This is a guest post by Joyce Chou, the Senior Content Lead at Demand Curve. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.
At different points in my life, I imagined myself as a journalist, art therapist, foreign service officer, or sociologist.
All over the place, right?
But despite their differences, these career aspirations were united by a common thread: an interest in people and communication. So although I had never imagined becoming a marketer, it made perfect sense in hindsight.
My path into marketing wasn’t a linear one. In a nutshell, here’s how it looked:
I know many others can relate to my meandering trajectory with their own versions—even the marketing superstars.
Brian Dean, founder of Backlinko and Exploding Topics, originally studied nutrition and worked as a dietician before creating niche sites.
Marketing expert Kevan Lee began his career as a sports reporter.
And Amanda Natividad from Sparktoro started out as a tech journalist and test kitchen cook.
These are just a few of many who’ve found their way into marketing from other disciplines. The point here: You don’t need a formal marketing background to become a content marketer.
The demand for content has grown exponentially over the last decade. Part of this growth comes from the rise of smartphones and social media, which have made it easier than ever to tap into and explore the web. Interestingly, COVID has also contributed—people consume more digital content than ever before.
As the demand for content continues to grow, so does the demand for content marketers.
According to LinkedIn data, marketing jobs grew by a stunning 374% in 2021. And if you look up “content marketing jobs” in Google Trends, you can see that searches have been growing steadily since 2004, long before the pandemic.
Even a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum predicts job growth in sales, marketing, and content as the second largest in the coming years, beat only by healthcare.
In short, as far as job security goes, content marketing has a pretty rosy outlook.
One way to think about content marketing: It’s a profession of “part artists and technicians,” built around using data and creativity to tell stories about businesses and products.
While the exact details of content marketing work vary between companies, these roles often involve four key tasks:
Technical skills like search engine optimization (SEO), design, and HTML/CSS are also important components of content marketing. However, starting out in an entry-level content role, you can generally develop these over time—they’re not a prerequisite to break into the field.
At its core, content marketing is all about storytelling. Content marketers take in information through research and analytics to craft interesting narratives that engage and inspire.
While no two paths are the same, content marketers with unconventional backgrounds often share similar advice for how to find professional success. I’m still figuring this out myself—but I've learned a thing or two that others interested in content marketing might find helpful.
Below are some key takeaways. Aside from how to move into marketing, I’ve also included a few actionable tips for how to advance your marketing career.
A lot of entry-level job posts require some work experience. This creates a weird paradox for new job seekers: How do you get experience when you need it to get hired in the first place?
Fortunately, not all companies expect experience of entry-level candidates. But for those that do, there’s another way to show your worth to employers: become a “permission-less apprentice.”
The idea behind the permission-less apprenticeship is to add value for a company without being asked. Think of it as a hands-on alternative to reaching out with a resume or applying for a job.
I used this tactic in 2015 after noticing friends share articles from Odyssey, a crowdsourced media platform, on Facebook. Many had typos and errors. So I copied and pasted one such article in a Word doc, made edits with “Track Changes” turned on, and then attached it to a cold email to Odyssey.
Here’s what I wrote in my email:
I sent my message to the generic contact email on the site. The next day, an assistant managing editor replied asking to set up a phone interview.
Although I’d written that I was more interested in gaining experience than compensation, I started my first ever paid editing job with Odyssey the following month. And while the role wasn’t focused on marketing, I’d eventually take this editing experience to my later content jobs.
The permission-less apprentice’s approach to gaining experience can be applied to a variety of content roles, not just editing. Here are a few ideas:
An important note here: Set reasonable expectations for the target company you hope to score an apprenticeship with.
I probably couldn’t have snagged editing work by cold pitching an established media company like Vox or NPR. Odyssey felt within closer reach—it was newer and since I learned about it through my peers, I understood its audience.
Size up your apprenticeship opportunities accordingly. Smaller businesses are often a better bet because they’re hungry for growth.
The first article I ever published online was in 2017 for a personal finance website. I published a second one a few months later. While I didn’t get paid for either article, I’d eventually use them as writing samples to get my first full-time digital marketing job.
Cover letters act like writing samples—but when pitted against dozens or hundreds of others, a good letter often becomes the bare minimum for selling yourself. It’s because of this, and the fact that creating content is fundamental to content marketing, that a writing portfolio is a must.
Some people may have existing writing samples from prior projects, like a personal blog or business report. If you don’t, here are a few ways to start building your writing portfolio:
Note that the third option can be very time- and resource-intensive. And as Nick Moore writes, you don’t need a long-term passion project to showcase your writing ability. The idea is to simply create enough content to give yourself a footing.
My first marketing job was at a venture studio in Taiwan, working alongside other expats who had shifted from teaching English to digital marketing. As onboarding resources, we read Moz’s SEO guide and studied content from Backlinko and Ahrefs. Almost none of us had marketing degrees.
Despite that, the company flourished. Relying on content as our biggest growth engine, we drove meaningful and consistent jumps in revenue year over year.
Many of the strategies we put into practice came directly from the resources we read, most of which were free. It’s because of these resources that content marketing has a low barrier to entry. So long as you have access to the internet, you can learn a lot about marketing—and you should.
Besides the ones mentioned above, here are a few other resources worth checking out:
An important note, whether or not you’re already aware: Digital marketing is a broad field. It encompasses a lot—which can make it intimidating when you’re trying to figure out where to start.
So rather than picking one marketing topic and diving deeply right away, take a look at the syllabi of different marketing courses. This will help you get a rough idea of what broader themes you should focus on first.
For instance, here’s a digital marketing syllabus from Harvard.
It’s from spring 2015—not exactly recent. Still, it gives a great idea of what a marketing beginner should focus on: broader differences between marketing for B2B and B2C audiences, and search, display, social media, and video as major marketing channels. A lot of the sites listed as “required textbooks” are even still relevant today.
Content marketing is a dynamic industry. Think about how TikTok, podcasts, and AI writing software exploded in the last year or so. The status quo is constantly changing, with the most effective channels, tools, and best practices shifting every day.
So even after you’ve scored a content marketing job, keep challenging yourself to learn about marketing. Look at your own content consumption habits, for starters. Observe how people in your network respond to and share about new products.
For a more systematic approach, you can also keep tabs on the marketing world through newsletters and podcasts. Here are a few worth checking out:
For a more interactive experience, consider joining Slack communities like Superpath’s to learn from other marketers.
I used to work for a content creation platform that paired businesses with vetted freelance writers. The vetting process required a writing test. From time to time, we’d receive messages from people who didn’t pass and were angry about it. They’d send messages like, “Good! I didn’t want to work for your terrible company anyway.”
No one enjoys being rejected—but it’s inevitable in at least some sphere of your life.
How you respond to that rejection can either open or close the door for new opportunities, with the same company or even different ones. I know hiring managers that ask around their network about potential candidates—and a burned bridge or poor reaction to rejection is often memorable enough for someone to bring up.
Good rejection etiquette is good sportsmanship. In some cases, it may benefit you more than you expect.
A quick example:
A few years ago, I applied for a content editing position with no luck—I didn’t even get an interview. The company's founder sent an email BCCing all rejected candidates to let them know. I responded politely and also wished them luck in growing the company. Eight months later, they reached out asking if I was still interested and available for work. They eventually became one of my longest-running freelance clients.
It’s hard to imagine getting this opportunity if I’d responded to my earlier rejection with a spiteful message.
Some ideas for good rejection etiquette:
In my current and last few roles, I’ve kept a spreadsheet to track my professional accomplishments.
It’s simple—a Google Sheets file with different columns for:
A project log or accomplishment tracker may sound tedious, but it’s great for mapping out your growth as a marketer.
And when the time comes to find a new role, it’s invaluable in updating your resume and preparing for interviews. You can easily see all of the content projects you’ve led, plus their impact.
If you scroll to the bottom of Tim Soulo’s LinkedIn resume, you can see his first job as a technical support specialist for a SaaS company.
Some marketers leave out what they perceive to be irrelevant work experience from their resumes. A lot of hiring advice even recommends doing this. But Tim incorporates that job into his larger career narrative, noting that it’s how he first “got tons of experience on communicating with clients and sorting out all kinds of issues.”
Try doing the same with your non-marketing experience—apply learnings from your old job(s) to marketing.
When I reflect on my non-marketing experiences, I realize studying the social sciences in college gave me a starting point for understanding consumer psychology. Teaching overseas trained me in cross-cultural communication. And writing grant applications showed me the importance of personalizing content for your target audience.
It may be tricky trying to connect your past work experiences to marketing, but this is still a worthwhile exercise. Why? It can help you differentiate yourself from other marketing candidates.
A few examples:
Some of the marketers I’ve worked with have backgrounds in publishing, education, even forestry. While I can’t speak for them on what they’ve learned in those fields, I’m certain that our diversity of experience has only opened the door for more creativity.
Content marketing relies on using both stories and data to engage people and drive action.
And the good news: You don’t need a marketing degree to become a content marketer.
Since a large part of content marketing revolves around telling stories, consider starting with your own—because isn’t applying for a job with a resume and cover letter a form of content marketing in itself?
Whether or not you began your career in marketing, look for a way to connect the dots between your unique experiences. Craft that narrative, and then refine it to make a case for the value and perspective you bring.