By Peter Sena published June 3, 2015

11 Things Every New Content Marketer Should Know to Crush This Field


“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 A list like this is easy to start but impossible to finish because it becomes outdated almost immediately and grows unreasonably long.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

Author: Peter Sena

Pete Sena is the founder of Digital Surgeons, an experience design firm that connects consumers and brands to create better brand experiences. Pete considers himself a curious student of life and spends his out of office time reading voraciously, attacking Crossfit, and exploring.

Other posts by Peter Sena

  • Cassandra Jowett

    While this might be a list of things marketers generally should know, I don’t think it’s specific to content marketing. This list would probably be very overwhelming to “new” content marketers. It’s also missing the most important element of being a successful content marketer, which is telling compelling stories that help and resonate with people. Start there, and build more complex competencies as it makes sense for your business. That would be my advice.

    • PeterSena

      @cassandrajowett:disqus Thanks for taking a moment to share your point of view. Frankly I couldn’t agree with you more, I’m not sure if it got removed from the final edits or not, but I had originally mentioned crafting compelling narratives and I cited a few examples one of which is the importance of storytelling. Two of my favorite resources for that are Nancy Duarte and her book Resonate – as well as Content Strategy for the web here

      You might also appreciate this post on various other content marketing resources which I hope will round out my thoughts on the above: As I’m sure you experience being a seasoned content marketer it’s sometimes easy to forget to mention things when you’ve been doing something for quite some time. It’s comments like yours that help keep me on my toes and I’m thankful for people like you. Have a great day.

      • Robert McGuire

        Not only would it be overwhelming to entry level professionals, it’s probably overwhelming to veterans. This stuff is hard to keep up with. But no one has to be an expert in everything. (That’s something else you learn on the job.) Just having a basic grasp of these issues and able to have a conversation about them — even if it’s to ask smart questions about them — can make all the difference.

  • jitesh kapadia

    Nice post. Though title suggests it is for new content marketers, topic is more relevant to marketers in general and not just content marketers. None the less, it is worth every word and I have already shared it with my diverse marketing team. Thanks @Peter Sena

    • PeterSena

      Thanks @jitesh_kapadia:disqus I really appreciate you taking the time to share your feedback. One of the things I’m noticing in marketers today is a lack of fundamental understanding for content marketing and I would too assume that these are “basics” but I was surprised when I polled some of my colleagues at other companies besides mine in marketing roles.

      I plan on doing a more exhaustive piece that dives into this and I’ll be sure to send your way. What’s your twitter handle so I can @mention you on it.

      • jitesh kapadia

        Thanks @PeterSena. I would be looking forward to read your post. My tweeter handle is @jiteshkapadia

    • Robert McGuire

      It’s amazing how quickly the lines between the “different” kinds of marketing are blurring — search, social, paid, etc. It’s getting to be impossible for any of us to work in one area without being able to integrate with those other tactics.

  • Gabi Torres

    Peter, I really liked your article. I’m an international Ms in Marketing student.. I’ve been going through many interviews during my internship research, and I think this is a pretty accurate list of “things” we should be aware of! (just to kick off). It’s pretty interesting to realize that even with the fast paced technology we are still looking to understanding human beings!. Thanks for the article, I’m checking out some of the links you provided.. Ps: I think you’re extra cool, for your “attacking crossfit” status-same here!.

    • PeterSena

      Thanks so much Gabi, my crossfit coaches would tell me I need to spend more time attacking crossfit and less working but hopefully they don’t read this comment 😉

      • Gabi Torres

        you’ll find the balance. Looking forward to reading more articles 🙂

  • Vince Cavasin

    Great list, thanks for posting! A few points I’d like to see added:

    – Storytelling as discussed below. But foundational to storytelling and maybe even more important is command of language. In my experience as an adjunct professor and a mentor of early-career marketers, two of the most glaring deficiencies I’ve come across are 1. basic knowledge of grammar and 2. basic rhetorical skills. You can’t tell a compelling story without these.
    – Math, logic, and experiment design skills: Knowing HOW to use analytics tools is great, but more important in my view is knowing how to construct hypothesis-based analyses and execute them (using the latest tools and–let’s face it–MS Excel).
    – Presentation skills: The ability to take everything we’ve listed here and use it to build a compelling visual presentation–and then deliver that presentation–is one of the main functions of marketing in general and is a prerequisite to advancing in the field of content marketing as well.

    • Robert McGuire

      I love your second recommendation especially, Vince. I was an English student and a college writing teacher, and one of my pet peeves has always been when people confuse the humanities with the liberal arts. Math and science are liberal arts, too! And most students in the humanities neglect them.

  • Kate Ovsyannikova

    Like and share your thoughts! But you`re too strict towards recent college graduates )) We all were such self-confident … it`s inevitable. Experience is the best teacher! Thank you ))

    • PeterSena

      Thanks Kate, forgive me if I seem to be generalizing we agree on one thing Experience and real-world application of anything is the silver bullet if there ever is such a thing.

      • Kate Ovsyannikova

        ))) That`s it! And all your tips are great, especially the last one 😉

  • Brian R. King

    Thank you these great tips Peter.

    • PeterSena

      My pleasure Brian thank you for taking the time to read and comment on it.

  • Shai Geoola

    Excellent and well-written article Peter. I often find these sort of articles refreshing. Thanks for contributing! Cheers

    • PeterSena

      Appreciate the words of encouragement Shai, this is just the inspiration I need to keep creating more content like this and going that much deeper nex time around. I’d love your thoughts on our experiment beta of clicktackle what started as a way of making fun of “clickbait” titles actually is turning into a fun and useful tool for us internally.

  • Frank Hendry

    Whilst I agree with all that you have said peter, great

    You missed, the well what I think is the most important
    lesson any budding marketer needs to learn.

    That is that you need to know how to sell yourself before
    trying anything else…

    Just my own opinion

  • Tap Analytic

    Staying connected, Following the trends, Reaching out to the influencers with the help of Social Media. These are very detailed topics you explained them brilliantly.