Content marketers are used to big career shifts. Many of today’s leaders started out before Facebook, YouTube, or even blogging were standard tools of the trade. And these days, disruptions are coming faster and more furious than ever – driven by technology, shifting trends, consumer interests, and other unpredictable factors. Even before the pandemic shook our world, it felt challenging to imagine what content jobs might look like five years from now.
And let’s be honest: There is no predefined content marketing career path. We rely on instinct to determine our direction, bootstrap our way toward filling the gaps we encounter, and shape our work to fit our own definition of success.
I spoke with four content leaders who have done exactly that. These intrepid industry explorers dove headfirst into uncharted waters and came up with successful and more satisfying roles.
Each of their origin stories demonstrates that career reinvention is not only possible, it can be the best way for bold marketers to write their own futures.
To hear more about what these content leaders learned from their pivotal experience – and how it shaped their view of future content marketing careers – click on the audio player at the end of each story.
Jennifer Watson: On-air weather forecaster to online community builder
The winds of change have altered the course of many careers. But, Jennifer Watson experienced those winds literally. After earning a bachelor’s degree in geography and a master’s in geosciences, Jennifer was working as a meteorologist for a TV station (WTVA) in northeast Mississippi when she experienced a strange “twister” of fate while covering the record-breaking April 27, 2011, super tornado outbreak. That day, along with talking on camera, she utilized social media to warn thousands of people about the storms. It was then that she realized the sheer power social media holds for spreading critical information and saving lives.
Soon after, she moved to a TV station in north Alabama, where she co-produced a special broadcast, Before the Storm, which showed residents how to stay safe in the event of a tornado outbreak or other severe weather.
That report earned her a regional Emmy award in the weather category, increased her interest in using social media to share critical information with her community, and eventually led to her taking her career in a whole new direction.
Lesson 1: Invest in the power of community
Jennifer entered the world of social media somewhat reluctantly at first. “I really didn’t like social media … One of my friends actually made a Facebook profile for me back in 2007, and I rarely posted on it. But when I started at my first TV role, we were required to post across our own social channels, as well as separate station channels and the weather team’s channel,” she says.
Jennifer posted sporadically until the news director brought her into his office to suggest she take a different approach – engaging with the audience and her fellow meteorologists in a personal, conversational way on the station’s social platforms.
“That kind of created a monster,” she says. “I fell in love with social media through Twitter. I was single, in my mid-20s, and living by myself in Tupelo, so I made friends on Twitter with meteorologists and other people in the community and it became addictive.”
As she rose to other broadcast meteorology roles – including the on-air commentator role she continues to play on The Weather Channel’s (TWC) Weather Gone Viral – online communities became a thread that connected her old and new passions. “It all kind of folded together. What I learned to love, through weather, is that not only can social media be a potentially lifesaving tool, it allows you to come together as a community. That’s why I fell in love with social media and why I think it’s so valuable,” she says.
Lesson 2: Embrace agility to pursue emerging opportunities
Jennifer continued to focus on her on-air career, but a stormy job market ultimately drove her to make a change. She was laid off from her meteorological producer role at TWC – and quickly rehired as the company’s “social meteorologist.” Her new position allowed her to leverage live video to garner millions of views and broadened her understanding of the power of online community: two competencies that paved the way for her to transition to her current role as social media manager for Agorapulse.
Jennifer’s favorite part about her new career is that she creates exclusive content that gives fans the ability to engage in a two-way conversation and immerse themselves in a brand’s world. “Every company has a story, and your customers don’t know your story until you tell them. That’s why storytelling is so powerful on social media,” she says.
Working for a social software company was a bit of a departure from her life as a weather broadcaster. Yet, in some ways, Jennifer sees a lot of similarities between the two roles: “Just (as) I followed weather patterns, I now follow social media patterns and trends and what’s working and what’s not working. Also, when you work for a TV station, (at) 5 p.m., the show starts and that’s it. It’s a runaway train. You have to be ready. In social media, you also have to be ready to pounce. Timeliness is key … you want to be one of the first to try something and be a leader. So, I think all of that has helped me thrive as a social media manager,” she says.
Though her career may not have followed a path she had anticipated, Jennifer is completely confident that it’s taken her exactly where she was meant to be: “It’s all kind of new, but I love that also social media is fluid, constantly changing – just like the weather.”
Joe Pulizzi: Account manager to content entrepreneur to budding novelist
With a newly minted master’s degree in rhetoric from Penn State, Joe Pulizzi entered the job market as just another proverbial “overeducated and underexperienced” job seeker struggling to find fulfilling work. He eventually landed a series of roles in custom media that brought him financial stability. But they didn’t provide the level of personal satisfaction he aspired to achieve.
“I absolutely loved what I was doing, and I was making really good money, but I was becoming frustrated because the company didn’t prioritize our department. I had always had this itch to start a business, and in 2007 I just had this feeling that brands would have to start creating their own interesting content, instead of just talking about themselves, in order to get found on Google,” he says.
Lesson 1: Go all-in or get out
Though Joe could have tested the waters for his new idea while making a comfortable living at his job, he never saw the value in a side hustle. “I believe you either do your job amazingly or you leave and do your side hustle and make that your great thing. You have to focus on one or the other,” he says.
Joe took a leap of faith and left Penton Media to start what ultimately became Content Marketing Institute. It was a risk that would eventually pay off tremendously – though it certainly didn’t happen without a few stumbles along the way:
“Going from Penton to starting a business and making nothing for a long time – you could say it was a really stupid decision. I had nothing. I just went and did the complete shift and said this is what I’m going to do now,” he says.
Lesson 2: Listen to your audience
That first business was Junta42 – a service that matched brands with journalists and other professional content creators who could help them tell their marketing stories more effectively. But despite the confidence he had in the value of his original idea, he struggled to find a viable business model that made it work financially.
“I was trying to create the eharmony® for content marketing. Of course, it was a horrible disaster because our revenue target was based on an agency model, and agencies weren’t spending money on marketing services,” says Joe.
With his big dream rapidly falling apart, Joe had started to search for jobs when some subscriber emails he had been mining for connections sparked a realization: While prospects may not have been interested in subscribing to his agency matching service, he discovered they were interested in his advice on how to network with other industry professionals and get training for themselves and their content teams.
“I thought, ‘My God. Here my email subscribers were telling me all along what they wanted to buy and I’m trying to shove this matching service down their throats.’ I remember writing the idea [for Content Marketing Institute] on a cocktail napkin: ‘We’re going to create the leading online education resource, the largest in-person event, and the leading trade magazine for the practice of content marketing.'”
That was the shift that turned everything around. In May 2010, CMI was born, followed by the launch of Chief Content Officer magazine in January 2011, and the inaugural Content Marketing World conference in September 2011.
Lesson 3: Apply existing insights to your new creative pursuits
Joe had finally realized his vision, but he wasn’t quite done pivoting his career. In 2016, Joe decided to sell the business and focus his time on his philanthropic efforts, including the Orange Effect Foundation, and on fulfilling a more personal content goal: becoming a novelist.
Though he’d already written several bestselling business books at that point, his wife Pam had never read any them because she found that kind of writing to be boring. Knowing she loved mysteries and thrillers, he drew on the lessons he taught at CMI about delivering wonderful content experiences and tried his hand at writing fiction.
The process of writing and selling a novel required Joe to adapt his existing skill sets, but the experience wasn’t a complete departure from his role as a content marketing entrepreneur. In fact, when it came time to market his first novel, The Will to Die, he took a piece of the advice he had personally delivered to thousands of CMI fans and followers: Build an audience before trying to sell to them. It led him to embark on a groundbreaking experiment: releasing the book as a free, serialized podcast, so he could gather audience feedback before making the print version available for purchase.
“I’m a big believer in just focusing on one channel and be great and create a unique content experience on that one channel. So that’s what I was trying to do with the audio release. I was starting brand new with this whole different genre … I felt I had to do things a little bit differently to get attention,” he says. “I’m pretty excited about it … Nobody had positioned their book like that before and it seemed to work a little bit.”
That “little bit” might be somewhat of an understatement. According to Joe, the podcast series received more than 50,000 downloads. Not only has the experiment’s success encouraged him to keep working at his new craft, but it’s also helped him build the industry credibility he’ll need to bring future writing projects into the hands of an audience that’s eager to hear more from him.
Rebecca Watson: Financial forecasting to emotional storytelling
Many content marketers enter the industry with a background in writing, marketing, or communication. In contrast, Rebecca Watson’s career journey started in investment banking.
Although she enjoyed the analytical side of the finance industry, Rebecca quickly realized her true interest lay in exploring how financial trends could be used to start new business opportunities. “I started to perk up when I would be in meetings to help fundraise for startups and understand their opportunities and their challenges as they would enter new industries,” she says.
Lesson 1: Rely on observations to uncover untapped opportunities
For Rebecca, deciding to change careers was easy. Knowing where to go next – and how to overcome the skills gap she felt she would face in a new career – was much harder. After several years of leading business development for two marketing software startups, her networking skills landed her a job in programming conferences and content for high-level marketers. There, she experienced a moment of clarity that set her on the path to becoming a business storyteller.
Rebecca’s role involved inviting incredible thought leaders, authors, and well-known speakers to present at exclusive industry events. At the end of each day, she would ask audience members to share feedback on what they found to be most interesting and memorable.
As Rebecca explains, “A large portion of them would say exactly the same thing I was feeling in my heart, which was, ‘I really liked it when XYZ person on stage went off script and said something completely surprising … that honest, raw kind of sharing about how this person was transformed and how they turn their life lows into catalysts for career highs and professional success.’”
And that’s when a light bulb lit up for her: “I said, ‘Well, if these are the stories that we’re all craving, why aren’t we sharing more of them?’”
Lesson 2: Invest in relatable experiences
Discovering this gap was the push Rebecca needed to develop The Reveal, an innovative video series in which she speaks with prominent, well-known business leaders and gets them to open up about their professional challenges, personal triumphs, and ongoing motivations.
“I really wanted [The Reveal] to be something that people could watch either at their office or at home or on their commute. So, I studied trends on video consumption and determined that the average length for these stories should be around six to eight minutes … I used my sales experiences and my rejection tolerance to reach out to potential interviewees and just chipped away at inviting them,” she says.
Rebecca feels all the micro-pivots that brought her to this point in her career were worth the effort and uncertainty she experienced. She has found greater satisfaction in her work, and she receives ongoing validation from an appreciative audience. “What I’ve heard from the audience, is that they are compelling stories, they are memorable, and they are giving people a sense of hope that they can face the challenges in their own lives, as well,” Rebecca says
Jessica Merrell: Aspiring school teacher to schooling job seekers
Though she originally studied English with the goal of becoming a teacher, Jessica Merrell set that ambition aside when she discovered a passion for exploring human behavior and culture. She switched her major to anthropology, got her degree, and started her career in human resources – a field she has never strayed from.
But the way her work helps employees and job seekers shifted dramatically over the years as she transitioned from leadership roles in corporate recruiting and employee relations to starting a media business that’s focused on audience building.
Yet, content creation had factored prominently in the self-directed success Jessica enjoyed as an HR executive at companies like Target. In fact, she started her first blog in 2005 as a tool to help her build relationships with job seekers. “Really I was just doing what marketing and sales do. I was blogging to build a funnel,” she says.
Lesson 1: Focus your expertise on a niche
When the economic recession hit the United States in 2008 and professionals in many industries were struggling to learn the new rules of job searching online, Jessica’s blog on unique job search strategies and techniques got picked up in a number of industry trade publications and started to attract a loyal following. That’s when she realized that sharing her HR industry experience could push her career in a new direction. “I thought, ‘OK, anybody can write about the job search or careers type topics, but not everybody can write about human resources, and this is an area of expertise that I have,’” she says.
Lesson 2: Self-educate and hone your skills
This realization led her to launch Workology, a content brand that provides helpful resources and information for HR and recruiting leaders and business managers who want to help their employees become more engaged and productive.
But like any content marketer branching out in an experimental direction, Jessica found the road to making Workology a success required her to navigate unanticipated learning curves. For example, though she had plenty of experience writing for a subscribed audience by that point, she lacked a marketing background.
“The hardest part was teaching myself how to be a marketer … I spent a lot of time learning, absorbing, and listening to others and figuring out what I needed to do to become a great marketer … I spent a lot of time practicing. I took any speaking gig I could find and just worked to form a process that worked for me,” Jessica says.
Lesson 3: Put yourself in your audience’s shoes
Through this self-education, she also discovered the benefits of empathy in marketing – for both the giver and receiver: “It’s really important to immerse yourself in what life is like for the community of people that you’re writing to. And sometimes that means spending two weeks with one person just living their life day to day to understand what their job is really about, what are the challenges and obstacles that they face, and then how can we create content and resources to help them be more successful in their job,” she says.
How are you pivoting towards your next content opportunity?
As these inspiring content leaders discovered, unexpected change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, not only can it put you on a promising path to an exciting new career, it might even bring you closer to the things you’re most passionate about – in your marketing work and in life.
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