By Jay Acunzo published January 24, 2016

The Content Talent Crunch: Time to Change How We Train, Hire, Nurture

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(Editor’s note: When we find something of such significant value to our audience from another source, we want to share it. This article appeared in Chief Content Officer magazine, which excerpted it from Jay’s great blog, Sorry for Marketing.)

I have these two friends. Let’s call them Brendan and Amanda (because those are their names). These two friends are very, VERY good content marketers. They’ve built audiences at the top of the funnel. They’ve converted audiences down the funnel. They’re great at managing content teams. They’re prolific content creators and leaders. They’re so good that they can generate thousands of MQLs, SQLs, RTs, and other KPIs with one hand and drink an IPA with the other. LOL OMG.

They are, in no uncertain terms, the proverbial content rock stars we all hear about. Almost every month, I annoy the crap out of them.

Let me explain: The start-ups in which NextView (the venture capital firm where I work) invests are all falling over themselves to hire the best content marketing talent. Even outside our portfolio, my colleagues in the tech start-up world also are encountering this talent arms race. Almost all of them desperately want what I call a unicorn hire – someone who can execute and lead, strategize, and create. Someone like Brendan. Someone like Amanda. And so I send them job after job, intro after intro.

And as much as I hate to admit it, their best move isn’t to take any of these jobs. Their best move is to wait for a corresponding unicorn job – that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them.

Yep. We’re experiencing a massive talent crunch for great content marketers – and it’s not just in the start-up space. It’s everywhere. And it’s time we did something about it.

Where’s all the talent?

NextView has invested in 50-plus start-ups in its five-year history, and the talent crunch is what I hear about most. I get multiple emails every week with requests to share good candidates or make intros. NextView also runs a program called the Talent Exchange to surface candidates to our start-ups. The second-most requested intro through this program, just behind software engineers? You guessed it. Content talent.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve watched the problem worsen. In that same span, the language used by hiring managers also has evolved. “We’re hiring a writer” is now more common in my inbox than “we’re hiring a content marketer.” That one small change hints at a much larger reality: Companies aren’t finding enough creative, producer-type talent. Whenever I see a search for “writers,” I can practically hear the executive behind the ask throwing his or her hands up in exasperation … “Enough with the pretenders. We need actual creative talent in here already!”

But they’re not finding it. Whether start-up or enterprise, in my hometown of Boston or beyond, it’s just not consistently there.

Looking outside the bubble

In a survey I conducted with Boston Content (a local content marketing industry group) in 2014, I asked our members to think of their job in four parts: Planning (strategy, buying tech, crafting editorial calendars, etc.), production (creating and editing the content itself), distribution (marketing), and analysis (post-publishing evaluation). Then I asked them to identify where they receive the least amount of internal support and, no surprise, they unanimously said they lacked support in producing content. The marketing world is just not built to support and develop the creative talents of its people, generally speaking. Unfortunately, when it comes to the other possible solution – attracting better talent from elsewhere – we have a long way to go.

For starters, it’s hard to be both focused on your craft as a writer (or any creative) and be happy in content marketing. I often lament this fact and propose solutions to it in my blog, but looking across the industry, I’m one of a few people talking openly about why we need to honor good creative processes and cultivate genuinely great writers, designers, videographers, podcasters, et al. (Hat tip to some of the others doing so, like Ann Handley and Doug Kessler.)

Starting the solution conversation

Nowhere is the problematic environment more evident than in the marketing world’s obsession with the quality-versus-quantity debate. Not only are those not opposing ideas, but it’s also not reality. Creatives sitting at the adult tables of the digital world (media outlets, for instance) don’t ever get to ask that question. They have to do both. I know some journalists who publish two to three articles per day, all while working on one or two in-depth, long-form pieces. They have to meet a quality bar set by their editors. Ask them, “Do you write to be high quality or high quantity?” and they would just laugh.

Content marketing creatives are still sitting at the little kids’ table. That has to end.

#Contentmarketing creatives are still sitting at the little kids’ table. That has to end via @jayacunzo Click To Tweet

While I don’t have the answer, we need to start talking more openly about the problem and start working toward a sustainable solution. We need to figure it out and fast, or this wonderful, exciting, rewarding industry niche is going to come crashing down. Here are some ideas of what we can do to attack the problem:

1. Create a program to launch better creators.

Launch Academy is a great program here in Boston that trains engineering talent for start-ups. What if we had a studio where young marketers could learn the craft of producing media and how to connect it to a larger marketing strategy? (This could then scale to multiple offline locations. Online could work too, though I’d argue not as well.)

2. Change how we source, interview, and vet candidates.

We simply can’t take the same process used to hire good marketers and use it to hire prolific creators. The best writer I ever hired was a bartender for 10 years prior to my hiring him – and I almost completely messed that up by applying the traditional hiring process to him.

Whether we tweak our vetting process or interview differently to attract new and awesome types of talent, it takes a process and approach that matches.

3. Evolve how we talk and think about creative.

Companies must put aside their products and revise their agendas to first focus on creating amazing content. If there’s one reason media companies are so much better at producing media, it’s because they care about the story first. Then they retrofit the products they sell around a great film, show, book, and so on. The writers, designers, and animators who craft historically great stories and characters don’t wake up thinking, “What can I create today to sell more action figures?”

But marketers? Boy do we get this backwards. That’s unfortunate, given that better content would yield better results for us. But that’s playing the long game.

Right now we don’t talk about creative in a way that attracts top talent. We focus almost exclusively on the end result at the expense of (rather than in harmony with) the craft of creation. Sometimes a blog isn’t working because it sucks to read.

The question I get that makes me want to toss my laptop most is, “How many words should my blog posts be?” What a great way to turn off prolific, quality writers from joining your organization.

This desire to know some magical word count is a sign that (a) someone is interested in shortcuts above craft, (b) someone isn’t a born writer, as nobody who IS would ever ask that question, and (c) someone who doesn’t think about the audience first. Your audience members view a blog post as merely a container. The stuff inside is what they’re after. I believe people are multidimensional and complex. They’ll read any length and consume any medium, provided the stuff inside those containers is worthy.

We need to act now

It’s 8:43 a.m. on a foggy Boston morning as I write this. I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop downtown. And, hand to God, as I finished typing the section above, one of our start-up CEOs plopped down in the chair across from me, totally unexpectedly: “Good to see you man. Here’s what I’m struggling with …”

The topic? Everything you just read. The solution? It’s time we found one.

Looking for more ideas on how to find and work with the best content marketing professionals? Visit our Teams and Process hub

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jay Acunzo

Jay Acunzo is the VP of platform and content at NextView Ventures, a seed-stage VC firm investing in tech startups. For the firm, he runs the blog the View From Seed and the podcast Traction, among other initiatives dedicated to supporting early-stage entrepreneurship. Jay is also a co-founder of Boston Content, a local community helping over 1,000 content marketers. He's led content at HubSpot (IPO) and Dailybreak Media (acquired) and began as a digital media strategist at Google. Find him @jayacunzo or via SorryForMarketing.com.

Other posts by Jay Acunzo

  • Moby

    Oh where do I start? Thanks for this. You have articulated everything I feel. I manage the content department for an online travel agency, (third largest in the US). I want to run for the hills because no one, from HR to C suites, gets what I do.
    I’ve only been there for 10 months and first 6 months, moved content requests from Gmail to Basecamp, created a style guide, launched their first Integrated campaign , which was so successful it was copied by Expedia… yet I cannot get a budget for a workflow platform, can’t use personas in my strategy (had to revise my plan to show how i can use blog posts to help get clicks on emails for booked customers).
    My story is long so I won’t digress further. I just feel vindicated after being told at time my approach to content is too high level. Yet they wonder why the attrition rate in my department was so high. Thank you for this.

    • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

      Moby, so glad to hear it! I’m glad there was a little moment of vindication here, and I wish you all the best in tackling the next challenge ahead. All I can say is, keep fighting the good fight! (Your sentiment lines up perfectly with my upcoming new podcast and platform I’m launching later this year. Keep in touch via sorryformarketing.com)

  • Carolyn Frith

    The best writers and creatives are talented enough that they do not have to work as an employee. They are freelancers. Companies seeking top talent need to consider them as a resource.

    • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

      I completely agree. But I also think that companies can work harder to make going in-house more appealing. For instance, most startups I work with allow for a similar lifestyle to freelancers in terms of attire, working from home/wherever, and risk-taking and side projects.

      But yeah, if I’m that much in demand as a writer or creator, I’m seriously considering working from anywhere, picking clients and projects I love, and not going down the corporate path at this moment in time.

      • Carolyn Frith

        Many of use freelancers were already burned by the corporate world. Been there. Done that! Clients treat us better than bosses ever did.

        • http://www.thecontentcanvas.com Kathleen Smith

          Here here, Carolyn!! I am smitten with my new life as a freelance content marketer and wish I had made the leap much sooner to go out on my own. You are spot on about the difference in dynamic between working with clients and in-house management.

          • Carolyn Frith

            Kathleen, the difference never ceases to amaze me.

      • http://realtimeparadigm.com Joan

        Jay, I’m a freelance Copywriter. You’re right on this one. There’s no way I would work in a corporate environment. Your article is timely, honest and refreshing.

  • omaha reader

    The team and talent are in place, but they’ve traditionally worked in journalism and media. Scooping up and organizing this talent promises deadline driven, storytelling writers and editors focused on answering questions and extremely comfortable curating, researching and interviewing at the highest levels.

  • http://www.redright88.com/ Tom_RedRight88

    Very interesting read. Also find it interesting that your experience shows that businesses are desperate to hire qualified content marketers as I’ve been searching for a content marketing job for more than a year now with no results.

    Not sure if hearing that there are firms out there who are desperate for help is more encouraging or exasperating.

    • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

      Hey Tom, do you have an online portfolio you can share? Glad to suggest a few pointers on ways to make it stand out to potential employers a bit more. To hedge a bit: be sure you have (A) an online portfolio that exists :) (B) showcase you can write well as a base-level skill (C) showcase that you can translate your writing energy into other types of content, whether it’s across channels e.g. blogging on WordPress but also Medium but also LinkedIn….or across formats, e.g. writing interview-based articles but also op-eds but also news but also educational advice columns….or across mediums, e.g. writing blog posts but also creating SlideShares but also creating website copy.

      What’s so brilliant about a good content creator’s advantage today is that, unlike some other jobs where you need a past employer to “give you a shot” at proving yourself before you can convince the next employer you’re great, there’s literally no barrier to a content creator building an amazing portfolio. You don’t need an employer to assign you a SlideShare, for instance, to create a SlideShare. You can just create all these things for free and prove to employers you’re a content creation master :)

      • http://www.redright88.com/ Tom_RedRight88

        Thanks for the offer, Jay, it is much appreciated as things are getting a bit frustrating.

        My site is at http://tmcommunications.org which offers an overview of what I’ve done and offer. It also has links to the work I’m currently doing.

        Would love any feedback – not just from you but anyone else who would care to weigh in.

        Thanks!

        • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

          Some quick reactions, keeping in mind that it might not be an issue with your portfolio, since so many other nuances come into play that I’m not seeing (e.g. your outreach, the types of companies or individuals you’re reaching, etc.)

          – the home page should feature your greatest hits. Think like a product manager: How do you minimize the number of actions you require on your site to get a visitor to that “ah ha!” moment. Along those lines…

          – Your “why” is missing. I know WHAT you do, but I don’t know WHY you do it or WHY I should hire you. If I’m vetting 12 CM consultancies or freelancers or potential full-time hires, they will all say they do content, they like to show and not tell, etc. But what do you BELIEVE? Good place to start to unpack this idea and then apply it to your site is this video: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en

          – It should be a blend of text and imagery. Right now it’s very text-heavy

          – The full-bleed image at the top of each page is definitely modern style, but it’s empty space. Can you put your name and a subheader to describe you on there? It’s so much real estate, but it doesn’t advance your cause. If I’m a savvy hiring manager or VP/CMO/brand, I’d examine this site as if you created it for me the client, so I’d be wondering about this

          – I’m not finding links to social media profiles. Maybe they’re there and I can’t find them or maybe they’re missing, but either way, should be easy to find.

          – If you can, associate some data with various projects to show how well the content did

          – This says “About Us” but you should definitely have a site that is all about you if you’re trying to land a CM job, even if it’s just a simple/free about.me page or Squarespace site

          – In the end, you’re a LOT further along than most folks with similar skills. A surprisingly high number of folks don’t have portfolios at all. So kudos to you for putting this together, putting your name out there in these comments, and allowing me to offer feedback…and I hope at least some of it helps! :)

          • http://www.redright88.com/ Tom_RedRight88

            Thank you so much. I’ll get to work on incorporating these suggestions.

  • Urvashi Gokhool

    nice one :)

    • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

      thank you :)

  • Emma James

    I work as freelance SEO. Of course, there are pros and cons, but this is my choice.

  • Jacqueline Lee

    Hi Jay, I work in-house editorial and do freelance content writing on the side. I enjoy in-house work, but it was tough to get a foothold anywhere. I find that in established companies, HR is the biggest obstacle to being hired because they look for candidates who allow them to check off certain boxes: 5 years of experience, degree in English or marketing, etc. They hire to a checklist instead of hiring for talent, which makes it challenging for self-taught people who learned on the job, like me.

    You mention changing the sourcing, vetting, and interviewing process. I’d be interested what changes you have in mind, specifically. I like the idea of hiring creatives more like startups hire software developers: start with a project-based assessment or trial period, and then informally interview to discover how well the person plays with others. Thanks for launching this discussion.

    • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

      I think you’re exactly right — it needs to be more project-based than HR/checkbox based. As I mentioned above, the very best writer I ever hired had been bartending for the bulk of his time for a decade, and he had no college degree to speak of. That didn’t affect a single thing about his work within the company — he was stellar, and he rocketed up the ladder and is now a freelancer himself, having been a senior member of a content team between our work together and his freelance role.

  • http://sorryformarketing.com Jay Acunzo

    This is a big issue. There’s such a disconnect between the desire to work with quality writers/freelance content producers…and the willingness to pay what it’s actually worth. But we’re slowly emerging from the days of content farms and cheap, SEO-focused writers. Hopefully that means greener pastures (and bank accounts!) for writers :)

  • rogercparker

    Jay: This is a topic of critical importance to all content marketers, and I’m pleased to see it addressed here. I hope you’ll be sharing more research on the topic and how it’s impact is felt by participants all sectors–corporations, agencies, small businesses, freelancers, etc.

    Actually, I’d like an opportunity to view a conversation, panel, or workshop–or read a post–with you and CMI contributor Paul Roetzer, @pr2020. Paul has addressed similar topics in his Marketing Agency Blueprint book.

    Thanks for sparking dialog on what could be a win/win or, unfortunately, a lose/lose situation for all content marketers.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    This is going to every entrepreneur I know. Thanks very much for putting it all down.

    I actually freelanced full-time in the early 2000s. But went back into corporate 10 years ago. Not because the work wasn’t there, but because businesses made it so difficult to do the work! HR getting in the way, managers rigidly adhering to pre-Internet creative standards, & everybody treating content as low-man-on-the-totem-pole.

    Things have improved a great deal since then. I’m even considering a move back to freelancing. But, as you say, still a ways to go.

  • Jen Dennis

    Loved this story! One of the bigger issues I’ve seen is that the people asked to hire and manage content talent for in-house teams aren’t from a content background themselves, so they have a hard time evaluating/appreciating some of the nuances that go into great work. Add in the fact that content is a long-term commitment (results aren’t immediate), and things can get frustrating for both sides really quickly.

  • http://www.kranzcom.com Jonathan Kranz

    Many hires may be natural talents, but few (even among the most talented) are natural content marketers: we all need skills, acquired through training and honed by experience. A true commitment to content marketing requires a comparable investment in training.

  • Sonja Jackson

    As one in charge of content creation, SEO optimization, and effective ROI reporting; this article hit me to my core. The constant need for relevant, popular, quality content is both incredibly exciting and overwhelming. Not to mention the CEO’s & CFO’s are mostly concerned about the bottom line, when they don’t realize how much of the creative talent needs to be nurtured. Hoping this conversation keeps evolving into practical solutions for those of us stuck at the intersection of quality and quantity!

  • Owen McDonald

    You nailed it, Jay. Part of the problem is that as marketing automation tech has exploded in the past 4 years, writers have taken a hit. Companies license these systems, then in a curious buyer’s remorse reaction, they seek to hire only people who can write the copy AND expertly operate the systems. That strikes me as short-sighted and unrealistic. Meanwhile, the content suffers and the systems aren’t used to their full potential. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

  • http://www.shaunanagins.com/ shaunanagins

    The other thing that a lot of companies would benefit from would be looking outside their area for great talent. I am a writer in Canada who works in marketing, but I find it hard to find that content marketing manager job (something I have been working towards for years!) when many of the companies which interest me are looking for talent in the US. Even if they’re willing to take telecommuters, which many are not, those positions are not always open to people like me. Allowing for that flexibility, even if the logistics can be hard at first, could attract a lot more creative and strategic talent.

    I also wish I could trade out some of the repetitive metrics on my resume (I have this experience! I got this many social shares! I converted THIS MANY!) and replace them with the soft skills and strategic thinking which I think would actually make me a solid content manager. I think it would serve us well to focus on someone’s potential more than how much of a keener they were in college.