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


(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.

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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