For anyone pursuing an MBA just a few years ago, the topic of digital marketing might have consumed a single paragraph in their marketing textbook. The reasoning at the time was, “Why would you need a website, when you have TV?”

Fast-forward to today, and digital marketing is an entire specialization within the marketing organization, with multiple niche specializations, including analytics, mobile, content marketing, social media, email marketing, SEO and digital advertising. According to Forrester Research, U.S. digital marketing spend will be close to $120 billion by 2021.

Amid this dramatic shift, businesses have been unable to keep up with the talent and skills required to develop a strong digital marketing competency. The skills gap documented a couple of years ago by Online Marketing Institute and others shows no sign of diminishing.  While the dearth of highly skilled professionals exists across all the digital marketing specializations, we see the widest gap in three areas: 

  • Data and analytics. Great marketing starts with data, not Facebook posts. Strong marketing research helps businesses know their demographics and target their audience, resulting in more successful campaigns. Bottom line: Marketing campaigns go well when the user research goes well.
  • Digital advertising. With more content vying for consumers’ time, and recent changes in Facebook’s News Feed policies, the days of organic reach are over, and paid targeted advertising is on the rise.
  • The ability to adjust and adapt. Digital marketing produces lots of data. It’s incumbent on marketers to measure what happens following a campaign and prioritize work based on those findings. With fast-shifting dynamics, marketers also need the ability to quickly assess and adapt to changes in the marketing world.

Winning the Talent Race

Based on our experience, we see a few ways that businesses can refresh their approach and ensure they have the marketing talent needed to propel themselves  into the digital future.

  • Don’t over-emphasize years of experience. We often hear companies say they’d like to hire digital marketing professionals with 10 or 15 years of experience. And yet, the average time in the industry that we see among professionals in the field is three to five years. This is a young and emerging field, and it’s not years of experience that matters but finding someone who’s worked with digital marketing tools and techniques on actual campaigns and can point to tangible results.
  • Plan to upskill: With so few candidates, businesses would do well to look to their current marketing organization, conduct a skills assessment and incorporate upskilling goals into employees’ performance assessments. Training resources include on-demand classes, customized e-learning programs, in-person workshops and certifications. There’s an AdWords certification from Google, and plentiful SEO, content marketing and social media marketing certifications, among others. Organizations like HubSpot offer free courses, while others, like Digital Marketing Institute, have a wide range of paid offerings. Harvard, Stanford and other top business schools, meanwhile, offer executive programs in digital marketing.
  • Don’t expect one person to cover all the bases. Digital marketing is a broad field with many specialties. So while it may be possible to find someone who’s strong in two or three areas, there’s no use conducting a long search for a candidate who’s “got it all.” Businesses need to build a team with a range of competencies that cover analytics, technology, strategy and creative talent. If resources are thin, consider hiring multiple part-timers or contractors to cover a range of needed proficiencies.
  • Look to the digital natives. Businesses may prefer hiring people with hands-on implementation experience; however, at least one study shows a discrepancy between experienced candidates (39%) and those with academic qualifications (62%). Rather than conduct a prolonged search for someone who’s spent time in the field, marketers may find value in new digital-native graduates who may not have the skills but are intuitive about current technologies and trends, and can pass along their knowledge. Following this philosophy, many businesses offer digital marketing internships to attract and identify young talent and give them hands-on experience. Since many young graduates may prefer a digital marketing agency or start-up to an industry stalwart, traditional organizations need to create an environment within their marketing organization that will be attractive to this type of talent and change the way they project their image to these potential workers.
  • Don’t leave hiring to HR: From augmented reality-based experiences to the growth in video advertising, digital marketing trends are fast-changing. Non-marketing recruiters or HR departments may not have the most up-to-date knowledge or know what to look for. Cross-functional teams, combining technology and marketing skills, may be in the best position to identify the best candidates.

According to Forrester, investments in paid search, display advertising, social media advertising, online video advertising and e-mail marketing will account for 46% of all advertising in five years. With the inexorable move to digital marketing, it’s incumbent on businesses to get their talent strategies in line with the future.

Sripriya Kalyanasundaram

Sripriya Kalyanasundaram

Priya is Global Delivery Lead for Cognizant Interactive. She has over 20 years of experience in technology services spanning multiple industry verticals.... Read more