Studying Marketing at university was a frustrating waste of time

“Hey mate, you’re studying marketing at uni. Can you help me with my business?”

For many people, the answer to that question is probably “no”.

I was asked this recently, which really put into perspective the fragile connection between these two concepts - studying marketing at uni and actually being able to do something.

I almost felt bad for the person asking; their innocent belief that university would have taught me some valuable lessons which could help their burgeoning business.

I’m coming to the end of my three year Commerce (Marketing) degree at a major Sydney university and I have learnt very little beyond what I studied in high school Business Studies.

And yes, my university results haven’t been great; largely because I stopped caring a long time ago. The inept nature of the degree drained me of any motivation to participate. Instead, I have devoted myself to marketing projects outside of uni and could not be happier with this decision.

I do work in marketing (this isn’t the bitter rage of an unemployed student), but I only know what I’m doing because of the hard work I put in outside of my degree and a lot of luck. This isn’t me bragging, rather a lamentation that in my current occupation, almost nothing from my degree has guided me in any way.

I wish it did! Instead, I’ve spent more than 3000 hours at uni and have more than $35,000 debt to my name for merely a tick on my resume.

Sure, this is acceptable for a lot of students who need that tick before working in large companies with extensive training programs.

But for those of us who want to work for anybody else— startups, small businesses, agencies et al.— our three year degree should be the “training program”.

Instead, it fails to equip students with the necessary skills to connect businesses with their market. This is absolutely unacceptable. This needs to change.

Almost every unit is the same

Nearly every unit in my marketing degree is the same thing, with a different name. It’s almost as if this was designed to teach students about the power of branding.

Be it Consumer Behaviour, Communications, Marketing Strategy or Branding; the same basic principals are rehashed, with minor variations.

This has become laughably predictable. Every course emphasises, as if delivering some sort of revelation, that marketing is about understanding the consumer. Every course boldly discusses how some brands position themselves to cater to their target market. No fucking shit.

These units very rarely ground themselves in practical skills. Instead they focus on wishy-washy holistic views of large corporations, as if designed to help us sound smart at banal networking events without actually knowing what we’re doing.

It’s akin to a medical course spending its entire time teaching you about how hospitals work, without teaching you how to identify medical issues or how to treat them.

There’s a horrifying amount of topics left out

The extremely frustrating thing is that there is so much that could be taught at university, which would genuinely help students become skilled marketers.

For example, here’s a random advertisement for an assistant marketing job. I have marked all of the job requirements that weren’t properly taught (if even mentioned) in my degree.

And here’s the next job I clicked on:

I can not fathom why these sorts of practical topics are ignored by those composing the course, despite being so clearly important and easily structured into lessons.

Here’s a list of topics that my marketing degree at a major Sydney university did not properly teach or, in some cases, even mention:

  • Search Engine Optimisation
  • Content Marketing
  • Email Marketing
  • Social Media Management
  • Digital Marketing Analytics
  • Media Planning and Buying
  • Lead Generation
  • Mobile Marketing
  • UX and UI
  • Computer Design
  • Traditional Advertising Channels
  • B2B Marketing

Breathtaking.

Search Engine Optimisation

Why are we not taught a single thing about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)? I don’t think I’ve heard the term uttered once throughout my three years, yet it is such a crucial skill in the modern world of digital marketing.

There are a myriad of topics to do with SEO that could be structured into a unit. Everything from how search engine crawlers operate, the use of link building, the impact of website structure, keyword research, penalties and how to measure results.

I bet most of my marketing cohort couldn’t tell you what half of these things are and yet SEO is such a fundamental aspect of digital marketing. This is not their fault, its a failure of the system.

Maybe my uni could do with a bit of SEO study themselves?

The amount of extreme value students could derive from a unit on SEO is incredible. It would fuel them with practical skills and knowledge which can be actioned to connect businesses with their market. In job interviews, graduates would be able to confidently express their ability to optimise businesses for search engines rather than merely their intentions to “learn”.

Indeed, these are all things I have had to learn (and am still learning) from my boss, books and from online tutorials. What exactly was the point of uni?

Here’s a screenshot of an email my boss had to send me, to compensate for how useless he knows marketing degrees are.

Content Marketing

Perhaps the defining mantra of modern marketing is “content is king”. Why have I not heard this once while studying marketing?

Content is a major element of every company’s mix, with a huge scope. Everything from blog posts, video, podcasts and webinars are used as part of inbound marketing strategy.

Marketing has become about giving and then asking, rather than simply taking. This shift in philosophy is not being properly recognised by university degrees.

Massive marketing agencies are even starting to outright purchase media outlets, as the content revolution continues to amplify. This industry shift hasn’t been discussed whatsoever in my course.

You could teach multiple units on it, discussing ideation, the utility of different mediums, copy-writing, integration with SEO, distribution/placement, affiliate marketing and native advertising. Or… you could choose to completely ignore it.

EDMs

All of my knowledge about how to effectively use EDMs is sourced from podcasts and Medium articles. I didn’t open MailChimp once at uni.

There are so many lessons to be had about building lists, sales funnels, improving conversion rates, A/B testing, post-purchase automation and more that could make for an extremely useful subject.

Mailchimp has been around for more than fifteen years. Almost every business uses software that is similar. Why don’t universities get their students in computer labs where they can experiment with designing newsletters, curating lists and A/B testing?

Instead, another course on “Consumer Marketing” that briefly mentions CRM and EDMs a few times in between reminders that we must think about the target market.

Social Media Management

Social media is a key area within every graduate marketer is expected to be an expert. There are many differences between maintaining personal social media accounts and those for brands. You see marketing interns making costly mistakes for businesses across social media ever day.

Just a bit of banter with the lads?

There are a plethora of intricacies involved with marketing on different platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. There are genuine strategies which can be used to improve performance; regarding topics like post construction, calls to action, automation, engaging your community, timing and even hashtags.

These platforms are the breeding grounds of great communications campaigns, so why is nothing about social media management taught in depth?

Each platform could literally warrant weeks of dedicated, academic analysis. For example, I’ve spent the last six months studying online resources about the complexities of just Facebook advertising. And let me tell you, there are plenty. As Facebook promotion is something I have to do a lot for businesses I work with, I’ve had to make use of online video courses and educational articles where my degree has failed me.

You can argue that social media platforms change regularly in both relevance and functionality. Facebook could be obsolete in five years, sure. But this sort of disposition doesn’t hold in other courses, does it? Do medicine lecturers neglect teaching students about certain medical practices because better procedures could arise in a decade?

The fact of the matter is: some platforms are relevant for many, many years — enough to warrant being taught by universities. This is undeniable. Anybody who is an expert in the field of marketing should be able to identify platforms that have sustainable utility and those that are just flashes in the pan.

Analytics

Digital marketing analytics are the bread and butter of nearly all marketing campaigns. Even traditional advertising gets measured on the back of online discussion and exposure. Understanding how to measure the effectiveness of digital marketing strategies is a skill you can not go without.

In reality: marketing graduates, fresh out of their degrees and eager to start marketing for businesses, simply don’t know about basic digital marketing metrics such as CTR, CPM, BR, CPC and ER.

Analytics is a subject that could warrant multiple different classes, but instead receives none.

Students should be using programs such as Google Analytics in class — familiarise them with the powerful tools, metrics and data which drive marketing campaigns.

For example, I currently run an e-commerce tea subscription box where measuring conversion rates from Facebook advertising is extremely important. I didn’t know what a “pixel” was until I started this process. Teach students about how pixels work and how to use them to measure the effectiveness of social media campaigns for e-commerce.

Media planning and buying

The concept of media planning and buying is still a mystery to me. I honestly couldn’t tell you what this actually involves. I had to Google search the term just to make sure I wasn’t making it up.

Why have I spent three years studying marketing and not been taught about the basic process of media placement?

This is an everyday task in any marketing agency or department. I’ve seen it listed in the requirements of hundreds of job listings, but still don’t even understand what it involves.

Lead Generation

Teach students about lead generation strategies. “Lead generation” is another phrase I didn’t hear once in my entire time studying marketing.

Go in depth on the process of creating a sales funnel. How do we define a lead and buying journey? What middle-funnel tactics can we use to develop the customer relationship? In other words, teach students how they can enter a business and genuinely improve its performance.

There’s an extensive range of growth and lead hacking strategies which could be discussed, giving students a better idea of actual tactics they can use to generate leads for businesses.

For example, there is a science to creating landing pages with higher conversion rates. The amount of Calls to Action, the use of colour, the promotion of testimonials, the design of headers — these are all factors that have an impact on how well your landing page encourages potential leads to engage. Why isn’t there a class on this for marketing students?

Mobile Marketing

It’s no news to you that the modern world is dominated by mobile technology. There are many technological and psychological intricacies to the mobile marketing landscape which need to be discussed.

There should be units dedicated to creating responsive communications and landing pages.

Discuss the process and potential of building mobile applications for brands. Apps have become a major part of the marketing landscape and are a great way to communicate with your market, provide more value and differentiate from competitors.

Elaborate on tactics for handling inbound and outbound mobile-directed marketing:

How can businesses use SMS and messaging applications to generate leads and manage communities? What are QR codes and how can they be used? Teach students about location-based marketing and how to leverage this technology.

What are the differences between marketing to different forms of mobile technologies? Tablets currently have much higher conversion rates than smartphones. Why, and how? Marketing students need to know.

Traditional Advertising

Even when it comes to more traditional advertising strategies, such as television/radio and print, we learn very little.

These sort of strategies have almost become niche, warranting detailed classes discussing when they are actually appropriate and how they can be pulled off successfully in this new environment.

What sorts of brands still see results from traditional advertising? How have these strategies changed to adapt to consumer behaviour? What is the process of launching a television or radio advertising campaign?

These are all questions that marketing graduates should be able to tackle and think about implementing in the workforce.

Computer Design

The fine line between designer and marketer has become more and more blurry, with social media, content and EDM campaigns often requiring marketers to compose graphics and designed elements for communications.

One of the first listings after searching “marketing graduate job”.

Basic design principles should be taught to every marketing student, as the aesthetic of all communications can have a massive influence.

Anybody managing digital campaigns should understand how to quickly make nice looking graphics and how to watermark with branding.

Students should be trained in how to simply operate the Adobe Suite, with programs such as Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and Lightroom commonly used to create communications material.

They should also be able to make typography decisions, which can have a huge impact on the tone, message and professionalism of communications.

Web design is another important topic that marketers need to have at least a basic understanding of. Many jobs require use of WordPress or Drupal to aid in content marketing. It is ludicrous that content management systems aren’t discussed at all.

A good marketer should be able to understand the aesthetic value of communication materials and make decisions as to what distribution channels they are most suitable for.

UX

Similarly to design, while User Experience courses are their own separate field to marketing, there is a huge amount of crossover.

Both marketing and UX focus on designing a product experience which is tailored to the needs and demands of consumers.

Working hand in hand with the modern consumer-based marketing disposition, UX is about identifying what the market will respond to and catering as such.

Marketing students should learn how to use surveys, interviews, focus groups, journey maps and persona profiles to improve the ability of users to engage with campaigns and products.

This is particularly relevant as a lot of current marketing strategy is experience based and story driven.

B2B Marketing

There are some distinct differences between marketing to businesses (B2B) and marketing to consumers (B2C).

Everything from promotional strategy to landing pages and content marketing needs to be executed differently when marketing B2B.

Graduates should be very well aware of these differences and understand how the industry they are working within affects how they design marketing mixes.

Sales is not a dying art, but one that is changing! Students need to learn about these changes if they want to market to businesses. Successful sales is now about responsiveness and relationship building, rather than charm and product demonstrations.

What do I want?

Imagine a world where marketing students can tailor their marketing major towards genuine specialities based upon their desired skills.

I could graduate having completed a high percentage of B2B marketing units and use that to leverage a job working for a big B2B company.

Alternatively, I could focus on content, design and social media units and use this to secure a digital marketing agency job.

Instead, the current reality is that students graduate having completed a range of marketing units that are all basically the same. They have been taught very few practical skills and feel like experts in no particular area.

I’m sure some of you may tell me that a few of the topics I’ve discussed are actually buried in the Week 6 lecture slides of certain classes. They well may be, but that does not equate to teaching.

Tutorials currently fail to immerse you in practising marketing; very little learning is hands on. Where is the value for students? I can read a textbook without enlisting HECS debt.

These topics require more than one week’s mention in a lecture. They require detailed, in depth and well examined units that train students into talented marketers.

Teaching these isn’t easy, but I don’t care

I am perfectly aware that teaching practical topics like I’ve discussed would make our course coordinators’ jobs a lot more difficult.

Technology, strategies and platforms used are constantly changing and teaching material would require regular updating by genuine marketing experts. For classes to become more immersive, universities would have to rethink how they structure tutorials.

Boo hoo.

Am I asking too much to expect that? This is a degree that was difficult to get into, costs me a lot of money and has taken three years of my life. I demand more.

Can you imagine if you paid $35,000 for a private marketing course, and they didn’t discuss any of the topics I discussed earlier? You would be absolutely livid. You would demand your money back. Why is our reaction any different when it comes to university?

The fact of the matter is, lecturers and tutors seem incapable of teaching these topics in depth; as if they don’t actually work in marketing. They are particularly incompetent and negligent when it comes to teaching digital marketing, which just happens to be the dominant marketing practice of this era.

Stop getting the students to teach your classes

Adding to my frustration, I have found that for a concerning amount of my classes, the second half of semester is almost entirely consumed by students presenting as part of assessments.

Very often, these presentations are on the subject that is being discussed during that week of class.

In other words, the students are teaching the class through the guise of “assessed presentations”.

What a cop out.

Some of these presentations are great and well researched by students, but that does not make the practice any more acceptable.

We are paying the university to provide us with experts who can share their knowledge and experience. We are not paying simply for the luxury of a classroom so we can teach ourselves.

Unpaid internships should not be the accepted learning ground

A few mates who I’ve shared my frustrations with have responded:

“You learn how to do the practical things when you intern.”

Indeed, the most valuable learning comes from immersing yourself in actual businesses, and understandably so.

But that is no excuse for universities to supplement this learning so poorly. Of course marketing is a very practical subject, but there are still a massive amount of topics that can be taught academically.

Students should enter internships with the requisite skills to allow them to learn from the results of implementation, rather than how to implement in the first place.

If you don’t believe that marketing can be taught academically, which is an understandable position to take (even though I disagree), why does every marketing job require a degree? If I want to work in marketing, why am I required to waste my time on a pointless academic pursuit?

Furthermore, this emphasis on interning has contributed to the disgusting “unpaid internship” culture that dominates our industry.

Businesses know that marketing students are desperate to learn actual skills and, without any utility provided by university, only experience can help them.

Despite being blatantly illegal, unpaid internships are jumped on by students due to this forced disposition, facilitating the undeniable exploitation of labour.

While much of the blame for this culture should be placed on the shoulders of shameless marketing managers, a lot of it can be attributed to the failures of universities in training students.

Graduates should finish their marketing degrees feeling skilled and worthy of remuneration for their work. Employees should be able to trust them not to be incompetent, and thereby a worthwhile investment.

What advice I would give to budding marketers

Don’t expect your marketing degree to teach you how to work in marketing. Unless something changes, this is a process you will have to undertake yourself.

Start producing that blog or Youtube channel you’ve always been too shy to launch. It doesn’t matter what your friends think about you. You’ll learn extremely important lessons about content marketing, SEO, EDMs and social media marketing.

Back yourself. See how far you can take it. How can you monetise your blog? How large can your audience grow?

Learning to grow an audience is an exciting, fulfilling and deeply useful process. I spent my school years being the weird kid who wrote blogs. I also worked on building a small Twitter following within my niche.

Nothing special whatsoever, but a valuable process from which I learnt about what sort of content people engage with.

Even if things don’t take off, you’ll equip yourself with skills that employees will love further down the line.

You’ll also start building a portfolio, which you can leverage to pick up content jobs. One content job leads to another, before eventually you have an impressive resume that convinces a small agency to take you on.

Unless your plan is to transition straight into big corporate through the established channels, which is nothing to be ashamed about, you have to skill yourself through extra-curricular activity to survive.

Unfortunately, a marketing degree is still necessary. Many people won’t even interview you without one. It’s a shame that they are so pathetically constructed, when they really don’t have to be.