June 09, 2021

What are the most valuable marketing skills? (with free resources to improve those skills)


Wilbur Wright said, “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.”

While many marketing publications focus on the snazziest new technologies and tools, our focus at MarketingSherpa is you – the marketer.

So in this article we explore the question: What are the most valuable marketing skills?

Read on for free resources to improve those skills.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

What are the most valuable marketing skills? (with free resources to improve those skills)

This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.

In my time at MarketingSherpa, I’ve written and edited case studies with hundreds of marketers.

Through all of these stories of hard-won marketing success, I have noticed a set of skills come up over and over again.

Skill #1: Empathy

Working inside a company or for a client, it’s all too easy to get pulled into groupthink. “We’re the best!” “Our product is awesome!” “We’re the world’s leading…”

Leave that prideful response to everyone else in the organization.

It is the marketer’s job to empathize with potential customers. To truly understand who they are, where they are coming from…their hopes and dreams along with their pain points and fears.

Your job as a marketer is to understand who can benefit from your company’s products or services, and then understand their wants and needs well enough to help them perceive the value they can get from your products.

In How to Discover Exactly What the Customer Wants to See on the Next Click, Flint McGlaughlin, CEO and Managing Director, MECLABS Institute teaches three critical skills every marketer must master to achieve maximum conversion – prioritization (of attention), identification (with the customer), deduction (from where they came from).

That second skill – identification – is where empathy comes in. As McGlaughlin explains in the video, it’s not enough to identify who the customer is, you must identify with the customer.

If you would like to grow your empathy skills, here are some free resources…

Customer Theory: How to leverage empathy in your marketing (with free tool)

Customer-centric Marketing: 5 takeaways on consumer behavior from researchers and strategists [Part I]

8 steps to better empathizing with and understanding customers (from a copywriting contest with Consumer Reports)

Skill #2: Research

A key skill related to empathy is research. Marketers with empathy have an ability to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. But marketers with research skills have the ability to dive deeper into their hunches about customers and leverage much more than their opinion.

A study from Hinge Research Institute suggests that research is a key marketing skill that separates high-growth firms from no-growth firms.

Hinge conducted a study of 1,293 professional services firms ($270 billion combined revenue, almost 1 million employees) to determine what differentiates high-growth companies. High-growth firms are defined as having a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20% or greater over a three-year assessment period. In the study, high-growth firms had a median growth rate of 31%. No-growth firms languished at a median growth rate of -1%.

Respondents were asked: “On a scale from 0-10 (with 10 being the best), how would you rate your organization's marketing function on each of the following skill areas?”

Chart #1: Marketing function skill ratings

Chart #1: Marketing function skill ratings

As you see in the chart above, all companies did best at project management and worst at search engine optimization (SEO). Also, not surprisingly, high-growth firms did better than no-growth firms in every skill area.

But let’s take another look at the data – what marketing skills are high-growth companies better at than no-growth companies?

Chart #2: Marketing function skill ratings – difference between high-growth and no-growth firms

Chart #2: Marketing function skill ratings – difference between high-growth and no-growth firms

“Because high-growth firms have stronger skills in these areas, they’re able to achieve greater impact from their marketing efforts, including generating 32% more digital leads, increasingly crucial in today’s unpredictable, largely digital business environment. If you want to remain competitive and grow your business, you’ll want to ensure you have access to – and be able to retain – the best talent in these areas. Although remote work has made hiring talent from around the world more feasible, it’s also made firms more vulnerable to talent poachers,” said Elizabeth Harr, Partner, Hinge.

While project management was the top marketing skill for both high-growth and no-growth firms, it was also the smallest gap between the companies.

The biggest differentiator was research – with high-growth firms rating their marketing organization’s research skills 25.4% better than no-growth firms.

“High-growth firms made the past year’s historic business environment less uncertain and unpredictable by conducting research on their target audience. In fact, they were three times as likely to conduct that research and did it more frequently than their no-growth peers. With more knowledge of their audience, the unfamiliar environment less of a worry, high-growth firms could focus on providing their prospects and clients, all facing new pressures and priorities, with relevant insights, content, and solutions. These firms’ significant advantage in research skills enabled them to enjoy greater impact from their research efforts,” Harr said.

If you would like to grow your research skills, here are some free resources…

Marketing Research Chart: What metrics should you track?

Marketing Research Chart: Question your assumptions for true customer-centric marketing

Lead your team to breakthrough results with A Model of Your Customer's Mind

Skill #3: Leadership and managing others

Empathy and research skills can help you determine the right things to do to make your organization successful.

But actually getting them done requires leadership skills. And marketers are aware of the importance of these skills.

Degreed gathered data about the state of skills from a global study of 5,208 workers, team managers, and business leaders. The data was collected in July and August 2020 by independent, international market research agency Censuswide. Of that sample, 206 respondents work in marketing.

Marketers were asked “Which new skills, if any, would you most like to learn? [Tick up to 5]”

Chart #3: Marketer preferences for learning new skills

Chart #3: Marketer preferences for learning new skills

Critical thinking and decision-making and project management were the skills least frequently selected by marketers. This data correlates with the previous data we looked at – if both high-growth and no-growth companies consider their marketing organization good at project management, marketers likely aren’t trying to improve in this area.

Leadership and managing others was the new skill that marketers most wanted to learn, with 18% of respondents choosing it.

Sales was the only other industry for which leadership was the most desired skill to learn. Advanced IT and programming was the skill people in every other industry most wanted to learn, with leadership coming in second in all the other industries except IT, for which leadership came in third.

“In my eyes, leadership, as a skill, is about setting, understanding, and communicating strategic directions, checking in with your team and having empathy, understanding your team’s strengths and nurturing them (through coaching and upskilling), and being your team’s champion in the wider organization. As a marketing leader myself, my skills in this area have been challenged in new ways during the pandemic and now, as we face life post-pandemic,” said Sarah Danzl, Head of Global Communications and Client Advocacy, Degreed.

Some of the initiatives Danzl implemented as a team manager during the pandemic include:

  • Three-word feeling check-ins at the start of every team meeting, with the psychological safety of knowing what’s discussed is confidential, non-judgmental, and won’t impact work opportunities.
  • More in-depth discussions about concerns, challenges, family or friend stuff, in weekly one-on-ones.
  • In-depth discussions about career growth and where the team wants to be in the next 12-36 months.
  • Hosting outside speakers and co-workers to upskill the team in cultural, strategic and company topics.
  • Quarterly company-wide Good Deed Days so people have time to give back to their local communities.
  • Encouraging the team to spend their $100 monthly learning budget to learn new skills in everything from data science and SEO to having critical conversations and radical candor.

Company-wide, Degreed has also just introduced a monthly wellness budget for people to spend on anything that increases their wellbeing and reduces stress.

If you would like to grow your research skills, here are some free resources…

Creative Leadership Ideas: A behind-the-scenes look at how 9 companies run their marketing departments and agencies

8 Examples of How Business Owners and Marketing Leaders Can Respond to the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic

Gaining Business Leader Buy-in: 7 CEO personas

Skill #4: Customer obsession

The above skills should not lead you to a one-time, set-it-and-forget it strategy. You must constantly be using these skills to increase your intimacy with the customer.

And that is a skill all its own – let’s call it customer obsession.

“Most marketers start with market research and customer study only in the beginning. Then they start thinking they know everything about them. A good marketer will read the blogs and consume the pop culture their customers would be into,” advised Casey Allen, CEO, Barista Warrior.

“In an interview, I ask questions regarding the marketer’s previous role. Most of these questions will be customer-centric. I try to gauge how well this marketer knew the customers of his previous company. Was this marketer up to date with regards to news and trends that would affect those customers? Did the marketer have a daily ritual of listening to a particular podcast or show that mattered to those customers?” Allen said.

If you would like to grow your research skills, here are some free resources…

Making Your Customer the Hero: How a construction software company increased revenue 53% by doing the opposite of what feels right

Marketing Research Chart: How customer understanding impacts satisfaction

Customers as Value-Creating Partners, Not Just Value-Extraction Targets

Marketing Career: How to become an indispensable asset to your company (even in a bad economy)

Skill #5: Character

It’s easy to write articles about what marketers should do to be successful. It’s quite another to actually do it in the hectic world of the modern marketer filled with competing objectives, unrealistic goals, and never-ending deadlines.

And that’s why the last skill we need to highlight is character – it’s not enough to have the right skills…you actually have use them in the right way.

Marketing is not an industry synonymous with character unfortunately. At least not if you ask the average customer. And yet, according to our research with a representative sample of the U.S. population in the MarketingSherpa Customer Satisfaction Research Study, if our industry improved in this area we would do a far better job of reaching our business goals.

We split 2,400 customers into two groups – we asked 1,200 of them to think of a company they were satisfied with and 1,200 to think of a company they were unsatisfied with. Then we asked followup questions about those companies.

We asked respondents, “Thinking about the marketing of [company name], which of the following is true about your experience?”

Chart #4: Marketing experience for satisfied and unsatisfied customers

Chart #4: Marketing experience for satisfied and unsatisfied customers

The top response for satisfied customers was “I consistently have good experience with it” (56%). But the top response for unsatisfied customers was “The company does not put my needs and wants above its own business goals” (35%).

It makes sense that customers will tend to be satisfied when they have good experiences with a company. But how do companies alienate customers? By not putting them first. In a marketing context, the marketers who have the character to practice customer-first marketing are the ones most likely to create satisfied customers.

And customer satisfaction is valuable. Not surprisingly, customers’ satisfaction with your brand leads to more purchases and recommendations. However, you may be surprised at just how much more likely customers are to purchase from a company they are satisfied with.

We asked respondents “Thinking about [company name], how likely are you to do any of the following?”

Chart #5: How likely customers are to purchase from and recommend companies they are satisfied and unsatisfied with


Chart #5: How likely customers are to purchase from and recommend companies they are satisfied and unsatisfied with

As expected, satisfied customers are more likely to continue purchasing from a brand they like (66% very likely vs.8% very likely for unsatisfied customers) and recommend it to others (61% very likely vs. 7% very likely for unsatisfied).

But take a look at those numbers – the differences are staggering. For example, there is 713% more satisfied customers said they were very likely to continue purchasing products and services from the company they were satisfied with.

“Whilst there are many situational interview questions to uncover character, we have found the real test is how people respond under pressure. To do this, we will ask challenging questions, such as ‘how many times a day does a clock's hands overlap?’ On the surface, these types of questions test conceptual thinking, but that's not why we use them. In the heat of the moment, an arrogant or perhaps self-centered candidate shows their cards by becoming frustrated, perhaps blaming the question," said Jake Third, Managing Director, Hallam

If you would like to grow your character skills, here are some free resources…

The Marketer’s Blind Spot: 3 ways to overcome the marketer’s greatest obstacle to effective messaging

Customer-First Marketing Strategy: The highest of the five levels of marketing maturity

7 Examples of Using Marketing to Become a Force for the Good

The Marketer’s (Abbreviated) Guide to Love: How to overcome your own self-interest and become a better marketer

Improve Your Marketing

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