What I wish I knew five years ago about building a career in “content”

As of this writing, there are more than 1,000 content marketing positions on AngelList.

It’s not only startups. A recent Axios story highlights how Netflix, Airbnb, Blackrock, Robinhood, Stripe and other large orgs are launching new content ventures. In 2019, it’s more realistic than ever to start and grow one’s career entirely in the content marketing space.

The path to making six figures in sales, design, or product roles is well worn. But content marketing is entering its awkward adolescence. Advice for mid-career content practitioners here is hard to come by. As a result, I’ve noticed a growing class of people who are hitting a career ceiling.

As I enter year 10 in this space, I’ve had several “a-ha!” moments that I’ve witnessed in my career and in the careers of others. What follows is some big-picture learnings that I’ve seen “unlock” another level of a content marketer’s career.

Don’t get sucked into a “content writer” downward slope

From venture capitalist Om Malik:

You can tell a lot about a person and how they think about their work based on whether or not they use “content” to describe what they do. A photographer who says that he is creating “content” for his YouTube channel is nothing more than a marketer churning out fodder to fill the proverbial Internet airwaves with marketing noise.

When you think of yourself as someone who “writes content” you are allowing the very people who want to put downward pressure on your wages commoditize what you do. This isn’t only bad for you, it’s bad for them (they just don’t know it).

You can call yourself a “Content Marketer” or have that phrase in your job title. But in your mind, you must know the difference. You write articles, curate emails, and record podcasts that serve a community. You don’t “make content.”

You need to be playing on a higher plane. And that starts with understanding the business you’re in. You’re not just filling empty boxes with content. You’re contributing to the business. Many mid-career folks have told me that when they were able to prove their direct impact on the business, they were able to ask for more resources. And that includes salary.

To truly increase your value, you need to understand what drives the company’s long-term growth and focus maniacally on that. This means elevating your mental frameworks from tactics (i.e. “I must publish three articles a week”) to strategy (i.e. “I must find a way to help our events team sell more tickets”). And it means structuring the content operation to lead to outcomes (i.e. “webinar signups”) and not outputs (i.e. “publishing 10 tweets a day”).

All content jobs are not created equal, get specific

All of the apps and websites you enjoy follow similar structures at various parts of their growth and people build very successful careers by being awesome helping with a very particular part of this journey. The organic traffic expert for startup marketing teams is a thing. So is the marketer that understands email funnels for large B2B Software as a Service (SaaS) companies.

To the inexperienced eye, all of these content jobs appear to be the same role requiring the same skillset. They aren’t. And they don’t. Each company is different, each readership has its own quirks, and the ideal conversion changes with each job.

Whatever company you are applying to, you need to understand where they are in the startup journey. You need to understand the game they are playing so you can help them win. And then you need to know how your strengths fit in. Some questions to answer:

  • Audience: Are they B2B (targeted) or B2C (broad)? What are the job titles of their ideal customer? What are the hot button issues within the community of customers?
  • Maturity: Do they have product/market fit? Or are they still experimenting?
  • Business model: Are they “self serve” or do sales require more hand-holding? Do they know their main “levers”? (i.e. Does more traffic equal more signups?)
  • Marketing funnel mechanics: Do they need content for their existing customers? Or just for potential customers? Or both?
  • Distribution: What channels align with the business and audience? Social? Events? Audio? Video? Organic? Guest posts? Email? Private Slack groups?

A massive company will require just as much consensus building as actual creative production. A startup with product market fit likely only cares about a handful of specific metics. Know what the needs of the business are before you ever walk in the room for an interview.

If your leadership team is trying to sell more into existing organizations, that’s a different content strategy than, say, a brand new consumer SaaS company that is still feeling out its product features and messaging. The better you can align with the needs of the business, the more you resources you can command.

Respect the moat

Most digital product companies (i.e. companies that make things that cost money on the internet) are within one or two standard deviations of one another. For digital products, any breakthrough feature becomes commoditized quickly.

Oftentimes what appears to be a brand-new feature is actually a user interface change or simple back-end functionality. That’s why you can take a tutorial and make a new Twitter in a matter of hours. Or how Snapchat can pioneer the “story” and then immediately lose their advantage after it was stolen by Facebook.

(Yes, this is always true in any business, but the digital world makes this cycle much faster and frantic.)

I can copy your software “features” in a few days. In a hyper-competitive business where the gravity pulls the products down to commoditization, the only advantages in this marketplace (the “moats”) are audience, community, and brand.

Getting content right matters more than ever. Editorial is the life blood of this new way of operating. It provides the backbone of what every non-commodity brand is based on. It gives the advantage of a network effect to businesses that would not otherwise have it. If you prove you are building this moat (one way you know: your sales team closes deals because of great events/blog posts, etc.) you can advocate for more.

Define your category

If you are a “knowledge worker”, stop and think about the tools you use every day. If you’re a designer, you use Adobe, InVision, and Figma products. This is the design “category.” If you’re an email marketer, maybe you use MailChimp or Hubspot. This is the email marketing “category.”

Every job title has a standard bundle of products that its workers use, subscribe to, and pay for. Once an industry standard is agreed upon and solidified, it takes a few years to change the landscape.

As a result, when there is a new industry or job title, there’s a mad dash to create software for that industry and create a new “category” of tools and techniques. This leads to maps like this:

Those companies need to continually remind you of of their value. Otherwise, you’ll go through the pain of changing your workflow, unsubscribing, and joining the competition. They also need to entrench themselves into large companies where the monthly revenue is high and the risk of churn is low. But when most digital products are rapidly copying each other the mental hurdle of learning a new tool gets easier to bear.

If you can convince, say, Walmart to use your SaaS product that can mean seven figures for one sale. But that also means that one person at Walmart can decide your tool is obsolete and demand everyone switch.

With so much at stake, the marketing has to change. Customers paying a monthly fee for a service all have similar needs. They face similar problems and could probably benefit from meeting and interacting with one another. Sound familiar? Customers of subscription products are communities.

This community would exist without your brand (key observation!) but they are brought together in a more streamlined way because your brand exists. Editorial is the fuel which keeps that community engaged.

This is why Salesforce has Dreamforce. And there are conferences, guides, and products built around something like YouTube. These are community brought together by a product and kept there with editorial. I am less likely to cancel your product if I use it as a conduit to meet other people in my professional community.

Content is the long-term play that helps savvy companies capture these winner-take-all categories. In many cases, editorial work can insulate the product team from the fluctuations in the market. When you prove your work advances this strategy, you can command more resources.

Have a point of view

In April 2019, Mark Zuckerberg stood up at F8, the Facebook developer’s conference and declared that “the future is private.” Let’s put aside the idea that the wolf will guard the hen house, Mark was on to something. Users are increasingly leaving the free-flowing open information market and turning to private groups, sub-communities, and curated spaces.

The social media web of 2010-2015ish was more of a Pangea, but we’re increasingly becoming an archipelago. It’s the reason conspiracy theories can fester unchecked. It’s also the reason it’s extremely difficult to market digital products to a broad audience.

To an old-school marketer, this is a frustrating development, one that renders many of the previous tactics ineffective. To a new generation though, it’s enabling the convergence of advocacy and commerce. Companies with a point of view do it because it enables them to target and own a very specific island in the archipelago.

It’s better to make a small group obsessed with your work than a large group passively engaged. Just ask newspapers and network television. This is doubly true in the B2B world where 1,000 customers are enough to build a healthy business.

Again, this trend favors editorial work. Most online customers get their information because a member of a community they belong to shares it. Those members need something to share. There needs to be an artifact which carries a company’s point of view alongside with it.

First Round Capital’s point of view is that founding and growing a startup is hard and sometimes lonely. And their community and experience makes them a better investor for early stage startups than most others. So they target and serve that community with First Round Review. Zapier thinks the web should be open and customizable. So they target that community with useful tutorials one connecting apps and services. Notion believes non-developers should own their own tools. So they educate the world on computer science pioneers and concepts with their video series Tools and Craft.

Editorial exists as videos, podcasts, or articles and it has a passport to every island in the archipelago that wants it. A link is universal. It can be emailed, Slack’d, chatted, or texted. It can be pasted in a forum and included seamlessly into the means in which people interact online in 2019. Those links need to say something. They need to put forward a belief. They need to be editorial.

Your role might be helping your company find its point of view. That’s okay. But be sure to let everyone know internally the value of doing so. And when you hit on the right messaging, you can make the case for more.

Internalize any winner-take-all stakes

When it comes to online products, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are happy to take 1% of any given market. They keep things lean, and they probably go to Chiang Mai once a year or something.

These people are fun to follow on Instagram, but are never hiring you. A lifestyle business only supports the owner’s lifestyle. For the rest of us, it’s a hard ceiling on growth.

For the companies gunning for number one, it’s a bloodbath. Venture capital money flows freely so companies can operate at great loses in order to starve competition. Competitors (and new communities) are purchased to shore up the flanks. The war for top-level talent is ruthless with six-figure signing bonuses happening at the absolute highest levels. There’s an entire class of non-founders with highly specialized skills that float from start-up to start-up, taking lots of money (and occasionally, stock options!) off the table. Most of them live in Brooklyn and NoMa. This is hard for founders, but good for you.

The winner-take-all mindset of top companies means there are an ever-increasing number of “ins” for a potential customer/community member. A company like video hosting platform Wistia needs to be in every Google search, every media hit, every tiny podcast, every community event, every YouTube channel, ever influencer account as much as possible to demonstrate the good they do for their current and future customers.

The metabolism of this kind of marketing is extremely quick and resembles that of an old-school newsroom or a creative agency. No matter the target market, companies that are gunning for the fat part of the long tail need to win the content wars in a blowout to succeed. And to do that, they need experienced producers, editors, and writers.

That’s you.

How to find your next gig

Today’s business climate is demanding:

  • Products that serve communities
  • Products that have a point of view
  • Highly specialized workers for each phase of a business’ growth

With this environment, the demand for workers that can win the content war in their industry has skyrocketed. But the supply of qualified workers has not. I know because I spend many of my working hours looking for people with the right mix of writing chops and market savvy. And that’s why I’m writing this essay.

The modern “content” person needs a collection of skills that, historically, aren’t in the same industry. You need to be able to write and edit. You need to be able to work the internal politics it requires to throw your body in front of underwhelming creative work. You need to know what the customers of the business are thinking before they do. You need to know how acquisition channels work. You need to know how marketing funnels work. You need to build something for the long term while registering enough wins in the short term. You need to pivot tactics as a startup grows into a regular ol’ business. You need to be able to find and cultivate creative talent. And you need to do it all in a way that isn’t tremendously…scientific.

(And if this sounds like you, I hope you reach out to me and say hello!)

If you ignore the complex nature of this job and just put your head down and “churn out some content” you’re doing yourself and your career a disservice. You’re in a unique field in which the demand for experienced and strategic thinkers is outpacing the supply.

Don’t waste this opportunity.