Content marketing is growing exponentially. But the advancement ladder for content practitioners is missing most of its rungs.
While many organizations consider content marketing an important, functional strategy (pardon us while we at CMI pat ourselves on the back), most have no idea how to build a career ladder for this function (and we stop patting ourselves on the back).
In most businesses I visit, I find confusion about where these content practitioners should live in the organization structure. Worse, I see a dead end for many.
To move up, talented content practitioners must move on – meaning they move out of the team and maybe away from the brand.
That’s a problem for content teams – and the industry as a whole. The practice of content marketing can’t be a strategic part of the business if practitioners can’t reach the highest positions in the business.
Why formalize a content career path?
Content marketing is growing exponentially. A World Economic Forum January 2020 report, Jobs of Tomorrow, projects that job opportunities in the category “sales, marketing, and content” will be the second-highest behind only health care. And, within that category, the report calls the strategy of content marketing a core priority for additional learning for students looking to explore these job opportunities.
The number of companies constructing in-house marketing agencies is also on the rise. In 2018, the Association of National Advertisers released research that revealed 78% of their members reported having “some form of an in-house agency,” as compared to 58% in 2013. Among the services these internal teams provided, content marketing saw the largest increase: 75% of handled content marketing in 2018 compared to 34% in 2013.
In 2020, the ANA’s report on the post-COVID marketing world found “50% of survey respondents identified their in-house agency as the ‘most important’ resource for producing new creative assets.”
All these numbers add up to this: Content marketing practitioners and content strategists face a positive environment for job opportunities. Companies desperately need talent for the in-house creative and content marketing functions they’re building and increasingly relying on.
So, what’s the problem?
Dead-end content kids
The problem lies in the relatively low career ceiling in the practice of marketing and communications. Regardless of whether they are an individual contributor or a team lead, most content marketers and content strategists have only three choices once they reach the senior manager level. They can:
- Move into a more traditional marketing role, leaving behind content marketing and content strategy
- Leave the company for a lateral position at another company
- Leave to build a solo practice
I want to change this.
Why we need a content career ladder
When I was CMO of a fast-growing startup, a mentor told me that hiring someone is the only truly expensive thing a company does. And then he added, “Make sure you do it carefully.”
If hiring is expensive, so is losing a good employee. It’s been said replacing an employee who quits costs an average 21% of their annual pay.
But the answer isn’t to simply tie the content practitioner to the traditional marketing career ladder. If businesses aim to transform every marketer into a brand-selling machine, they’re missing the point of the experience economy – and jeopardizing their ability to retain the talented communicators of tomorrow.
Your HR department almost certainly has an established career ladder for traditional marketing roles. In other words, they have a description of what it means to be an entry-level marketing specialist, a marketing manager, senior manager, director, and so on.
But few organizations have a laddering path for content practitioners. I know because I’ve been asked many times to help organizations create them.
I’m not suggesting the roles, titles, or even the kind of team you should build. (If you’re interested in my recommendations for those, read The 7 Core Roles of a 2020 Content Marketing Team.)
I’m encouraging content team leaders to work with their human resource departments to establish a formal career ladder for the roles on the content team you have now (and the one you want to build). This gives everyone on your team something to advance toward and understand of the skills and expectations to move into an advanced role.
Sample content marketing career ladder
A career ladder is a practical road map for advancement to higher levels of responsibility, salary, and authority.
I created this basic content career progression example to help content leaders customize a career ladder for their teams. It shows one track for leadership roles (positions that manage people and strategy) and one for skill-specific positions (writers, videographers, visual designers, and so on) at the individual contributor level.
The team leader path shows the progression from manager to director to senior director to vice president of content (or chief content officer) to CMO. The individual contributor path for skill positions shows the advancement of three levels.
Wherever your team members fall on this path, you’ve created somewhere for them to go next (and the requirements to get there).
A few things to note about this model:
- While individual contributor titles might be named differently (design maven or design lead instead of design manager), levels 1, 2, and 3 typically align with a manager, director, or senior director title for compensation.
- Individual contributors can move up to the leadership track (I’ve found this almost always involves a small step back in title, as noted in the diagram.)
- 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.
Sample career level and responsibility descriptions
As I mentioned, this article isn’t about which team roles you need or what your team structure should look like.
But to help you develop your own set of rungs, I created this sample showing the leadership path for a content marketer or content strategist from entry-level to vice president of content.
The tier descriptions indicate the characteristics for each level:
- Entry-level coordinator. Just learning. New to the team. Working in support to a single function.
- A performer. Strong skills in their role, can begin to manage and build relationships
- 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 as well as grow talent and execution.
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, vendors.
- 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 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 audience. 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.
Starting the content career discussion
I put together this framework to provide a career road map 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 on 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 the framework as the beginning of content career ladder discussion, not the end.
It’s great that content marketing has advanced so far that companies need a career path for valued content practitioners. Now it’s time to actually develop one.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute