Don Draper is the mysterious ad executive portrayed by Jon Hamm on AMC’s Mad Men who has risen to the top of 1960s advertising agency elite. On the show, he’s known for understanding the desires of clients and effectively pitching and selling big ideas.
But there’s something his clients and colleagues don’t know (spoiler alert!): Don’s true identity is Dick Whitman, an orphan raised in a brothel, high school dropout, Korean war deserter and used car salesman. He’s an imposter.
While Don’s past is checkered, his position is impressive given that the 1960s Madison Avenue advertising community was an “old boy” network, many of whose members rose to prominence from well-to-do families and Ivy League pedigrees. These days, advertising is much more accepting of varied backgrounds, but a college degree is still a prerequisite.
Yet as more and more advertising turns digital, the skills and knowledge required are shifting too quickly for traditional colleges to keep up with. As a result, the best marketing education is now found online. And it’s much less expensive than a four-year diploma.
Follow this “curriculum” of high-quality online instruction to become a master of digital marketing and advertising:
General Studies 101: math, business and writing
To become a great marketer, the price of admission is a basic understanding of of math, business and English composition. Turn to the Khan Academy for online courses on arithmetic and probability and statistics. It also helps to have a foundational understanding of microeconomics and finance, particularly the modules on interest, debt and basic accounting.
Writing skills, such as achieving a readable writing style and strong grammar and punctuation, are an absolute necessity to writing copy that sells. Without these skills, you will be singled out as a weak writer. To brush up on your writing, a good starting point is Duke’s English Composition I course on Coursera. If you don’t want to work on a typical college schedule, some good self-paced alternatives include the “Cleaning Your Copy” course from Poynter’s New University and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips.
Although it’s easy to complain about standardized tests, much of the foundational knowledge required for marketing is found on the SAT and can be gained with the same preparation with these high-quality free online courses.
Core curriculum: online marketing
Once you’re confident in your foundation in writing, math and business concepts, you can move on to the fun stuff! The HubSpot Academy is a great place for a free primer in online marketing, and upon completion, you’ll receive an official HubSpot certification. Another solid free resource is Inbound.org, a Reddit-style site for marketing-related articles. The best articles are upvoted and organized so you don’t have to go searching.
If you’re willing to pay for premium online marketing content, the first stop is MarketingProfs, a broad, high-quality content library with videos, PDF guides, webinars and more. They cover all variety of online and offline marketing, and they also offer a substantial amount of free content.
As you move to more advanced topics, you’ll want to look into certain niches like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) with DistilledU, public relations with Mediabistro, social media with Hootsuite U, affiliate marketing with Fizzle.co or content marketing with CopyBlogger.
If you decide to take the solopreneur route, it’s critical to have an understanding of how to do different roles—even if you plan on outsourcing or hiring others to fulfill some of the tasks that aren’t your strengths. You’ll want to have cursory knowledge of image editing, data analysis tools such as Microsoft Excel and general business skills.
Adobe Photoshop is the most popular program for basic image editing and is worth spending a little time learning. Udemy has a free Photoshop primer, and if you’re looking to advance your skills, consider Skillfeed, which offers a variety of Photoshop and design courses online.
Excel is an indispensable tool for marketing analytics. There are a lot of free Excel tutorials on the Internet, but paid courses like Excel With Business and Filtered provide adaptive skills testing and high-quality training. Finally, some business courses such as the 60-Day MBA can help you fill in the holes in your business knowledge for far less money and time than the traditional two-year MBA.
While marketing courses in college are more theoretical, learning online marketing requires real-world action and experimentation. To setup your “laboratory,” you’ll need a website to play around with. WordPress is free and easy to set up, so it’s a good place to start building your site.
If your site has an e-commerce component, check out Shopify. From there, you can experiment with different forms of content, blogging, copywriting and SEO. To tinker in social media, you can always use your own Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts, but it’s a better idea to create separate pages or profiles for your blog or website.
You can use Google Analytics to see what content and social media channels are performing well. Try many of the tips that Fizzle, CopyBlogger, MarketingProfs and HubSpot recommend. The most important step is to document and capture data on everything, both for your own learning as well as your ability to communicate to employers what you have learned.
Take pictures, store your analytics and use portfolio sites like Accredbile and Pathbrite (both free) to showcase your work and demonstrate your skills to prospective employers. If you have a novel idea or product, you may even be able skip the job interviews and become your own boss.
The modern-day Mad Men are coming
If you bought all of the monthly services above (including website hosting), the cost would run less than $3,000 per year, and you’d have enough content to fill your entire day, nearly every day. Compare that to the average college tuition cost (now $22,421 a year), and the fact that a standard marketing curriculum is often obsolete by the time you finish it, and it’s clear that learning marketing online offers a compelling alternative.
And, perhaps more importantly, learning online means you’ll be experimenting, testing as you go and building a track record (perhaps of failures, but that doesn’t matter so much). This track record and your ability to show a potential employer what you’ve done will make you as valuable (or more so) than a typical marketing school graduate.
It takes real focus and more than a little effort, but in today’s world, skipping college and becoming a Don Draper is more plausible than ever—and you don’t need to create a fake identity to do it.
Brad Zomick works at SkilledUp.com, a leading curator of online educational content, including over 80,000 online courses from over 300 providers available in areas like Programming, Graphic Design, Content Creation, Marketing and more. Find online courses at SkilledUp.com to get skills and get ahead, and visit them on Facebook and Twitter.