Nearly four years on from the 2008 financial crisis, the twin spectres of recession and unemployment still hang over many sectors of the UK economy. Yet amidst the doom and gloom the digital marketing industry shines like a beacon in the fog, constantly bucking downward trends seen in other sectors. The last few years have seen more and more marketing spend move to online channels, leading to expansion and job growth throughout the industry.
Mind the Gap
But not all is rosy in digital world, at least according to stark warnings from the highest echelons of government and business. A recent study by the European Commission has highlighted worrying shortcomings in the skillsets of many school leavers and graduates, leaving many unable to fill job vacancies created by the explosive growth of the digital industries.
In the UK, debates about teaching computer programming in schools and improving digital literacy across the board have dominated education secretary Michael Gove’s agenda in the first quarter of 2012. Many champions of industry have also spoken of their concern about the “digital skills gap”, including Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, who has been highly critical about the way IT skills are taught in UK schools.
I Blog, Therefore I Am
Here at LBi bigmouthmedia, we’ve been at the forefront of digital growth in the last few years, creating dozens of jobs both in the UK and abroad. As anybody involved in the recruitment journey here will be able to attest, bigmouths come from all sorts of different backgrounds and bring many diverse skillsets together into the big digital melting pot, allowing us to constantly raise the bar for innovation.
For every bigmouth who studied a university subject closely tailored to a position in the digital marketing industry, there’s at least as many – myself included – who earned their chops by setting up their own websites, communities and blogs and learning how they work by constantly tinkering, experimenting and improving.
Blogging isn’t so much an interest as it is a way of life for many bigmouths. Within the company, we’ve got specialists writing about photography, football, politics, food, drink, crafting and every subject in between in their spare time. For many of us though, blogging isn’t just a creative outlet or a way to indulge our interests, it’s an opportunity to experiment and test out new ideas that arise from our professional lives in a relatively risk-free environment.
Learning for the Jilted Generation
Returning for a moment to the issue of the digital skills gap, attention seems to fall primarily on the perceived failure of the education system to impart core digital skills to students. While this is extremely worrying if true, it overlooks an entire generation of self-thought, self-made digerati. Away from formal state education systems, self-learning has exploded in a way perhaps never seen before thanks to the accessibility and immediacy of that great leveller, the internet.
Of course, not everyone is necessarily interested in, or cut out, for coding so let’s not forget the “soft skills”, which is where blogging comes into play once more. Free services such as Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr allow aspiring writers to hone their skills without getting bogged down in the technical nitty gritty, while the wide availability of cheap web hosting and free Content Management Systems are a gateway to a much, much wider digital world.
Digital Skills to Pay the Bills
Let’s take a moment to consider a few of the wide variety of disciplines that come together in digital marketing and how blogging – and the act of running a blog – can act as an entry point to each.
SEO – Many budding SEOs first cut their teeth tinkering with the CMS for their blogging platform of choice. One of the first decisions required after a fresh WordPress install is how to set up permalink structure and taxonomy on site, prompting bloggers to consider URL structures while more advanced options allow experimentation with robots.txt files. SEO plugins hint at the importance of titles, header use and keyword density while theme design and widget implementation can be seen to have a demonstrable impact on user behaviour on site.
Social Media – Social media is all about community and being a blogger is almost invariably to be a part of a wider community. Understanding what makes bloggers and niche communities tick (and, of course, what ticks them off) is fundamental to any successful social media or blogger outreach campaign and these are skills best learned by getting hands on with the medium. Successfully using social media channels like Twitter and Facebook to build a readership is another invaluable skill, and one with many real world applications in digital marketing.
Data Analysis – Google Analytics is widely acknowledged as the world’s most popular web analytics software and, best of all, it’s free and extremely easy to install. Digging into how visitors enter your blog, why they leave and what they do while there can offer invaluable insights that help to enhance content and improve site structure. Paired up with Google Docs, which can now be rolled into almost any website in just a few clicks, even the amateur analyst has one of the most powerful tools available in their hands. For the truly dedicated, Google offers a professional certificate, the Google Analytics Individual Qualification, which can act as a springboard to greater professional development.
Link Building – Recent Google algorithm changes, such as Panda and its successors, have made links from high quality blogs more valuable to external optimisation efforts than ever before. As with social media, sending the right quality signals to search engines via link building in the modern era is all about understanding how niche communities operate and how to harness the opportunities they present. On a more technical level, fundamental skills such as anchor text optimisation, contextual linking and promoting content through social media and community channels are often best learned by getting hands-on with blogging.
Closing the Gap
While self-tutorial methods are a valid way of picking up core digital skills, successful self-learning requires significant motivation on the part of the individual and often a certain level of foundation skills to build on, which are usually best imparted in a formal educational environment. Improving the digital curriculum in schools is fundamental not only to making core skills more accessible to everyone – thus helping to close the skills gap – but in helping narrow the “digital divide” in society in general. There’s still a notable disparity between disadvantaged and privileged areas when it comes to getting online in the first place and until these barriers are torn down, a section of the population will remain at arm’s length from the ever-expanding digital world.
More also needs to be done to address the disconnect between how quickly the internet changes and evolves and the comparatively glacial pace of undertaking curriculum change. While the fundamentals of coding remain largely the same form year to year, the same is not true of other disciplines. In the last few years we’ve seen the SEO rulebook re-written again and again; by the time the National Curriculum was reviewed, changed, approved and finally rolled out to students, any material relating to search marketing would almost certainly be hopelessly out of date.
Through working with the digital industries and taking advantage of the huge volume of community-developed and tested learning materials available, the government can introduce positive changes that will help school leavers and third-level graduates enter the workplace at a much higher skill level than many do currently. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that digital nirvana will be achieved over night, but the fact that we’re even talking about our shortcomings is at least an encouraging sign that the problem is being addressed.