What Is a Marketing Specialist and Should You Become One? was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
So you’re considering a career in marketing and wondering whether to explore a specialty within the field. Do you dig deep and become an expert in email marketing, for example? Or do you pursue the path of a marketing generalist, someone who works across the marketing team? How do you decide?
Well you’ve come to the right place. I’m a longtime marketer myself, and I’ve also asked some fellow experts for their insights on marketing specialists to help you understand what they are, how to become one, and what pros and cons you should consider.
A marketing specialist is someone who, as the name suggests, specializes within a particular area of marketing, such as influencer marketing, SEO, social media, email marketing, field and event marketing, market research, branding, paid media, content marketing, copywriting, and so forth.
“A general marketer is a jack of all trades. They’re responsible for activities across the entire marketing funnel and will tackle projects in sales marketing, product marketing, corporate communications, and more,” explains Lynda Liu, marketing director of Place Exchange, an advertising technology company. On the other hand, “a specialist would be focused on one area of marketing within a larger team and would have the opportunity to go deep in that subject matter.” In short, they become experts in their niche.
That’s something I’ve done personally—focusing on social media and building a deep expertise in developing content and campaigns and increasing engagement on channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, for brands including the Queens Public Library, the New York City Marathon, and Adobe, as well as B2B companies.
For some in-demand roles—particularly at larger companies—there may be entry-level specialist roles (such as social media coordinators, junior copywriters, email marketing assistants, and more) that you may be able to apply to. You’ll be well-positioned for these kinds of early-career specialist jobs if you have relevant experience through coursework or specialized degrees, certificates, volunteering, a related job, internships, freelancing, or working on marketing for your own side hustle.
But often, entry-level marketers start off in a general support position (with a title like “marketing coordinator”) that involves working on a variety of projects as part of a broader marketing team. Gaining this range of experience can expose you to a variety of potential specialties you can then choose to pursue at higher levels, such as manager, senior manager, and director.
“Being a general marketer gives you the opportunity to have a broad knowledge base across all marketing channels and strategies and the ability to build out an effective marketing plan, but not necessarily execute it on your own,” says Jenny LaVelle, senior director of revenue and strategic partnerships of the weekly newsletter and community Girls’ Night In.
This is a good position to be in when you’re just starting out, aren’t sure where your interests lie, and are looking to gain exposure to a variety of specialties. Plus, if you do decide to specialize, you’ll have some projects and accomplishments under your belt that you can talk about in your resumes, cover letters, and interviews to help you land specialist roles going forward.
There are several benefits to homing in on a particular area of marketing. As a specialist:
1. You Get to Stick to What You Like
Maybe you like SEO and are obsessed with figuring out how to get your website to rank well on Google, but you’re much less excited about other areas of marketing. By specializing, you can focus on what you enjoy and skip the parts that aren’t that interesting to you.
2. You’ll Become an Expert
You can focus on your deep knowledge in a given area and sharpen your skills. Aside from feeling knowledgeable about your field, which can be rewarding in its own way, you can also use this expertise to land speaking opportunities (as I have done) or become a thought leader (by authoring articles or starting a networking group for your specialty, for example).
3. You Can Gain More Visibility and Influence
Marketing VPs, CMOs, and even CEOs frequently tap specialists for their expertise, increasing your exposure to people with influence within your company, says Mansur Khamitov, PhD, MBA, professor of marketing at Nanyang Business School in Singapore and a vice chair of the American Marketing Association’s Consumer Behavior Special Interest Group.
That’s been the case for me. I’ve been invited to advise CEOs, board members, and other executives on the company’s social media strategy as well as individual leaders’ social profiles, starting as early as at the manager level—something that likely wouldn’t have happened if I’d had a general marketing manager role.
Before you make any decision, you should also know and weigh the downsides. In this case, as a specialist:
1. You Aren’t in Control of the Bigger Picture
You may have oversight of your given area within the marketing team, but you may not be able to apply your learnings to help or influence other marketing functions. In other words, “you may not have control over the holistic marketing plan,” Liu says.
This was something I found particularly challenging working in social media. I would be the “ears” of the organizations I worked for, hearing firsthand from followers what was working and what wasn’t through real-time social media comments and engagement metrics. But I couldn’t always convince the broader marketing team—which didn’t often have these real-time data points to inform their decision making—to adapt their strategies based on these insights.
2. You May Have Knowledge Gaps
“Being a specialist means that you’re focusing all of your time and energy into one specific area, and oftentimes don’t get access or build knowledge around everything else that goes into building a successful marketing plan,” LaVelle says.
And if you don’t also have experience working as a generalist, “you may not have firsthand knowledge or personal case studies you can reference on how different parts of the marketing engine worked together to deliver results,” Liu says.
However, there are ways you can try to offset this disadvantage. Liu recommends making time to “sync up” with your marketing team members to stay up to date on everything that’s going on, align on efforts, and gain a greater understanding of how what you’re doing impacts the larger strategy and company’s overall growth and other key performance indicators. You can also fill in gaps by keeping up with general industry news, working on side projects, and seeking additional certifications in other areas beyond your focus.
3. Your Growth Potential May Be Limited
“Narrowly trained specialists are likely to be passed up for promotions,” Khamitov says. You may not be able to advance beyond a certain title or pay level—such as email marketing manager or senior social media manager—for some specialties, and you may have a hard time advancing to broader VP of marketing and Chief Marketing Officer roles if you don’t have enough general knowledge of marketing.
Within the field of social media, for instance, I found a ceiling at the senior manager level. That was something I was able to overcome by obtaining an MBA in marketing, which helped me advance to director of digital marketing and director of engagement roles.
4. You Can Risk Specializing in Something That Becomes Obsolete
LaVelle stresses the importance of recognizing the lifetime value of a given specialty. “For example, social media isn’t going anywhere, but if you become specifically tied to one app and then it ends up becoming irrelevant, then that may leave you having to pivot and relearn new skills,” she says. That’s a reason I’ve avoided roles that specialize too far within social media, such as managers of a given channel or aspect of a channel (say Pinterest, YouTube, or Instagram Stories). This is important to consider as channels that were once hot, like Vine, have disappeared altogether, while others, like Snapchat, have lost their dominance.
Liu suggests starting out in a general marketing role first to find out what aspects of marketing you enjoy the most before deciding whether to specialize and in what area. “If time allows, pick up side projects that give you experience into areas of marketing outside of your current role,” Liu suggests. “Reach out to individuals in those areas for informational interviews.”
That’s a recommendation LaVelle seconds: “Seek out people who are in these roles and ask them advice, such as their career path, how they spend their days and the pros and cons of working in their specialty,” she says. If that’s not an option, she suggests researching various marketing job descriptions to learn more about what you’d be spending your day doing and see if the day-to-day responsibilities are a match for your interests.
For even more ways to explore your options before committing, Khamitov recommends joining webinars and conferences, becoming a member of industry social media and online communities, and taking online courses focused on marketing in general and/or marketing specialties that are of interest.
Another important factor to consider is your personality. Liu suggests thinking about how you prefer to work and asking yourself the following types of questions:
- Do you like juggling and switching between a range of projects that require analytical and creative skill sets? Do you like variety in your week? (Then you may enjoy being a generalist.)
- Are there specific types of marketing projects you know you like or dislike? Do you tend to double down and learn every single detail about a topic that interests you? (Then you may want to specialize.)
In the end, it may not be about opting for one direction or the other, but finding a way to do both. “A lot of future VPs and CMOs end up rotating across different marketing sub-areas as they progress through the career ladder, so in a way they end up being sort of hybrid ‘generalists-specialists,’” Khamitov says.
No matter what path you decide to take now, you’ll want to learn to market your own marketing abilities—that is, to sell yourself as an employee or consultant to a future employer. If, for instance, you want to advance in your career by specializing, then you’ll need to be able to make the case for why your specialist experiences are an advantage. If you want to specialize and then generalize or transition to another specialty, you’ll need to make the case why you’re suited to make those moves.
Learning the art of marketing myself in this way is something that’s allowed me to start with digital marketing, specialize within social media, grow into broader director-level roles, and now operate as a full-time marketing consultant, where I bounce between the specialties of content marketing, copywriting, and social media, depending on the demand and my own interests.
So if you’re still torn, remember that you don’t have to make one decision and stick to it forever. If you keep learning and adapting throughout your career, as any good marketer should, and if you can learn to tell a compelling story about yourself and your skills, you can spend time as a generalist and as a specialist.