The number of degrees that focus on Digital Marketing is growing, but inflexibility, academic bureaucracy, and a lack of engagement with industry is undermining their value for employers.

Exam results were out last week, and with recession still very much on the minds of school leavers and recent graduates alike, the annual scramble for places is rather more vicious than usual. 

It certainly seems that when the going gets tough, the tough get educated, and it would be nice to think that at the very least, the end of the recession will see graduates from relevant, practical learning programmes entering the workforce with the skills they need to succeed.

However, despite a growing number of postgraduate courses, digital marketing is still woefully under-represented in academia, and those courses that do exist appear so wedded to traditional educational methods, I can’t help wondering whether they’re doing more harm than good.

There’s been a rash of courses focused specifically on digital marketing and its associated disciplines over the last couple of years, but rather than capitalising on the opportunity to provide some truly innovative teaching to a new industry sector, universities seem to undermine themselves, their qualifications and the industry.

It’s true that the shift in students' interests from traditional, ‘glamorous’, above the line courses to digital has been less than energetic, but after a quick scout around the web, it doesn’t exactly look like an inspiring prospect. Prospective candidates are either faced by drab, outdated course outlines, inflexible study options and teaching faculties with little recent real world experience in evidence, or the kind of media hoo-ha which has surrounded courses such as Birmingham City University’s MA in Social Media

The overwhelming impression you’re left with is that digital represents a cash (and publicity) cow, with academic institutions pandering to fashion rather than producing well thought-out programmes which establish digital as a discipline in its own right. With industry response to these courses lukewarm at best, and candidates perceiving them as marginal and outmoded, led by tutors who know less than the web-savvy students, and imparting little but hard-won theory that will be obsolete before graduation, it’s not hard to see why they don’t attract hordes of eager marketing graduates.

This is a real shame, because not only are digital skills increasingly central to successful businesses, but as the sector matures, demand for structured, university accredited qualifications is growing rapidly.

Our own MSc courses, which hold adaptability and the partnership between academia and industry as the programmes' central tenets, have attracted significant interest this year, with 60 new delegates due to embark on either the MSc in Digital Marketing Communications or Internet Retailing in September. And, after a few false starts, leading industry players do seem to be stepping up to the plate when it comes to attracting new blood. 

A number of trade bodies have recently come together to work on increasing recruitment into the sector and an interesting initiative in Leeds, spearheaded by regional agency Swamp, is directly targeting school leavers with a range of vocational qualifications and foundation degrees. But while digital marketing qualifications are either relegated to the margins or held up as some kind of fluffy ‘new media’ trophy, investing in the kind of commitment required to pursue a Masters will remain an unlikely choice for many.

All of which leads me to wonder whether we should be looking at a more radical approach to digital education. What should academic qualifications offer to be of real value to industry? Should we consider apprenticeship-style training a better way of developing new digital talent?

I’m keen to hear from anyone with first-hand experience, either from a student, academic or industry perspective, about your experiences of digital marketing qualifications. What constitutes a valuable digital marketing qualification? What do you look for when you're employing graduates?  And what are your views on how to make qualifications more relevant?

Vivien Underwood

Published 4 September, 2009 by Vivien Underwood

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Comments (9)

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Adam Yates

Adam Yates, Acorn

I would suggest that current attempts at Digital Marketing degrees are viewed in much the same light as 'Media Studies' degrees are by the broadcast media industry, i.e. they have little to do with the practical aspects of the subject and that they produce graduates with little or no relevant industry skills.

The partnership between academia and industry is a difficult one to achieve at the best of times but it is notably harder in an industry that is relatively young and developing at such a pace.  Universities need to do more to ensure that their courses are informed by industry rather than chasing percieved industry demands, by including industry in the development of courses (I assume that this is the approach that was taken in developing the Econsultancy MSc).

And having developed such relevant courses, Universities then need to promote them in such a way as befits a course about the most contemporary form of marketing.

However, industry needs to play its part in facilitating this.  I work for a university and am often told by industry employers that they need better equipped graduates.  Yet when pressed on what that means, very few come back with concrete answers as to the skills and expertise they need in graduates.

almost 9 years ago

David Edmundson-Bird

David Edmundson-Bird, Principal Lecturer in Digital Marketing & Course Leader MSc Digital Marketing Communications at MMU Business School

Disclaimer: I manage the Econsultancy Masters programmes from a University perspective here at MMU Business School

A couple of problems exist here (and in the world in general).

There's been a headrush into "new and groovy" stuff and so we're going to see a lot of courses with jazzy titles that might end up being the digital equivalent of "media studies". But there are a number of well-thought out and properly resourced programmes being developed (like Carol's above). The Econsultancy Masters programmes are an example of where industry-led knowledge is combined with neccesary intellectual skills which (you might think surprisingly) many employeres deem important.

Second  there hasn't been exactly a massive rush into education by digital marketing professionals - I guess the money's good - so it is hard to find good quality educators who are in that zone. They are few and far between and are in demand. Don't laugh but I get offers :-) It will still take time for them to arrive and/or develop.

There's a third problem which is a bit more controversial. I gave a talk recently to a group of world-class digital marketing professionals (MDs, CEOs, directors and practitioners). I asked how many provided a placements, "day-a-week" jobs or summer internships? How many of them contributed to teaching programmes at a Uni? How many went into schools to talk about digital marketing? I have to report very disappointing results (with one or two notable exceptions). I heard reasons of time and priorities, but if an industry isn't going to invest in the time to make quality recruits in the long run, it's going to be hard to see how they will emerge naturally. So this isn't just an opportunity for industry to kick education providers. It's also a time to have a look at how the industry commits across the board to educating.

One final point. At UG level, we struggle to bring students into the digital programme but have a regular marketing programme that's always full. Students don't understand digital - a failing that's further down the system. Digital scares them. And it sounds like it's hard too. And many don't want to take a year out on placement because that sounds like a year of lost earnings and a year of extra fees. It's a bigger problem that won't go away. Remember - as a University, these are the folk that pay us (our customers) and if they want to pay to study something else, we have a problem on our hands. It's a slow process of change that we have on our hands, one that will be made inevitably worse when funding for Universities really feels the pinch in cuts to educaton budgets.

almost 9 years ago

Adam Yates

Adam Yates, Acorn

Hi Vivien,

The use of industry practitioners and a Leadership panel is definitely something more courses to need to adopt if Academia is to produce 'relevant' graduates.  We have several such panels, including an advisory panel for the Liverpool Screen School, and make the most of our industry links to ensure that courses are kept to up-to-date and meet industry requirements.  Issues of commitment do arise but in general we have found our industry partners keen to provide support.

I think it can be more difficult to find suitable industry practitioners as it requires those who not only have the knowledge and experience in their field but who also have the skills to communicate that effectively to an audience of under/postgraduates. 

The process of engagement with academia often seems a slow one (and one we don't always do enough to dispel), laden as it is with issues of quality control, course funding and the like.  Yet I'm pretty certain that all Universities are keen to encourage such engagement (as is the government) but that a level of understanding may be required on both sides as to how the process can work.

I think the answer lies in your comment about a lack of student awareness; both industry and academia need to work together to promote the Digital sector as a viable and attractive career path and then jointly develop the courses required to support this.  Courses will only be developed if there is a demand for them and that demand will only be exist if the courses are of a high enough quality, delivered in suitable programmes and kept up-to-date.

It might sound a bit chicken-and-egg but if we are to produce a next generation of skilled digital marketers we need to increase the engagement between industry and academia first and foremost.

almost 9 years ago


Robert Terwilliger

Hi - as I have published a number of books on the subject I don't want to make this comment appear as a plug for them - and so I have used an alias for this comment.

I teach marketing & e-marketing at a UK university and have delivered business apsect of e-commerce [ie, no techie stuff] at UG and PG level since 1999, having practiced e-commerce since 1996.

Here's a couple of comments on the Vivien's article.

First off, naturally,I use my last book as core text for my e-marketing modules - and it has been written as a 'practitioner' guide. Sure, as an 'academic' text it has the necessary 'academic underpinnings', but it is all about presenting aspects of the subject and then having students apply the theory/models/concepts to purpose-written case studies. The idea is that it prepares students for real-life rather just teaching them theories. So here's the problem: whilst they love the module, they struggle with the assessment.

I ask them to act as a consultant and advise the owners/managers of a case study organization on e-marketing applications that are relevant to that organization - and guess what ... most find it hard to apply what they have learned. Put that down to the academic system that delivers them to me [at level 3 UG & PG] after passing assessment by remembering some stuff and regurgitation it without evaluation or analysis.

Secondly - I would love to have a e-marketing master's degree here at my uni. My book is written in 10 chapters to cover 10 key aspects of the subject - effectively, either 10 weeks content for a module or 10 modules for a full programme. But 'the management' are wary of a Masters in e-Marketing - and the reason is that I am the only member of staff with the subject knowledge to deliver it, and if I get hit by a bus ....

As a small uni we cannot bring in other e-specialists [and there aren't many out there anyway] - maybe the bigger establishments are different, though chatting with fellow 'e' lecturers at conferences would suggest mine is not a issolated experience.

In 'Spanish Inquisition' style ... the third of my two points is that I am constantly amazed by how so many marketing experts/gurus/professors/whatever are totally switched off to 'digital'. Pick up any latest edition of a 'marketing strategy' text and see just how little of the content is devoted to the Internet as part of that strategy. I'm preaching to the converted in this column, but maybe it is the 'traditional' marketing practitioners/writers/teachers that should be studying on these courses?

So there you go Vivien, just a couple of points on a subject I could talk about for hours, thanks for recognizing that there is an issue out there.

almost 9 years ago


Screen Printing Machine

digital marketing is still woefully under---it is the social fact

over 8 years ago


Robin Croft

Two common elements from this debate are present here: firstly that universities are producing non-serious degrees (ie media studies); and secondly that they are out of touch with industry needs.

In order to address both points, UK universities have robust quality control systems in place to ensure that there is academic rigour in the curriculum, and that there is broad support for the new 'product' being proposed.  This makes it look to outsiders like an inordinately bureaucratic, time consuming process - but often these are the same critics who would be complaining about non-serious degrees.

Universities exist as places of learning: a student should emerge from a degree programme as a roundly educated person rather than as an up-skilled employee.  If it is training you want then colleges and professional bodies can provide to programme for you.

So what do university degrees or modules in digital marketing have to offer? They should allow students to explore how the new paradigm is challenging all of our assumptions about the relationship between customers and companies.  They should push at people's boundaries and encourage them to learn through sharing knowledge and experiences (a bit like the way real-world consumers learn in the digital environment).

Above all we need to recognize that none of us have the answers: the digital environment is evolving so rapidly that mostly what it does is pose questions for us.  For all their sniping at academia, few marketing professionals have any real idea of what the new digital landscape means.  A good, challenging university course will strip away these layers of professional ignorance and encourage marketing manager to start re-building their own skill sets.

over 8 years ago


Emma Robert

Fantastic website, must come back here , very interesting content, bookmarked your blog for future reference.

over 8 years ago


Joe Bennet

Digital marketing is growing at a very fast paced.  For people who would like to get into this field can try on their own.  If they're interested in Internet marketing they can build a few websites and hopefully they understand the basics after trial and error.  The issue that comes into play is if they're looking to get into a corporate environment they're going to need something on their resume in addition to I built my own website and marketed it.

I found this article about the job outlook of search engine marketing specialists.  The numbers almost speak for themselves.  Companies plan on increasing their budget by 64% for SEO.,  Budgets for paid search will increase 51%.  With all of these increases they're going to need people who have been trained.  

So in short, I think these degrees and certificates that universities are offering are a good thing for the industry.

almost 8 years ago


Steve Phillips

I found this to be very interesting. You are very right about this. More schools do need to start implement digital marketing degrees. The University of Michigan - Dearborn just started a digital marketing degree program this year. Hopefully this will help jump-start a movement into digital marketing.

over 6 years ago

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