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How to Hire a Chief Content Officer: 11 Key Traits

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • What traits to look for in your content creator
  • How to hire an editorial candidate who'll help you achieve your business goals

What should a business look for in a chief content officer—the key person responsible for the content on your site, or the one charged with creating or sharing content for your business? That person might go by another title, by the way—a content marketing manager, an editor-in-chief, a chief blogging officer, or whatever. But whatever the title, what are the critical skills they need to succeed in the role?

Joe Pulizzi has crowdsourced a chief content officer job description over at Junta42. The responses there outline necessary requirements—such as who the job 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 a business.

This is a subject near and dear to my own heart, of course—and not merely because of my role as the chief content officer of MarketingProfs, or because (and I'm going out on a limb here) I am the first person in the US world galaxy to have held that job title. But also because I've been banging this drum for a long time—well before "Content Marketing" became the newest and shiniest tool in Marketing's tool shed.

In a piece I wrote for ClickZ almost 11 years ago, I outlined what any online "publisher" should look for in a "site editor." And now that everyone doing business online is a de facto "site publisher," that piece has new resonance.

Here's what I'd look for in a content creator, based in part on that ClickZ article (and in part on what we write about in Content Rules), but updated for a newly social age.
1. Training as a Print or Broadcast Journalist

Journalists are trained to tell a story using text, images, or audio, and they understand how to create content that draws an audience. Good journalists' innate understanding of audience also gives them a critical outsider's perspective... a nuanced perspective that marketers can sometimes lack. They might be on your payroll, but they are better at expressing neutrality—a distinct advantage in creating content that resonates with your audience.

2. Nose for a Story

The best content creators are the ones who can smell a good story. They also recognize the bones of a story easily, and they instinctively know how to develop the content to make it human and interesting. Is your candidate bursting at the seams with ideas for content that your business might create? Does she think in terms of content? Do you hear her utter phrases like "that would make a great blog post!"?

3. 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."

A shorthand would be to seek out those with ADOS*—which stands for Attention Deficit... Ooh! Shiny! These are the folks who have a passion for new digital tools. They are always looking for the newest and shiniest object: They always have (or covet) the latest gadgets, they are experimenting with the most cutting-edge technologies, and they have the coolest apps on their smartphones. They can be handy people to have on your team, because they can help you figure out how those technologies apply to growing your business. (*Thanks to Peter Shankman for this term.)

4. Business Acumen

Unless you are a novelist or a feature writer, content for content's sake isn't really 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."

And as I wrote on ClickZ in 2000: "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."

5. 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 she on Twitter? Obviously, your winning candidate doesn't have to do it all. But people with a true passion for content don't create and share it just because they are paid to do so.

6. A Community Leader

If your editor is developing your content from scratch, or rehabbing it from the studs out, chances are she'll need to work a bit to develop the necessary contributor contacts, either inside your company or outside of it. This ability is especially critical if you can't pay outside contributors, but hope to attract them to write for you for the exposure, glory, and honor of it.

"It's one thing to develop the editorial at a site like," I wrote in 2000. "It's quite another to schmooze contributors to write for a little-known site with only a trickle of traffic and no cash flow." That's still true today, even if the benefits are a little clearer these days.

7. Social DNA

Is your candidate a social butterfly online? Does she enjoy interacting via social channels? This point is also from Rick, who notes 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 butterflies online, even if they may not be in the real world.

8. An Open Mind

Many of the journalists I've worked with would sniff at the idea of taking a corporate job. They think doing so is demeaning or equates to selling out, compromising themselves, marginalizing their talents, ruining their reputations, smiting their families, bringing shame upon them, or permanently installing themselves on the dark side.

The key is to find people who understand and embrace the fundamental thesis of Content as Opportunity: Businesses now have both an imperative and the incentive to produce top-shelf content. (Also, a side note to journalists who might be wrestling with the notion of "selling out": You'll make more money on the dark side. Just sayin'.)

9. Knowledge of the Industry... or Not

This is a tricky one. Although industry knowledge can certainly help, it's not going to make a content creator sink or swim. A bright person who's a quick and motivated study can swim, buoyed by little more than a floatie or two, despite no immediate knowledge of a specific industry.

I'd rather have a crack writer with sound business skills who's a noob in an industry (and can maybe lend a fresh perspective) over an insider who's intimately familiar with the subject. Why? Because the latter sometimes speaks the language of the industry rather than that of the audience.

Remember a fundamental rule of journalism: "No one will complain because you made something too easy to understand."

10. A Winning Personality

I'm only half joking. Remember that the person in charge of your content sets the tone for your site. It's her editorial voice, very often, that will speak the loudest to your readers. Hire someone with little discernable personality, and chances are their writing voice will be just as flat.

11. Editorial Skills

Oh yes, and then there's the small matter of editorial skill. Can this person write? Look for the ability to write circles around your competitors, attention to detail, and sound editorial judgment. It's a tall order to find someone who excels on all editorial counts, so also look for a willingness to admit where the weaknesses may be, 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 skill appears as the last item on the list. Someone who is both a good writer and a good editor is a find, true, but the other 10 points here are equally important.

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Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs, the author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content (Wiley, 2014), and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules (Wiley, 2012). Ann co-founded, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.

Twitter: @MarketingProfs and @AnnHandley.

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  • by Vicky Dobbin Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    This is me! I now need to change my title and update my job description using this article (with proper citation, of course).

  • by Jennifer Hilburn Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Ann, I wholeheartedly agree with each point in your post. I would also add that if your content is to include video and/or audio, a recruiter would be well advised to look for someone with winning public speaking and, possibly, training background. Experience engaging, instructing, and edutaining places a content creator in a great position to extend written content to relationship-building media experiences, including lively webinars.

  • by Dan O'Sullivan Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Great points, Ann. I especially liked that you led off with the point about training as a journalist. I'm a copywriter who started out in journalism, and the skills I developed back then have helped big time. And no, I've had no problem selling out.

  • by Peter Altschuler Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    This all sounds wonderful... in theory, Ann. Yet, in all the B2B situations I've handled over the course of, well... more years than I care to remember, I can't think of a single senior technology executive (with one exception) who didn't believe -- whole-heartedly -- that influencers, evaluators, decision makers, and check signers only care about technical facts. My experience in broadcast news (at ABC, NBC, and PBS), video and audio production, website development (since 1994), public speaking, and everything else on your list has been tossed aside because "we don't need to that stuff here." Pity. The one person who did want me to engage prospects in any way that worked wound up with a 32% trial rate for the company's main product line and was able to close sales on a second that wasn't even out of alpha.

  • by Seth C. Tue May 24, 2011 via mobile

    Great article! I author content for my company's site and Facebook pages. Now I can better critique myself and evaluate growth areas. I definitely have ADOS...haha! Thanks!

  • by Abornewords Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Your content reads like a good hot dog for eating at lunch time. Seriously, it's well organized and expressed like a good conversation around the boardroom table when ideas are cracking and notes are being read and recapped. What stood out to me most was when you expressed your take on amateur writing or me believing it is paired with your idea about making the chosen one swam or float. The point is: I got it . The meaning of that analogy to me is that the contributions or ideas of the one lucky enough to acquire the title of Chief Content Contributor or another jargon filled tile, will not depend on their knowledge in a particular industry. It is more about who that person is as a whole person. The title sounds fancy and powerful; I never heard of it before, but it has a nice ring to it. Putting it all together, driving readers to your content requires choosing the right person to lead in decisioning making when picking content while still recognizing that there should be an underlying focus on building relationships with your readers. The toppings of a good hot dog depends on who is choosing, and the best thing you included with this article is that it takes a whole team or one genius mind to get it all right. I knew after reading your first article that I would enjoy your writing, and so I followed you. Pick up a fellow writer is calling.

  • by Ann Handley Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    Jennifer: I agree with you on that -- especially re training (and your point about lively webinars -- yes, please!) That's a great leadership quality to have generally, too. (And BTW -- I recently did media training for the first time ever. I learned a whole lot -- which is another article for another day.)

    Dan: "Selling out...." LOL. ; )

  • by Ann Handley Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Peter: I felt a certain sadness in me when I read your comment... but I'm hopeful that the tide is changing. I agree that a lot of companies are still behind the curve, but I'm heartened by the ones who DO understand that content has to be central to their marketing, and that telling their story is critical to creating opportunities and building sales, even in the B2B world. Anyway -- hang in there... and thanks for chiming in here.

    (Love to hear more about your success stories, too, if you'd like to share.)

  • by Ann Handley Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Seth: ADOS: I TOTALLY do, too..... !

  • by Ann Handley Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Abornewords: Thanks for your comments here -- much appreciated it. And yes, at the heart of what I'm talking about here is finding someone who understands writing and content and all that... but who also understands how to use it to build relationships. Unless you are a fiction writer or feature journalist, content for content's sake isn't going to be enough... it has to create a certain momentum, as well.

  • by Mark Ivey Tue May 24, 2011 via web

    Excellent piece Ann-all spot on. One I'd add is: being able to nimbly manage in a fast-moving, complex corporate environment. In some of the co's where I had this role (ex: HP), I was responsible for a dozen or so editors and project managers, and working with groups involving thousands or tens of thousands of employees. The Chief Content Officer may have to deal with senior marketing and other managers with their own agendas, and be able to present with authority and drive the programs (lot of inertia in big co's). So the ideal candidate would also need strong people and communication skills.This is a long way from the old Editor in Chief jobs, but as you know as well as anyone, we're in a new ballgame now. Great job.

  • by Francine Bishop Wed May 25, 2011 via web

    Ann this is a great article. I love your list of traits! Your list is probably the reason that good content managers are hard to find. People tend to be focussed on content or relationships. Finding a person who is creative, writes well and has the ability to use writing to build relationships - what a challenge!

  • by Peter Altschuler Wed May 25, 2011 via web

    The success stories, Ann, are all similar. They began, as most investigative journalism does, by digging -- digging into what mattered to the targeted prospects, the benefits they knew (and suggested) they wanted, the problems they needed to solve, and the terminology that they (not the company) used to describe related products and services and the benefits they could offer. With that information, it was possible to develop a story (using words and images) that would integrate prospects' concerns and interests with the business challenges they faced -- a story designed to capture their imagination, hold their attention, and persuade them to do something: share the story, search for or request more information, or make contact.

    Whether the results were an ad, direct marketing, online, collateral, multimedia or any permutation of them all, they all had a hook -- something to grab prospects, pull them in, and offer something worth their time and attention. And you have to do it all in a matter of seconds or they'll turn the page, change the channel, or click to something else.

    The synthesis takes skill (and luck), but it pays off each time. To offer an example that does NOT require seeing the visual: the company's technology used a Q&A process that let call center support reps type in a customer's problem and generate a list of related questions. They didn't need to know anything about the problem or how to solve it. They just needed to ask each question and enter the customer's response. Those responses then refreshed the list of questions to narrow the possibilities until the mostly likely solution was evident.

    The headline for the ad, which ran in pubs dedicated to call center technologies, boosted inquiries by triple digits. It read "How to remember what you don't even know."

    For a firm whose technology transforms enterprise data and functions (in minutes) for use on mobile devices, the email subject line that generated a 42% open and 16% clickthrough rate was "The smartphone that ate your laptop."

    Each combined a rational and emotional element that tapped into the prospects' concerns and aspirations. Each used body copy that focused more on how users would benefit than on how the product worked. Each used images that complemented the hook's essential concept.

    At their core, they didn't attempt to sell. They created desire -- the desire to learn more, make contact, or buy. And they did it by knowing what story to tell, who to tell it to, and how to tell it.

  • by Daniel | Propaganda House Wed May 25, 2011 via web

    Great article Ann - something I'd add is 'being human'. Some of the people I've had write for me before have been a bit too efficient at pumping out content. Not to say that the content was bad, it was generally relevant to the target audience etc. but it just lacked that personality you spoke about which can really be the difference between getting people to engage or not.


  • by Ann Handley Thu May 26, 2011 via web

    Dan: Absolutely!

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