start a digital marketing career

How to Start a Career in Digital Marketing (7 Steps)

Si Quan Ong
Content marketer @ Ahrefs. I've been in digital marketing for the past 6 years and have spoken at some of the industry’s largest conferences in Asia (TIECon and Digital Marketing Skill Share.) I also write about my curiosities on my Substack.
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Looking to grab a piece of the digital marketing pie? This guide is for you.

I don’t have a degree in marketing—only one in psychology. Yet, I’ve been working in digital marketing for the past five years.

That’s the beauty of this industry. You don’t need to be certified to work as a digital marketer. There are no gatekeepers.

But you’ll need to acquire both digital marketing skills and practical experience.

That’s where this guide comes in. I’ll show you how to grow your knowledge, plus walk you through the different stages you might go through in your path to become a professional digital marketer.

Kickstart your career in digital marketing in these seven steps:

  1. Create your own website
  2. Choose one digital marketing channel to focus on
  3. Learn more about your chosen digital marketing channel
  4. Execute on what you’re learning
  5. Familiarize yourself with free digital marketing tools
  6. Apply for a job in marketing
  7. Furthering your career

While you may not need any certifications to get a job in digital marketing, it doesn’t mean companies will just hire you for a position right off the bat.

You’ll need to first:

  1. Build your skills in digital marketing;
  2. Demonstrate that you possess those skills.

The best way to do this is to create your own website.

By building your own website, you’re creating a lab where you can test and learn different marketing strategies. All without worrying about hurting someone else’s site.

Not only that, what else can demonstrate your skills better than showing that you’ve actually grown something from scratch?

For example, when I first started out in digital marketing, my friends and I created a website about our hobby: breakdancing.

I’ll be honest—the website was ugly. But it gave me a chance to practice things like content marketing, email marketing, outreach and more. The site, though eventually unsuccessful, was pivotal in helping me acquire tons of practical experience.

There’s no need to overthink this. The key is to just start and get practicing. Choose a niche you’re interested in and create a site using WordPress. Don’t fret about things like logos or monetization strategy.

If you’re not sure how to set up a WordPress website, just do a quick Google search. You’ll find tons of tutorials.

There are a lot of digital marketing channels. The book Traction lists 19 of them, including:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Content marketing
  • Email marketing
  • Social and display ads

Since you’re running your website alone, it would be impossible in terms of time, effort and resources to execute on every marketing channel. Instead, we recommend focusing on just one area of digital marketing.

But which channel should you choose? Let’s look at the pros and cons of three popular channels.

Online advertising

This involves buying ads on platforms like Google, Facebook, and Instagram. Generally speaking, this strategy is great for getting traffic to your site fast.

However, if you’re a complete beginner, this channel may be on the risky side. Managing online ads is not simply a matter of turning it on and letting the traffic flow. You’ll still need some knowledge and experience so you don’t end up losing all your money.

So if you’re able to set aside some budget to test and learn this channel, go ahead. Otherwise, it might not be the one for you.

Social media marketing

This involves building a following on social media and driving traffic from these platforms. You should be familiar with them. Plus, since it’s free to post content, experimentation is easy.

This could be an ideal channel to start with.

However, bear in mind that social media marketing is not just casually posting something on your Instagram every few days. Each platform is akin to its own country. To do well, you’ll have to understand the “culture”—what makes it tick, what users want to see, the types of content that perform, and so on.

Search engine optimization (SEO)

SEO is the practice of optimizing pages to rank high in search engines like Google.

The great thing is that once you’re ranking, you’ll be getting free, passive, and consistent traffic from search engines.

However, the downside is that it takes a lot longer for it to work. You’ll need patience to see results. But it is rewarding.

Not sure which channel to choose?

Start with SEO. Yes, of course we’re biased. But we’d still recommend it based on a few reasons:

To do this, search for “[your chosen area] beginner’s guide” on Google.

Look for a guide that’s detailed, explains things well, and was updated recently. The last part is particularly important because digital marketing is a fast-paced industry.

The guide will also serve as a jumping-off point for discovering more subtopics you can learn about.

If you’ve decided to focus on SEO, then I’d recommend watching our video on SEO for beginners:

This should give you a nice foundation on the basics of SEO.

From there, if you’d like to explore more about SEO, then I’d recommend going through these resources:

If you want to do a muscle-up, it doesn’t matter how many YouTube tutorials you watch. You still have to find a bar and practice.

The same goes for digital marketing.

Don’t just consume content. All that leads to is analysis paralysis—overthinking and yet not doing anything. Trust me, I’ve been there.

When you’ve learned something, you have to get down, dirty and execute. That’s why you created your own website.

For SEO, that means focusing on the fundamentals like keyword research, creating content and building links. Those three things alone can move the needle for your site more than anything else.

Since you’re just starting out, it’ll be tough to pay for premium marketing tools.

Don’t worry though—there are plenty of free ones around. Here are some you should get acquainted with:

  • Google Analytics. See data like the number of people visiting your site, which pages they go to, how long they stay, and hundreds of other actionable metrics. Learn how to use it in this guide.
  • Google Search Console (GSC). See which pages are indexed in Google, the keywords your site ranks for, and the websites that link to you. This guide will teach you how to use GSC optimally.
  • Ahrefs Webmaster Tools (AWT). See your website’s backlinks and keyword rankings, plus scan your site for common SEO issues that could be hurting its performance.
  • ConvertKit. An email marketing tool. Their free plan lets you manage up to 1,000 subscribers.
  • Buffer. Free social media scheduling tool. Automates the process of posting content.

With your newfound skills, it’s time to hit the job boards.

What you’re looking for is an internship or entry-level position. This could be a role at a digital marketing agency or an in-house position. For example, I started as a marketing intern at a wearable tech startup. I later converted the opportunity into a full-time role.

However, even for these positions, competition is fierce. So, you’ll need a way to stand out from the crowd.

Here are some ideas:

Briefcase Technique

This is a job interview tactic coined by Ramit Sethi, a New York Times bestselling author. Basically, you:

  1. Research the company you’re applying for;
  2. Find out their biggest digital marketing problems;
  3. Create solutions to fix them.

Learn more about the technique here:


Sociologists have found that most non-visible, high-compensation jobs are not found via your closest friends. Instead, they’re found from weak ties, i.e., casual acquaintances or people who have the same school or cultural background.

This is the reason why you should always be networking.

First, find one or a few people you admire in digital marketing. Then follow this three-part strategy:

  • Consume all the content the person has produced. If you enjoyed or learned from any particular piece, share them on social media and tag the person. You can also send an email to say thank you or offer a compliment;
  • Give them a platform that can promote their work. Interview them for an article, podcast, video, etc. This doesn’t have to be your own site; it can be for another. But then again, don’t be discouraged even if you have a small website. Some people would be more than happy to help.
  • Find out what project they’re currently working on. This could be obvious from their social or you could ask them. Then, figure out how you can help them reach their goals.

Want proof that it works? Well, this is actually how I got my job at Ahrefs.

I started by consuming all the content on the Ahrefs blog. Then I shared them on my Twitter.

I also regularly promoted these articles on GrowthHackers, without anyone from the team asking:

Later on, I reached out to Tim and interviewed him for a guest article on LeadFeeder. In the process, I discovered that he was working on the launch of Blogging for Business.

So, I helped:

  • I took the beta course and offered my feedback. I even gave a testimonial;
  • I promoted the course everywhere—Slack communities, Facebook groups, etc.
  • I connected Tim with people with audiences so he could promote the course.

Most importantly, I did everything for free and asked for nothing in return. And well, as they say, the rest is history.

Work in public

Having been in the industry for a while, I’ve seen many marketers pop out of nowhere and start gaining traction and influence. What they did was simple—they started sharing what they were learning in public.

Austin Kleon writes in Show Your Work:

Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share.

Don’t be afraid to share what you’re working on. Show your success and failures. Not only will this attract marketers and build your network, it’ll also grow your personal brand.

Marketing yourself

Nina Mufleh wanted to work at Airbnb. However, applying for job postings wasn’t working out for her. So, she created a resume that showcased her knowledge about Airbnb, the travel industry, and the opportunities they were missing out on.

She then tweeted this at the CEO and CMO of Airbnb, got their attention and landed an interview.

The resume also went viral and caught the attention of Uber and LinkedIn.

How can you prove you have marketing chops? Do what Nina did—get creative, market yourself and catch the attention of the companies you want to work for.

After a few years in digital marketing, you can begin to look at different options on how to further your career.

While discussing the entire career development process is out of scope for this article, let’s look at some potential future opportunities.

Staying in-house

Generally speaking, this is the most typical route. Despite what people want you to believe in, there’s no shame in being an employee. Not everyone can go out and become a successful entrepreneur.

Now, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t necessarily give up on your own sites. Good companies will encourage you to spend time on your side projects to improve your craft.

These are usually the types of people you want to work for because they’ll challenge you to become masters of your work.


Freelancing is a great way to get more hands-on experience while increasing your income. If you’re a few years into your career, then there’s a good chance that you already have some freelance work lined up for you.

Even if you are not getting referrals or inbound requests, don’t worry. You can always apply for jobs on sites like Upwork, ProBlogger, etc.

Recommended reading: How to Become an SEO Freelancer - Lessons Learned from 10+ Years in the Industry

Starting your own agency

Many people who are good at digital marketing eventually go on to start their own agency. The good thing about starting your own agency is:

  • You can work with a lot of clients at the same time, since you’ll have teams to manage client accounts.
  • You’ll also be able to provide more services, as your team will be diversified.
  • Being a one-stop shop allows you to maximize your earnings potential on upsells.

However, starting an agency means hiring a team. This can be costly (salaries, office space, etc.). You’ll also have to acquire non-digital marketing skills—hiring, sales, accounting, etc.

It is also likely that you’ll have to do both the strategy and execution before you hit scale.


If you’re:

  1. Interested in doing work on your own;
  2. But not interested in setting up an agency

Then independent consulting might be a potential route.

Sam—our YouTube guy—was a digital marketing consultant before working full-time at Ahrefs. In his experience, consulting has a better net margin than an agency. Hourly rates also typically range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

However, you’ll be limited in the number of clients you can take. Reason: businesses generally hire consultants because they specialize in a particular area.

So, while you may hire a small team to handle the systematized parts of your business, clients are ultimately hiring you for your expertise. Naturally, this limits your ability to get a lot of clients.

Build more websites

Many digital marketers prefer this route as it allows them to practice while earning additional income on the side. A popular choice, especially for SEOs, is to build an affiliate website.

Learn more about affiliate marketing in this blog post or watch this video:

Final thoughts

Regardless which route you choose, to master digital marketing, there are two things you should always be doing.

First, learning. Marketing is a constantly evolving field. You’ll have to be constantly learning, applying, testing and refining. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch videos and follow thought leaders online.

Second, networking. Not only will networking expose you to future career opportunities, it also helps to meet people who have new and different ideas from yourself. This can open your perspective and help you excel further in your career. After all, you can never have all the answers yourself.

Looking for a recap? Watch this video:

Did I miss out on anything that’s important to starting a career in digital marketing? Let me know on Twitter.

Article Performance
Data from Ahrefs
  • Organic traffic
  • Linking websites

The number of websites linking to this post.

This post's estimated monthly organic search traffic.