How to Learn Digital Marketing for (almost) Free in 6 Months

in College

learn digital marketing

At the start of my senior fall of college, I realized that I lacked any valuable skills. The startup I had been working on had folded, and the experience showed me that I knew nothing about marketing (among many other things), so I decided that I’d try to get good at that before graduating.

Over the next few months, I spent most of my time learning everything that I could about digital marketing. Three months in, Justin Mares and I started Programming for Marketers. Four months in, I landed an internship with Zapier on their content team. And nine months after starting I was hired by Sumo to start their blog and lead their marketing.

I had a shallow understanding of content marketing going into this process, but I learned over 90% of it within those months. It was a whirlwind of knowledge acquisition that I’m not sure I’ve felt quite so intensely since then, and it’s led to all of the work that I’ve done in the last two years.

Since then, many readers, students and not, have reached out and asked about how they can learn digital marketing. It’s a field that’s been ravaged by spammy information and bad ebooks, and it’s difficult to know where to start and what’s worth learning. I’ve been giving out some form of this advice for the last two years, so I figured it would make sense to organize it and provide it here, for anyone motivated enough to follow it.

This is a system that you can use to teach yourself digital marketing in a few months, using mostly inexpensive resources and personal projects. I’d expect that anyone could take a gameplan like this and go from zero to hireable digital marketer in 6 months or less, so long as you work hard at it and don’t get too distracted.

Step 1: Pick Your Initial Focus (10 minutes)

Digital marketing comprises all the strategies you have available to try to get people to a website, get them to return, and get them to take an action.

We can call these three phases Acquisition, Retention, and Conversion. To be a good specialist digital marketer, you need to be good at one subset of one of those areas. To be a good generalist digital marketer, you need to be good with at least one strategy from each of the three pieces of the funnel.

When starting out, focus on being a generalist. You won’t know what you’re most interested in yet, so building up a general digital marketing skill set will help you hone in on the areas that excite you most. You’ll also be more hireable since a digital marketer who can wear a few different hats is much more useful than one who only knows how to do Instagram ads.

As for what those focuses are, we can break them down by category. Some of the focuses overlap, of course, and can be useful at multiple stages of the funnel.

Within Acquisition, you have:

  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Search Engine Marketing
  • Advertising
  • Social Media
  • Affiliate Marketing
  • Influencer Marketing
  • Viral Marketing
  • Publicity
  • Communities
  • Other Platforms

Within Retention, you have:

  • Email Marketing
  • Social Media
  • Community Building
  • Notifications
  • Retargeting

And within Conversion, you have:

  • Copywriting
  • Landing Page Design
  • Sales
  • Email Marketing
  • Retargeting

For getting started, you should pick one or two areas from each category to focus on, ideally within one of the typical “stacks” that you see from generalist digital marketers.

The Nat Stack

  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Other Communities
  • Email Marketing
  • Landing Page Design

The Ads Stack

  • Search / Social Ads
  • Retargeting
  • Landing Page Design

The Community Stack

  • Other Communities
  • Social Media
  • Community Building
  • Email Marketing

The Pyramid Scheme

  • Affiliate Marketing
  • Email Marketing
  • Landing Page Design

The Syndicator

  • Other Platforms
  • Email Marketing
  • Landing Page Design

Whatever stack you choose, it will always help to have some copywriting to complement it. If you don’t learn some copywriting, your effectiveness in all other areas will be hindered. But if you do, you’ll see your efforts multiplied by being an effective communicator.

So choose which stack you want to start out focusing on. And if you can’t decide yet, then feel free to move on to the next step first and then see which stack will fit the best with it.

Step 2: Build Your Sandbox (1-7 days)

You need a place to practice digital marketing, it’s the only way you’ll learn. Too many people spend all of their time reading blogs and books without implementing or testing what they’re studying, and as a result, learn nothing. Don’t be one of those people!

The best way to practice is to have a sandbox to bring your research back to. A place to apply what you’re learning. The sandbox should have a few criteria:

  1. Low-cost or free (aside from upstart equipment such as hosting)
  2. Low-stakes, so you’re not afraid to fail or show your work
  3. Public, so that you have to put your work out there in some manner

This gives you the freedom to test everything you’re learning without having to worry too much about the consequences of screwing up, while at the same time, getting you comfortable with putting your work out in the wild and being open to feedback.

As for what should your sandbox be, you have a few options. The easiest is to start a blog. That’s what this site was started as: a sandbox for learning content marketing, and it only became my full-time job on accident. A blog is a perfect sandbox for learning digital marketing since you can test almost all of the tactics on it, it’s low-cost, and you’ll improve your writing in the process.

If you do decide to go with a blog though, please, for all of our sakes, do not start a marketing blog. The Internet is littered with unhelpful marketing blogs by novice marketers. Starting one will be discouraging to you since it’ll be much harder to get traffic, and you’ll be writing about things you know nothing about, so please, don’t start a marketing blog.

Instead, write about something else you’re interested in. Some hobby you want to get better at, or some area of interest to you like psychology or history. Or write about current events. Or comedy. Whatever it is, just make it something you’re interested in and already know a bit about.

Obviously, your sandbox doesn’t have to be a blog, though. You could also start a lifestyle business, or find a local startup that will let you work on some of their marketing. I don’t recommend trying to start your own “big” startup as a way to learn marketing though; there will be too many other things to focus on.

If you are going to go more of the lifestyle business route, make your MVP the sandbox, and build it as quickly as possible. We made the Programming for Marketers landing page in a few days. That’s how long it should take you to get your initial sandbox setup.

Once you’ve found your sandbox, you can narrow down the stack you want to apply to it. As I mentioned in my Wiki Strategy article, it helps to be very focused in your growth channels, so if you said “social media” before, try picking just one social media channel to put most of your focus on. For ads, pick one platform (Facebook or Google) and focus on that. You can always expand your channels later, but if you try to do everything at once in the beginning, you’ll burn yourself out.

One warning: learning to advertise without someone else’s budget funding you will be expensive and frustrating. I would not recommend starting with learning ads unless you have a lot of money to burn, or are being funded by someone else. Try the “free” acquisition channels first.

Step 3: Initial Practice (2 weeks)

At this point, you should have your sandbox in place, and have a few channels you want to focus on learning how to use to get traffic, retention, and conversions to your sandbox.

Now you need to start trying to implement what you’ve learned. But you don’t want to do it willy nilly, so you need to pause here and go read Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares [my notes].

It should only take you an afternoon, and once you’re done, you’ll have a few things:

  1. A framework for setting and testing goals as you’re practicing
  2. A high-level understanding of the different areas of digital marketing
  3. Examples and ideas for further reading and experiments to try

We’re going to slightly modify their approach, though. The Bullseye Framework is an excellent tool for finding certain channels to try for your product, but it’s also useful for running experiments within a certain channel. For now, you want to stay focused on your stack, so you can use the Bullseye Framework to run certain experiments within those skills.

For example, let’s say you want to use Instagram as an acquisition strategy. You would go research all of the ways you can grow your Instagram and drive traffic from it, put them on a spreadsheet, rank the different ideas, then for the three that seem the best opportunities, design a small inexpensive test with a specific goal that spans over a week or two. At the end, check back and see how you did relative to your goal.

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You can get this spreadsheet in the free Learn Digital Marketing Bundle

This is just your initial test run, and since you’re just starting out, focus on your acquisition channel first. You can worry about conversion optimization later. Set up a basic email capture on your sandbox, then work on the way you want to get traffic to it.

You may be wondering exactly what to do for these initial tests, though, so I recommend finding someone else’s recipe and following it to a T. Don’t try to improvise right now, you’re still a novice, and following someone else’s plan will be extremely helpful.

Here are some of the best “recipes” for learning acquisition channels:

Pick the one you’re interested in and start following it, continuing to record and track the experiments in your spreadsheet as you go.

Alright, quick check-in. At this point you should have:

  1. Picked a few specific areas to focus on initially
  2. Built a sandbox to learn in
  3. Read Traction
  4. Started your marketing experiments spreadsheet
  5. Run your first few experiments

Did you do all of that? It’s important you do before moving on, because if you don’t, then you’ll waste a ton of time in the next section, falling prey to the infomania and artificial complexity traps that claim so many people.

Step 4: Research and Iterate (2 months / till you die)

Now that you’ve made it into the novice stage and started trying some initial experiments, it’s time to see what else you could be testing and experimenting with. The goal here is to keep expanding your understanding of the areas of marketing you want to get better at, and again, the only way to do that is to try to apply it yourself as you’re going.

Your process at this stage should be:

  1. Run a few marketing experiments (usually for ~1-2 weeks)
  2. If an experiment succeeds, turn it into a system and keep doing it
  3. If one fails, find another one to run

That third step is where the research comes in. For each of the areas you’re trying to improve at, you want to find experiments you can run with that skill in order to get better at it. To find those experiments, look for case studies. Don’t read guides or listicles if you can help it; case studies will be more informative. You want to see specifically what worked for someone else, then turn that into your own experiment you can test.

To make sure that you keep having new ideas for experiments, set aside one hour a day for research and reading. Spend this time reading blogs on marketing and writing down new ideas for tests you could run in your sandbox to augment your skills.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of great blogs on marketing, since most of it is spammy repackaged content. But here’s a solid list to get you started:

Blogs

You should also spend some of this time reading books that will help build your foundational layer: your ability to write good copy, understand human psychology, communicate effectively. Here’s a good starting list:

What you must be careful to avoid is spending all your time reading and thinking up new experiments and not spending enough of your time implementing and testing them. Many of these experiments will require iteration and patience, and it’ll be tempting to look around for quick wins instead. You’ll have to avoid that temptation and stick to the plan if you want to learn.

Eventually, as you get more comfortable with the skills, it may be helpful to try freelancing with them as well.

Step 5: Freelancing

This step isn’t strictly necessary, but spending some time freelancing can advance your skills considerably. When you’re trying to help another company or person do what you’ve done on your own, it’ll expose areas that you aren’t as familiar with, and can help you round out your understanding of the skill. And if you’re able to find someone you can freelance for who’s more skilled than you are, they can point out areas for you to improve that you might have missed on your own.

This was extremely helpful for me in the beginning for getting feedback on my content. By writing articles and content for Zapier and HubSpot, I could lean on their experience to get coaching and get paid for getting coaching! Freelancing is one of the only ways you can do that, assuming you find a good company or expert to work for.

You can find these jobs through UpWork, friends at other companies, or even by using the Recession Proof Graduate method from Charlie Hoehn. An in-depth guide to landing freelancing jobs is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s not as hard as you might think once you have some of this initial practice under your belt.

Step 6: Keep Expanding, Keep Experimenting

The basic cycle we’ve covered here will serve you well from Novice to Expert. Keep experimenting, testing your assumptions, and researching for new experiments to run. If you keep learning and testing this way, and keep being diligent about not letting yourself get lazy in your learning, you can easily land a digital marketing role at a company, or be able to market your own products in less than a year.

And if you want more on self-education, including how to make the jumps from Novice to Expert, how to self-educate, and how to practice more deliberately, be sure to get my free Learn Digital Marketing Bundle with all of the resources you need.

Best of luck!