What would a content marketing degree look like?
Obviously, you don’t need a degree to take part in content marketing. But if it were going to be your profession, what would you need to know? I’ve been stumbling onto blog posts and articles that try to pin down whether universities ought to offer actual degrees (or at least classes) in online content marketing, or whether there are certain types of courses someone ought to take in order to prepare for a career in content marketing.
A Content Marketing Degree
I’m an art major, and while people often joke about the usefulness of that particular degree, I would point out that it is a degree that taught me important core creative principles that easily translate into other fields. It wasn’t limited to the mechanics of drawing and painting, but included learning to give and receive critique, solving problems with my own ideas, working through a problem–good stuff to be able to do.
In other words, some college degrees are about more than just their official “title”, building skills and qualities that translate well into other careers.
Rather than worry about universities offering degrees for content marketing specifically, though, two better questions might be: What skills and knowledge would someone look for in hiring a content marketer? What kind of a training should you have if you want to pursue content marketing on your own? There are things every content marketer should know, and it doesn’t take a university degree to learn them.
What Every Content Marketer Should Know
Content marketing is about writing, creativity, marketing, sales, data, and being socially engaging. That’s a lot of skills. How do you approach getting them? There are six core areas of knowledge that a content marketer should have a fair working grasp of, and if there were a content marketing degree, it might look a bit like this.
1. Psychology, Sociology, And Anthropology
Psychology is the study of how we behave, and what motivates us to take action (or non-action). Sociology is the study of human social behavior, organization, and institutions. Anthropology is the study of people using social, biological, and natural sciences, as well as the humanities (studying human culture through a speculative and critical lens). A special focus on cultural anthropology will give you insight into the customs, culture, politics, laws, religions, and language of a particular people group, which helps you understand a bit better why and how they react to things that other cultures perceive differently.
All of that to say this: You need to understand why people do what they do. You need to know how to motivate or convince them to behave in the way that you want them to. If you are creating content that you want people to notice and share, take action on, and engage with in some way, you must know what causes them to do so. As a content marketer, you’ll need to know about:
- Pinging their emotions. Let’s say there really are four basic emotions (happy, sad, afraid/surprised, angry/disgusted). Do you know which emotions encourage sharing? Which emotions get people to buy? Which emotions create loyalty? (Psychology)
- Pinging their motivations. Do you know what motivates people to take action? What verbal cues they look for? What visual cues they want? What turns them off right away? (Psychology)
- Banking on the group. Understanding how people act in “groups” or packs is important because that is exactly what social media is. It gets the individual to instigate something to the group. We talked about social proof, and how important it is to build that for your content marketing. Do you know how to leverage the group? (Sociology)
- Offending their sensibilities. Understanding your audience’s culture is paramount. We all view the world through different cultural lenses. What might be offensive or crass in one culture might be admirable in another. Additionally, cultures aren’t purely based on geopolitical boundaries. They might be startup culture, mommy blogger culture, Star Trek culture–or all of the above. You should know your audience’s culture well if you have a niche blog. (Anthropology)
- Culture affects marketing. Know the zeitgeist you are operating in. Culture determines so much about how content marketing works. What’s trending? What’s old news? What’s hot and what has become passé? (Anthropology)
You’ll see a lot of content marketing blog posts with a psychological or physiological (how our brain responds to stimuli) bent these days, but I’ve always felt that, until recently, anthropology was lacking in mention despite having a very large role in how people groups act. The outcome of psychology and sociology sometimes gets altered when filtered through anthropology.
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
- Any of Dan Ariely’s books on behavior and rationality.
- “Anthropology, Inc.” by Graeme Wood The Atlantic, Feb 20, 2013.
- “Anthropology’s Contributions To Marketing by Charles Winick, Journal of Marketing, July 1961.
- “Cultural Anthropology In Marketing” by Marketing Profs
- “3 Things Marketers Could (And Should) Learn From Anthropologists” by Mitchell Osak, Financial Post, March 4, 2014.
- “Psychology for Marketer: 9 Revealing Principles of Human Behavior” by Ginny Soskey, Hubspot Blog
2. Creativity And Problem Solving
The need to create content of all types, for all occasions, means that you’ll need to be on your creative toes. A how-to guide on creativity is a bit hard to nail down, since we all approach it differently with habits, systems, preferences, and experiences. As a content marketer, you’ll need to know how to:
- Develop a system. Creativity and problem solving are concrete concepts in that they actually do tend to happen in the same way in each of us. We often get the idea that creativity is accidental, on a whim, and not predictable, but this is not the case. Will your system use brainstorming? Will you schedule creative time? Do you understand how creativity works? Do you know how to approach a problem that needs solving?
- Work through blocks. Sooner or later, you’ll face a dead-end when it comes to ideas, and this is when you’ll be glad you took the time to learn techniques to help you get past that. Maybe you have writers block, or can’t think of absolutely anything to do for the next video.
Really, when you think about it, problem solving is creativity.
- Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results by Drew Boyd
- Ogilvy On Advertising by David Ogilvy
- Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins
- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
- Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
- “An Easy Way To Increase Creativity” By Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman, Scientific American, July 21, 2009
3. Journalism And Creative Writing
Journalism and creative writing both have a place in content marketing. The journalist approach–getting the important facts and presenting the data with impartiality–mixes well with creative writing, the telling of a good story. As a content marketer, you’ll need:
- Research skills. When you approach your blog posts like a journalist, you’ll start to make use of serious research tools to collect necessary data. The New York Times has compiled a great list of resources you could use to do this kind of research, as has Poynter.
- Interview skills. Even if you are not doing an outright interview post, you still need to know the art of “interviewing” because that is really just the art of asking the right questions. Sometimes, when doing research, you are interviewing yourself, asking yourself the questions so that you know what answers to find.
- Storytelling skills. Do take the time to practice the art of storytelling, which mixes in many of the elements of psychology that motivate readers to keep reading: suspense, emotion, connection, and curiosity.
In a sense, both journalists and creative writers are storytellers; one just has tangible facts that must be included with a goal of informing and educating the reader, while creative writing approaches the same goal through a more winding path. In the end, all great writing, no matter what form or style it takes, tells the truth to and about the reader.
- The Elements Of Style by William Strunk, Jr., E.B. White
- On Writing Well: The Classic Guide To Writing Non-Fiction by William Zinsser
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
- “The 22 Rules Of Storytelling According To Pixar” (originally written by Emma Coats)
- Poynter.org is a website for journalists. It has content that will help you how to approach writing as a journalist would.
- Copywriting Ebooks for Tech Startups & Marketers by CopyHackers
4. Business And Statistics
Content marketers either work for themselves or for someone else, but wherever they work, they need to understand how to interpret data. This data is used in content itself (infographics, blog posts) as well as in knowing what kind of content the data suggests they ought to create. As a content marketer, you’ll need to know about:
- Running your own business. While some content marketers work for larger companies, many are doing the work freelance. In my last year of college, I was required to take “Senior Seminar” which was, for lack of a better description, how to run your own art business. We learned about bookkeeping, spreadsheets, budgets, saving receipts, taxes, legal issues, dealing with clients, and pricing, to name a few. You may not end up working for another company; you may be the company.
- Understanding data. This ties in closely with the journalistic approach. Finding all the great data in the world isn’t very helpful if you aren’t good at interpreting it. If that’s not your strong point, find someone who can help you. This isn’t a world lacking in data or facts. It’s a world lacking in interpreters. If you can interpret complex data for your readers and make it meaningful and applicable to their life, they’ll appreciate it.
Content marketing isn’t just writing nice blog posts with purple prose. It might involve understanding data and statistics, and applying your own experiences to interpret them. It also might mean having a handle on the business side of it, if you plan on making a living doing it.
- The Business Side of Creativity: The Complete Guide to Running a Small Graphics Design or Communications Business by Cameron S. Foote
- Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business by Joy Deangdeelert Cho, Meg Mateo Ilasco
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek
- Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins
- “Avoiding Common Data Interpretation Errors” by Jason Cohen
- Google had a nice little free online course called Making Sense Of Data (only available a few more days!).
- “Tell A Meaningful Story With Data” – Think With Google blog
5. Real-World Experience
Having actual experience in content marketing is the best way to get better at content marketing. There is no better teacher than actually doing something. You can gather lots of knowledge, but until you put it into practice, you won’t obtain the actual skills. You must, at some point, take action and start racking up real-world experience. What can you learn from the school of hard knocks?
- Identify success and failure. Experience shows you what works, what definitely doesn’t, and what’s worth trying again.
- Identify patterns. The ability to identify a pattern when you come into contact with it again (pattern of failure, pattern of success, pattern in data, pattern in customer behavior, etc.) is extremely important.
- Work with people. Experience is the best way to get thick skin when it comes to criticism. It is also a great way to learn how to give and receive critique (which is not the same as criticism).
Experience is the best teacher, though it is often a painful one. Experience is where you get intuition, which is really just familiarity with a scenario you’ve had to deal with before. And that “intuition” is extremely valuable.
Why Bother Doing All Of This?
Why all this fuss and, frankly, all of this reading?
That seems to be a lot of work for a busy content marketer, or someone who just wants to write some blog posts. But…imagine if everyone who decided to get in on the content marketing craze were required to do some of this prep? Lazy bums need not apply. It might cut down on a lot of the spammy, shallow posts.
Here at CoSchedule, we are firm believers that reading books and continually learning is an important part of what we do. You keep yourself from settling into idea ruts by always putting yourself into that “newbie” experience. And, when you read content from outside of the marketing “sphere” everyone else is in, it helps you make surprising connections and bring in a breath of fresh air, a new take that others aren’t able to come up with because they are feeding off of the same input.
Your Go Plan:
- Read. Get started with the recommended reading.
- Build. Start building a list of blogs that cover these topics, and turn your feed reader into an online university.
- Join. Consider joining a site like Quora, or an online group or forum where these topics are discussed (on a serious and mature level).
- Learn. Take an online course through Google Helpouts, Udemy, or Skillshare related to these topics. Or, try out a MOOC course, such as Dan Ariely’s “A Beginner’s Guide To Irrational Behavior” session on Coursera.
- Share. Find something fascinating? Share your recommended reading in the comments section below, and tell us why you think it should be on the list.