Career Growth

How I Became a Content Marketer Without a Marketing Background

Joyce Chou
June 9, 2022

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 graduated with a sociology degree and taught English in Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship.
  • After a year abroad, I returned to the U.S. to write grant applications for an ed-tech nonprofit.
  • To get a jump on paying off my student loans, I picked up a bunch of side gigs—like teaching art and adult ESL lessons, selling greeting cards, and freelance editing.
  • Eventually, I parlayed these experiences into a digital marketing role with a venture studio—my first dance with SEO and content marketing.
  • Now, I create content for Demand Curve, a marketing education company.

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.

Why consider a career in content marketing?

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.

And considering the U.S.’s median income of $67,521, it’s also fairly lucrative. According to Superpath’s latest salary report, the average content marketer earns $93,725 per year.

What do content marketing jobs involve?

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:

  • Writing and editing: Think short- and long-form content projects like blog posts, case studies, ebooks, and video scripts. Content marketers create this content with the goal of persuading readers to take some kind of action.
  • Research: Not all content marketers are experts in a given industry, yet they’re able to produce content about a particular topic because they know how to do research. This is more than Googling—they analyze and digest important pieces of information, then synthesize their learnings.
  • Promotion and outreach: It’s not enough to create good content. Content marketers also work on distributing it to reach more of their target audience, whether through emails, social media, or other channels.
  • Analytics: Finally, content marketers look for ways to understand the impact of their work and to iterate on future projects. They turn to data to find out how customers respond to and engage with different pieces of content.

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.

7 tips for pursuing content marketing (and succeeding)

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.

  1. Become a “Permission-less apprentice”
  2. Publish free content to build a writing portfolio
  3. Invest in your marketing education
  4. Continue investing in your education, even after you’ve landed a marketing job
  5. Practice good rejection etiquette
  6. Track you professional accomplishments
  7. Transfer your knowledge, even if it’s not obviously related

1. Become a “permission-less apprentice”

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:

  • Create different social media assets for your “target” company—images for Instagram, copy for Twitter, and so on. Put these together with the company’s branding in mind. Then share them with the company as examples of your work and an invitation to use them.
  • Write an article for a site you follow—make sure it’s a topic that hasn’t already been covered and that emulates the rest of the site’s voice. Then send it over. Kasia Manolas did this for Jack Butcher with a simple message: “Need more content for your website? I wrote this for you and you can publish it anytime for free.”
  • If you’ve got a knack for video or audio production, use stock footage or existing brand media to edit shorter clips for companies’ sites or social media. After creating commercials on TikTok for everyday household objects (like a can of Sprite), college freshman Ashley Xu landed partnerships with brands like Canon and Lionsgate.

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.

2. Publish free content to build a writing portfolio

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:

  1. Self-publish on Medium. Pick a topic that you can write a compelling piece about—a subject that shows you’re an expert or that you’ve done your research. Example: Content writer Alice Lemee did this with an article about a multi-level marketing scheme.
  2. Pitch articles to websites you know well and understand. A published byline gives credibility in a way that self-publishing doesn’t—it shows that you’ve worked with an editor and gotten their stamp of approval.
  3. Start a blog. This is for those committed to writing regularly. Website builders like Squarespace, WordPress, and Wix make it easy to set up your own blog. Alternatively, you can publish a newsletter using Substack.

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.

3. Invest in your marketing education

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:

There are paid options, too, if you have the budget or prefer the accountability. Maven offers interactive, cohort-based classes while Udemy provides self-paced ones you can take any time.

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.

4. Continue investing in your education, even after you’ve landed a marketing job

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:

  • Marketing Brew: The latest news related to marketing and advertising, including consumer trends and what big brands are up to.
  • Stacked Marketer: Concise tech and marketing news, delivered every weekday.
  • Raisin Bread: Short marketing case studies, often tied to culture and current events.
  • Demand Curve’s Growth Newsletter: Advanced insights for any marketer trying to level up their expertise. I’m biased but our content team focuses specifically on sourcing proven tactics that are also novel and counterintuitive—not the stuff you see in beginner guides and tutorials.
  • How I Built This: Interviews with the founders of recent and long-established brands, which often cover how they grew their companies through marketing.

For a more interactive experience, consider joining Slack communities like Superpath’s to learn from other marketers.

5. Practice good rejection etiquette

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:

  • Thank the sender for their time. If you’ve spoken with multiple people, acknowledge them as well.
  • Ask for feedback, but don’t demand it. Example: “If you have the time, I’d really appreciate any thoughts or feedback you might have for me.”
  • If you’re still interested, indicate it. Example: “Please don't hesitate to reach out if any other content roles come up—I’d love to grow as a part of your team.”
  • Wish them well.

6. Track your professional accomplishments

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:

  • Completion Date: Whenever I finish a marketing project.
  • Task: A short description of my project, like the name of a published blog post or guest post.
  • Category: For easy sorting, I pinpoint a few broad categories my projects fall under. This will vary based on your role but examples include Content Creation, Distribution, Design, and Strategy.
  • Notes: Anything worth noting about a project’s outcome or impact. For instance, if I see that a guest post I wrote was included in a newsletter or received a lot of social media engagement, I’ll jot that down. For in-house pieces of content, I might note their impact on traffic within a specific time frame, e.g., within three months of publishing.

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.

7. Transfer your knowledge, even if it’s not obviously related

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:

  • If you’ve worked an administrative role, like as an executive assistant, maybe you have a meticulous eye for detail and planning—perfect for setting up an editorial calendar.
  • If you’ve ever taught students in a classroom setting, perhaps you understand the challenges of captivating your audience. As a result, you’re filled with creative ideas for engaging different types of people.

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.

Conclusion

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.


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