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What’s Next in Your Content Marketing Career Evolution?

content-marketing-career-evolution-coverI’ve been thinking about career paths lately – partly because people are asking about mine. Beyond that – I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned that could help other content marketers assess their own careers and figure out what the heck they’re doing with their lives. No rock star ever rose to fame after playing his first gig, and that’s not likely to happen to you after publishing your first blog post, either. So what’s the big picture?

The way I see it, content marketers go through four distinct career phases. There may be some overlap and some ups and downs, but here’s my take on understanding where you stand now and where content marketing could take you.

1. The Young Gun

Even major rock stars like Jim Morrison started off riffing with their friends. In many ways, this is the most exciting phase. As a new content marketer, you’re full of the positive ramifications that social and content have for the world (more value, fewer ads), and for your personal career (more meaning, less rah rah – or maybe just more money, let’s be honest).

At this phase, your job is to soak up knowledge. My advice: Think broadly. Morrison lived for rock ‘n’ roll, but he also read Kerouac and Keats. The more wide-open your sphere of inquiry, the more likely you’ll be able to see connections that others miss – and that’s key for great content.

Network like crazy: Be active in online groups, comment on blog posts, and attend events whenever you can. Ask questions, offer help where appropriate, and join conversations that interest you. LinkedIn research shows that people who comment on group discussions get four times the profile views.

As you network and do your research, identify mentors – people you can look up to and follow closely. Notice what works for them and what doesn’t, and start building the relationships that will support you through the rest of your career.

Young Gun checklist:

  • Read industry books:
    • What’s the Future of Business (WTF) by Brian Solis
    • Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
    • Epic Content Marketing  by Joe Pulizzi
    • Welcome to the Funnel  by yours truly
  • Identify industry thought leaders and follow them on LinkedIn.
  • Find a mentor. Here are some good suggestions for doing that.


2. The Emerging Artist

It can be a little scary to put your own content into the world. Emerging artists want to share their passions through content. What do you feel compelled to investigate and share? Then, clarify your personal values. Where do you stand on ethical, political, or aesthetic grounds?

My own venture into online publishing started with a blog and Twitter feed about rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, I also took some digital marketing classes, but the real expertise came with getting in there and doing it – making a lot of mistakes and figuring out how to fix them.

As my colleague Sharon Stubo, Vice President of Communications at LinkedIn, says:

“It’s easier to speak with a clear, bold voice when you know what you stand for.”

She and I shared more advice about this e-book, The Sophisticated Guide to Thought Leadership. Stubo talks about how the “special sauce” makes a person’s style unique and interesting. How might your particular worldview open up solutions and possibilities for others?

As you define your passions, values, and expertise, start sketching out themes and ideas that you would like to pursue. From this, your personal editorial calendar can evolve. LinkedIn’s publishing platform is a great way to experiment with your personal themes and audiences, but remember – it’s OK to play it safe. Rather than publishing something that feels half-baked, hold it back and focus on sharing other content that catches your interest. You’ll know when it’s time to speak your piece.

Emerging Artist checklist:

  • Clarify your passions and values.
  • Read widely to improve your knowledge and writing style.
  • Identify your audience and determine how you can help them.
  • Create content and put it out into the world.
  • Take feedback and make better content.

3. The Collaborator

One day, after burning the midnight oil for a few years (or months), you land a position at a company led by people who believe in thought leadership and are ready to take an intelligent risk on the collision of two worlds – its brand and your personal brand. Your job is to team up with the best in the business to transform that brand conversation.

Rather than toiling to get on the thought leaders’ radar, you propose something that offers them value: work with a respected brand and a fresh voice to create and promote mutually beneficial content.

In this role, your ability to play on a team takes center stage. Content marketing, after all, is about respecting and tuning in to the customer’s time, focus, and inclinations. That attitude translates equally well to the way you treat your most immediate customers: clients, teammates, collaborators, and content stakeholders. Never forget to give credit to the team. Always be helpful and constructive with criticism. And listen carefully to the ideas coming from those Young Guns.

Given the choice between collaborating with a headline-making Ozzy Osbourne type or a cooperative Dick Wagner type (Alice Cooper’s guitar collaborator), smart marketing leaders choose a Wagner type – the person with a track record of making others look good. Yes, Jim Morrison was a heady exhibitionist, but his legend survives because he, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore struck a powerful chord with their audience.

Collaborator checklist:

  • Identify your target audiences.
  • Clarify your company’s core narrative: How can you help those audiences?
  • Work cross-functionally with sales to develop clear content objectives.
  • Identify influencers in each market and collaborate with them on content.
  • Publish and optimize content.
  • Listen to your team members and give them credit.

4. The Crackerjack

L.A. Woman remains the Doors’ true masterpiece and belongs in every rock collection. When you’ve reached the crackerjack point of your career, you too are working on the crown jewel of your content treasury. You’ve found your groove, you drive revenue wherever you go, and you probably spend your time writing books, keynoting events, and consulting with those who can afford you.

Remember that continued success depends on continued mastery. Marketing today is a hybrid endeavor. If you let yourself become one-dimensional, rather than constantly learning and gathering skills, you can look forward to a quick retirement.

Humility and the customer reign supreme. As author Brian Solis points out, “True thought leadership starts with empathy.” At the same time, you lead the industry rather than just responding to it. You got here because of your willingness to take risks on provocative ideas and to tell truth to power – so go for it. Do a Morrison, and set the tone for an entire generation of marketers to follow. Just don’t wind up dead in a bathtub before your time, friends. That’s all I ask.

Crackerjack checklist:

  • Continue to learn from Young Guns and peers.
  • Stay up on marketing technologies:
    • Content
    • SEO
    • Social platforms
    • Email
    • Coding
    • Analytics
    • What’s next?
  • Develop your brand value based on a constantly shifting marketing mash-up.

Do those career profiles ring true for you? Do you find yourself cycling between two or more? I’m interested in your thoughts.

A key to your development as a content marketer is ongoing learning in the ever-changing field. Register today for the Content Marketing Institute webinar, New Skills for a New Era of Marketing, 2 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, April 21.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute