Some jobs are easy to define and prepare for:
Want to be an engineer? Go to school and get an engineering degree.
Want to code for Google? Go to school and study computer science.
What do you do when you want to be a content marketer?
Go to school and study content marketing? Hmm…there doesn’t seem to be a program for that, please try again.
Sure, it wouldn’t hurt to study general business or marketing, but that’s not enough either. You’ll end up learning many things you don’t really need and not learning those you do need.
All the top content marketers I know have a wide variety of useful skills that closely relate to content marketing.
This is largely out of necessity.
Content marketing—the modern version of it—didn’t really become popular until the last few years.
And while the future looks bright for content marketers of today, who knows if the subject will ever make its way to mainstream education.
If you really want to be a great content marketer, there’s only one place for you to get your education:
The real world.
There is very little barrier to entry, which means you can jump in the deep end immediately and start learning.
You’ve likely already started your content marketing education but might be looking for information on how to take the next steps.
Well, there are 6 skills that I believe all great content marketers need.
I’m going to tell you what they are and go into detail about why they are important and how you can develop them.
1. A love for data analysis sets you apart
Many writers have transitioned to content marketing in the past few years.
They have many of the skills I’m going to go over, but they commonly lack this one.
Being able to tell a story is good, but it’s what you do with that story that really matters.
The content in “content marketing” needs to be created for a purpose. And the only way to know whether that purpose is being fulfilled and goals are being met (or progressed upon) is to look at the data.
A great content marketer is a lover of both content and numbers, which is a rare package.
A great content marketer is results-based: It starts with knowing that you need a way of measuring your results.
To do this, you need to understand the role of metrics in a business. These metrics are also being called key performance indicators (KPIs).
Metrics are a way of describing goals.
If your goal is to increase readership, the metrics you’ll be concerned with are traffic and subscribers.
You can monitor metrics over time to see if you are making progress. If the progress is too slow, you can test different approaches and look at the metrics to see if they are working.
Although every content marketing plan has its own goals, there are a few metrics that are important in nearly every scenario.
You’ll notice that those metrics cover numbers both before and after a sale.
The most common purpose of content marketing is to improve sales, so you’d better see an increase in revenue if you’re doing it right.
Data collection and analysis are the basic skills a content marketer needs: The first step is realizing that metrics are a necessary part of business.
You don’t need to obsess over them, but you do need to make sure you know how to track and analyze them.
Tracking is very simple.
Know how to install something like Google Analytics or KISSmetrics.
Analytics software not only tracks your readers’ behavior but also provides you with a dashboard for quickly organizing and analyzing it.
The first big obstacle content marketers need to overcome is learning how to use the analytics software.
You can find tutorials online to help with this, but the simplest way is to simply play around with it yourself and look through different tabs and settings.
The second obstacle is much larger.
You need to learn how to analyze that data.
You can get the basics of this pretty quickly:
choose your metrics
look at them over a valid time period
assess whether the metrics have improved or worsened
The hard part is knowing how to analyze data properly.
Really good content marketers know how to look at the situation, conduct very specific tests, and segment the analytics data to provide meaningful information.
Often, new marketers will make decisions based on analytics, but they don’t look at the right set of users.
For example, if you had two versions of a blog layout and saw that one had a better time on-page, you might conclude that it’s better.
However, it’s possible that it’s really not if you dig into things like:
time of week
It may turn out that the second page performs better in all browsers except Internet Explorer.
That would lead you to investigate why that is, and you’d probably find out that it’s not showing up correctly. Fixing the errors would change the results of your experiment.
By having more experience and knowledge, that content marketer may have just made his or her business tens of thousands of dollars. Repeat that over the course of several years, and you see why a good content marketer is worth a lot.
This is a skill that needs to be developed through experience or mentorship by an expert. There are no shortcuts, e.g., you can’t just read a blog post about it and become an expert.
Every marketer should be able to do basic A/B testing: I’ve already mentioned testing a few times.
While there are a few types of experiments you can run, the most basic is an A/B split test.
First, you should understand what split tests are and why they are valuable.
They allow you to test two different versions of content to see which one leads to better metrics.
Split-testing is very useful for gaining continual small improvements in metrics such as conversion rate.
These small improvements add up to impressive results over time.
Second, you need to know how to run split tests and analyze the results.
Fortunately, it’s very simple now with modern software.
If you want a more detailed look at running a split test, you can refer to my guide on conversion optimization. Otherwise, there are just a few main steps.
First, you’ll need to pick a piece of software to help set up the test and track the results. For example, you can use Optimizely.
Then, you’ll need to create a hypothesis for a test.
The best split testers know how to test something that is likely to have a big impact on the metric you’re trying to improve.
These aren’t usually pulled out of thin air. Instead, they are determined based on analyzing analytics and user behavior data.
Software like Crazy Egg can show you how visitors use your website. You can use that information to make an educated guess about how to improve the clarity of your content.
Finally, you’ll need to determine a significant sample size and collect data. Most types of software do this for you nowadays.
At the end, you pick the winner and start again.
It will be a big benefit to understand the statistics behind split testing to spot mistakes and set up useful tests.
If you’ve never taken a statistics class, you can take one online free.
There are many, but here are two popular classes:
Statistics One by Princeton
Intro to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data
It’s not mandatory, but it’s a nice asset to have.
2. Research is the key to any type of marketing
One of the most important but overlooked skills a content marketer can have is the ability to conduct research.
That’s a pretty broad term.
It covers everything related to discovering and understanding a topic.
With respect to content marketing, there are a few main reasons why your ability to research effectively is so important.
Reason #1 – To understand your customer: If you want to be a good content marketer, you need to understand the type of reader you’re trying to attract.
If you don’t, you can’t produce content that they will be interested in.
You won’t be able to write about the right topics, and you won’t know how your readers enjoy consuming the information.
If you don’t research your target reader and understand them, you’re basically just guessing what they might like.
It can still work, but be prepared to produce hundreds of pieces of content until you learn what works.
Or do some research, and get it right the first time. Clients don’t want to pay you for months on end while you figure things out by trial and error.
So, how do you actually research your reader and customer?
There are tons of ways.
And there are no wrong answers.
You might start by paying attention to what readers are saying in the comments of your, or your competitor’s, website.
Answer questions like:
what do they like about the content?
what don’t they like?
what other subjects are they interested in?
what kind of job/life do they have (readers will often tell you)?
Or you can hunt down small niche forums and spend time digging into threads:
This is a great way to find out about their problems, which make great content ideas.
Or you can research demographic data using sites like Alexa.
Demographics are a key part of building a reader profile.
These are three of many options.
Great content marketers keep digging until they have as clear of a picture of their reader as possible.
They do this before they ever start writing.
An hour of research here might save several hours of work in the future.
Research #2 – To understand your product: Selling products isn’t an accident. You need to have a plan to effectively sell anything with content marketing.
Many inexperienced content marketers will say, “I’ll worry about the product later,” and focus on just producing content.
BIG mistake. Why?
Because when you do that, you don’t ensure that your product matches your audience’s needs.
This is called product-market fit.
Instead, you need to figure out how your content should relate to and add to the promotion of any products you sell.
This is where research comes in.
There are two main scenarios that you’ll need to be comfortable in.
The first is when you’re hired by a company that already sells a product. You need to research the product and understand what it does (and sometimes how it does it).
Pretend I hired you to manage the Crazy Egg blog. How could you do it without understanding the product?
You wouldn’t be able to create product tutorials or content that features the software until you get familiar with it:
While that’s far from the only content produced on the blog, it’s a type of content that plays an important role in the sales process.
The other scenario is when you don’t have a product yet.
Research is even more important in this case.
You’ll need to find out which products your audience will pay for and potentially how to create those products as well.
Finally, and most importantly, a great content marketer knows how to research content topics.
You need to know what you’re talking about in order to write a high quality article.
This involves knowing how to look up high quality journal articles as well as other resources:
It also involves spending the time understanding those resources.
If you’re writing about advanced topics, this takes considerable persistence, and many weak content marketers will simply find a lower quality resource instead.
Great content marketers aren’t lazy.
Reason #3 – To solve problems independently: The final main reason why research is an important skill for content marketers to have is because without it, you’ll often get stuck.
Content marketers will always be faced with questions and problems:
What should I write about?
What’s the best format for this content?
How do I create this form of content?
I don’t understand this topic, so what do I do?
Let me give you a realistic scenario…
Let’s say you’re keeping up with the latest SEO posts, and you see this filter before a list of tools on Backlinko:
And you think: “A filter like that would really improve a piece of content I’m working on.”
Here’s the problem: there’s no simple plugin to do it for you.
So, what then? Most will give up. A great content marketer, however, will dig in and figure it out.
Now, most content marketers don’t know how to create one of their own. However, the best will find someone who can make one.
They’ll head over to Odesk or Upwork and create a job posting for a developer.
(That’s not a relevant posting to this problem, by the way.)
The big difference between a good and bad content marketer is persistence.
Great marketers will keep researching until they find the answer to their problem. That’s what makes them stand out from everyone else.
3. Content takes many forms; being able to create it starts with writing
Although content marketing is a niche of marketing, it’s still fairly broad.
Content can take many different forms:
While it’s good to know how to create all types of content, they all, to some degree, involve writing.
Even making videos requires you to produce a script.
As you also know, most content marketing is done in the form of blog posts—typically text- and image-based content.
There are a few skills that go into being a good writer (and content marketer).
Skill #1 – Basic writing ability: There’s a common misconception about what it takes to be a “great writer” (at least when it comes to web content).
No, you don’t need to be able to write an essay like you were taught in school.
No, you don’t need to have an extensive vocabulary with tons of fancy words in it.
In reality, great writing for most situations is very simple. As long as you can write while following basic grammar and have enough of a vocabulary to express your ideas, you’re fine.
Basic writing ability also includes a few more things.
Research, as we talked about before, is one.
In addition, do you know how to use the writing tools at your disposal? Can you work in MS Word or Google Docs and know how to format your content?
Can you then take that post and format it in a major content management system such as WordPress and Drupal?
No, it’s not difficult, but you still need to know how to do these things.
If you don’t, spend a bit of time Googling and learning how to make the most of modern writing tools.
Skill #2 – Being able to write persuasively: When everyone has the same basic writing tools (that we just went over), how do great writers stand out?
Using the same words doesn’t mean you’ll have the same message. The words you choose will have a large effect on how interesting your content is to read.
You want to be able to write persuasively and conversationally:
Writing persuasively begins and ends with how well you understand your reader.
If you know exactly how they think, you can guide them from one thought to another until they reach a conclusion that provokes action.
This takes practice, and the more you write, the better you’ll get.
Additionally, you want to write conversationally.
It’s not complicated. There are only two main aspects:
Use first and second person pronouns – e.g., “you”, “us”, “your”, “we.”
Use the reader’s language – use the same words they do to describe their problems.
You can see that writing persuasively and writing conversationally overlap because to be good at both, you need to understand your readers’ language.
Skill #3 – Being able to come up with the right kind of ideas: There are some fantastic writers out there who make poor content marketers.
While they can write well when given a topic (or guidance on which topics are best), they struggle to see how it all fits together.
It’s not enough to come up with ideas to write about. You have to come up with content ideas that address readers at each step of the buying process.
In addition, you need to take interesting angles on each topic so that people actually would want to read them.
Let’s look at an example.
If you follow multiple marketing blogs, you’ve seen several posts on video marketing in the last few months.
These are typically along the lines of “X tips on using video marketing effectively.”
A post like that doesn’t have an angle to it. There’s no hook.
Instead, I wrote a post titled “4 Clever Ways Videos Can Help You Attract Customers”.
My readers are smart. They don’t want to do video marketing for the sake of it; they want to do it to achieve a result.
So, I took an angle on this topic. I showed how videos can be used to get more customers.
That’s something readers are actually interested in.
Skill #4 – Being able to write efficiently: Finally, it’s worth noting that the best content marketers are able to crank out high quality posts on a regular basis without burning out.
They can only do this by writing fast.
They’ve all developed a process that works for them, and it’s something that you’ll have to do as well.
If you’re a slow writer, read how you can double your writing speed.
One final note about this is that it will take time.
Everyone is a slow writer when they start. At that point, focusing on quality is most important.
Once you have a handle on that, then start focusing on producing content at a faster and more consistent rate.
4. The world of marketing will always change: those who adapt will survive
If you look at the great content marketers of today, you’ll notice something.
They were great marketers a few years ago although they might have had a different title.
All industries evolve over time and shift to new areas.
When a shift occurs, usually over a few years, everyone has a decision to make:
Should I adapt?
Some never make it and fall into obscurity.
There are still SEOs who are preaching tactics from the early 2000s that are no longer effective.
They never adapted to the changes in the SEO industry because they were afraid of losing what they had gained.
But the people you see who stay consistently at the top of their fields are always looking to learn about the “next thing.”
They adapt no matter what the circumstances are.
What this means to you as a content marketer: Content marketing, as we define it today, is still relatively young.
It’s only going to grow in the foreseeable future.
However, that doesn’t mean it won’t change.
Content marketing itself will continue to evolve. It’s up to you to always keep learning and improving your skill set.
Many poor content marketers know how to implement only one tactic or strategy successfully.
However, that’s not enough. A single tactic or strategy will never work in all situations. Also, it may not work in the future.
The best content marketers right now know how to use a wide variety of tactics and strategies depending on the situation (client, niche, resources, etc.).
They are also continually testing new ones to stay ahead of everyone else.
For you, this means that you need to keep learning.
When you find something that works, by all means use it. However, don’t think that you “figured it all out.”
5. No time should be wasted waiting, which is why you need to be a jack-of-all-trades
There’s one more area that I think will continue to become more important.
And it doesn’t contain just one skill, but a few different ones.
I’m talking about two in particular:
These are “accessory skills.” You don’t need them to be a great content marketer.
However, they will help.
There are two main benefits of having some skill in either of these (you don’t need to be an expert).
First, it will save you time.
Instead of having to hire a developer to create a simple script (like that filtering example we looked at earlier), you could do it yourself.
Typically, being able to do something like that can save you days when producing a piece of content.
Add that up over many instances, and a content marketer who can code or design becomes even more valuable.
The second main benefit is that it will help you come up with better content ideas.
When you understand the role of design and coding in content, you start to see opportunities where they could be used to improve content.
Instead of just making a list post, you might think of creating a sortable list post where each item has its own custom icon.
But if you have no knowledge in these two areas, it’s never going to cross your mind unless something tells you to do it.
Helpful skill #1 – Coding: For the non-programmer, coding is very intimidating. It’s actually simpler than it looks (for most basic things).
In particular, for content marketing, you’ll want to learn three different languages:
Yes, technically HTML and CSS aren’t programming languages, but to a non-coder, they all appear similar.
The first two are the simplest and affect how your content shows up on a page.
You don’t need to become an expert, but you should be able to sort out simple problems.
For example, if a picture isn’t showing up correctly on a page, what do you do?
That’s a simple issue. You really want to avoid having to find someone who can help you fix it because that results in wasted hours.
Instead, you can go into the page source, find the error, and then fix it (in this case, the image width was wrong):
That fix should take less than a minute.
So, how do you learn these?
Take them one by one, and start with the Codecademy track for each of them:
HTML and CSS
If you complete each of those, you’ll be ahead of the majority of marketers.
Helpful skill #2 – Design: Design skills can be used for just about every piece of content.
Think of the number of times a custom image could improve your content. Probably at least a few times a post.
One option is to hire a freelance designer to create them, which isn’t a bad option.
However, it’s silly to be waiting for a freelancer when all you need is one simple picture.
You don’t need to be an expert, but you should have basic design skills.
I can show you 90% of what you need to know in a single post. And that post is my guide to creating custom images for your blog post without hiring a designer (like the one below).
6. Oh yeah, there’s one more thing that’s kind of important…
No, I didn’t forget it…
The final skill you need in order to be a great content marketer is a strong knowledge of content marketing.
Without that, you can’t put together a full effective strategy that produces results you want, no matter how well you write, research, adapt, etc.
This is where blogs like Quick Sprout and Content Marketing Institute come in. Short of having a great content marketer as a mentor, in-depth blog posts will be the best way to learn (along with paid courses if possible).
There are no shortcuts here either.
There are many areas of content marketing to learn about.
It will take continuous time and effort to learn all of these. I’d estimate at least three years for someone very committed to become an expert in all of these.
That doesn’t mean you’ll suck before you get to that point—you can still have a lot of success.
The important takeaway from this is that you need to make learning an integral part of your life, even when you get busy.
Being a content marketer is not easy.
You’re expected to wear a lot of hats and contribute to a business in a lot of ways.
While doing this, you need to be developing these 6 skills along the way.
If you do, you will see your value as a content marketer rising, and you will get to the top of the field in time.
If you stay committed to developing these skills, you’ll stay there too.
I have a few quick questions for you now: Which of these skills do you still need to improve? And are there any in particular that you need more detailed help with? Let me know in a comment below.