Content marketing is rich with opportunity, but it's not always easy to identify. There are few clear career trajectories. Different people thrive with different skills. Many people use content marketing as the foundation for a career in other parts of marketing.
As content marketing has evolved from obscure to commonplace, it's taken on many forms. Many companies still rely on content to drive traffic, but plenty of others use content to enable sales, increase click-through rates and answer customer support queries. The written word is now surrounded by video, audio, great design and interactive elements. There are opportunities to write, edit, lead teams, build strategy, learn to code, work with sales, provide product input, make podcasts, write video scripts and so much more. "Content" is a flexible term—and this is why a career in content so attractive.
It's really hard to pin down exactly what makes for a great content marketer. Folks with different skill sets will thrive as social media content creators or as leaders of a 10-person team. In interviewing dozens of successful content marketers for our podcast and $100k Club series, plus reviewing hundreds of job applications and participating in countless conversations in our Slack community, I've narrowed down the list to seven core skills. I'll expand on that today and offer resources for leveling-up each.
Editor's note: I'm using the word "content marketer" to describe anyone who works in content marketing. That could be someone like Mark Kilens, the VP of Content and Community at Drift, who runs a large team that handles everything from video to design and writing.
It could also be someone like Danyelle White, a journalist-turned-content marketer who leads content at Lucid Chart. It could be also be someone just getting started as a content creator. And, of course, it could be folks like myself who have started new businesses in the content space. It's a broad term. That's intentional and I think you'll see why shortly.
Let's dive in.
I know, this is obvious. But let's explore writing for a minute.
A person who can write well can thrive as a content marketer. But a person who can write well can thrive in many other fields too. And if you can't write, it's unlikely you'll make it very far in the marketing world. In fact, I believe that writing well is perhaps the single most important non-technical skill in the tech world.
As Paul Graham says, "Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated." This is important, but I think it's actually less important than iteration. Writers become very used to turning seeds into plants—this is best done through the drafts, editing and rewriting that writers are accustomed to. There is an expectation that the second draft will be better than the first. It's this practice that clarifies thinking and makes you better at your entire job.
So, yes, writing is important because it's how you create content to drive traffic and leads. But it's also important cognitive skill. All of the smartest, most patient, most analytical folks I know write all the time. Writing also encourages other good work habits, things like reading, asking for feedback, shipping even when it scares you and developing empathy for the person on the other side of your work.
I think a better way to describe this skill is "the ability to create and drive the right narratives." (Let's just be honest. Using word "storytelling" in the subheader keeps this listicle parallel.)
Let's quickly describe what storytelling actually means. It's not the "Once upon a time...." style writing you might be thinking. It's also not the use of anecdotes in your writing (though this can be a great tactic to improve your writing). Storytelling just isn't as simplistic as telling stories.
I'll offer an example to illustrate this point.
Since starting Stratechery in 2014, Ben Thompson has developed a handful of mental models for analyzing technology companies. He references those models often and even created a page to help readers understand and see examples of each. His writing is self-referential, meaning he often references past articles to contextualize new ones.
This may not seem like storytelling, but it is a very powerful form of it. Over the years, Stratechery has documented hundreds of bespoke events all tied together by the same handful of mental models. That strategy creates a narrative—when readers discover their first article, they immediately sense that they've dipped their toes into an ocean of content. It's that very feeling that makes them want to participate in the ongoing, ever-unfolding story.
Here's one more quick example. In my time at Animalz, I led both sales and marketing. I came up with a simple process to fuel both areas (which I documented here). I listened closely on sales calls, then filled the editorial calendar with ideas based on what I heard. I would then feed that content back into the sales process to drum up leads and help close pending deals. Part of the reason this worked is because it kickstarted a narrative: Animalz is a customer-centric company. That idea became self-fulfilling. It fueled sales, marketing, our own reporting, internal discussions and more. Over time, the tactic became less important than the message. It was a narrative that both employees and customers could get behind: Animalz listens to its customers.
The ability to create and drive a narrative can be broken down in several ways:
Storytelling is usually catalyzed by writing, but it's formalized in much smaller, more naunced ways. You have to talk about it in meetings and on podcasts. You have to harp on the same key messages over and over again in reporting and conversations with management. It's not easy, but the ability to drive a narrative is so often what creates runway for your work. When folks are interested in your mission, they'll be eager to see the outcome. And that's what provides the time and space to actually get the work done.
Another obvious skill, organization is a barrier for folks who want to excel in marketing.
Our modern work environment is overrun with tools (email, chat, project management, to-do apps, internal wikis, etc.) that make information abstract and hard to keep track of. These tools also encourage folks to input more information all the time. Some of it happens in real-time, some asynchronously. Some pings your phone and some is invisible. Without taking control of your own workflow, you'll be a helpless victim of information overload.
There's something else going on here too. In nearly every company and in nearly every project, there are too many people involved. Everyone wants their say and many companies encourage "collaboration" to a unpleasant extreme. Tools are supposed to keep everyone on the same page, but they don't work—unless someone (hopefully you!)—takes charge.
In our $100k Club series, one particularly success freelancer writer (making $275,000/year), had this to say about organization:
What skills or habits help you thrive at work?
Organization. Hands down. Not only do I stay on top of every part of my work and business, but if I say I'm going to do something, you better believe I'm going to do it (and do it well.) Nothing falls through the cracks and I'm super proactive when it comes to keeping my workload full to the max.
So much of the overload we feel at work is because we aren't organized. It's not your company's job or your client's job to stay organized, it's yours. There are so many systems for productivity, but all of them fall short without an intense desire to get things done and avoid distraction.
Imagine creating an annual benchmark report for your company. You're overseeing the project, so you hire a freelance writer and send them a brief. You let your design team know this project is coming their way and you give the social team a heads up that you'll need some help distributing it. Soon, you realize that the form tool you want to use isn't compatible with the CRM. Also, your CMO wants an update on the progress of the report. Your writer missed their first deadline because their kid got sick so you end up writing part of the first draft yourself.
I'm not exaggerating to make a point, this really is how most projects go. You may be a great writer, but you won't excel as a content marketer (or marketing director or CMO) unless you can manage this kind of chaos. It's universal and constant.
I won't recommend an organizational system here because there are just too many. Personally, I use Notion to manage projects, Todoist to keep track of tasks and a yellow legal pad to take notes. It's not fancy, but it works pretty well. Find or create a system for yourself because regardless of where your career takes you, you will need to be organized.
I have no data to back this up, but I've observed that nearly all good marketers (even content marketers!) are spreadsheet whizzes. The ability to crunch your own numbers, to work around flaws in tools like Google Analytics, to combine data from multiple sources and to create simple charts/graphs that summarize complex problems are key to thriving as a content marketer.
For content folks who are already heavy spreadsheet users, I won't preach to you. To the rest, hear you me out for a minute.
I learned how to use Google Sheets early in my marketing career. I was intern at a small company that sold gluten free flour direct to consumers. (This was back in 2009!) I was asked to create a simple dashboard to track our sales. I froze. I had no clue how to use a spreadsheet, let alone create formulas and spin up charts. I decided to start by creating a running log in Google Sheets. I'd been keeping paper running logs for years and had been wanting to digitize them anyway. It was a problem I understood well and that helped me ask the right questions. How do I total up each week's mileage? How do I track the number of miles on each shoe? How do I analyze the average number of miles per week?
By the time I finished that simple project, I'd fallen in love with spreadsheets. To this day, I consider a day spent in Google Sheets to be just as satisfying as a day spent writing. In many ways, it's the same skill. Asking questions, organizing information, iterating until it makes sense, etc.
Whether you're creating a simple content calendar, creating charts/graphs for a report, managing a budget, analyzing conversion data, running a content audit or forecasting traffic growth, you need to know your way around a spreadsheet. It's not true that creative types can't deal with numbers—in my experience, our storytelling skills actually make us content folks well-suited to put spreadsheets to good use.
To get started...
I recommend starting out with a project that you understand really well. Build your own workout log, or make a spreadsheet to manage your personal finances. You'll pick up tricks and skills that will make it much easier to tackle big projects, like multi-factor attribution or an audit of a 100,000-page website.
This is the "softest" skill of them all, but it's becoming more and more important over time. You know this to be true if you've ever had a boss that can't articulate their thinking clearly, or a coworker who isn't proactive when they run into problems.
Communication is the ability to clearly and concisely relay information to other people. It comes in handy when writing for an audience, but it also comes in handy when you fire off Slack messages, compose emails, follow-up after meetings and present to your manager.
I won't belabor this point, but I will offer a few pointers for excellent communication with your teammates and managers:
Your ability to communicate clearly with your teammates and managers will also come in handy when talking with prospects, customers, hiring managers and anyone else you might interact with you at work. Treat this like a skill even though it doesn't feel like one.
I debated whether this skill should be called empathy or sales. I chose empathy because I think content marketers are more open to developing it, but sales is almost the same thing. (Not identical, of course, but there's a lot of overlap.) Either way, your ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes will help you write, communicate and sell.
Marketers love to oversimplify the way that people buy. Things like, "We just fill up the top of funnel, then 1.5% of those people will become customers." and "Our ideal customer is SaaS Sally, a mid-career professional with a master's degree and two kids." will translate into hollow marketing.
Content marketers are especially vulnerable to this kind of thing. Many of us are introverts. We gravitate towards content marketing partially because we get to spend a lot of quiet time writing. (It's still my favorite part of the job.) It's not in our DNA to pick up the phone, to seek out customers and prospects to get to know, to immerse ourselves in sales to learn what prospects really want.
The ability to understand your customer's perspective can only come through direct conversation. You can do research, look for data, study demographics and many other things, but you absolutely must speak directly to current and prospective customers. It is the only way to understand what motivates them, how they talk and how nuanced and complex their lives are.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I took the Vero blog from zero to well over 100,000 visits/month in about 18 months. But signups barely increased at all. After two years, I was let go because all of my work hadn't actually helped the business grow. A few years later, I ended up running sales at Animalz. (I didn't seek this out. Like at many startups, the opportunity popped up because it was a small company at the time. In retrospect, I wish I'd sought out this kind of experience sooner.)
It took about two days for me to realize what I'd been missing for the first few years in my content career: speaking directly to prospective customers. I learned what made our customers tick and later used those learnings to come up with blog post ideas. No amount of keyword research, surveying or observing could have replaced those crucial learnings.
Over time, I came to accept and eventually espouse the idea that marketing only exists to help sales. I hated this idea at first, but now embrace it. It shapes the way I write, market and message. And having been on the sales side, I can tell you how incredibly frustrating it is if you aren't getting major support form your marketing team.
Get to know your customers. Not in the abstract—actually meet them in person or on calls. Learn about their lives and their jobs. Your product or service occupies only a tiny slice of their attention. When you understand the whole person, you develop empathy. And when you do, you'll get a lot better at your job.
In her great post How To Know Which Skills to Develop at Each Stage of Your Career, writer and designer Ximena Vengoechea articulates a pattern I've noticed but never been able to pinpoint on my own. She says that, over the course of your career, the technical skills that helped you get started become less important. Your ability to get sht done* (GSD) becomes your primary skill. (That, and being liked by your coworkers.)
Think of the most senior people at your company. It's unlikely that they write, code or design. It's more likely that they lead, manage, advocate, plan and measure. Content marketers skew young partially because most people don't want to be content creators for their entire career. They build on their writing skills and elevate to lead teams, create strategy, etc.
Let's say you're 3-5 years into your content career. You've established that you can write well, that you can grow traffic and have started dabbling in content strategy. There are a few paths you can take:
Regardless of which direction your career heads, it's very likely that your technical skills will matter less over time. You still need to develop them, but you should also consider working on the soft skills that help you take on bigger projects, namely communication, organization, empathy and storytelling. Most large projects are led by well-paid individuals who turn chaos into calm. They coordinate a handful of complex, disparate pieces and make art. They deal with politics, conflicting incentives and red tape.
Sound like fun?! I know, that kind of thing isn't appealing to everyone. There are, of course, other ways to grow your career (starting a business, going freelance, etc.) but it's hard to escape the reality that hard skills only take you so far. But consider one more thing: this kind of work can actually be hugely satisfying. When you can scale yourself and empower others, it feels great. Your impact can be huge. The challenge is often worth the things you learn about yourself, human nature, business, psychology and politics.
I hope this post has given you some ideas and inspiration for your own career. It may have had the opposite effect too. If you feel more confused than you did before, I half-heartedly apologize. Careers are confusing and sometimes stressful. I can't give you a clear career path—no one can—but it may be helpful to accept that it will never be clear. My own career has involved a lot of hard work and a handful of surprising events that I could never have predicted. I consider that a very good thing.
Here are two things you might consider doing next:
If you want to chat about your career, join the Slack community and DM me. I'm always there and I love talking about this kind of thing. Take care and rock on 🤘.