Qualifying Internet Marketers: What Education Matters?

With Internet marketing still being a bit of a Wild West environment, I wondered, how does education figure into “making it” in the industry, how are people breaking into it now and is it feasible for colleges to teach this stuff?

Many of the people that make up Bruce Clay, Inc. have degrees in an array of things like math and computer science, business, marketing, communications, fine arts, aeronautical and astronautical engineering, and more. Still, others in our staff don’t have formal university degrees and are just as competent in their focus because they’re self-taught.

That actually brings to mind something Bill Gates said last summer at the Techonomy conference in California. An article by TechCrunch reported Gates thinks university education could be replaced by self-motivated learners in the future.

Harvard Gates, Fall #2

Gates said that five years from now, all the best lectures will be free on the Web and that it will be better than any university. Gates is a college dropout himself and a member in the billionaire drop-out club with others such as Sir Richard Branson, Ralph Lauren and Steve Jobs, to name a few.

As we all know, staying on top of the latest information and strategies in this industry takes a lot of initiative; every week is as rigorous as a college major in and of itself. Many of the industry’s leaders have been self-educated through trial and error and by immersing themselves in the profession 100 percent.

Breaking into Online Marketing Today

Companies are still trying to figure out how to qualify their applicants for positions like social media manager, SEO analyst or manager, online marketing manager and a slew of other new titles that have popped up in the past couple years.

Some people have already made a name for themselves by becoming leaders in an aspect on online marketing; there’s Bruce Clay on SEO, of course, people like Marty Weintraub on Facebook and Tim Ash on conversions, to name just a few. Most companies would probably understand they are experts in their field and well qualified to run their online strategy, whatever it may be.

But what about the people that aren’t national speakers or don’t own businesses of their own? What about those that haven’t yet built up credibility as the go-to pro? And doesn’t it also seem like everyone and their mother is a “social media strategist” or “Internet marketing expert” these days? So, how will we begin to accredit this?

A little research on open positions for social media and online marketing brought up job descriptions with all-over-the-board degree requirements in:

  • Business
  • Marketing
  • Journalism
  • Public relations
  • Mass communication
  • Technology

I did happen to find some management-type positions that did not require a degree of any sort. A host of questions flooded my mind:

  • Are the aforementioned degrees really the best qualifications for the job?
  • Are businesses just looking for any college degree to show some sort of self-discipline and accomplishment?
  • Is industry experience in Internet marketing the new college degree?

University Majors Transforming

I majored in communications at San Diego State University and was required to take an array of journalism, public relations and mass communications courses. It was drilled into our heads over and over that the gatekeepers of information were the traditional media. This was in the early to mid-2000s. There was no major focus on the online aspect. Social media was around but it really went as far as MySpace and even then, only the music industry was involved, business-wise.

I decided to get in touch with one of my former professors at SDSU, Dr. Bey-Ling Sha, to ask her a few questions about how the curriculum has changed to meet the growing demand for professionals who know how to market online, and also how it has changed the way we look at traditional media.

Me: Has the communications major shifted focus to teach more about the social media and online phenomenon that is occurring?
Dr. Sha: First, you should understand the School of Journalism and Media Studies separated from the School of Communication in 2007. JMS majors now graduate with B.A. in journalism, not communication. So, my responses pertain only to majors in journalism, media studies, advertising and public relations; not to the communication studies major. Yes, of course, we’ve included social and digital media in all aspects of the curriculum.

Me: What year did it make this shift?
Dr. Sha: Definitely by 2007.

Me: How does the major integrate it into its curriculum?
Dr. Sha: Each class does it differently. In JMS 481, which is Public Relations Media & Methods, we integrate social media with traditional public relations tactics and tools.

Me: Do you expect the curriculum to be rapidly changing every semester to keep up?
Dr. Sha: No. we can’t keep changing the curriculum, per se. Plus, the official curriculum change process takes at least a year. The fastest way to incorporate social and digital media is for individual classes to make the changes within the confines of the existing course descriptions.

Me: How has it changed the way the school sees mass communication? For example, when I was in the major, the traditional media were still positioned as the gatekeepers.
Dr. Sha: Mass communication is still there, and traditional media are not going way. They are just changing. Traditional news media are still gatekeepers in many ways, although there is some evidence that new media are agenda-builders for certain segments of traditional media.

I wanted to see if other universities were adapting quickly to this new online profession. A quick search for online marketing-type degrees at accredited four-year universities pulled up several majors in information science, marketing and other traditional degrees that alluded to the fact that there might be an online focus, but it was a bit fuzzy. I did find one college, Maryville University in St. Louis, offering a Bachelor of Science in Internet marketing (Is it bad that I chuckled at the school’s degree title, “Internet Marketing B.S.”?)

But if my conversation with Dr. Sha was any indication, the ability to change curriculum within a university system may be too bureaucratic of a process for it to stay up-to-date with the changing industry.

The Future of Qualification

As with many new professions, it’s a struggle to reach the point where it becomes a truly recognized professional focus. Oftentimes, it takes a university or some sort of third-party accreditation to make it so.

An example of this is the public relations profession. For years, it was also a Wild West type profession similar to Internet marketing. It got to the point where companies knew they needed it, but there wasn’t formal education or accreditation available for the professional they were hiring. Now, there’s college degrees from a multitude of universities, and post-graduate certifications from professional organizations like the Public Relations Society of America.

For now in the Internet marketing industry, we have options like Bruce Clay’s SEO training, which transfers up-to-date knowledge from expert to public. But, I am curious to find out how the industry will continue to evolve, what educational requirements businesses will have of its Internet marketers in the future and how we will begin to accredit the practice.

So, my questions to all of you are:

  • What sort of requirements, educational or not, does your business look for to show ability in Internet marketing, whether it’s for a staff position, mid-senior role or executive-level leadership?
  • As a professional, have you found that a degree, experience or initiative has weighed more heavily in furthering your career in some aspect Internet marketing?
  • If you were to go (back) to school for a degree to further you career in some aspect of Internet marketing, what major would you choose?
  • If you decided to pursue a non-university education to further your career in Internet marketing, what would you do?
  • Do you suggest we begin to accredit the concentrations within Internet marketing? If so, how?

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

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9 Replies to “Qualifying Internet Marketers: What Education Matters?”

This educational marketing information is really helpful. As people are more aware this year about their business so they need some internet marketing knowledge. So this blog is helpful for each and every person.

Hi Jessica!
what you learn in college or university is just to make you synchronized to the related field and to indulge you in the environment of a specific field.but skill development and learning in true manner happens when you are exposed to the market.i have seen people with no professional degree but they are simply master in their field and also the people with professional degrees but having no idea where to go..
it is an interesting and controversial topic really enjoyed it..

Hellooooo there! I agree, I’ve seen both, too. Glad you enjoyed this topic and thank you for your insight!

I’ve wrestled with the “worthlessness” of my degrees. I have a B.A. in Psychology and now a general MBA.

Yet – everything I do in my professional life was strictly through self teaching during my years being self-employed.

The MBA taught me a lot as far as general business, the importance of measurement, etc.

I was actually starting to learn that on my own right before enrolling in the program though…

Ha..it’s all just a crapshoot in the end. A long time ago sometime just told me to “follow my gut” and figure out the rest later.

Hi Dave, thanks for joining the conversation. I, too, have wrestled with the value of the degree as I ponder whether or not to go to grad school. I wonder if it would ultimately make a difference or just put me in more debt.

Like you said, on-the-job experience is an education within itself. No amount of university education can prepare you for the countless scenarios you encounter every day in the workforce that help to refine you as a professional.


Hi Jessica,

I think this is an incredibly subjective question. I would definitely agree with Cathy – a degree does show the ability to “finish” and may even set a solid learning foundation, but many of the listed ones in your article have little use in the Internet marketing industry.

I have been in the PPC industry for a little over 4 years and my degree has had 0 bearing on my success of landing a position. Rather, my experience and what I have accomplished has paved the way to growth.

With that said, I do feel becoming certified through trusted agencies, such as Google, can facilitate the process of landing the job you want. If any degree is more important to my industry (PPC) I would lean towards a concentration in math – due to the analytical side of it. My degree in marketing has rendered itself all but useless, save for a few classes here and there.

The fact that this industry changes so rapidly, it is incredibly difficult for traditional education to keep up. I have, however, seen schools such as University of San Francisco offering fairly exhaustive certificates.

Hi, Matt! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree, it’s so subjective. I feel like a college education works to round you as a person, helps you to think critically and ultimately prepares you for the real world because you become used to juggling projects, meeting deadlines and so on.

But I know plenty of people that are extremely sharp and well-rounded that never went to college. In this age, self-motivated people, especially in the technology industry, can be wildly successful.

I think it also depends on if you’re working for an Internet marketing agency or some other organization in our industry versus working in-house at a corporation. Many businesses outside the industry still look for degrees as a qualification.

I think a degree indicates that you can show up and learn something, which is important in a job. But as for applicable skills and knowledge? I think a four-year program is almost worthless. What you learn in class is guaranteed to be at least 5 years behind what’s happening in the industry. In 2008 my journalism program was still teaching kids how to physically set type.

Hi Cathy, thanks for your comment. It’s not only in Internet marketing that four-year degrees are sometimes rendered useless. I mean look at all the people with really obscure college degrees that end up waiting tables or doing something completely opposite of what they studied. Interesting you say that school is five years behind the times — I never knew that, but can see how that would happen.


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