How to Grow Your Career in Content Marketing: S.E.E.D.

I was recently interviewed for Content Marketing Institute's "Content Marketing NEXT" podcast, hosted by the delightful Pamela Muldoon. We had a fun chat about what my role as VP of Platform entails at NextView (because, let's face it, nobody knows what the hell "VC platform" means). We also discussed how startups and innovative companies can view content, and what's happening next in the content marketing industry. (You can listen here.)

But then we hit on a topic that's a definite favorite of mine -- content marketing career growth. Whether in my writing or my founding of Boston Content, I've been thinking of this for awhile now. Where the heck do we go in our careers? Now that the early waves adoption of content marketing are behind us, what's next for the individuals? What's necessary for us to learn and to experience? 

To help explain, remember one acronym: SEED.

The SEED Approach to Content Marketing Career Growth

SEED stands for Skills, Examples, Excitement, and Drive. These are the necessary building blocks for a happy, prolific, and highly developed career as a content marketer, at least when you look this far into the field's evolution. (Things change so damn quickly that I'd advise against wedding yourself to any one approach to literally ANYTHING, career or tactic or tech or otherwise.)

So while there may not be a necessary list to neatly check off as you grow, approaching your work with this framework can certainly elevate and accelerate your content marketing career.

To break down each category...

Skills

This is about practical application of learned techniques. 

Do you understand how to physically write, design, produce video, produce audio, and so on? Do you understand the various channels available to you for distribution and the nuances of each? Do you know how to craft an overarching strategy, then measure the results? 

In short, do you know how to ... fill in the blank.

Most of us learn our craft on the job. I remember HubSpot interns telling us that they learned marketing at work, not at school, thanks to backwards or outdated marketing tactics taught int he classroom. The phrases "inbound" and "content" were used sparingly, if at all.

But in addition to learning on the fly, there's no shortage of reading material available, from books to blogs to podcasts and much, MUCH more. (Turns out marketers are okay at marketing their own knowledge to others...)  

But of the two -- doing and reading -- it's the former that adds the most value to your career. And since many jobs don't allow you to take risks and even those that do may not offer many chances to acquire XYZ skill, the most important way to develop your skills is to create side projects.

These projects are your gym. It's where you work out your creative and marketing muscles. It's where you get stronger in a low-stakes environment and stretch yourself. It's how you adopt new skills or adapt new lessons learned back into your work. These projects can be personal blogging or guest contributor articles, personal podcasts, fun little graphics you create, and even things that are seemingly irrelevant but strengthen your creative muscles.

Take my buddy Erik Devaney over at HubSpot for instance -- he is one of the most creative, prolific, and quality creators I know. I've quite literally hired him twice in my career, and I'd hire him a hundred more times. His side projects include blogging but extend to pencil sketches and carving driftwood and recording Irish music.

These aren't things you can connect neatly A-to-B and say, "Carving an elephant out of driftwood helped Erik generate more leads this month by X%." But thanks to personal side projects, you can sense yourself getting better. Idea generation and content production becomes easier, and you'll feel prouder of your work and get better qualitative feedback. And, trust me, the tangible marketing results will come as a result.

For me, I've launched (and sunset, and launched, and sunset...) more blogs than I can remember just for fun, mainly about sports. My last non-marketing blog on the side was called Cranky Yankee Fan, where I wrote about being a Yankees fan living in enemy territory in Boston. Sorry for Marketing is also a side project, and in addition to helping me write more, it's given me a safe environment to hack away at design. The title graphic of the site, for instance, was something I created personally using PowerPoint of all things. I found a design I liked on dribbble and basically copied it pixel for pixel.

That brings me to the next part of SEED...

Examples

Since creativity is all about combining things, the very best producers of new ideas and new content are the very best at finding inspiration. And part of that means, yes, copying and stealing from what you see elsewhere. In our work as marketers, I think we profoundly underutilize examples of other projects.

Note that you can and should look outside your industry and the marketing industry echo-chamber for examples. If you JUST read industry blogs, you'll start to fall into the same patterns as your peers and produce similar work. It's harder to stand out that way. But by consuming a vast array of content of all types and topics in your week, you're literally feeding a more diverse set of stimuli your brain from which you can pull when it's time to generate ideas or content.

It's also worth considering how to use examples to inform your work or your team's. For example, as a rule, every content team I've ever worked on or led has held the same recurring meeting, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly: content review sessions. 

These are hour-long meetings wherein we examine and celebrate specific projects for their own collective sake -- no metrics are discussed. Sometimes, it's because we're looking at another company's work. But mostly, I want to focus on the production elements we can learn from and steal. Just because an ebook doesn't generate the right amount of leads doesn't mean the writer didn't do something worthy of copying within those pages.

The typical sound bites of the meeting run like this:

  • "I love how you used that call-out box every few pages. It's great for delivering the main message but also for casual readers skimming. Let's do that more often and find ways to improve it."
  • "Notice how X brand inserts some inside jokes near the bottom. I feel like that rewards its loyal readers while the rest of the piece still caters to a broad audience. What can we do for our most loyal readers?" 
  • "Their podcast drops you right into the best quote of the whole show. We should try that instead of doing the basic introduction of our guest next time. It definitely retained my attention better."

This meeting and this idea of examining content together with your team brings me to the next E...

Excitement

By examining the actual content, not just the output totals or end metrics, you will by definition turn the job into something people embrace, love, work harder at, etc., as you start to appreciate and improve the process itself. This, in my opinion, is a smart way to also think about your metrics. The more prolific, creative, and clever teams out there probably generate better metrics. To make the former, you can't ONLY talk about the latter. You need to make the job exciting and worth committing more effort and thought to for the team or individual.

Lack of excitement plagues the industry. A big problem facing many content marketers in terms of quality output or even just any output is that content is viewed as a chore. Many prefer this to be automated, but it's hard or impossible to automate much of this work.

So, we need leadership to make this job exciting. It's a tough pill to swallow -- they view your production process as a black box that they wish moved faster or cost less -- but it's well worth the investment.

And it doesn't need to be expensive. At Dailybreak, for example, I gave each person on my team two printed circles of paper. On each was a red cartoon devil that said "break stuff!" -- we'd joked in the past that this creature was responsible for breaking our CMS when we had tech issues in the past. I tried turning him into a positive, gamifying the process of taking risks. Each person could submit their token and get carte blanche to create something so wildly different from our normal playbook that it seemed crazy or was likely to fail. But, hopefully, it would "break" our playbook and our norm, and thus improve results. 

Bottom line, however you do it, try to find excitement in the work or generate that in your team in an authentic way. The work gets better as a result, and morale and motivation both increase tenfold.

Drive

Last but not least, you need drive. To me, this starts with the willingness to accept that you're not a complete product and never will be in this career. You have to constantly push forward and learn and evolve with the times. Otherwise, you'll get steamrolled. Our industry is littered with examples of people who rocketed to marketing fame because they mastered one thing but failed to keep up. Maybe they built huge Twitter audience but failed to drive traffic to their blogs and monetize it. Maybe they owned the speaking circuit for a time but now wander in the wilderness, looking for serious work. Maybe they were prolific bloggers or SEO masters who are slowly realizing that podcasting and video and interactive experiences and more are starting to overtake them.

In the end, regardless of how you view your career, you need to constantly view it like you're just getting started. Because even the most senior people in the field have areas where, in reality, that's exactly the case.

So, if you're interested in elevating your career or starting one in this field, remember: Acquire the practical skills by reading and launching side projects; learn from examples (and step outside your industry and marketing echo-chamber to do so); find ways to motivate yourself and others and get excited about the process in service of the end result; and then keep going. You're not done, and you never will be.

And to me, that's what makes this career path so damn exciting.

If you want to read more of my writing on content marketing careers, I'd suggest any of the following:

Posted on May 6, 2015 .