The 5 Most Critical Things to Look for in a Content Hire

AnnHandley by

This is a guest post from Ann Handley, CCO MarketingProfs

Businesses like yours have a new imperative these days: they must develop content that will draw people to their sites. The goal is to create and share content that your customers (and would-be customers) will find valuable, seek out and want to consume.

In a recent post on the 10 rules marketers can’t afford to break, Scott Maxwell wrote, “Your content is at the core of all of your marketing.” But that poses a tricky situation for a lot of marketers, doesn’t it? For many, things like content creator, writer and videographer aren’t business skills they’ve traditionally needed or nurtured.

So what should a business look for in a chief content officer—the key person responsible for creating, sharing and managing content for your site? First, keep in mind that the title of the position may vary (it could be chief blogging officer, content marketing manager, editor-in-chief, etc.). But whatever the title might be, what’s really important is that the candidate has the critical skills necessary to succeed in the role.

For example, Joe Pulizzi is currently crowdsourcing a chief content officer job description over at Junta42. The responses there outline necessary requirements like who the candidate should report to (someone in the C-Suite for sure), level of education, responsibilities and so on. In my contribution, I talked more about the skills—sometimes tangible, sometimes less so—that I think are critical for anyone creating content on behalf of your business.

The key skills to zero in on

There are a lot of things to look for in a content creator, but here are the skills I consider to be the most critical (based on what I wrote about in the book Content Rules, which I coauthored with C.C. Chapman).

1. Training as a print or broadcast journalist. Journalists are trained in the art of telling a story using text, images or audio, and they understand how to create content that draws an audience. Their innate understanding of an audience also gives them a critical outsider’s perspective — a nuanced perspective that marketers sometimes lack.

Like good journalists, the best content creators also have a nose for a story and instinctively know how to develop the content to make it human and interesting. (For example, is your candidate bursting at the seams with ideas for content your business might create and interesting blog post suggestions?)

2. Digital intuition. Rick Burnes of Hubspot says good content creators understand how the Web works. In a post on his blog, he writes, “The web is an ecosystem, and if you don’t intuitively understand the dynamics of this ecosystem—how Twitter can drive traffic to a blog; the kinds of headlines that attract attention; the simple things you can do to build blog subscriptions—you won’t be able to help your company attract online visitors.”

3. Business acumen. Unless you are a novelist or feature writer, content for content’s sake isn’t very useful. So can your candidate articulate the business goal of content? As Rick points out, “For businesses, content is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Every article, tweet and video is assessed based on its ability to generate visitors, leads and customers, not on any subjective judgment of content quality.”

I wrote about what it takes to hire a great editor for ClickZ almost 11 years ago, and what I wrote still holds true today: “Developing editorial product requires more than an ability to write and edit. It also requires some sense of the market and an ability to know what kind of content will help sell your product. What you are actually selling doesn’t matter; it could be physical product, consulting services, or ad space on the site. What matters most is that the content attracts the audience you need to attract to accomplish your business goals.”

4. An amateur passion. Look for people who are already online and creating content, even as amateurs. (Fun fact: the root of amateur is the Latin word for love.) Does your candidate maintain a personal blog? Create videos? Share photos on Flickr? Is he or she on Twitter? Obviously, your winning candidate doesn’t have to do it all, but those with a true passion for content don’t create and share it just because they’re paid to.

5. Social DNA. Is your candidate a social butterfly online? Does he or she enjoy interacting via social channels? This trait is also from Rick, who points out that the best content creators “promote their own content. They build and nurture relationships, and they know how to use these relationships to spread their own content, without abusing them.” In other words, look for folks who are social online, even if they may not be in the real world.

FINALLY: Strong editorial skills. This one almost goes without saying, but clearly you want someone with a strong editorial background.Can they write? Are they articulate? Can they communicate in a straightforward manner? Do they have a compelling writing voice? Do they have a strong sense of grammar and all that?

It’s a tall order to find someone who excels on all editorial counts, so also look for a willingness to admit what their weaknesses are and plan to hire accordingly. For example, copyediting is not my own strong suit, which is why I don’t copyedit.

By the way, it’s not by chance that editorial skills appear as the last item on this list. Someone who is both a good writer and a quality editor is a find, but the other points listed are equally important — and often overlooked.

Ann Handley is the uncontested first person in the galaxy to hold the Chief Content Officer title. She heads up Content at MarketingProfs and is the coauthor of the informative and engaging Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley, 2011). There’s also nothing more fun than following her on Twitter.

  • StickyClicky (Barbara Benham)

    This is a perfect summation for employers as well as content creatives like myself! Thanks!

    • Thank you Barbara! Appreciate you stopping by.

  • Great overview!! However, I think that companies who hire “content-oreinted” personnel need to expand their horizons. So, I would not agree in today’s world of blogging with Point #1 — Training as a Print or Broadcast Journalist. I think there are very good to great writers out there who are in the “hidden market”. They blog or occasionally blog but their content is good.

    So, my advice is look for someone who is creative and has good writing skills. Look for people with a stance on matters that can articulate substance. Many people have worked in positions where they have written brochures, labels, data sheets, solution overviews, and more in the B2B, B2C, and Services world. That experience can be easily translated into meaningful content for a company. The end product in today’s world may be a blog, Twitter, online content, landing pages, or more. Just don’t put yourself in a box — it has to be someone with a specificed skills set or it’s NO.

    • hi Dom — There are more definitely talented folks who have NOT had training as a print or broadcast journalist — in fact, a key editor at MarketingProfs has a degree in Political Science — but I do think the experience of working at a publication or being trained as a journalist can be a distinct advantage.

      But your point is a good one — if someone has a demonstrated ability to produce compelling stuff in blogs or other online content… they are absolutely worth talking to. The proof is always in the substance.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  • Thanks for sharing this great content, Ann!

    • Thanks for bugging me to do it, Corey! : )

  • Love this!

    One caution, though: you list a journalism background as a requirement…but I wouldn’t count out those with a creative writing background. Two of the best writer/creative director/editor-in-chief types I’ve met came from a creative writing background–one with an MFA in poetry! The understanding of language and ability to write brief and compelling headlines, intros, etc. was fantastic. Obviously, they also have to have an understanding of story, audience, etc. But someone with a strong creative writing background and a strategic mindset can become a great content director.

  • Nice article, Ann. It’s not easy summarizing a relatively new position into such clear descriptions.

    I’d agree with those saying the journalism background could be slanted more towards creative/advertising writing, as so much of what get’s pushed through social media is very short form. But your point about whoever’s doing it needs to understand the story within the content is dead on.

  • Great summary, Ann. I agree with the comments that a journalism background is certainly helpful but other specialties can develop similar skills and be successful content marketers, too.

    One skill set I do think is helpful is for content marketers is to think like an educator. I don’t have an education degree, but when I’m creating a content marketing strategy, I break down what my buyer wants to know and design the most logical and compelling methods for giving it to him/her. I like to think of it as akin to a teacher creating a lesson plan (albeit a very dynamic one) My training is in marketing, but I really like to think of marketing as “educating” vs. “selling or promoting.”

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  • Great info!
    As the one doing it all for my own nonprofit, I have taken on the role of writer, editor, content manager, etc. When it comes to wearing all of these hats, having had the deadline reporting experience from my youth is certainly a help. The ability to work with facts, attribute them, use them, and do so succinctly isn’t an art form so much as a learned and well-honed skill.

    You can’t learn this as easily in many of the college degree programs outside of broadcast, and also English (as a writing and literacy English major I learned to write in a broad variety of professional, non-fiction, forums.). As I continue my education (we won’t say my age but I feel so much older than most of the kids I go to school with) I can’t help but think that many college students are learning social media by trial and error and by posting their daily adventures to friends over Twitter and Facebook, not in the professional capacity they will need to have mastered to work in a highly social-media competent world.

    I was actually pulled aside by one professor because for an assignment I changed the traditional rhetorical analysis of a text (this is in the nonprofit world of social change text) or web site to a completely developed analysis of the site’s extreme social media involvement on their website ( is the site – phenomenal example of an organization thinking progressively). My rhetorical analysis was of the different components of putting together a successful social media launch page – and my professor was floored. “I didn’t even know that was a possibility,” she said. Really?

    If we care about the folks we are hiring, and we want them to understand what is important to develop a fully realized marketing campaign, we need to remember to encourage thoughtful discourse in higher education circles about keeping up with the times.

    Great ideas, Ann – I look forward to reading more!

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  • Rob Yoegel

    Great post, Ann!