Technical skills are more useful than ever for digital marketers. As the web continues to mature, the value of having a strong technical background is only going to increase.
At the same time, determining which skills to spend time learning can be quite overwhelming.
My goal for this post is to help you identify which tech skills to invest time into depending on your area of focus in digital marketing.
While not every marketing specialty requires you to be technical, I truly believe every digital marketer could benefit from expanding their skill set.
I will also link to what I believe are the best free resources for getting started with each skill.
What is Your Goal?
Before deciding which skills to learn, I recommend taking some time to define what your goal is. Then you can reverse-engineer your learning path based on that.
Do you want to…
- Get some freelance clients?
- Start an online business?
- Work for an agency?
- Work in-house at a larger company or SMB?
Your approach will vary depending on the vertical, business model, and type of work you’re involved in or are aspiring to do. Here are my general thoughts on how to frame this:
- Freelance - What problem are you trying to solve for your client? If you’re a copywriter and that’s all you do, some basic SEO skills and how to edit copy within HTML markup might be all you need. If you generate leads for clients with paid ads, strong data analysis skills may be a more realistic priority.
- Online business - If you’re not working on an idea yet, it wouldn’t hurt to explore whatever interests you. Otherwise, you should have some idea of which channels you’re centering your marketing efforts around. You should learn skills that will help you execute campaigns in those channels.
- Agency - This approach is going to be similar to freelance. As I understand it, most agencies have you siloed into specialties. Identify your specialty and determine which skills will best complement your marketing activities. If you’re a jack-of-all-trades, start with what you’re interested in.
- In-house - What type of role are you in or trying to land? At what sort of company? Analyst roles at a larger company will require far more technical skills than say, a social media specialist.
Take some time to think about the above and write your goals down somewhere.
Now that you have a direction in mind, it’s time to get your hands dirty and explore some skills.
1. How the Web Works
Channels this is helpful for - All channels
Learning the basics of how the web operates is non-negotiable in my opinion. If you make your living online you should take a few days to learn how the very ecosystem you’re operating in functions.
I know what you’re thinking…you went into marketing for a reason.
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: your neighborhood computer whiz wants you to believe this is all black magic; that you’ll always be beholden to tech support.
And that’s simply false.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be a computer scientist or IT guy to understand the inner workings of the web on a basic level.
Here are some notable topics that you may find useful to learn: the client-server relationship, request/response cycle, what HTTP, DNS, and TCP/IP are, how cookies work, and the basics of web security.
While you may never need to write code yourself, knowing how sites on the Internet are hosted and how they interact with your browser can help you troubleshoot frustrating issues with 3rd-party software and your websites.
And there’s a lot that breaks because even the Internet isn’t perfect…it’s run by humans after all.
If you don’t know what any of this means, that’s completely fine. Just go read that Mozilla site linked above for an hour or two. It’s tailored to beginners as long as you stay within the ‘Get Started with the Web’ module.
I would also recommend learning how to manage files efficiently and the various types of web assets used by web developers to build web pages.
Knowing how to optimize images for the web (compression, resizing, etc.) is also very helpful if you don’t know how to do that already.
1.1 - HTML/CSS
Where is HTML useful?
- Structuring web pages, landing pages, and marketing emails
- On-page SEO best practices
Where is CSS useful?
- Styling web pages, landing pages, and marketing emails
Do you technically need to learn HTML or learn CSS as a marketer? Not necessarily, but if you don’t you’ll either be relying on 3rd-party software or other people to tweak web pages and emails for you.
You’ll hit a bottleneck with landing page themes or software features eventually and will want to know how to tweak things yourself. Just trust me on this.
The good news is that HTML and CSS aren’t programming languages. They are markup and styling syntaxes. Using them effectively is nowhere near as logic heavy as solving an algorithm or math problem.
Being proficient in them is for the most part just remembering how certain directives can help you structure and style web pages or emails the way you want.
If you ever get stuck, Google and Stack Overflow usually have the answer to your problems in some form or another.
It’s also worth noting that HTML is a crucial component of on-page technical SEO. Most CMS solutions have plugins that allow you to manage the technical aspects of a site’s SEO from a GUI so it’s not required knowledge per se. But knowing the basics of HTML will help you understand SEO better.
If you’re looking for a challenge, a great way to learn SEO is to build a blog with a static site generator and manage the on-page SEO manually as I did with this site (learn HTML/CSS first).
I found that to be a better approach because if you ever need to dive into a site’s HTML to troubleshoot SEO issues you’ll know exactly where to go.
- Developing, tweaking, or testing dynamic web pages
- Understanding analytics scripts and tag management
- Accessing browser APIs and managing cookies programmatically
Client-side JS typically runs in your web browser whilst the latter runs on a web server and is commonly used with Node.js as a backend programming language for web applications. You can ignore server-side JS unless you want to become a backend developer.
I believe knowing the basics can be worthwhile.
Some examples of these are the Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager tags.
Knowing how to install these on a site correctly is key. At larger companies, in-house web developers will usually handle this for you.
Done incorrectly, however, it could impact your site speed negatively or in the case of duplicate tags, throw off your analytics reporting.
You may want to tweak the web page you’re A/B testing and have the page change dynamically when a button is clicked for example. Without some knowledge of JS, you would need to call up your friendly local web developer to help you out.
1.3 - Built-in Web Development Tools
Where are browser DevTools useful?
- Developing or tweaking dynamic web pages
- Troubleshooting analytics scripts and tags
If you’ve taken the time to learn HTML and CSS, learning built-in browser tools like Chrome DevTools or your favorite browser’s equivalent could come in handy for a few reasons:
- Viewing the frontend source code of the web page you’re on. The ability to tweak the web page in real-time without access to the web server or having to reload the page can be super clutch. It’s a landing page copywriter’s dream.
- Analyzing a page’s HTML structure to improve your on-page SEO practices.
- Knowing how to capture errors in the browser to send to your IT or development team (and measuring page load speeds with Lighthouse reports).
DevTools is way easier to learn the basics of than these other topics, but it helps to know a decent amount about the other tech I’ve mentioned before diving in.
1.4 - Web Hosting
Where is web hosting knowledge useful?
- Hosting and managing a website or client’s site
This one may only be useful if you’re starting a website of your own, but I think it’s good to know nonetheless.
The world of web hosting is vast and there are a lot of options out there. The most basic is a managed hosting or shared hosting plan from a provider like SiteGround or Bluehost.
These tend to be very cheap but also slow, unreliable, and less secure. This is important to know because technical metrics like page load speeds can impact your SEO and bounce rates.
With that said, if you’re just getting started and don’t have a lot of traffic you’ll be fine with a simple shared hosting plan.
These typically come shipped with a management console like cPanel. This is where you can manage the server settings from a GUI without using the command line like you would if you were managing a web server manually.
This console is where you can set up your email accounts, install WordPress, manage your DNS records and files if needed, and more.
You should also know how to purchase a domain and forward its nameservers to your web host so your DNS resolves and your page can be found by its domain name, not just its IP address.
There is a lot more to web hosting of course, but this is the bare minimum that I would recommend learning.
1.5 - Email
Where is email knowledge useful?
- Hosting and managing a website or client’s site
- Doing email marketing work
Email is an important part of the web. You should learn about its technicalities, especially if you’re doing email marketing.
The last thing you want is to be sent to the spam folder. To prevent this, I recommend exploring SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records, CANSPAM guidelines, and other email deliverability concepts like domain warming.
Knowing how to set up email accounts under your domain is also helpful if you’re starting a website of your own. You can do this in cPanel or your hosted email solution’s admin panel.
If you’re running a dedicated web server, it’s always worth shelling out some cash for a hosted email solution like Google Workspace because managing an email server is a huge headache, even for most sysadmins.
This falls more under the HTML/CSS section, but knowing how to design emails is a key skill for email marketers. Email standards are antiquated in a sense. The way you markup and style emails is slightly different than how it’s done for web pages - same tools, slightly different skill set.
2. Other Programming Languages
Channels this is helpful for - Analytics, Automation, SEM, Paid Social, CRO, SEO, and more
Next, I’m going to go over a few programming languages and concepts that can be useful in certain niches of digital marketing.
Most of the time, these skills are just nice to haves and aren’t necessary by any means.
I will say though - once you learn a little bit of Python, automating tasks can be super fun and rewarding. It’s addicting, so tread carefully.
2.1 - PHP
Where is PHP useful?
- Customizing WordPress sites and themes
PHP is the most popular programming language on the web because it’s so easy to use. You can embed PHP very easily within your HTML templates and simply save them as .php files. As long as the web server has PHP installed it will run it as an executable.
Do I recommend you learn PHP though if you’re not a web developer?
Well, that depends.
PHP is the language behind the most popular CMS for marketers, WordPress. If you work a lot with building out marketing funnels or sites in WordPress, it can be useful to know the basics.
At the same time, you could just as easily buy a theme or use a landing page builder like Elementor and not need to touch a line of code.
Outside of WordPress, PHP is - in my humble opinion - only useful for certain niche web development projects. I have scripted in both languages and Python is light-years more intuitive for beginners and better for automation.
If you ever need to make trivial changes to WordPress themes you can just apply the programming knowledge you learned from Python to hack something together based on tutorials and the WordPress documentation.
All in all, PHP is useful for WordPress customization but it’s not worth investing time in as a marketer when there are higher ROI skills to learn.
2.2 - Python
Where is Python useful?
- Automating repetitive tasks to save time
- Interacting with 3rd party APIs
- Marketing data analysis and statistics
That brings us to my slithery friend. As stated earlier, Python is a great language for scripting. If you ever need to automate a process it’s the easiest language to get started with quickly.
Python is also an excellent language for statistical and data analysis. There are a ton of popular libraries like pandas and NumPy that make analyzing marketing data a breeze if you’re willing to put in the upfront work to learn the language.
Lastly, it can be used as a backend language for web development. I wouldn’t recommend learning it for this reason unless you’re looking to become a web developer or build web applications to market online.
The easiest way to get started with Python and learn some automation skills along the way is the free book Automate the Boring Stuff With Python.
2.3 - R
Where is R useful?
- Statistical analysis
Another useful programming language is R which is used primarily for statistical analysis. Unless you have your sights set on becoming a dedicated data analyst I wouldn’t recommend learning this and Python, at least not yet.
Choose one or the other to prevent information overload; although I recommend Python for its automation capabilities.
I haven’t ever played around with R personally so I can’t speak on it in great detail, but I’ve heard good things.
2.4 - APIs and Webhooks
Where is API knowledge useful?
- Automating tasks in 3rd-party software
- Extracting data from 3rd-party software
API stands for Application Programming Interface. On a basic level, they offer a way to communicate with services on the web directly and exchange data with them programmatically.
Behind the scenes, automation platforms like Zapier are doing this for you. They can send requests to the APIs of various services and integrate them without the need for coding knowledge. Zapier is like a middleman between the APIs of two services.
Why is learning how to send requests to APIs useful for digital marketers?
Automation software is awesome, but it won’t always have what you need out of the box. You may have to get your hands dirty sometimes.
This is where you can use programming languages like Python to build out custom API workflows, usually for free.
Webhooks are similar to APIs except they are fired based on a certain condition without any outside interaction.
With traditional APIs, the client needs to request the server to do something but with webhooks, it’s a one-way street. For example, a trigger to send an SMS reminder when a user signs up for a webinar.
3. Other Analysis Technologies
Channels this is useful for - Analytics, Automation, SEM, Paid Social, CRO, SEO, and more
There are a few other technologies that aren’t programming related but can be useful for digital marketers. You may be familiar with some of them.
3.1 - Excel
Where is Excel useful?
- Pretty much any use case for manipulating and analyzing small sets of marketing data
There are times when the resources you have available to analyze marketing data won’t be enough and you’ll need to play around with it in Excel.
In college, I took an Excel modeling class and it opened my eyes to what’s possible with the program. There’s a lot more to it than just structuring data in cells.
You can perform statistical analyses, set up data models to draw conclusions about your data, and even run market simulations or detailed forecasts.
Some notable features you should consider getting acquainted with in Excel are formulas like VLOOKUP and conditionals, pivot tables, and regressions.
The ExcelIsFun channel on Youtube is a great resource with simple explanations.
3.2 - SQL
Where is SQL useful?
- Data extraction and segmentation
Structured Query Language is the syntax used to query databases. It’s useful for ETL (extract, transform, load) operations that are primarily used for data cleansing.
But SQL is also used in situations where you’re given a large set of structured data or have access to a data warehouse and need to extract that data in a meaningful way.
Then you can perform further analysis on that data using something like Python.
You can get started with SQL quickly on SQLZoo and find real data sets to practice with on Kaggle.
3.3 - Statistical Modeling
Where are statistics useful?
- Statistical analysis
- A/B testing and CRO
It can be useful to know the basics of statistical modeling - concepts like confidence intervals and regressions.
You can apply this knowledge to your A/B or multivariate testing so you can determine whether the results of your tests are statistically significant.
Statistics is nice to know for general analysis of marketing data as well. It will make using other tools like Python or Excel more effective.
3.4 - Data Visualization
Where is data visualization useful?
- Reporting, dashboards, and visual representations of data
Admittedly, I haven’t done much work with data visualization software but have heard great things about Tableau. You can also use Python libraries to spin up some basic data visualizations, although it won’t look as pretty.
Google Data Studio is pretty nice as well because it integrates seamlessly with Google products like Google Analytics.
Visualizing your findings can be useful for reporting to management if you’re an employee or to clients if you’re freelancing or running an agency.
4. Creative Technical Skills
Channels this is useful for - Social media, Paid Social, Content Marketing, Funnel Design
Most of the skills I’ve gone over so far have been purely tech-related. However, certain creative skills have a technical learning curve but can be just as useful for digital marketers.
4.1 - Photoshop / Graphic Design
Where is Photoshop useful?
- Creating visuals for the web, advertisements, social media posts, and other content
You don’t need to be a master at Photoshop, but being able to create ads and modify images are really valuable skills for marketers.
Picking up the basics from Adobe’s tutorials should be more than enough.
Even just getting your ideas fleshed out and passing them off to a designer to polish them can help align the design and marketing functions nicely.
A lot of times, designers are skilled at what they do but may miss the mark if they’re not given clear instructions. They sometimes don’t think the same way marketers do. Having a prototype design can help mitigate this risk and improve communication between the two parties.
If you can’t swing Photoshop for personal use, the open source program GIMP is a great alternative.
Again, you don’t need to be Pablo Picasso - just having an eye for design is more than enough.
4.2 - UI/UX Design, Mockups, Wireframing
Where is UI/UX useful?
- Optimizing conversion rates on landing pages
- Designing landing pages and funnels
Knowing how to mockup landing pages and create wireframes can be a helpful first step before a web page is created.
It’s simply easier to get your creative ideas down without having to think about code. Making changes in a graphical program is much less tedious than reworking HTML and CSS.
Then you or your designer can do your best to replicate it with a more suitable technology when the time comes.
Some popular programs for this are Adobe XD, Figma, and Sketch (macOS only).
Even if you don’t use software to do it, getting used to wire-framing by hand on paper is better than nothing. Sometimes it can even be more effective because it allows you to get ideas down quickly without any technological bottlenecks.
Knowledge of UI/UX comes in handy for designing landing pages, but also for optimizing conversion rates. Knowing how to set up the best tests based on proven design principles will increase the success of your on-page optimizations.
4.3 - Infographic Creation
Where is infographic design useful?
- Creating lead magnets and visualizing informational content
While Photoshop is great for ads, vector graphics or illustrations are usually better suited for Adobe Illustrator. There’s also a free alternative called Inkscape that I’ve done some work in.
If you can put together basic infographics to enhance your content, you’ll be a step ahead of most marketers.
They are widely used on social channels and as lead magnets to incentivize users to opt-in.
4.4 - Video Production and Editing
Where is video production useful?
- Producing and editing compelling video content for social media and content marketing
Video has exploded online as a top content medium in the past few years, and it’s not going away any time soon.
If video is a primary part of your content strategy, it may be worth learning how to shoot, edit, and produce compelling video content.
Adobe Premier and After Effects are the industry standard for video editing and special effects.
That should cover most of the tech skills that I believe are useful to digital marketers.
I didn’t mention any high-level software solutions because frankly, there are too many to cover and it’s somewhat outside the scope of this article.
There’s a lot of technology out there, and to tell you the truth a lot of the low-level tech I covered can be abstracted away by CRMs and built-in analytics.
The skills come in handy when you hit a brick wall with the functionality of a certain software solution, which tends to happen pretty quickly. They also help you think outside of the box and understand the limitations of the tools in your arsenal.
One last point before I wrap up: try not to overwhelm yourself and stick to learning one or two technologies at a time.
It’s unlikely you’ll reach even intermediate proficiency in every skill I mentioned. I’m always working to learn new skills and a lot of the tech on this list I’m still in the process of learning myself.
That’s part of the fun though - constantly expanding your skills, applying that knowledge, and basking in the fruits of your labor as you stack up little wins over time.