“You can’t become successful just by going to college or by following any formula.” –Peter Thiel
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is known for throwing cold water on the higher education system – even sponsoring a fellowship that pays young people not to go to college. Recently, he made it clear that he doesn’t want to tear down college, he wants people to take command of their own fate no matter their path.
And that’s the problem I see with many recent college graduates when I hire for my creative agency. To use another Thiel phrase, many marketing majors seem to “outsource their futures” rather than taking control of their careers. They treat college like a formula to follow, calculating that seat time plus a diploma equals career readiness.
Seat time doesn’t cut it, as so many people with whom I talk haven’t developed the critical thinking, problem-solving, and drive necessary to crush it in this field.
On top of that, university marketing programs aren’t teaching the specific skills needed. Think of it this way: If you graduated this spring, you started college when many now-common marketing concepts – and the tools to practice them – had hardly been envisioned. The authors of your textbooks probably started their drafts when SEO was in its infancy and YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook hadn’t been launched.
It’s a tough situation. Doing great marketing work is hard; staying on the cutting edge is even harder. But if you’re ready to take command of your own fate, you can succeed. A fast-changing environment makes this the most challenging time I’ve ever seen, but it’s also an exciting time to be in the marketing profession.
Every new marketer needs a good mix of broad foundational and specific domain skills. I’m often asked what concepts an entry-level professional in this field should know. Here are 20 that I have shared. A list like this is easy to start but impossible to finish because it becomes outdated almost immediately and grows unreasonably long.
I can say, though, there are a handful of concepts that bundle together many of the trends and skills in marketing that any new marketer should know, at least at the conversational level.
I’ve limited myself to the concepts I believe have some staying power. Some of these may go the way of the video store in a few years. But if you’re not up to speed on these subjects right now, you’re at a serious disadvantage.
1. Know the supreme value of content
Content marketing is a fantastic marketing vehicle for building trust in your brand. Because it’s owned media, brands control more of their own fate. We are able to produce websites, apps, and experiences that ultimately create value and utility for the consumer in a way that aligns with the vision or the values of the brand. With today’s technology, content can be interactive in a manner that truly engages the consumer.
2. Master growth hacking
As marketers, we sometimes chase after The Big Idea, the one we envision propelling growth to new heights. A worthy goal, of course. But I believe there is a better path to success, and that’s through growth hacking – think small to get big results. Incremental steps like easing the sales process for customers or tweaking a website’s layout and colors, if welcomed by customers, set the stage for bigger changes down the road.
Growth hacking is really just smart marketing and has been around since long before Sean Ellis coined the phrase. Growth hacking isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a solid way to combine skills for powerhouse results. Demand for this skill is growing so much that there are online classes and boot camps to teach it, including Tradecraft and User Growth Bootcamp.
3. Plug in with power tools
Lately, most websites try to convert visitors into buyers with the effective use of landing pages, pop-ups, email sign-up forms, and lead-generation forms. Each of these tools is typically supported by software such as Unbounce, Lead Pages, HubSpot, and MailChimp. Get to know those names.
Even if you aren’t responsible for implementing technical tools, you must have certain knowledge, beginning with how a content management system (CMS) works. Most websites in the last 10 years have relied on WordPress, but high-end design firms might aim to use more robust software like Sitecore or ExpressionEngine.
4. Learn the power of the search
Search engine optimization (SEO) has gotten a bad rap because many perceive the process as publishing lots of (mostly useless) content filled with keywords to game the system and achieve higher search result rankings. Because Google has revised its algorithms to emphasize user-valuable content, some have concluded that SEO doesn’t matter anymore. But that thinking is premature. For the foreseeable future, savvy marketers need to know the basics of making their products or services discoverable through online search.
5. Use social media marketing to reach influencers
Social media is not the wide-open playing field it once was. Online communities are becoming smaller and defined more narrowly and personally. We see these engagement patterns on Snapchat and Instagram, which focus more on one-to-one sharing instead of a broadcast to a mass of followers. That’s why influencer marketing is a concept about which you’ll hear a lot in years to come.
Brands always have paid for product placement on the theory that a sitcom or action movie influences consumer behavior (sometimes on a subliminal level). Now savvy brands try to make influential people in niche communities aware of their products and services so that these influencers will share the product in their communities in ways that feel authentic.
6. If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter
How we measure key performance indicators (KPIs) is in flux. Right now, much of the conversation revolves around net promoter score (NPS) and conversion rate optimization. But a new metric will become just as, if not more, important – experience or happiness metrics.
No matter the accent, though, you must speak the language of metrics and tracking to be taken seriously in marketing. The expectation that marketers quantify the effectiveness of their efforts isn’t going away.
Experience metrics focus on how the customer felt during the buying cycle, whether in-store (with facial recognition technology) or online (through persistent user ID). Was that person pleased, displeased, or indifferent? Did that person share with others? Did the experience meet the customer’s expectations? Did the brand customize the experience for an individual customer? One reason ride-service company Uber has been so successful is because the service fulfills a customer need in an instant. If we, as marketers, can meet those expectations, then we have a super fan, a prized “net promoter” of the brand.
7. You don’t need a crystal ball to know predictive marketing is going to be essential
We live in the era of Big Data. We have the ability to capture and store information about almost every move a customer makes. Unfortunately, we don’t always use that treasure trove of information to uncover anything meaningful or actionable.
Marketers are still learning to use big data to anticipate and satisfy the wants and needs of our customers. That’s what predictive marketing is all about, and it’s a key strategy that marketers will need to know. It shapes everything from product development to pricing.
Note: One of the hottest in-demand skills is the ability to use Apache Hadoop, a new software for gathering and sorting big data sets.
8. Connected tech means connecting with customers
While we’re on the subject of Big Data, information will be gathered increasingly through Internet of Things (IoT) devices or wearable technology. This “connected tech” uses small sensors embedded in physical objects that can interact with smartphones via Bluetooth devices or WiFi. The devices track straight to the Internet, where the wearer can interact with other databases and other users.
Once considered a novelty, these tech devices will be ubiquitous in everything from everyday products like the iWatch to more niche products like our client Arccos, which pairs golf club sensors with a mobile app. And that means fascinating opportunities for brands to cut through the noise and engage with customers.
9. Understand behaviors
A great marketer goes beyond a mere reading of KPIs. We need people who can analyze those KPIs in the context of human behavior and figure out a meaningful change that will delight the customer.
Understanding human behavior isn’t a technical skill, but it’s a fundamental ingredient in any successful marketing push. In a sense, marketers are behavioral scientists. We need to understand who the brand’s super fans are: What do they love about the brand? How can we give them a seat at the table so they are an integral part of the product development process or the customer acquisition life cycle?
10. Build on a solid foundation
Let me finish up with a few skills – attributes, really – that would go on the list even without the fast-changing world of digital marketing. No matter what software or what channels are in high demand today, these qualities never go out of style:
- Design thinking – This is a powerful way to make yourself ready for career success, and universities should teach it to all majors. At its heart, design thinking is about solving complex problems through observation and iteration. I had the pleasure of speaking to Yale MBA students on how to transform the way you think.
- Problem-solving – Realize that trying and failing can be the best learning experience. To solve problems, marketers must identify the problem, research it thoroughly, then devise and test possible solutions. It takes time and hard work, and yes, sometimes we fail.
- Collaborating – A big trend we’re seeing in the marketing business is the notion of agile, cross-functional teams. What that really means is that you put together a group of like-minded people with different skill sets so they can figure out a way to reach a goal. The ability to collaborate is a quality I always want in my hires no matter their role.
- Being creative – In the marketing world, creative people seek new ways of doing things instead of relying on what worked in the past or what is popular today. We must find innovative ways to foster organic and real connections with people beyond a Facebook and Twitter post.
11. Have fun with it
Balancing all the learning necessary to succeed in this field is tough. Trying to keep up might leave you out of breath at the end of the day, but if you can learn to have fun with it, you’ll do great.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute