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Leadership

3 Key Digital Marketing Skills Students Don't Learn In College

Many schools need to update their marketing curricula. If they don't, students will be the ones to lose out.

[Photo: Flickr user Nic McPhee]

If you’ve interviewed marketing candidates straight out of college, you’ve likely noticed a surprising trend. These rising young professionals may be sharp, thoughtful digital natives—but all too often, they don’t have the online marketing skills required in today’s marketplace. The reason? University marketing departments are behind the curve.

The center of gravity for much of the marketing world has moved online. In my firm’s area of specialty, professional services, the landscape has changed quickly from one of brochures and direct mail to online content marketing and social media campaigns. In a study of more than 1,000 professional services purchasers, we found that more than 80% of buyers look to a firm’s website to check them out, making websites the most commonly used resource for initial purchasing evaluations.

Most businesses recognize that the rules are different than they were only a handful of years ago. But it’s increasingly clear that colleges haven’t caught up with the rapid pace of transformation online, and students are paying the price.

What Students Learn—And What They Lack

Typically, university marketing programs offer courses in topics like marketing analytics, quantitative analysis, marketing research techniques, and marketing management. These are useful skills, but they often haven’t been recontextualized for a fast-moving world of digital marketing.

But the most serious problem lies in the topics students don’t cover at length—or at all. The list is long: Content marketing, search engine optimization, social media, marketing software skills (think CRMs, content management systems, and marketing automation), online lead generation strategies, and more. All of these skills have at least one thing in common: they’re the bread and butter of successful digital marketing programs. But they are chronically under-taught in universities.

For marketing students to succeed in the industry, they will need (at minimum) training in three key areas.

1. Content Marketing And SEO

Closing business used to be a matter of the hard sell, but this is no longer the case. Consumers today have become more skeptical of direct pitches. Instead, they’re seeking out firms that have demonstrated their expertise, can educate them, and that can help address their challenges.

As they seek out such firms, buyers are searching online, and the businesses that rank highly in search engines enjoy a marked advantage. Search engine optimization (SEO) isn’t new, but the discipline has undergone fundamental changes in the span of only a few years.

Google makes over 500 algorithmic updates annually, and SEO tactics that worked just a few years ago—some "black hat" and some relatively innocuous—can result in a penalty on your website or a significant drop in rankings. Add to magnitude of how SEO can affect a business’s website, LinkedIn recently ranked SEO as the fifth most valuable professional skill of 2014.

It is crucial that students learn how businesses use educational content to demonstrate expertise and educate prospects, projecting their knowledge and problem-solving approach over a variety of modern marketing channels. This encompasses everything from writing engaging blogs to utilizing online video.

Similarly, students must know how to optimize that content for visibility in search engines according to up-to-date best practices. SEO is just one area where out-of-date information could cause a student to put their future firm’s marketing program at risk.

2. Social Media

Many college students today are already social media mavens, using a variety of platforms regularly in their personal lives. This doesn’t necessarily translate to fluency in social media for business, however. In the marketing industry, social media is a way to promote content, showcase a firm’s culture and brand, connect with prospects and industry influencers, demonstrate expertise, and more. But by all indications, most university marketing programs are failing to explore these topics.

Students seeking marketing jobs have to understand how to use social media to generate website referral traffic and increase firm visibility, and how social media relates to being found in search engines. Their knowledge has to go beyond everyday use—they need to know the ins-and-outs of LinkedIn Groups, Google+ Communities, social advertising, and other features. For many schools, this will mean getting serious about their approach to social media-–and changing social media programs when the industry evolves.

3. Lead Nurturing And Technical Skills

With the decreased effectiveness of the hard sell has come an increased emphasis on nurturing leads through the sales funnel. This complex process is driven in large part by online content designed to address the needs and interests of potential clients at every stage of the sales process.

To be strong job candidates, students need to understand how the lead nurturing model works, and how different types of content such as blogs, ebooks, and webinars serve different audience needs.

Additionally, students should be familiar with the most common types of software that drive a modern digital marketing program. Many firms today require jobseekers to have experience with specific software—teaching some of these tools in-depth would give students a serious advantage. Important types of marketing software include:

  • Email marketing software
  • Social media management software and analytics
  • Google Analytics and Adwords
  • Customer relationship management (CRM) software
  • Content management systems (CMS)

While internships may supply some students with experience in some of these technologies, not every student can manage or afford such internships—and technology is an ideal topic for in-depth examination in the classroom.

Keeping Current

Ultimately, in order to serve students most successfully, many university marketing programs will have to examine how they might better keep pace with the industry itself. This might mean exploring professional partnerships with major educational organizations within the industry. On a smaller scale, it might mean reaching out to local employers and discussing the skills they require from jobseekers.

Regardless of the strategy, it’s clear that many schools need to update their marketing curricula. As they continue to fall behind, students will be the ones to lose out.

Lee W. Frederiksen, Ph.D., is Managing Partner at Hinge, a marketing firm that specializes in branding and marketing for professional services. Hinge is a leader in rebranding firms to help them grow faster and maximize value.