The Skills for a T-Shaped Content Marketer

Lots of paths to follow; which one is yours?

T-shaped skill development in business is a recent trend in explaining developing expertise. People say that becoming an expert in something requires developing broad exposure in a lot of things and deep knowledge in one skill. This sounds great, but how does it play out?

Turns out, pretty well, and recently I’ve seen the T-shaped model pop up for marketers in various forms.

Photo from Flickr by Sam Zimbabwe.

From this general model from Buffer,

to this product-management version I came across recently,

being T-shaped seems to be the way to keep your career from going pear-shaped. Looking at my own content marketing role, what would a T-shaped content marketer look like today? What do these skills mean in the changing world of work? Have I done enough to insulate myself from an AI taking my job? Or are there parts of my job and AI can have, but I’ll expand another parts?

What does it mean to be a T-shaped content marketer today?

Face it, content marketing is a lot easier now

I started as a coder in the early days of websites and hand-coded HTML (would that be artisanal HTML now?). Content was essential, of course, but most of the time just getting the damn page to look right was more important. It didn’t matter a bit if there was a typo or if you had a weak call to action if the stupid page wouldn’t load in Mosaic.

Today we can worry about technology last and content first. Writing compelling content is easier when you’re 99% sure the page will load for all users. By the same token it’s easier technically to do content marketing, but the array of options we have is mind blowing. Some folks think video is the way to go. Others say podcasting is the new blogging (again). And blogging has died more deaths, in more blog posts, than Steve Jobs had mock-turtlenecks and Mark Zuckerberg has hoodies combined.

Given how easy it is to publish, but how hard it is to pick what, where, and how to do it, what does it take to be a T-shaped content marketer? I’ll give you what it looks like from my chair, making no claims that I’ve touched on all the skills you might need. I’m decidedly biased towards writing stuff than anything else, but as you’ll see, it doesn’t end there.

My own T-Shaped Chart

Here’s how I look at the skills I have and how they relate to each other:

My T-shaped content expertise

When I made this chart I had the Content column to the far right. Which would make this an L-shaped chart. That doesn’t fit the T-shaped title I wanted, so I moved it to the middle. In truth, I see content not as something in the middle but at the end of the line. Content is either the foundation of the whole kit and kaboodle or the top of the stream. Either way I see content as one of the caps at the end.

This list is far from complete. Frankly I didn’t know where to put “miracle worker,” “write killer headlines from thin air,” or “pull a value prop canvas out of your butt” on the chart. I could have drilled down into advertising more or made that its own column. There are great arguments for slicing and dicing this chart a hundred different ways. I would encourage you to do just that. Open up Excel or Google Sheets and map your T. I think you’ll surprise yourself with what you come up with.

But let’s get back to my chart.

As you can see my expertise is with words. I write stuff. As much as it still strange for me (it’s been over a decade now) to accept, pulling words from the ether to express ideas, feelings, and technology is my thing. I got pretty granular with the kinds of content I write. Yes, I have written fiction for business. What else would you call a narrative where you pit people up against a challenge that was inspired by something but didn’t actually happen?

Some of the skills I put under content don’t have anything to do with written stories, but podcasts and webinars and interviews are powerful ways to convey ideas and meaning. The key here is that I haven’t spent a lot of time perfecting the other skills. I can manage them. I can make a header graphic in a pinch. I can do all sorts of other marketing tasks as I need to, but when pressed: I write content.

The breadth is a mastery of technology and story

My depth might be content, but my breadth covers the array of skills from the technical (yes, I do know how to use the command line to clean up a MySQL WordPress database) to social. I might not be a fan of video, but I can shoot a basic video and record screencasts if I need to. I can create ad banners and header images for posts. I’ve dabbled in all of these things because they interested me or I needed to do them (usually at beyond-the-last-minute).

This is the secret sauce and piece of wisdom:

If you want to find success in content marketing, you need a relentless desire to give things a shot and try them.

If you don’t approach creating an infographic with “f**k it, why not give it a shot” or think “sure, I can record a podcast” you’re not doing yourself any favors. Our industry is moving so, so fast that without a unquenchable desire to try, experiment, and learn; you’re hooped.

Here’s why: AI is coming and the sharp minds will leverage it

If you don’t think that AI is going to change marketing you are deluding yourself. You don’t think AI will be able to generate great headlines faster? Pick elements to A/B test better? Summarize data more clearly? These are easy computational tasks and we’ll see tools for soon. What we won’t see are AI that can interview people. We don’t see and AI that can co-host a podcast or webinar.

While I think we’ll see AI tools that can write product copy and calls to action, I don’t think we’ll see and AI that can write an authentic blog post. I don’t think we’ll see hand-sketched videos with the same feel from a computer.

This is the real reason to develop your “T” or “L” or “U” or “W”. The broader your experience, the deeper your knowledge down one path, the better you’ll be able to weather the changes coming. Those who constantly pick up new tools and tricks are the ones who will adapt the easiest.

Those who build the strongest “T”, will use AI to its fullest and be even stronger for it.

What this means for building a team

As a final word, this post is about skills and picking a niche in content marketing for yourself. You need to be pretty good at most of these skills and really good at one set to build a career. If you’re building a team, stacking the team with people heavy on one skill is going to leave you lacking in the others. In developing your own T chart, think about your team as a whole. Where are you lacking? What do you need to execute your strategy this year? Overlaying different T-charts together will show you where you might hire next and what professional development you should invest in.

Build the skills. Build the team. Foster learning and personal growth. Those are going to be the drivers for all of us now.