I spent 5 long years in University.
The end result?
A sweet looking degree that says Bachelor of Public Relations with a Marketing Minor in a somewhat-expensive frame hanging on my office wall.
And as much actionable knowledge as I had when 18-year-old Josh started.
They taught me marketing & communication theories— but they skipped the whole “actually doing it” part.
If you want to become a great marketer that can help a company grow, you’ll need to do most of your learning outside of school, because the truth is this:
Universities & colleges aren’t preparing marketing students for their careers as well as they can & should be.
But before I jump into the actual reasons why—let me clarify 2 things:
I’m not suggesting you SKIP University altogether.
I’m not suggesting you HAVE to go to University either.
If you want to skip university & use the always-expanding collection of resources online to teach yourself instead—go for it!
If you’d rather take the traditional path of going to school, getting your undergrad, and entering the working world that way—be my guest!
I think both sides have their pros & cons, but that’s a post for another day…
Here’s what I’m going to sink my teeth into today:
3 reasons why marketing students aren’t getting the prep they deserve
What’s happening as a result of this poor career preparation
My take on what can be done to right the ship
And with that—let’s dive in.
Reason #1: Academic Writing vs. Real-World Writing
The days of published academic research & above-the-fold newspaper features being the one & only holy grail of marketing are behind us.
We’re in the digital era…
And that means as marketers & PR practitioners—our writing and our content need to be focused on writing for the web (and for people to actually read).
Here’s the problem:
Right now, students are ONLY being taught how to write academically—no matter what program they’re in or what assignment they’re working on.
They’re pretty much told to write like this:
And to NEVER write this this:
(Shoutout to Brian Dean & Backlinko)
“Are those… Sentence fragments? And all caps INSIDE a sentence? And does that say #1 instead of number one? And (step-by-step) on it’s own line…..?” ?
How many of you actually read all of the academic research papers you cited when you were writing your own papers?
Why didn’t we read those academic papers?
Because no one really wants to read 40 pages of this:
(And I’ll bet all you did was glance at the title & read 0 words of that screenshot)
Don’t get me wrong—that sounds like an interesting topic to read about, but 40 pages of block-style paragraphs like that is just asking for a migraine.
Let me tell you a quick story:
My sister’s in year #2 of her Public Relations degree.
A few weeks back she got an assignment that she was stoked about—write a how-to blog post on any subject you’d like. If the post is good, you can submit it a school-run online publication to get featured.
(Key word here: Online publication.)
And sounds like legit, real-world marketing experience.
“How To Get Over Your Fear Of Public Speaking In 3 Simple Steps.”
I loved it.
Great topic. Resonates with plenty of students (backed up by the research she dug up along the way), an actionable & interest-peaking title—she picked a good one.
So she wrote the post.
It had a great lede, a few bucket brigades sprinkled in, adequate white space, short sentences, easy-to-understand language, it was scannable while still being informative…
It was a good blog post.
And she was STOKED about the end result.
She couldn’t wait to submit the post & watch it go live in that publication (while getting a great mark in the process of course).
So she did.
And then came the feedback…
No bucket brigades
Cut the white space
Use big, chunky paragraphs
No numbers in the title
More academic language
Basically, Here’s what she was told:
“Right now, people would WANT to read this post. What you should do instead is make people NOT want to read it…”
(Maybe I’m paraphrasing a bit, but you get the point.)
The recommendation was to:
Take the optimized-for-online post you’ve written.
Turn it into a boring academic block of big words.
Submit it to an online publication.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m not trying to throw any one professor under the bus here — This professor taught me as well & they were awesome. This is just the type of writing feedback universities are pretty much requiring them to give.)
Why are we teaching students how to write academic research papers when most marketing students will never (and should never) write an academic research paper again after they graduate?
Here’s some research-backed truth:
The media wants exclusive research (proof below), but they’re also busy people and don’t have time to navigate the 40 page block of big words you’re calling a research paper.
Instead of just writing those long, in-depth research papers—let’s teach students how to editorialize that research.
Show them how to take their findings & create easy-to-understand and easy-to-share graphics like Frac.tl’s up there. Online-optimized content that explains the key results and key takeaways…
But doesn’t take years to create & read.
After all — what good is the research they’re doing if no one ever sees it?
Reason #2: All Theory & No Action
Let me start this off by saying:
I’m not AGAINST teaching marketing & communication theories.
I think it’s (somewhat) worthwhile.
Even if most (probably all) students don’t remember every last detail of every single theory when we graduate, the important lessons from the theories still exist in the back of our minds.
And actually learning about these theories is teaching students how to use their brains & learn new stuff.
But here’s the thing:
All theory + zero execution = NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Understanding the reason behind a marketing strategy or tactic is one thing. Being able to take that strategy & run with it is another.
Good marketers understand the “why” behind a strategy.
Great marketers understand the “why” and know “how” to execute a strategy.
And the best marketers can build a strategy, execute that strategy, and use what they learn to make the strategy even better the next time.
Theories can only take a marketer so far. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don’t know how to get results—all it’s good for is talking a big game to your marketing friends over beers.
Let’s break down the classic T-Shaped Marketer concept:
The idea is pretty straightforward:
The T-Shaped Marketer has basic knowledge across multiple skill sets, and deep knowledge in one or two.
The marketer in that graphic has some basic knowledge in design, blogging, SEO, advertising, social media & PR — and deep knowledge in analytics.
It’s a good concept—here’s the problem:
Knowledge only takes you so far.
There’s one big thing missing:
(Shameless plug of my awesome employer incoming…)
Ross Simmonds, Digital Marketing Strategist & Founder of Foundation Marketing, outlined a new T-Shaped Marketer approach:
The New T-Shaped Marketer
The big difference is that bottom level—the execution. Having the skills to turn knowledge into action & do the work.
And that’s the know-how students aren’t getting from school.
Theories aren’t the only thing that matters in marketing.
Instead of assigning research paper after research paper & case study after case study—let’s get marketing students executing & implementing all that knowledge they’re taking in.
Here’s an idea for a real-world content marketing assignment:
Build a WordPress site & have students actually write & publish content
Then have them distribute that content online
And along the way, have them measure results in Google Analytics
The finally have them submit a report on how their post performed
(And that’s what our results will look like)
Reason #3: Basic Workplace Skills Anyone?
On top of schools not teaching students enough about the tactical & executional side of marketing—there’s a BIG gap when it comes to this:
Basic workplace skills.
I’m talking about how to actually work.
“What do you mean ‘how to work’ — If I know marketing & can execute then I know how to work, right?”
You can know everything there is to know about marketing AND how to turn a strategy into a real thing that exists.
Do you know how to work efficiently, productively & with other people? Can you function in an office? Can you work from home & stay productive?
Lemme give you 2 quick examples of what I’m talking about here:
EXAMPLE #1: The calendar
Understanding how to setup & manage your own calendar might just be the single most important work (and life) skill.
Your calendar is your life.
And the amount of students I’ve seen with calendars looking like this is actually terrifying to me:
Let’s set up a scenario. Someone wants to schedule a call with me to talk about a potential job opportunity.
A) Without a calendar:
Them: “Hey Josh, are you free for a call next Friday afternoon?”
Me: “Uhhhhh… Sure!”
Them: “Does 2pm work for you?”
Me: “Sure, why not!”
Them: “Perfect—talk to you then!”
* Next Friday afternoon rolls around & since by now I’ve obviously forgotten I said yes to a call, I’m at the beach & this person now thinks I suck. *
B) With a calendar:
Them: “Hey Josh, are you free for a call next Friday afternoon?”
Me: “Let me check my calendar! … I’m free—how about 2pm?”
Them: “2pm is perfect—talk to you then!”
* Next Friday afternoon rolls around & since I have the call in my calendar, I’m not at the beach & instead I just got offered an awesome full-time job. *
And that’s just scraping the surface on why your calendar should be your most prized possession and basically the centre of your life.
I could go on & on about the productivity benefits of time blocking & the mental health benefits of scheduling down time…
(Sorry for the blur — Gotta keep some secrets, y’know)
Why are universities not teaching first year students the best practices around having a calendar?
We should be showing them how to keep track of:
When & where their classes are
What assignments are due & when
When they’re going to work on those assignments
What time they promised their parents they’d be free for dinner
When their basketball practices are
… The list goes on & on.
How you organize your calendar is up to you — whether you should have a calendar or not is a no-brainer. Let’s show students that from day 1.
EXAMPLE #2: The email
Oh the email…
Here’s what some (hopefully not many) students are actually sending to another person’s inbox:
Why are they sending emails that look like this?
(Again—I’m really hoping that is the worst of them all)
It’s because no one is actually showing them how to write an email that doesn’t suck.
No matter what specific role you end up in, being able to send an email that’s clear, concise, and explains what it needs to explain is a MUST-HAVE skill.
If you can’t communicate with other people through email, your entire work life is going to be a lot more difficult than it should be.
Students are spending HOURS in their “__________ Theory” classes & crazy electives like “Love & Evil” (Yes it’s real—and yes I took it).
They’re learning these theories & they’re reading all of these textbooks, but they’re not actually learning how to EXIST in a workplace.
No tactical how-to’s on sending emails to colleagues
No direction on calendar best practices
No insight around how to delegate & get help from others
… Not to mention the lack of education on negotiating & asking for more money.
What’s Happening As A Result Of All This?
Because students aren’t learning best practices of writing for the web (and for other people), and because they’re not learning how to actually execute on ideas & strategies, and because they don’t have basic workplace skills like how to send emails & how to manage your own calendar—they’re scared.
To put it simply:
New grads don’t feel prepared to start working.
And here’s what that’s leading to:
New grads are scared to actually start their careers.
New grads send out a handful of job applications.
New grads go back to school because they’re scared of what’s next.
And that 3rd point is a big one to me!
I’ve seen it first-hand.
Folks I went to school with finished their undergrad, sent out some job applications for a month or so, got no bites, then went back to school for ANOTHER undergrad degree in a different field.
(Just think about all those student loans…) ?
Is it because their first degree wasn’t their true passion?
The more likely reason though? (That most students won’t admit)
Fear of what’ll happen if they get a job & can’t do what they need to do.
Fear of feeling like a complete imposter in their new position.
Fear of their colleagues thinking they’re not good at their job.
So they go back to their bubble.
They take out more loans, queue up 4 more years of papers & assignments, and start the whole process over again—this time with different theories.
Here’s What Needs To Happen Next:
Marketing is more than just press releases, TV commercials & billboards.
Universities need to equip marketing students with the actionable skills they need to thrive in today’s marketing landscape.
And it should start by introducing students to 9 digital marketing skills:
Data & analytics.
Search engine optimization.
Let’s teach marketing students the basics of all 9 digital skills.
Here’s what’ll happen if we do:
Students will gravitate toward the few they’re most interested in. They’ll start to do more research and learning on their own. They’ll start working on a few side projects to hone their skills. They’ll start paving their own career path based on what work they enjoy most.
But if we never show them the basics…
They won’t be able to truly figure out what they love the most until they’re already 2 or 3 years into their first job. And that’s if they don’t decide it’s “just not for them” during those 2 or 3 years.
It’s time to prepare the next generation of great marketers.
So that’s my two cents on why universities are forcing marketing students to fight an uphill battle & teach themselves the skills they actually need to succeed in their careers.
What do you think? ?