Teaching Digital Marketing in Higher Education – Interview with Annmarie Hanlon

Name me one industry that has not been disrupted by technology and the rise of the Digital Economy? Industries such as book and music publishing have seen monumental changes in their respective business models as well as the skills required by employees to stand a chance of being hired, most noticeably the demand for digital skills. The same could be said about higher education – are we about to see a change in how universities and colleges re-position themselves to cater for a growing demand in digital skills?

There have been a few universities that are already re-positioning themselves as “schools of excellence” in serving the need for digital marketing as well as alternative training being offered by well respected digital agencies offering online learning (Moz.com, DistilledU).

To discuss this in more detail, I caught up with Annmarie Hanlon, a lecturer in digital marketing at the University of Derby as well as trainer and author with a career spanning 17 years. We discuss the demand for digital learning and how this is catered for in higher education and should universities be doing more to invite digital marketing professionals into the teaching profession?




Tell us a little about Annmarie?

My digital journey started in 1999, when I worked in ‘internet marketing’ and created the first online model for the UK’s largest slimming organization and one of my early website projects generated over a million visitors in under 8 months (when other sites were getting 10,000 visitors), so the Google team kept phoning!

And I have a passion for gadgets. Anything that saves time. So some years ago when working in Hong Kong, I bought a business card reader (this was before LinkedIn), the only challenge was getting it to work on UK format cards and the first mobile phone I used (it was rented) came with a battery pack the size of four house bricks. Today my latest device is the Apple Watch. I love it. And yes it tells the time, makes me move when I’ve been at my desk for more than an hour and is fun!

Originally I studied French and Linguistics, then an MBA and along the way studied for the Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma for which I won the Worshipful Company of Marketors’ award for the best results worldwide. This was when I realized marketing was my passion.












Photo credit to charlottejopling.com



What types of companies have you worked for?

Over the last 20 years I’ve worked on projects with clients from sectors including manufacturing, technology, healthcare, professional services and consumer goods.  Many well-known brand names both in the UK and globally, but these days they’re tied up in NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) which means I’ve legally promised not to name names.


Evonomie – could you give us some insights on this digital marketing consultancy and what you offer organisations?

The consultancy focuses on strategic digital transformation. Moving from a traditional marketing perspective towards an integrated and more digital approach. Many companies are still ignoring digital although their customers have adopted new ways of working. We work with companies to develop a roadmap toward digital.  At the same time, I work on a one to one basis with board members who want to discover how digital impacts their customers and what this means for their business.


You spend a great deal of your time lecturing digital marketing at the University of Derby – could you provide us with some insights into the types of courses being provided?

I’m at the University of Derby two days a week, this fits in really well with my PhD studies and has also enabled me to create and shape a new digital marketing degree; BSc (Hons) Marketing (Digital) which will provide students with the tools, techniques and deep academic understanding of digital marketing.


There seems to still be little options available for students wanting to study digital marketing at University  – why is that?

Being a part-time academic, I finally understand the challenges that university life involves. Changing a degree requires more than the verification processes, it’s about creating new content and many universities have great courses they have delivered for some time, so to make changes requires significant effort – potentially re-writing course material and making existing material obsolete. At Derby I’ve been positively encouraged to create new courses – I think as a newer university there are fewer ‘sacred cows’ and change is easier, they are a great team.


Digital marketing in its very essence requires a “forever learning” culture where new channels emerge and strategies change to support a successful digital strategy – is this very culture the reason why it’s been hard for higher education to create syllabus learning?

There are a range of great strategic marketing models emerging, some we know well, such as PR Smith’s SOSTAC® to Dave Chaffey’s RACE Planning model (that’s the one I use in my consultancy work too), so the strategy should remain ‘strategic’ and shouldn’t necessarily change frequently. The tools and tactics constantly change and perhaps there is confusion with the plethora of new platforms and ways of doing business, being seen as adding apprehension about ‘digital’. If you’ve been teaching for 15 or more years, it is a step into the unknown.

In terms of the syllabus, it can be adapted to combine the practical as well as higher learning required. For example, our ‘Introduction to Digital’ module has adopted a new approach – that’s been approved by internal and external verifiers – instead of a formal exam, the student has to set up, plan, create and add content to a social media platform – which could include Twitter or LinkedIn. This enables the students to understand the strategic implications of a tactical tool as well as providing real-world useful skills.


There have been a number of digital agencies and online learning modules that provide digital marketing training e.g. DistilledU, Udemy, Moz – do you see this as a threat to the traditional higher education route in students having to go to university to learn the trade?

There are so many learning options! From MOOCs to the online platforms you’ve mentioned. There is a place for all of these options based on what the individual needs at that moment. All learning is useful! But in the longer-term those with degrees earn significantly more.


Do Universities need to be inviting seasoned digital marketing professionals to take up more careers in teaching the subject? In oher words, would more hands-on knowledge help to compliment the demands and requirements for students? For example, how many lecturers actually have a blog on their personal writings?

Great question! And one of the reasons I’m at the University of Derby. For a few years I’d delivered a guest lecture on one of their digital modules which I really enjoyed and this got me thinking. More research was needed into social media networks – from there I started a PhD. This means I understand the ‘academic rigour’ that’s required, this is the key difference between hands-on knowledge and academia – the practical side tells a story, can be anecdotal and based on loosely gathered information. Academic work is based on a whole series of checks and balances. As an example, Dr Jan Breitsohl at the University of Aberystwyth is working on online communities and consumer interactions. Jan’s work is evidence-based and has involved many individuals from many sectors.

The other issue with research is that it must be able to be repeated. So if I make a claim based on one company, I need to be able to replicate in another – the original alchemists worked on their own, didn’t share their methods and never made progress. If they had, they would have discovered ‘fail fast’. Formal research is sharing methods, making them open to scrutiny and making progress together.


What do you see as the key traits to develop to ensure you have a successful digital marketing career?

This very much depends on where the individual is. I’ve met many clients who graduated some time ago and they’re looking for the quick win and the shorter courses – like those offered by Dave. If they have more time and enthusiasm, I’d suggest a Master’s degree, focusing on digital. This provides that extra learning, but with real foundation. And for those just starting out, a degree is a great foundation. Once you have an education, no one can take it away.


What’s on your reading list?

Through the university’s system I have access to thousands of journals from across the globe, which is wonderful. So many to choose. Two of the many major lightbulb moments for me include:

Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak’s ‘Marketing in Hypermedia’ published in the Journal of Marketing back in 1996 first describes the concept of user generated content and the impact on business.

Mark Granovetter’s paper ‘The strength of weak ties’, published in the American Journal of Sociology, in 1978. It explains why LinkedIn would always be successful.

I’ve recently read Stephan Dahl’s book ‘Social Media Marketing, Theories and Applications’. A well-written book which contains a variety of models, plenty of academic underpinning, frameworks and useful definitions. Well-referenced and many relevant and recent case studies. Strongly recommended.

And the next one I’m about to read is ‘Customer Centric Marketing’ by Neil Richardson, Jon James and Neil Kelly. With several train journeys this month, it looks like a good read.


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