There are so many skills you need to have excel at marketing today. However, I can narrow it down to the top three. This is my perspective from being a marketing director. I’ve worked with many global and small clients for ten years that taught me a lot.

The most marketing important skills are: sellingstorytelling, and native platform mastery. The first two go together, but deserve their own spot on this list.

These are broad skills of course. It might be more helpful to tell someone to learn SEO and content marketing. However, these three skills should steer your marketing education in a direction where you’ll find the exact skills you need to master in terms of your niche and interests.

I. SELLING

First, let’s get things straight about marketing and being a profitable company. Nothing happens until a sale is made. Period. That requires selling in all its forms. I’m not talking distribution channels or platforms here. I’m talking about words. Copywriting, cold calls, ads, emails, webinars — all those words sell stuff. Images are great, but they’re secondary to the words.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of one-person virtual agencies pop up. Entrepreneurship is hot these days, and marketing agencies are easy to create. People can find SEO specialists, graphic designers, and content writers anywhere on the cheap. (Of course, highly talented employees are not cheap.)

With many of these agencies, everything is outsourced to foreigners. You can find someone with a master’s degree in computer programming who will work for a fifth of what it cost in The States. While some people might oppose outsourcing (and ironically wear Nike’s and carry iPhones), outsourced labor is a part of business.

What it takes to make it isn’t deciding to start a company. Anyone can do that. You have to take action and know three things: how to build a brandmanage people, and get clients. The latter is the hardest by far.

I’ve seen people who had the perfect website and excellent copywriting, but they were paralyzed when it came to making a sale. It was like pulling teeth to cold call or assertively drum up business. Sure there is always paid advertising to avoid these tasks. But on a shoestring budget, it really requires entrepreneurs to pick up the phone, write an email, or hit the pavement. It’s 100% pure salesmanship that pays the bills.

Wait, don’t you have to have an awesome team and product? Eventually, you do. You should have a good team and good products for sure. But you don’t need to be an award-winning agency to get big clients. You just need someone to know, like, and trust you enough to be a client. So selling is the #1 skill set you need to have.

If you can’t sell, you probably shouldn’t be an entrepreneur or in marketing. You’ll always be selling your products to customers, selling your ideas to investors, or selling yourself to win deals. This is one aspect founders should never outsource 100% in the beginning.

Oddly, I’ve seen people over tears because they just could not pull the trigger on making a simple sales call. They would rather do non-essential tasks than to be put in a sales situation. They think sales is slimy or uncool. However, done ethically it’s none of those things. Instead, it’s the lifeblood of your company.

II. STORYTELLING

Marketing and advertising follows a classic sequence: AIDAThat stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. You get people’s attention by any one of the fives senses, but usually it’s visual. When we see an attractive person or a cool object, boom: they’ve got our attention. Sometimes that’s words, but not always.

Next, more words — usually through story — bring us in. That’s building interest. Where the story really takes a twist, causes conflict, or arouses the audience is in the desire phase. That’s usually words too, but again this could all be a video or picture show up to now. Lastly, an action is either implied to leave a brand impression or directly stated (usually the latter — buy now!).

Now this process is almost always words! That’s the pattern: words, words, words! It doesn’t matter what language or what you’re selling. It’s all about the word, but they have to be put together in the right way. That way is through story.

Neuroscientists will tell you that there is a proven science behind the incredible effect of storytelling. Dr. Paul Zak and his team have discovered that oxytocin is synthesized in the brain by a narrative trigger.

Oxytocin influences our sense of nurturing, giving, and understanding. It pushes down our walls and in certain situations, it leaves us susceptible to persuasion.

In business, you’ll hear terms like “the customer narrative”, “the customer journey”, or “brand stories”. In the effort to understand the customer experience and improve their buying path, story is an effective tool. And if you can get into the ideal customer’s mind and solve their problem, you’ll actually help them complete their journey. Their story will end in triumph.

The company who can leverage storytelling in their marketing will do well. You can have effective marketing and crappy products, but you can’t have crappy marketing and effective products.

I’ve seen mediocre products with outstanding marketing rake in millions. I’ve also seen brilliant products go undiscovered and eventually lead to a company shutting down.

Was it all due to bad marketing? In some cases, yes. It makes me wonder if proper storytelling could have saved them. Why? Because more customers equals more revenue. And money solves nearly everything in a startup. With money you can always hire smarter people and make better products.

If you tell the right story to the right people, you get their attention to sell them. With that, the company and the customer stories end well.

III. NATIVE PLATFORM MASTERY

A marketing platform is any structure or channel that can be used to launch a message. A platform is essentially a marketer’s soapbox or podium. Social media is one platform splintered into dozens of sub-platforms (Quora, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc). Television, radio, podcasts, webinars, blogs, and magazines are a few other platforms.

Native platform mastery is a broad skill set to possess. It means that you must tell stories that are native to that specific platform. As Gary Vaynerchuk put it in Inc Magazine:

Every platform is like a different meeting, a different room, and you have to be cool . . . it’s important to figure out how to natively tell stories on each platform and which visuals and copy will enhance the likelihood of a given post’s going viral. [emphasis mine]

For example, connecting with people and telling stories on Twitter requires you to quickly broadcast the start of a story. People love to throw out a short headline or alluring comment. Using trending hashtags helps you attract people looking for certain stories. All these things are native to that platform. You have to understand what type of content dominates the platform and how to showcase it to the audience.

It’s a different setup on Quora. Hashtags aren’t used, and videos are used sparingly or not at all. Quora is a learner and thinker’s platform. What’s customary and native is shorter authoritative answers. Writing longer pieces (like this one), is not recommended.

Since there are so many platforms, marketers should just focus on a few that their customer base uses the most. Once you learn how to bring people into the story leveraging a platform, you can send them to your website or store where the customer journey really begins.

Marketing Trends

Take a look what’s happening in marketing right now. Digital media has barely gotten its feet wet. It has a long future as it integrates with traditional marketing tactics. In the past, businesses might have been skeptical about using their marketing budget for video or mobile marketing campaigns. Today, it’s the standard procedure.

Looking at this graph, you can see a trend. Email, social media, and digital marketing dominate. While digital platforms are increasing, traditional platforms are decreasing. We’ve known this for years, but it explains the explosive growth of digital marketing agencies. What’s the other pattern here? Everything is word-based and the marketing is augmented through native platforms, storytelling, and selling.

Where To Learn The Most Important Marketing Skills

Maybe I should start with where not to learn these skills. In this era and industry, college degrees have become less important. In fact, results and experience matter just as much if not more than a college degree from a top school. (Tech giants like Google don’t even care where you graduated from and Elon Musk thinks any diploma is useless.)

The problem with underemployed or unemployed college graduates today is that many of them can’t create relevant value to a company.

What’s relevant value? It’s value that is immediately in demand in the workplace.

  • Can you manage a virtual team and deliver value to my customers on time?
  • Can you get my website to page one in Google?
  • Can you write great web content that users love?
  • Can you manage my Facebook ads account and get more people to click on my ad?
  • Can you create an email sequence that delivers values and occasionally promotes my best-selling products?
  • Can you make online data-driven decisions to help my clients acquire more customers?

These are a few skills that companies value when they hire a digital marketing agency. It’s hard to get that in a college course. It’s possible, but it’s easier and cheaper to get direct experience as an apprentice and/or agency owner.

You get better at this kind of marketing by testing, experimenting, and practicing it in real life. To do this, you have to be good at SellingStorytelling, and Native Platforms.

Learning Online

There are distinct learning paths for the general area of marketing you want to be in. Some people are drawn towards the technical side of website marketing. For them, the skills they need might include various programming languages, data analysis, and testing courses.

Other people might like graphic design. For them, there is a completely different learning path and skill set. In the age of full-stack developers, every marketer has their strong suit and must work well in teams. Knowing what you want is the first step.

You can learn most specialized skills online for a lot less than colleges cost. In addition, your skill set will be focused less on theory and more on application.

Again, college isn’t a bad place to learn marketing, and a lot of universities have amazing programs. But if you’re seeking a four-year degree, you have to take so much more than marketing courses. And maybe you didn’t want the whole liberal arts degree experience (and the price tag).

To get the college version of these skills you can learn for free on school sites like Coursera.org. Many other specialized courses can be found on Lynda, Springboard, SkillShare, Udemy, Udacity, and General Assembly. In addition, thousands of personal brand sites offer marketing courses for specific niches. For example, Amy Porterfield offers a great course on Facebook Ads. Ray Edwards offers a compressive program on copywriting that has a heavy storytelling emphasis. Find what niche you want to focus on and enroll in the relevant classes.

Learner Beware

Be careful what type of course you enroll in. Certificates and degrees are helpful, but it’s more important that you can prove you possess the skill set.

Courses that are self-grading or passive rarely work. You need an expert who will review your projects. You need to create portfolio work and conduct case studies where you apply the skills you learned.

Ideally, you need real work from real clients. Now, you don’t have to get paid for this work (and future employers don’t need to know that). New marketers need experience so interning or doing non-paid work is how you have to start. But once you start getting predictable results, you have begun the road to mastering the skill set. This is what employers want, not theory.


[This story was originally published in The Startup, where 458,400+ subscribers come together to read Medium’s leading stories on entrepreneurship.]

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