How to succeed as a digital marketer

How to succeed as a digital marketer

I love digital marketing.

I’ve been a digital marketer since 2003. Before that I studied digital marketing at university, when it was barely even a thing. In fact, in those days it had the super cheesy name of “cybermarketing” and yes, you could take it as a major subject. 

“Cybermarketing” sounds like something hackers do, furiously typing away on keyboards while navigating security holes in a mainframe, the green glow of the monitor reflecting source code in their mirrored glasses, like characters from William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

But nay, digital marketing is far less glamorous and really requires hours, days, months and years of work.

If you want to become a digital marketer, you’re going to have to work HARD for it..

You’ll spend hours experimenting. You’ll become a lifelong student. You’ll read blog posts, ebooks and watch how-to videos deep into the night. You’ll set up hundreds of campaigns, write tons of content, learn technical skills you never thought you’d have and spend hours working with spreadsheets and data.

If you want to get good at something, it requires effort.

Despite all this, and because of this, digital marketing is something I love.

I’ve built a good career as a digital marketer, put two children through private education and bought a house with my partner. I’ve developed skills that are in high demand and I get to answer the questions in meetings that nobody else has a clue about.

It’s a never-ending learning experience and if you want to become a digital marketer, strap yourself in because it’s going to get exciting.

Let’s go!

The digital marketer mindset

If I had to define the mindset of a digital marketer in one word it would be:


You need to learn how to think critically about a problem and become curious about how to solve it.

You’re going to learn some mad detective skills, I assure you.

Inspector Gadget? Clousseau? Sherlock Holmes?


Essential digital marketing skills and how to learn them

Your marketing skills are your toolbox. You approach a problem, analyse it and then you use your tools to fix it. Even analysing the problem is one of the tools you will use.

You need to spend time sharpening your axe before you can build a viking ship. The more time you spend learning skills and refining them, the better digital marketer you will be.

Let’s look at some of the skills you’ll need:

Understanding the customer lifecycle

You’re going to have to understand human psychology and what motivates people. The classical marketers amongst us will know the theory of decision-making:

  1. I realise that I have a need
  2. I look for ways to satisfy that need
  3. I identify alternative solutions
  4. I evaluate the alternative solutions
  5. I choose an alternative
  6. I take action
  7. I evaluate whether I made the right decision or not

Sometimes, as marketers we need to help people realise they have a need in the first place. Once we’ve highlighted their need (or responded to their need), we need to position our solution as the best against competitors.

You also need to understand what motivates people. 

Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs ranks motivations according to different levels of importance. We first need the basics taken care of: food, water, shelter, safety. Once these are sorted, we move to higher motivations like social acceptance, self-esteem and self-actualisation.

Your product or service may fulfill needs at different levels. A fancy jacket can take care of the basic need of protection from the cold but also give a person a certain status or send a message about who they are. A biker’s leather jacket says something quite different from a fur coat, but they both keep out the cold.

Consumer psychology is a fascinating topic and I urge you to read up as much as you can about it so that you get to grips with what moves people and how your messaging can influence behaviour.

What marketers do

My grandfather was a ham radio enthusiast and he had this massive aerial on his front lawn through which he would talk to people from all over the world. In 1998 I was studying advertising in Cape Town and I lived with my grandparents so I got to listen in on my grandfather’s conversations with his ham radio friends. One day he was talking to some guy in Japan and he asked me to come into his study so I can listen in. He introduced me as his grandson and then proudly said that I was studying propaganda (instead of advertising).

Was he wrong?

Our jobs as marketers, although hopefully less sinister than the creators of propaganda, is to make people feel something in order to take action. We create a message in the form of an image, email, text ad, banner ad, video, snap, story or tweet and somebody responds to this. 

If we’re working for a business, we do this for commercial gain.

The most important part of your job as a marketer therefore is to contribute to the bottom line. What are you doing that assists with revenue generation? If you’re not doing that, stop.

If that ad or email or post you’re working on won’t help the business generate more revenue in a profitable way you’re not doing your job properly.

It sounds harsh and capitalistic and money-grabbing and the like, but honestly we’re not here to work on our hobbies or win awards or be entertained by our jobs – we’re working on an important objective and that is to sustain the lifeblood of the business.

And a business can only survive on profits.

Now, of course there are ways of making profits that are unethical and unscrupulous and short-sighted and downright evil, so don’t do those things. But you do need to stay focused on what it will take to make the business healthier so that you have the ability to do all the other nice things like donate to charities and help people and become angel investors and pay for someone’s education.

Think profitable revenue generation first.

The customer lifecycle: acquisition, conversion, retention, reacquisition

Your customer or client goes through the following lifecycle:


During the acquisition phase your prospect discovers that you exist, finds out a little more, maybe talks to their friends or colleagues, mulls it over some more and then takes the next step towards becoming someone who hands you over money to pay for your product or service.

The acquisition phase is all about creating awareness and driving that first action on the buying journey.

As marketers we have an interesting array of tools available to drive acquisition:

  • Paid  digital advertising (Facebook Ads, Google Ads, LinkedIn Ads etc)
  • Organic (non-paid) content (blog posts, social media posts)
  • Email marketing
  • Organic search (SEO)
  • Affiliate marketing (people you pay to send you traffic or leads)
  • PR
  • Traditional channels (radio, magazine, outdoor, expos and conferences)
  • Influencers
  • Word of mouth referrals

We need to choose which of the above channels bring us customers in the most efficient way. The two most important KPIs (key performance indicators) for an acquisition channel are:

  • Cost per acquisition e.g. cost of a qualified lead or sale
  • Quality of acquisition e.g. what percentage of your prospects are actually qualified leads

How you define the above KPIs is specific to each business. In the world of insurance for example an acquisition can be defined as someone who buys an insurance policy. In this example:

  • Cost per acquisition = how much did we pay to get a new client who has paid their first premium
  • Quality of acquisition = what percentage of the leads that came into the call centre were qualified leads that converted into a paying client?

This is where marketing and sales merge and also where the most friction occurs: marketers blame the sales people for not converting their leads into sales, and sales people blame marketers for crappy leads.

At the end of the day, EVERYONE is accountable for revenue, so that’s where teamwork and communication are vital for a healthy organisation.


My pet hate is when people ask questions like “what’s the conversion rate?”

My immediate reaction is to ask them “What exactly do you mean by conversion?”

Conversion means many, many things to different people.

Visitor to lead is a conversion rate.

Click to sale is a conversion rate.

Lead to enrolment is a conversion rate. But what exactly is a lead? Is it someone who completes a form on your site or is it someone who completes the form on your site and is ALSO pre-qualified by a pre-sales team? And is an enrolment defined as someone who has signed up for a course or someone who has signed up AND paid?

It’s super important therefore that you define each metric as accurately as possible and when you talk about conversion, you must ensure people know EXACTLY what you mean by that.

We can do quite a bit to influence conversion rates in each step of the funnel.

We can target a better audience and attract better quality leads. We can make our landing pages more effective. We can ask pre-qualifying questions on our web forms. We can filter leads with a pre-sales team. We can give our sales people better scripts. We can offer more convenient payment methods at checkout.

Conversion is where marketing and operations/sales must work together to remove any friction in the conversion funnel.


Now there’s the old saying that it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than to acquire a new one. And this is 100% correct.

One of the companies I used to work for had an Acquisition team and a Retention team. The Retention team would joke and say “You burn, we earn”, which created much rivalry which was sorted out on the Action Cricket field later, but the truth is that the spend on acquisition marketing was much higher than retention marketing.

Retention marketing includes all activities that KEEP a customer.

My favourite principle when it comes to retention marketing is this RELEVANCE.

You keep clients and customers happy by consistently making them happy (with great service and a great product) and you communicate in a RELEVANT manner.

Relevance means you don’t treat everyone the same. Each person is a customer for a slightly different reason and using the power of DATA we can group people into audiences so that we can target them with more relevant messaging.

This is called SEGMENTATION.

In the old times segmentation was unsophisticated. You had MENSWEAR and WOMENSWEAR in the department store. You had segments of people who lived in CAPE TOWN vs JOHANNESBURG. You had segments of people aged between 18 and 25, 30 to 40, 60+.

The more technology advanced the better our segmentation became.

We were able to track people’s behaviour. How much they spent. How often they spent. What they bought. 

Technology evolved.

We now have predictive algorithms that can tell you when someone is likely to buy again. What products they are likely to buy. Recommendation engines like those used by Netflix and Amazon.

We can get super smart with our targeting and messaging and let the machine do the work.

In dystopian future novels we find sales droids following people around making personal recommendations: “Jack, nice tie you’re wearing there! You’ve got that wedding coming up next month and I think this jacket will look fantastic with that tie. And it’s on sale today!”

We’re not quite there yet. But soon.

Right now, what I like is behavioural segmentation and custom messaging based on the principle that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour. And not all customers are equal so they shouldn’t be treated equally.

This is the Pareto principle: 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers. This ratio will be slightly different in your business but the principle remains true.

Focus on your most important customers first. Don’t waste your resources on trying to retain customers who will NEVER give you value. 

What retention tools do we have available?

The most important marketing principle (and life principle really) is to CARE.

If we truly care about customers we will show that we value them and they will stay with us.

We will check up on them. See how they’re doing. Make sure they’re happy. Are they still doing that course they signed up for? Are they still happy with the service they’re getting?  

This is the warm and fuzzy part. We also have some hard tools that can be used to retain customers in a caring way:

  • Discounts
  • Promotions
  • Incentives
  • Rewards

People who are loyal to you love to be recognised for their loyalty. And get freebies.

That’s not all folks

Although I’ve scratched the surface about what it takes to succeed as a digital marketer, I am sure you have some opinions of your own. Share them below and let’s start a conversation.

About Tony Lopes

I help sustainable businesses grow. I have more than 20 years experience in digital marketing strategy and analytics. I live in Johannesburg, South Africa with my wife, daughters and 2 Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

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