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How to Hire a Chief Content Officer: 11 Key Traits

by Ann Handley  |  
May 24, 2011

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!"?

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Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs, author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules. 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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