Filling the Digital Marketing Skills Gap

Digital marketing remains a priority for US-based marketers in 2022, according to a recent CMO survey. Investments in digital marketing have increased across the board, with data analytics being the most popular investment area. These data-related investments show how companies continue to invest in capabilities to analyze, store/manage and automate their data.

As companies continue to build their digital marketing infrastructure, the skills and knowledge needed to operate them are falling behind. Marketing technologies and social media platforms continue to deliver new features and marketers need to keep up. Recent search conducted by the UK-based Chartered Institute of Marketing, reveals that marketers’ abilities in key digital skills have either stagnated or declined between 2020 and 2021 at all seniority levels. Content and social media marketing saw significant declines from the prior year; while skills such as e-commerce, digital strategy, online advertising and usability remained stagnant.

The role of marketing has become increasingly technical and data driven. While traditional marketing skills focused on positioning, communications, and creativity remain relevant, employers are increasingly looking for professionals who can code, understand analytics, and know how to use technology. The marketing skill set sought is a combination of qualitative, quantitative and technical skills.

Companies are exploring different ways to ensure their talent has the right mix of marketing skills. Consumer goods company, Unilever, has invested in upskilling marketers around digital and other “future-looking” skills. “The complexity of working with many different e-commerce businesses across pure play and omnichannel requires real expertise from our teams,” said Connie Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital and Marketing Officer at WARC. Unilever offers internal training programs, including its Flex Experience program which allows employees to spend up to 20% of their time in a different role. Other examples include marketers collaborating with outside agencies to learn new skills.

Universities are also taking note. Despite continuous efforts by colleges and universities to update their marketing programs, a Digital Marketing Institute 2016 Report highlighted the role of universities in contributing to the digital marketing skills gap. Several studies have argued for a reform of marketing curricula that incorporates a digital-first approach. According to a 2019 review of digital marketing course offerings at US-based AACSB-accredited business schools, the majority of marketing departments offer at least some training in digital marketing. At the same time, many have yet to offer a plethora of digital marketing electives that could allow students to explore and learn about the subject with greater depth and breadth.

And then there are technology platforms that offer certification training for their products. Google Ads and Google Analytics certifications are popular, especially with the dominance of the Google search engine. Meta also provides certification with Meta products in skills such as media buying, creative strategy, and community management, among others. “Entry- and mid-career professionals are looking to develop practical skills in digital marketing. It’s not just about knowing the tools, but about applying them in specific contexts and projects. With this in mind, we design our courses to be both qualitative and tool-based,” says Anke Audenaert, CEO and co-founder of Aptly, an online education production company specializing in digital marketing education.

Digital marketing will only accelerate as customers spend more time and resources on digital channels such as websites, mobile apps, and other digital channels. Unlike traditional marketing techniques, digital marketing is data and analytics driven, personalization driven, interactive and iterative. This requires developing new skills dependent on technological products, which requires constant updating. Closing this digital marketing skills gap requires an experimental approach and the recognition that retraining, upskilling, and new skills opportunities will come from a combination of new and traditional education service providers.

William L. Hart