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How To Create a Content Marketing Career Path (So You Don’t Lose Your Star Talent)

Many mistakenly believe people today manage their careers, especially in marketing, by staying in their jobs for much shorter durations.

In fact, since the early 1980s, the average job tenure has remained about five years. While more subtle tenure differences exist with age and gender, don’t believe the myth that young people have become less loyal to working for the same company.

How can young people be called the “job-hopping” generation if their average tenure is the same?  What causes this misperception?  

It would be easy to chalk it up to young people’s impatience. Gallup research finds only half of workers ages 25 to 40 strongly agreed they would be working at their company in a year. Sixty percent of older workers said the same.

However, those numbers are too similar to be distinctive. After all, if 40% of one part of your workforce and 50% of another aren’t confident they will be there in a year, something else is at work.

The real answer, especially in content and marketing, stems from the redefinition of “career management” and many businesses’ corresponding lack of response.

Content marketing career paths are dead-end labyrinths

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, a business would hire bright young people fresh out of university and plug them into an entry-level marketing position. They laid out a path – a ladder – to climb. That person would advance from coordinator to manager to senior manager to director, vice president, senior vice president, and even the C-suite.

The employee’s marketing specialty dictated how they might move across different ladders. Product marketing, brand, sales, and communications had distinct, functional career paths.

Then digital entered the picture. Companies started distinguishing between “digital marketing” and “other marketing.” (Some companies still do that today. Yes, it’s weird.) But worse, companies chopped digital marketing into channel-based silos like web, email, and social. It created confused and siloed versions of career management. Is it any wonder content marketing grew in the late 2000s and early 2010s to be yet another digital marketing silo without a clear career path?

Career silos also have arisen because of the broader trend of flatter organizational structures. Businesses removed middle management in favor of more agile, fast, and multi-functional digital teams. Practitioners focused on channels, and leaders spent their time to de-silo (or de-duplicate) the channel teams. 

This chaotic organization obfuscates what it means to manage your marketing career in one organization. It fundamentally changes the nature of what managing your career even means.

If marketing leaders care about retaining great talent, businesses must redefine, clarify, and communicate the pathways in their organizations.

Content and marketing are a starting point

In almost every business I’ve consulted with in recent years, most content marketers and strategists have three choices after they reach the manager level. They can:

  • Move into a more traditional siloed marketing role, leaving content marketing and content strategy behind. Senior director of social media, anybody?
  • Depart for a lateral position at another company.
  • Leave to build a solo practice.

Our newly released Content Marketing Career & Salary 2024 Outlook validates that experience. Though 54% of content marketers say they feel engaged at work, nearly one-third (31%) are actively or highly interested in looking for a new role. Why? 

Content marketers have no identity in their company. There is no next career move. They must prioritize the multiple avenues that would lead to a better-siloed marketing job, and that’s not necessarily a career in content marketing. In ranking order, more money, flexible hours, cultural fit, growth opportunities, and meaningful work top the motivations for a new job search.

Last on the list? A company that offers a content marketing career path. Why? Content marketers likely have never seen what that looks like. They can’t look for something they don’t realize could be a meaningful path.

Content career ladders can be a talent-acquisition differentiator

When I was the chief marketing officer of a fast-growing startup, a mentor told me hiring someone is the only truly expensive thing a company does. “Make sure you do it carefully,” he said.

If hiring is expensive, so is losing a good employee. Some reports place the cost at 21% of their annual pay on average.

But the answer to retaining employees isn’t to simply tie the content practitioner to some traditional siloed marketing career ladder. That misses the point of modern marketing – and jeopardizes your organization’s ability to retain the talented communicators of tomorrow.

Your HR department almost certainly has an established career ladder for traditional marketing roles. They have job descriptions for an entry-level marketing specialist, a marketing manager, a senior manager of email, a social media director, and so on.

But few organizations have a career path for content practitioners. I know because I’ve often been asked to help organizations create them.

I’m not suggesting the roles, titles, or even the kind of team to build. (If you’re interested in my recommendations for those, read The 7 Core Roles of a 2020 Content Marketing Team.)

I’m proposing this sample content marketing career ladder to help you work with your HR department to establish a formal career ladder. It can give everyone on your team a vision for advancement with the skills and expectations detailed.

Sample content marketing career ladder

This career ladder shows the progression from entry-level coordinator to manager to director to senior director to vice president of content (or chief content officer). Wherever your team members fall on this path, they have somewhere to go next (and the requirements to get there).

Click to enlarge

Before I dive into the details of this model, take note that some roles may converge as a team member progresses on the ladder. For example, as a content strategist moves into the director and senior director positions, the role might merge with that of a content marketer as the responsibilities expand to include leadership of both.

The tier descriptions indicate the characteristics for each level:

  • Entry-level coordinator. Just learning. New to the team. Working in support of a single function.
  • Manager. A performer. Strong skills in their role, can begin to manage and build relationships.
  • Director. A seasoned manager who can manage and drive change, as well as effectively and efficiently lead a team.
  • Senior director. Skilled team leader, with significant management experience. Well-rounded business management and strategic skills.
  • Vice president of content. Dynamic and effective leader, capable of managing multiple, large teams and growing talent.

The chart also lists the increasing responsibilities for each role:

  • Entry-level coordinator. Writes and/or manages editorial calendars. Create basic content, and/or coordinate work among channels or groups.
  • Manager. Creates and manages content calendar. Writes, edits, proofreads, and helps evaluate content performance. Manages small team, freelancers, and vendors.
  • Director. Manages and measures team and channel for effective delivery and balance of content marketing efforts. Manages team responsible for content standards, including SEO, structured content, and management of content assets.
  • Senior director. Guides all aspects of content marketing and content strategy, including teams managing owned, earned, and shared media. Manages team and is responsible for resourcing across operating models of content.
  • Vice president of content. Creates and oversees all aspects and delivery of global content initiatives across multiple platforms and formats to drive engagement with consumers and audiences. Directs and oversees content business, governance, technology, and standards-based operation of content. Manages overall teams that create standards and best practices (both human and technological) for content creation, distribution, maintenance, content retrieval, and content repurposing. Owns teams across all owned media experiences.

Start the content career discussion

This framework provides a career roadmap for content practitioners. Your content marketing and content strategy model will determine the number, type, and seniority of the people to fill out your team (and how your team scales over time).

You’ll note that the framework shows the vice president of content moving into a more traditional chief marketing officer or broad marketing leadership role. The point is the responsibility for content should be part of that leadership role.

Think of this as the beginning of the content career path discussion, not the end.

It’s great that content marketing has advanced so far that companies need a career path for valued content practitioners. Businesses that differentiate to attract talent will actually build it.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute