Dear Internet Marketers: Stop Building Your Careers On A Single Commoditized Skill

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I just finished conducting interviews for an in-house marketing position. Some of the people I interviewed had extensive backgrounds as copywriters and were looking to make career changes.

I love copywriters and their penchant for huge doses of instant creativity. Unfortunately, the job security of the average copywriter can be shaky because copywriters do not have a monopoly on writing skills within a company. Good writers are found throughout an organization, not just in the copywriter den. This means a surplus of writers who can probably write 80 percent as well as a copywriter without any formal training, in addition to doing their own jobs.

So what happens when cuts need to be made, even though the company still needs copywriting? It becomes very tempting for an organization to let go of copywriters and divide the necessary writing among other capable employees. The final product may not be as good, but the company makes do.

Commoditization Affects All Internet Marketers

A commodity skill is anything that a non-professional feels he can do as well as a professional (notice the role of perception here). It also includes anything that can be moved from being outsourced to in-house without hiring additional staff.  Copywriting in this sense becomes commoditized – the career professional’s skill is indifferentiable from the non-professional.

In reality, all internet marketing skills can feel like a commodity at one point or another. I remember hearing about a company who started judging their SEO contractor on a cost-per-link basis: the amount they paid per month divided by the number of links the SEO reported. Of course the SEO could have rigged that metric with directory links and the like, but the client wouldn’t have seen results. To the client, link building was a commodity skill, regardless of what the SEO tried to explain.

Transitioning Industry Demands An Expanding Skill Set

I like Ian Lurie’s list of skills internet marketers should have because it represents a transformation that our entire profession has been seeing over the last several years, not just the copywriters. It is not enough to be copywriter or community manager or customer service specialist. The truth is, people are hiring cheaply for these positions at a time when every dime matters.

Scott Brinker seems equally aware of this transformation as he depicts the marketer of the future as a “marketing technologist,” someone who knows consumer behavior plus how to build the technologies to drive those behaviors. In the future, this will become standard for any advancement-seeking marketers. The message today is either switch or expand your skill set.

Insulation From Marginalization

If you think you may have pigeon-holed your career path or if you’re just concerned with staying marketable, I have a few thoughts:

1. Skill expansion is much easier than a complete career change. Expand into skills that overlap with the things you’re already trained in. If you can’t work out some official cross-training through your employer, you can always find another employee open to a skillshare arrangement.

2. Commoditization decreases as either the technical or data-driven nature of the skill increases. So if you want to develop a skill set that will be in demand, start with skills that normally require a lot of training or that prove their own worth in the form of data. Examples: analytics, online advertising.

3. Don’t be afraid to move beyond what you currently excel at. You’ll always have opportunities to exercise your talents. Just remember that moving away from your core skill will often be met with some resistance from yourself and others.

4. If you’re trying to make a complete career change, don’t brand yourself, resume, website, etc. with the career you’re trying to leave or you may look insincere in your efforts. This was the problem for the copywriters I interviewed (mentioned at the beginning). None of them had made any legitimate effort to prepare themselves for a career change, assuming they really wanted it.

Not everyone wants to be a well-rounded internet marketer, and many have built upon one core skill with relatively few problems up until now. Personally, I know I’d be much less efficient at my own job if I weren’t continually working on peripheral skills that complement SEO. No matter your career ambitions, new skills open many doors that would have otherwise stayed shut.

Scott Cowley
Scott Cowley is an SEO consultant by night, marketing PhD student by day. He was previously head of SEO at ZAGG and SEO manager at He speaks and writes frequently about social media and digital marketing.
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  • Dustin Nay

    I fully agree! I’ve been pitching myself as a marketing technologist for over a year, and I’ve worked hard to have skills and knowledge in multiple areas of internet marketing. My specialties are video marketing and video SEO, WordPress, and Twitter, but I certainly know enough to consult on various other aspects as well. I’ve been forced into this because of the nature of my business.

    I think not working at a company has forced me into this, and although I do outsource projects to specialists for many things, if I didn’t have some background and skill in all of these areas, I wouldn’t be successful at this. My clients need to feel confident in my ability to formulate strategies which will succeed, and this requires knowledge across the spectrum of internet marketing.

    Marketing technologist is the best term I’ve come up with to describe what I do, so it’s great to have confirmation here to the fact that I’m moving in the right direction.

    Excellent post Scott!

    • Scott Cowley

      Thanks for your comments, Dustin. I think the pendulum swings back and forth between specialization and generalization in most industries. Specialization needs to be general enough to be employable. The marketers saying “I can do anything you need done” are usually not the experts.

  • Nate

    Good post Scott.

    I love the companies that think they can do web design, SEO, Social Media and all the other stuff “on their own”. It’s fun to watch their progress. Nine times out of ten, they come back to us LATER after they’ve realized that what seemed “simple” and “DIY” is actually a whole complex process that takes time and consistent focus.

    Thanks for the reminders.

    • Climax Media

      This is exactly the reason why more and more design and dev agencies are starting to hire and build up their marketing department. SEO is no longer something that any “strategist” can manage. SEO, social and SEM are three separate, but related, departments which require dedicated teams who work together.

    • Scott Cowley

      I agree in many aspects. I think many companies can do social media on their own, for example. The major resource needed to do anything well is time: time to learn, time to execute, time to follow-up. Web development, in my experience, is something that most people need to hire out for.

  • Jordon Meyer

    I specifically like that the SEO arrow leads to PPC. It’s a beautiful moment when those black magic wizards realize that PPC is the way to a bright and successful future!

    • Scott Cowley

      If only more SEOs knew PPC. I think most SEOs want to be proficient at both, but have no way to do it. If you’re an SEO, the company probably has someone else doing PPC and doesn’t want to cross-train. If you want to learn PPC yourself, you need something to practice it on, plus you need dollars – two major barriers to entry. The big positive is that most PPC people want to learn SEO, so in my case, I was friends with a PPC guy who was more than happy to stay after work a couple times a month as we taught eachother bits and pieces of our respective skills.

  • Hot Igloo

    I think that sometimes whats worse is when a marketing firm offers “social media management” which is really nothing more than aimless spam posted by interns. its annoying from a few angles, but mostly by giving the perception that your neighbors son can handle your social media efforts and devaluing real knowledge and expertise. and they wonder why it didnt work…

  • Joshua Jarvis

    I love this because too often as “jack of all trades’ we get penalized for not being specialists – especially in job interviews. However, the great equalizer (the internets) often makes being flexible profitable. Does SEO include understanding edge rank or Youtube algorithms or how bing and yahoo play a role in traffic? Traffic can be generated with money very quickly but how do you convert it? Can you defend the company’s strategy if your big player (Google) decides to change theirs?

    Parting shot – It’s call SEO, not G.O. (google optimization)

    • Scott Cowley

      Hahah. Well put, Joshua. Be careful about talking bad about specialization. You have to be “specialized enough” in my opinion, because most jobs inside a company of any size are going to be specialized. Companies are still very hierarchical. Anything you provide, on top of what you’ve been hired to do, is gravy. But the best employees are versatile beyond their core.

  • Kevin

    The devil is in the details. Everyone “knows” online marketing until they realize they don’t.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    “I know I’d be much less efficient at my own job if I weren’t continually working on peripheral skills that complement SEO. ”

    I feel exactly the same way. The lines between marketing disciplines are blurring or even disappearing. To be really great at one thing means you have to be good at three different things that feed into it.

    • Scott Cowley

      Great point, Nick. I love your last line.

  • Sheri

    Excellent article, Scott. You are the most well-rounded SEO guy I know. ūüėČ

  • Benjamin Beck

    Great Advice and a Napoleon Dynamite reference? Another outstanding post Scott!


  • Neil Lakeland

    Hi Scott, I love your definition of a ‘commodity skill’ (anything a non-professional feels (s)he can do as well as a professional), but would extend it from internet marketing to the whole of marketing. After all, anyone can order the promotional merchandise, design a couple of brochures and place an advert or two!!

    The trick, as you say, is to expand the skill-set and start convincing those people that matter that, as a professional, you add something. Yes, companies can hire non-professionals cheaper but quality comes at a price.

    I was at a graduate careers fair today and my advice to the students was to treat the job hunt as a marketing project. You’re the product (a commodity), there are x thousand of similar products all competing. You have a limited shelf life. Now, what’s your USP? How do you differentiate yourself? How are you positioning yourself? By doing this they are moving away from the commodity and into a ‘brand’.

    • Scott Cowley

      Thanks for putting down your thoughts, Neil. I agree wholeheartedly that marketing is seen by many as an entire commoditized department. I’ve talked to several people about your point in the past day. Part of the issue is that fewer regulations exist to make marketing specialized. You can get sued for false advertising and similar unethical practices here in the United States, but rarely are people formally trained in these things. Other departments require much broader training, creating a barrier to entry.

  • VisionFriendly

    I know what you meant but customer service leading to product development? Have you ever called a customer service phone number? If those are the people inventing products, we are doomed. LOL.

  • Rahul

    Excellent Post Scott. I fully agree with you