Marketing Career Advice to My Younger Self
Alfred Lua / Written on 03 April 2018
When I was at university, I would go through a mini existential crisis every few months. I would lie in bed, thinking about what I want to do in life.
I was taking a degree in accounting and finance but I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do after I graduate. I wasn’t keen to go into the banking sector (ironically) so I knew that I needed to pick up skills that would be useful for other careers.
A career path that has always interested me is marketing. I love watching great TV commercials. I worked in the marketing and communications team of a corporation for several months before university. And I used to spend my free time at university on GrowthHackers and Inbound, reading about marketing and growth.
I was particularly interested in startup marketing back then (and even now). But I felt stuck…
What should I be doing?
After being a marketer for about a year and a half, I think I’ve learned a bit that I could share with my 20-year-old self. Here’s what I’ll tell him.
Go deep first
Being “ok” at a variety of things is far less valuable than been amazing at one.
— Brian Balfour, Founder and CEO of Reforge
The obvious thing to do was to learn marketing.
But should I try to learn a bit of everything about marketing (email, copywriting, blogging, ads, etc.) or should I focus on one area? Generalist or specialist?
From my experience, I believe it’ll be better to focus on one area (or two) for a start.
Like Brian Balfour said, “It is near impossible to become an expert in all of the online marketing channels AND stay up to date [with] the latest changes. Each channel is changing unbelievably fast in addition to new channels emerging.” As someone totally new to marketing, it’ll be even tougher and overwhelming to try and learn multiple marketing channels at once.
Besides, having a focus will allow you to learn that particular marketing channel faster. I was lucky to be able to focus on content marketing for about a year at Buffer, and I learned so much within that short time frame. A small affirmation of my growth is being invited to speak about content marketing at a few events. If I had split my attention and worked on multiple marketing channels at once, I would have probably taken a much longer time to learn what I had learned.
Furthermore, there’s a second-order effect. Being great at a marketing channel often means you can become good at another marketing channel more easily. For example, writing emails and ad copy became slightly easier for me after I got a good hang of writing blog posts. Of course, writing a 2000-word blog post is very different from writing an 80-character AdWords ad copy (which I’m still learning now). But the overlap in skills made learning easier. (And with the broader perspective of marketing, I was given the opportunity to work on user acquisition.)
When I hire, I will take someone who has become amazing at one thing over a generalist any day of the week because if they got great at one thing, the probability of them becoming great at another are a lot better.
— Brian Balfour, Founder and CEO of Reforge
Go deep first then expand from there.
Learn to write well
Write every day. Even if you’re not a writer, I find this practice to be clarifying for many things.
— MG Siegler, Partner at Google Ventures
Sure, go deep. But which skill should I pick first?
My Director of Marketing, Kevan Lee, believes that content marketing (specifically writing blog posts) is a great way to get started with marketing. That’s because writing is a fundamental skill for all marketing channels.
Want to create ads? You’ll need to write the ad copy.
Want to create landing pages? You’ll need to write the copy.
Want to send an email blast? You’ll need to write the email.
Want to write blog posts? Yep, you guessed it!
I’m fortunate that content marketing was how I started my marketing career. If I could turn back time, I’ll still start with content marketing because of how valuable writing is as a skill. Also, when I look back at the last few years, I felt that I grew the most when I made myself to write often. Once before I was hired by Buffer and another time when I was transitioning into a content-focused role.
If you want to get into content marketing, here’s a really great blog post by my Director of Marketing, Kevan Lee:
Surround yourself with great marketers
You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.>
— Jim Rohn, Entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker
I used to train for triathlons mostly alone and was never really good at it. When I was at the University of Warwick, I joined the triathlon club and trained with some of the best triathletes, swimmers, cyclists, and runners I’ve ever met. While I was nowhere near their standard, I swam, cycled, and ran faster than I have ever had. They not only helped me train better but also helped me break the mental barrier of my physical limits.
I think the same applies to marketing.
Being together with like-minded marketers allow you to discuss challenges, share experiences, and grow together. It’s not always possible to personally experience and learn from every marketing problem. Being in a group gives you the chance to exchange notes and learn from one another’s experiences.
A great way to do this is to join a company with a strong marketing team. It can skyrocket your growth, which I was lucky to have experienced it myself. Here’s what Brian Balfour said about learning from other companies:
For example, in content marketing I would pay attention to companies such as Moz, Hubspot, KissMetrics, and Buffer.
And lucky me got to learn and do content marketing at Buffer! I’m nowhere near being a content marketing expert. But it has been super helpful to be learning and working with the titans of the space.
My opinions in this blog post are very specific (from my experiences as a marketer in the SMB SaaS product space) and narrow (since I have less than two years of experience). They might not all apply to your situation but I hope they help provide a perspective. I’m sure you’ll look for more blog posts about getting into marketing like I did at university.
If there’s just one thing that you take away from this blog post, let that be this:
That was what I needed to hear back then.
Should you aim to be a generalist or specialist? Either way, you’ll have to start by learning something.
Which skill should you start with? Writing is great but that isn’t the only important skill. Jumping in and trying something is better than just reading about it online.
If you want to become a marketer, get your hands dirty.