When I transitioned from a career as a journalist to one as a content marketer, I knew I’d have to refresh and refocus my knowledge base. But it took a minute to grasp how many new skills I would need to master before successfully applying years of editorial experience to the challenges and opportunities digital marketers face.
Sure, the mechanics of crafting a compelling story to engage an audience are universal, but the purposes and strategies that drive the creative process differ, as do the tools and processes used to govern and execute them.
Bringing my skill set up to speed is a continual learning experience. It’s one that content marketing teams can relate to, considering the rapid pace of change in digital media technology, let alone ever-shifting consumer trends, behaviors, and preferences.
Which skills should you sharpen?
Which core competencies should content marketers invest in if they want their teams to bridge today’s marketing realities with the needs of tomorrow’s content consumers? We asked Content Marketing World speakers. Here are a few areas they recommend focusing on:
Follow the new sound of search
One technological advance that will undoubtedly impact how audiences engage with brands is voice response. As consumers increasingly turn to smart listening devices like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, content teams need to think not only about how to create audio-based messages but how to amplify their reach on a platform where “visibility” is somewhat of a misnomer.
Perhaps the key to success lies in the art of conversation:
“Optimizing your content for voice search I think will be very important. Essentially, what that looks like is really adopting some of the traditional on-page SEO type of practices. But also, often times when you are listening to text, you want to make sure it’s very conversational, right? So, I think that (your brand’s) tone of voice will be very important when you’re optimizing your content for a voice search.”
Juntae DeLane, founder/CEO, Digital DeLane
“I feel that voice search is sort of the next way for marketers to go – and not even in a sense of just how to do it, but in how we interact with it, the psychology behind it, and just how we treat (content) differently than we do when talking to a human. It’s all very interesting, it’s all very new, and there’s so much that we just haven’t explored or learned from it yet.”
Anna Hrach, strategist, Convince & Convert
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Expand your visual reality
Other content enhancements that have taken off in the last few years are visual reality and augmented reality – topics that colored one speaker’s view of the skill set soon essential to content creators:
“To understand how to tell a better story, to understand how to create content, (learning to use) technology such as AR and VR is going to be critical. I’m not saying you have to be AR or VR producer; but we, collectively as marketers, need to understand that will have an impact on content creation and storytelling. In terms of what that will be, I don’t know, but we should be paying attention to it and learning to better understand this area.”
Pam Didner, author, Global Content Marketing & Effective Sales Enablement
It’s critical to be more analytical
Algorithms have grown to be a driving force in content marketing, particularly in how and when to distribute content via search and social media. But as media kings like Google and Facebook change the rules of the game, even creatives may need to do the math – or, at least, learn to interpret what the numbers are telling them.
“As we continue to evolve and grow in digital marketing, marketers would be well served to sharpen their skills on being able to analyze. Making sure, even if you’re not a data head, to get into the analytics and to understand conversion tracking; to make sure that you can get credit for the great stuff you’re doing and so the organization can see what’s working better than something else.”
Leslie Carruthers, president, The Search Guru
Yet, Vishal Khanna feels there may be a need to take this idea even further:
“With the democratization of technology, where a small company like mine can access pretty much the same technology that any of the bigger players have, you also have to become a technologist. You have to be extremely analytical and logically inclined, and you have to understand that, ultimately, what you’re doing outside of the more creative side is building a bunch of if-then statements to run this marketing engine in the background. You have to be an IT person now, there’s no way around it.”
Vishal Khanna, director of marketing and communications, HealthPrize Technologies
And, while Michael Brenner may agree with Vishal on the increasing importance of analytical skills, he has a more human view of what it takes to work with advanced technologies:
“I think AIs are actually going to save us from becoming too mathematical and too robotic in our engineering approaches … I do think that people misunderstand the value and the perception of what AI can be for marketing. Robots are not going to take over the world. I think marketers need to understand the impact of what’s going to happen when the robots tell us what to do. What’s the job of marketers? Are we going to be allowed to run from the insights that say, ‘Don’t create this. Create this’? What’s the impact of that? I think it’s a bigger, more positive impact than a lot of people think, the impact of AI and marketing coming together.”
Michael Brenner, author; CEO, Marketing Insider Group; chief marketing officer, Concured
Use soft skills to increase your adaptability
Meanwhile, other experts view the tech issue from both sides:
“There’s an expression that is neurologically incorrect, but it’s still a useful concept: left brain vs. right brain; the analytical versus the creative. In marketing, you can no longer be just creative, or just analytical. You need to be whole brained. You need to use the whole brain of your team in order to be impactful. So, from a human perspective, any hesitations, any doubts you may have in your own abilities – ‘Oh, I’m not a math person,’ for example – well, you don’t really get to make that choice anymore. You now have to think about how your work impacts and informs the creative … (and, in turn) creative marketers need to be getting comfortable with math … with statistics, with algorithms, with machine learning, and how these technologies will be used, or are being used now to make their jobs easier.”
Chris Penn, co-founder and chief innovator, Brain+Trust Insights
“Another thing you need – and this is a difficult skill, but it’s so valuable – is the ability to toggle between the 10,000-foot view and being down in the weeds. There are so many moving parts in digital marketing now, and so many tools and third parties that we need to work with well. If you can’t toggle back and forth, you’re really going to be limited in what you can do.”
Leslie Carruthers, president, The Search Guru
Make sure you have the “write” stuff
On the other hand, there’s a compelling argument that technology is irrelevant if you don’t have a grasp on the core principles of good storytelling:
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what technology you have; it doesn’t matter what platform you’re using, if you don’t understand story. I think, really, the new skill should be how to tell stories in this new world of digital. You can strip away all the technology and still have your core story: beginning, middle, and end. Then, how do you translate that into your strategy, which then tells you which tactics you’re going to use to tell that story.”
Michael Weiss, vice president consulting services and solutions, Creative Circle
Brand journalist Melanie Deziel concurs:
“Maybe this isn’t the sexiest answer or the most technological answer, but I think the skill that content marketers can work on to really help them in the future is actually their writing. And I don’t mean that they’re poor writers, but that they often times lack confidence in their writing. As Ann Handley says, ‘Everybody writes.’ You write emails, you write text messages, you write Facebook posts. If you can work on that and grow more comfortable in it, it could stop holding you back from creating.”
Melanie Deziel, founder, StoryFuel
Prioritize the process
One additional skill content marketers can benefit from cultivating, regardless of their job function, level of comfort with tech, or the tactics they work with:
“We were talking a little earlier about how marketers are falling down on the job about governance. Process management is a big part of that, and making sure that your processes are clear, and well defined, so you can scale quickly is important.”
Chris Penn, co-founder and chief innovator, Brain+Trust Insights
Putting your skills in play for a winning team
Great content marketing requires strong communication and collaboration. Not only should you be concerned with keeping your skills sharp, consider how your new capabilities complement your colleagues’ strengths and contribute to the collective good of your brand.
If you’re a content team leader, how can you put those shiny new skills to work in the tech-enhanced, well-governed, and writing-centric future? Start with these tips:
- Get smart about staff structure: While the days of hiring someone who can do only one job may be over, begin the staffing journey by separating the work into distinct functional disciplines. To get you started, Michele Linn shares a framework for identifying content marketing roles and responsibilities to account for, which makes it easier to position each team member’s skills and strengths to your brand’s benefit.
- Empower everybody to get better at their jobs: A well-trained, in-house content marketing team is a competitive advantage; and Ann Smarty believes the secret to making a team exceptional lies in how you encourage it to grow. Train your team to recognize what qualifies as good content – and, whenever possible, give them the space to experiment with new techniques, tools, and ideas, to learn the requisite skills in a hands-on way.
- Encourage ongoing career development: A recent Adweek article points out that when learning and growth are part and parcel to an organization’s culture, teams are better equipped to adapt and respond to shifting consumer needs – and reflect them in the content they create. As a bonus, providing more personalized opportunities for career advancement, such as individual coaching and mentoring programs, can increase team engagement and reduce turnover.
- Help trusted contractors be a part of your team: It’s not always easy to find freelance writers who get it from a marketing standpoint. When you find a gem, go the extra mile to keep them on board. Rather than hiring talent on a per-project basis, look to provide your contractors with team access, brand insights, and ongoing assignments to function as long-term content partners. As Intel’s Luke Kintigh says, “The more they work with you, the more they understand your brand voice and tone … It becomes more efficient to work with them, and they have more skin in the game.”
What skills are paying your bills?
Of course, the experts don’t have the final word on what it takes for today’s practitioners to stay sharp and become more successful. What new capabilities are you looking to add to your content team’s arsenal – or to your skill set – in the upcoming year? We’re always looking to learn more about emerging challenges in this dynamic industry. Take us to school by sharing your thoughts in the comments.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute