I’m relatively well-known within the Digital and PR industry in my small corner of the world. That will all change when I emigrate to New Zealand and start from scratch mind you, but that’s a blog post for another day (I’m also blogging that journey over on OperationEmigration.com)
Anyway, being well-known means I get a lot of emails, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter messages. I’m sometimes later than I’d like to be in replying, but I take pride in responding to each and every one. Even the ones that aren’t work enquiries.
At least 2-3 times a week I’ll receive something like this:
“Hi Leanne, I follow your blog/read your book/saw you at a training event. I want to begin a career/further my career in the Digital field and wondered what you think I should do/read/learn/attend to help me?”
They come from a wide variety of people from students to people with more industry experience than me, from the unemployed to the very senior managers. I’m honoured that they would respect my advice enough to ask for it.
I’m always rooting for these people because they’re just like I was when I started this blog back in 2013 - passionate but being held back, uncertain in confidence but with the initiative to seek help.
I often wondered why I was forever repeating my same advice, and then it dawned on me that I’ve actually never blogged about it before.
I did create a free eBook specifically for students who want to set themselves up for a career in Digital PR (linked here), however I recognise that it’s very different when you’ve already started working, or you’re a good few years down the career pathway and you’re trying to get experience, re-train or completely move sectors into a new role.
So here are my 8 top tips for things you can do TODAY to move your Digital career forward:
One of the biggest problems for people working in an in-house Marketing or Communications team - be they voluntary, public or private sector - is trying to get approval to work on things outside their role description or budgetary control.
But there are always ways around this:
- If you want to develop skills in another area you could offer to help another team with a project in exchange for shadowing them.
- If your organisation is involved in multiple-partner projects you could offer to sit on the social media sub-committee or marketing steering group.
- If you have an agency delivering the digital/PR work for you then ask to go in and sit with them to see how they manage your account.
I have done this many times in the past - from offering to help a business development team set up their LinkedIn presence (something I now deliver training in) to taking on the dire task of helping a cross-sector team wade through responses to website procurement proposals in order to better understand that industry.
If you can do the extra work on top of your existing role, your manager has little valid reason to stand in the way. Especially as L&D or CPD is often a requirement within organisational HR.
CPD can also be a requirement of professional industry membership, so if your role asked for that when you applied, they have to adhere to the rules that enable you to retain it.
I’ve done this numerous times over the years, and it doesn’t just feel good to do good and give back. There are very positive, if not selfish, benefits to taking on volunteer work.
When it comes to digital, social and PR, many smaller charities will be vastly under-resourced and under-funded. You can approach your own personal preference group or find advertised roles on sites like Volunteer Now.
I do this every year with an offer to a charity or, like last year, put a call out to organisations who might want a day of my time. It’s a great way to experiment and gain real-life experience, without changing jobs or making the jump into freelance work.
A year after I had to leave a job to gain the commercial experience that I’d been told I was lacking, it is (thankfully) becoming much more common for employees to be given more freedom to pursue opportunities outside their 9-5.
I see more people setting up freelance businesses on the side, attending events as guest speakers, or delivering training to other sectors. As long as it doesn’t conflict commercially, I see this as a no-brainer.
Staff retention and satisfaction improves, as does their skill set and experience.
So propose it to your employer if you want to start doing something in the evenings and promote to your social networks that you would like to take on some projects in digital areas.
Lots of small businesses - particularly those involved with enterprise centres and entrepreneurial groups - will be more comfortable hiring a freelancer than a big agency, given their budgets.
My friend Callum’s event company is the perfect example of someone starting a successful business while still in-house.
The most difficult question I get asked is “do you think I should get a digital qualification?”
It’s hard for me to answer because I know that I’m biased. And I know that I can’t speak for all qualifications. I’m also aware that most employers are asking for a digital qualification, with no actual understanding of whether it’s relevant/necessary to the role.
But as a general rule my answer is no. I completed one module of the Digital Diploma. It cost me (including required CIM membership and text book) a total of £572.80 plus 9 hours of my time in classes (I would charge out at £25 an hour) and a further 3 full days writing an assignment.
For one module. Out of three.
Now I can see some learning benefits to that if you didn’t already have existing knowledge, as I did. But my issue is that all of that information is available for free online. The only thing it gave me was a certificate with the word “distinction” on it.
That doesn’t mean I’m against up-skilling. Quite the opposite. I’ve been a massive proponent of it over the years (see my CIPR video on CPD here). Nowadays I ignore the generic routes and seek out my own training. For example, back in May I paid someone who delivers SEO training to do one day bespoke for me, 1-1, ignoring all the stuff I already know and just taking me through Google Adwords.
I know this can seem like a daunting thing when you’re young or even as you get older and you’ve spent a lot of time in-house. Networking can sound like something only independent business people do.
But there are so many opportunities here, both online and in real life. Twitter chats like #BelfastHour are great for building your profile and LinkedIn is another super place to engage in discussions, connect with people who might help you get ahead and join industry groups to see what the latest technical developments and job opportunities are.
In person too, there are lots of opportunities. Not just conferences you attend as a spectator, either. You can offer your time to deliver training or mentorship in the knowledge areas you do know at enterprise centres, co-working spaces and startup hubs, in exchange for a seat at events you want to learn more about. Or you could join a local board, as I did with the CIPR Committee while I still worked in an in-house role.
There are plenty of formal organisations like Women in Business, although personally I didn’t benefit from that. But it’s ok to keep trying (without costly outlay) until you find one that works for you. Free groups like the Lean In Belfast circle for example, where you can find a mass of people willing to offer advice and work opportunities. You could even get involved in helping run the group with social media, blogging or websites once you join.
This works a bit like my approach to sourcing training, except instead of paying someone to teach you, you can find another person in your industry who could learn from you too as a ‘skill exchange’.
These kinds of pairings are quite common and you’ll see people do it if you watch other folk in your industry interacting online (which you should be doing FYI).
So, for example, I have people like Wayne Denner - whom I might give advice to on something like buying ad space whereas he will help me with the technicalities of migrating my website hosting, or give me advice on developing my business.
You can use this across a multitude of industries, too. I could ask a photographer friend to show me basic Photoshop in exchange for proof-reading his new website, if I needed more graphic design experience.
This might seem like a silly suggestion when its you who wants to be mentored, but actually I found that mentoring is a great way to further your career options, add to your CV and come across other opportunities, again, through building networks.
You could do something like this informally with a student placement or go through an official organisation like Young Enterprise NI (as I did) where you’ll not just work with a school team and students, but you’ll also meet other business people and mentors at training end events.
Even just supporting colleagues in your industry, perhaps reaching out over LinkedIn, can lead to new things for you.
A woman I met for coffee after she asked for advice because she was stuck in a rut in her old job, is now offering me training work though her new employer. That’s just one example, of many.
This one should probably have come first, as I say it all the time. And I know people dread it because they think “I can’t” or “I don’t have time” or “no-one will read it.”
Firstly, blogging doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as putting a few paragraphs in a LinkedIn post, or a post in a LinkedIn group, about a topic in your industry. If you want to blog but don’t want your own website, try a publishing platform like Medium.
If you’re pursuing a social media career, blogging could be as simple finding one channel to specialise in and growing that to the point where your channel is a prime example that you could show to prospective employers/clients.
But if you are working towards better digital or SEO knowledge, or a bigger industry reputation, then starting your own platform and making it work technically is a great project. Lana Richardson’s is a great example of this.
Of course at first you might struggle finding your voice or a topic you care enough about to write about every week (I had two non-popular blogs before this; one during my pregnancy and one I started in 2013 on fashion when I actually don’t like shopping all that much!)
And yes, at first, only your Mum will read it.
But you must keep going, because you must practice what you preach. See it as a great - invisible - way to experiment and create an online portfolio.
That’s all this blog started out as, until two years later when it brought me to a place of being well-enough known to turn it into a business!
So there you have it, my top tips for moving your career forward in the digital arena, whether you’re starting out or stuck in a rut!