The UK content marketing industry is evolving so fast that clients and agencies are struggling to keep pace with the changing demands for skills, according to an independent group of industry professionals in Bristol.
More than 50 content creatives — including copywriters, designers, agencies, creative directors, content heads, digital recruitment agencies, communication consultants, UX specialists and journalists — gathered for the Bristol Content Group (BCG) on November 1, 2016, to answer two huge questions facing the industry:
What content skills do businesses need today?
How can we (as an industry) provide them?
Under the guidance of Sonja Jefferson, from event organiser, Valuable Content, the speaker presentations and ensuing discussions threw up some eye-opening problems. Here is a sum-up of the evening at the modern, glassy headquarters of Bristol CRM agency, Real Adventure Unlimited.
An industry in its infancy
The real growth in the UK content marketing sector only started around 2007, according to speaker, Fiona Campbell-Howes, from Radix Communications, a B2B tech writing agency in Cornwall.
Fiona told the BCG she’s been a copywriter in the tech industry for 20 years, and that, for a long time, “nothing really changed” in terms of the forms of content requested by clients. But when she set up as a freelancer in Cornwall nine years ago, “everything changed”. She said: “Suddenly I was being asked to write a slideshare, a parallax site, a video voiceover, a podcast.”
James Ainsworth, Head Of Content at Real Adventure Unlimited, agreed: “It’s crazy now, we’re in a completely different landscape. You need a Swiss Army Knife of content skills.”
When James joined the agency last year, despite a handful of roles with this title existing in London, it was the first such job in Bristol(let me know if we’ve got this wrong). He told the group that the rapidly changing demands for different formats — and increasing demands for new ways to engage audiences — had meant businesses had to completely redefine recruitment.
“I don’t have a piece of paper to my name that says I can do marketing,” he said. “There are people that have an appetite for content, but they don’t have a piece of paper that says they can do content either.
“Businesses should be looking for people with a diverse range of skills; they shouldn’t look through a lens of: ‘it must say this on a piece of paper for them to do this job’”.
Read an interview with James, by Sonja at Valuable Content, to find out why businesses should hire ‘curious, content freaks.’
The right people, not the right CV
Speaking from the audience, Rory MccGwire, from Atom Content Marketing in Bristol, said: “It’s all about testing people, to hire the ones with the right skills — regardless of their CV.”
Atom hired James Ainsworth for a project (along with Mick Dickinson, founder and owner of Buzzed Up Content) when they first launched the Donut business advice websites. They interviewed other candidates, but none of them turned out to be suitable. “When you tested them out with tasks, they were lost,” said Rory. “Their impressive CVs and decades of traditional marketing experience and qualifications were irrelevant. Whereas Mick and James could immediately come up with a plan. They relished these tasks. Both of them were natural online marketers.”
A widening skills gap
Speaking for one of the break-out groups following a workshop section of the event, marketing consultant and copywriter, Ben Wheeler said: “Roles are being created and defined faster than skills can be taught in higher education. There just isn’t a relevant qualification for this job [head of content], nor many others in the industry — it’s just growing too fast.”
More than one type of copywriter
During her presentation, Radix’s Fiona added that, as the need for variety of content increased, she soon realised she didn’t have the skills to write across all the formats. “I thought, ‘does this mean that I’m a bad writer?’ Of course not, it just means I’m better at some things others. So I came up with this theory that there are seven types of copywriter. And it really matters which type of writer you get to work on each project. Many writers will say they can write all styles. But I think you have to be careful; you have to pick the right one.”
You can read more about The seven types of B2B copywriter: which one is best for you? There’s also an rollicking quiz to find out which category you fall into.
[Cheeky aside: it turns out there are 15 types of copywriter, according to the legendary Doug Kessler, from Velocity Partners].
But back to it:
From another break-out group, Neil Schwartz, a user experience (UX) consultant at cxpartners, said: “As a UXer, I think the boundaries can often be blurred between UX and content strategy. If we as an industry get confused about that, what hope do our clients have?”
‘Yank journalists out of their depression’
Craig Blackburn, from writing agency, Blue Scribe Media (ooh, that’s us), also in Cornwall, talked about his experience entering the content marketing industry as a journalist-turned-copywriter.
He said: “There are hundreds of journalists slumped over a desk somewhere feeling sorry for themselves amid the decline of the trade and regional press, yet they don’t need to be. How can we help the content industry? Yank journalists out of their depressive state. Tell them: ‘you do have value, you have all the transferrable skills for creating valuable content.’ So we need to educate content creators, but also pair up businesses and creative agencies with the right people.”
‘Verbal branding’ and content strategy
Craig added that businesses and creative agencies also need to understand the importance of the steps that should precede all content creation so they can brief writers correctly to get powerful results.
He said: “They need to think more deeply about values, customer persona, tone of voice, the way they define themselves and how they communicate with their customer — that’s verbal branding — as well as the strategy behind the content. When businesses take on a writer, or any other content creator for that matter, they need to know that they understand all this too. If they don’t do this they run the risk of ending up with vapid messages and crap content.”
He added that lots of businesses these days are getting distracted by ‘shiny tools’ and visuals like automated marketing software and flashy websites, thinking they will solve their marketing problem: “Without the thinking behind the content, it won’t.”
Valuable content in three acts
To help businesses understand the complex world of content marketing, Sonja how the process could be broken into three stages, or acts, adding: “If we can think of these three acts and what content skills are needed then maybe we can better educate businesses. (Follow Sonja and Sharon’s blog for more on the Three Acts…coming soon).
“It’s a young industry,” she said. “The problem is that there’s nothing set yet; there’s no standardisation. We don’t want to end up like the IT industry, but could there be some form of standardisation for such a creative sector to help businesses make sense of it all?”
Most marketers create stacks of content but don’t have a ‘head of content’
Clients get distracted by ‘shiny tools’ and visuals, thinking it will cure their marketing headache
Few businesses know how to properly brief content creators to get the best results
Content manager roles are being defined faster than skills can be taught in higher education
Businesses, agencies and, even, creatives are confused by subdivisions within titles
Writers, including journalists, don’t realise the career opportunities in the industry
Businesses should look for ‘curious, can-do content freaks’ with a Swiss Army Knife of skills
>To digest this debate in a more succinct and stylish fashion, see Lizzie Everard’s slide notes in slide form.
There may be no simple answers to these questions, but what do you think? How can we help businesses get the skills they need? Drop some comments below.
To continue the conversation, connect with the Bristol Content Group, a quarterly open meeting hosted by Valuable Content, with a panel of agency and client-side speakers aiming to answer industry questions. To be at the next event one, join the Bristol Content Group mailing list.
With special thanks to photographer, Ben Laine-Toner, from Real Adventure, for the main image which features the panel (right/seated): Craig (talking), Fiona and James, with Sonja (standing) as MC.
Thanks to Digital Marketing Magazine for publishing this article.