Posted by RuthBurrReedy
Finding your next SEO hire is hard, but it’s only half the battle. Growing a team isn’t just about hiring—it’s about making your whole team, newbies and experts alike, better marketers.
It’s almost impossible to build a one-size-fits-all training program for digital marketers, since the tasks involved will depend a lot on the role. Even “SEO” can mean a lot of different things. Your role might be highly technical, highly creative, or a mix of both. Tactics like local SEO or conversion rate optimization might be a huge part of an SEO’s job or might be handled by another person entirely. Sometimes an SEO role includes elements like social media or paid search. The skills you teach your trainees will depend on what you need them to do, and more specifically, what you need them to do right now.
Whatever the specifics of the marketing role,
you need to make sure you’re providing a growth plan for your digital marketers (this goes for your more experienced team members, as well as your newbies). A professional growth plan helps you and your team members:
- Track whether or not they’re making progress in their roles. Taking on a new skill set can be daunting. Having a growth plan can alleviate some of the stress less-experienced employees may feel when learning a new skill, and makes sure more experienced employees aren’t stagnating.
- Spot problem areas. Everyone’s talents are different, but you don’t want someone to miss out on growth opportunities because they’re such a superstar in one area and are neglecting everything else.
- Have conversations around promotions and raises. Consistently tracking people’s development across a variety of skill sets allows you to compare where someone is now to where they were when you hired them; it also gives you a framework to discuss what additional steps might be needed before a promotion or raise is in order, and help them develop a plan to get there.
- Advance their careers. One of your duties as their manager is to make sure you’re giving them what they need to continue on their career path. A professional development plan should be managed with career goals in mind.
- Increase employee retention. Smart people like to learn and grow, and if you’re not providing them ways to do so, they’re not going to stick around.
We have technical/on-page SEOs, content marketers, local SEOs and marketing copywriters all working together on the same team at BigWing. We wanted to create a framework for professional development that we could apply to the whole team, so we identified a set of areas that any digital marketer should be growing in, regardless of their focus. This growth plan is part of everyone’s mid-year and year-end reviews.
Here’s what it looks like:
Growth areas for digital marketers
Tactical -> strategic
At the beginner level, team members are still learning the basic concepts and tasks associated with their role, and how those translate to the client metrics they’re being measured on. It takes time to encounter and fix enough different kinds of things to know “in x situation, look at a, b and c and then try y or z.”
As someone grows in their role, they will learn more advanced tactics. They should also be more and more able to use critical thinking to figure out how to solve problems and tackle longer-term client goals and projects.
At the senior level, an SEO should be building long-term strategies and be comfortable with unusual campaigns and one-off projects.
Small clients -> big clients
There are plenty of small brochure websites in the world, and these sites are a great testing ground for the fundamentals of SEO: they may still have weird jacked-up problems (so many websites do), but they are a manageable size and don’t usually have the potential for esoteric technical issues that large, complex sites do. Once someone has a handle on SEO, you can start assigning bigger and badder sites and projects (with plenty of mentoring from more experienced team members—more on that later).
We thought about making this one “Easy clients -> difficult clients,” because there’s another dimension to this line of progress: increasingly complex client relationships. Clients with very large or complicated websites (or clients with more than one website) are likely to have higher budgets, bigger internal staff, and more stakeholders. As the number of people involved increases, so does the potential for friction, so a senior-level SEO should be able to handle those complex relationships with aplomb.
Learning -> teaching
At the beginner level, people are learning digital marketing in general and learning about our specific internal processes. As they gain experience, they become a resource for team members still in the “learning” phase, and at the senior level they should be a go-to for tough questions and expert opinions.
Even a beginner digital marketer may have other things to teach the team; skills learned from previous careers, hobbies or side gigs can be valuable additions. For example, we had a brand-new team member with a lot of experience in photography, a valuable skill for content marketers; she was able to start teaching her teammates more about taking good photos while still learning other content marketing fundamentals herself.
I love this stock picture because the chalkboard just says “learning.” Photo via
Since managers can’t be everywhere at once, more experienced employees must take an active role in teaching.
It’s not enough that they be experts (which is why this scale doesn’t go from “Learning” to “Mastering”); they have to be able to impart that expertise to others. Teaching is more than just being available when people have questions, too: senior team members are expected to be proactive about taking the time to show junior team members the ropes.
Prescribed -> creative
The ability to move from executing a set series of tasks to creating creative, heavily client-focused digital marketing campaigns is, in my opinion,
one of the best predictors of long-term SEO success. When someone is just starting out in SEO, it’s appropriate to have a fairly standard set of tasks they’re carrying out. For a lot of those small sites that SEO trainees start on, that set of SEO fundamentals goes a long way. The challenge comes when the basics aren’t enough.
Creative SEO comes from being able to look at a client’s business, not just their website, and tailor a strategy to their specific needs. Creative SEOs are looking for unique solutions to the unique problems that arise from that particular client’s combination of business model, target market, history and revenue goals. Creativity can also be put to work internally, in the form of suggested process improvements and new revenue-driving projects.
General -> T-shaped
The concept of the T-shaped marketer has been around for a few years (if you’re not familiar with the idea, you can read up on it on
Rand’s blog or the Distilled blog). Basically, it means that in addition to deep knowledge whatever area(s) of inbound marketing we specialize in, digital marketers should also work to develop basic knowledge of a broad set of marketing disciplines, in order to understand more about the craft of marketing as a whole.
The T-Shaped Marketer
A digital marketer who’s just starting out will naturally be focusing more on the broad part of their T, getting their head around the basic concepts and techniques that make up the digital marketing skill set. Eventually most people naturally find a few specialty areas that they’re really passionate about. Encouraging employees to build deep expertise ultimately results in a whole team full of subject matter experts in a whole team’s worth of subjects.
Beginner -> expert
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The important thing to note is that expertise isn’t something that just happens to you after you do something a lot (although that’s definitely part of it).
Honing expertise means actively pursuing new learning opportunities and testing new ideas and tactics, and we look for the pursuit of expertise as part of evaluating someone’s professional growth.
Observing -> leading
Anyone who is working in inbound marketing should be consistently observing the industry—they should be following search engine news, reading blog posts from industry experts, and attending events and webinars to learn more about their craft. It’s a must-do at all levels, and even someone who’s still learning the ropes can be keeping an eye on industry buzz and sharing items of interest with their co-workers.
Not everyone is crazy about the phrase “thought leadership.” When you’re a digital marketing agency, though,
your people are your product—their depth of knowledge and quality of work is a big part of what you’re selling. As your team gains experience and confidence, it’s appropriate to expect them to start participating more in the digital marketing space, both online and in person. This participation could look like:
- Pitching and speaking at marketing conferences
- Contributing to blogs, whether on your site or in other marketing communities
- Organizing local tech meetups
- Regularly participating in online events like #seochat
…or a variety of other activities, depending on the individual’s talents and interests. Not only does this kind of thought-leadership activity promote your agency brand, it also helps your employees build their personal brands—and don’t forget, a professional development plan needs to be as much about helping your people grow in their careers as it is about growing the skill sets you need.
Low output -> high output
I love the idea of meticulous, hand-crafted SEO, but let’s be real: life at an agency means getting stuff done. When people are learning to do stuff, it takes them longer to do (which is BY FAR MY LEAST FAVORITE PART OF LEARNING TO DO THINGS, I HATE IT SO MUCH), so expectations of the number of clients/volume of work they can handle should scale appropriately. It’s okay for people to work at their own pace and in their own way, but at some point you need to be able to rely on your team to turn things around quickly, handle urgent requests, and consistently hit deadlines, or you’re going to lose customers.
You may notice that some of these growth areas overlap, and that’s okay—the idea is to create a nuanced approach that captures all the different ways a digital marketer can move toward excellence.
Like with all other aspects of a performance review, it’s important to be as specific as possible when discussing a professional growth plan. If there’s an area a member of your team needs to make more progress in, don’t just say e.g. “You need to be more strategic.” Come up with specific projects and milestones for your marketer to hit so you’re both clear on when they’re growing and what they need to do to get to the next level.
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