute better, although the authors sometimes seem to think the reader is managing a business unit at GE, instead of a 5 person marketing group.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Another execution book, but this one is more applicable to smaller businesses. We started using this framework at BuzzStream recently, and it’s helped us stay on track and accountable.

From #SEOChat

Today in the weekly #SEOChat, we discussed strategies to keep current and up our game.  Here’s a storify of some of the suggestions:




Of course, you can read all the material in the world on marketing techniques, or you can execute one great campaign – you’ll guess where you learn more. Testing and working on projects, along with studying materials from others, are the best way to improve your skills.

What are you working on learning over your winter break? What are your favorite professional development resources?


  • John

    I’ve been looking for an article just like this to point me in the right direction for a career in digital marketing. I’ve recently decided that I need to learn more on coding and this read has given me some ideas to explore beyond that as well. Good stuff!

  • Wonderful, wonderful, wonderfully thorough post with so much to explore. Bookmarked and will be adding a new year’s resolution to grow my t-shaped marketing in 2014.

    Thank you, Matt!

  • All I can say is, well done sir!!!

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