Creative Thinking

A Curriculum for Today’s Content Marketing Intern

By Kyle Harper on April 6, 2018

Think back to your first entry-level marketing job.

For many of us, it was likely something with "assistant" in the title, and the interviewer emphasized that, while you didn't need to know anything about marketing to start, you would need to be willing to work hard to learn on the job and move your way up. What followed was an equally grueling and rewarding first step into the world of marketing.

But the job landscape has changed today. The average content marketing intern isn't applying to your company purely out of professional curiosity; they're applying out of necessity. The average entry-level job in the US now requires three years of experience, hourly wages are stagnating while productivity continues to climb, and the increasingly dynamic nature of our work demands more knowledge and content marketing skills with each passing year.

Companies that engage in content marketing have a huge opportunity to help train up the next round of marketers to enter the workforce, and likewise a huge opportunity to improve their own work with help from fresh insights. But for your students and your brand to get the most out of this experience, it will require forethought, planning, and an effective internship curriculum.

What Interns Aren't-Free Labor

In marketing, we often find small skills gaps in our teams for whatever reason. Maybe a company initiative moved faster than your hiring, so now your team is rushing to learn a new skill set. Maybe the recent departure of a colleague has left your team momentarily understaffed. Perhaps you're a marketing manager who doesn't feel like it should be your responsibility to pull email statistics after each send of your newsletter. I get it. Marketing can be rough at times.

But interns are never intended to fill these gaps or to do work you don't want to do.

There are times when your business has a very real need for a temporary worker who can pick up some slack. That's what temporary contracts and part-time workers are for. The inherent difference is that you should always assume interns coming into your business have absolutely no professional or marketing experience. They aren't ready to be hired. That's why they've come to your program-to learn, not to be hired.

While interns will help with a variety of day-to-day tasks, there are two key things to keep in mind that will make their stay with your business successful (and that will make them poor stand-ins for part time workers).

1. Interns Should Rotate Responsibilities

Most marketers start as generalists and then either pursue a specialty or management as they progress in their careers. To set up your interns for informed career planning, you should try to give them a wider breadth of exposure to marketing activities than a specialized or specific work task would give them.

2. You Will Review All of Your Intern's Work . . . Twice

There should be nothing efficient about the way your intern works, because their work should require more review from your team than anyone else's work. This is partially to make sure your businesses processes aren't being affected by understandably rookie mistakes, sure. But more so, this is because review, constructive criticism, and teaching are where your interns will accomplish most of their learning.

Content marketing intern

Image attribution: Brooke Cagle

The amount of time, effort, and support that goes into a good internship program should be of enormous benefit to your intern, and often at the cost of your team. In fact, many states' laws require this: In Boston where I'm writing this article, state law prevents interns from replacing employed workers or from providing advantage for the employer-interns should literally "impede" your ability to work to some extent.

Make no mistake, your business works for your intern-not the other way around.

A Content Marketing Curriculum

With an altruistic approach to intern mentoring in mind, you've gathered your first round of students. So now what?

If we think about an internship curriculum like a college curriculum, then your program should have some kind of standard "general education" learning, offerings specific to your intern's "major" or specialty, and finally space for elective learning. For content marketing, we can translate this to three core areas your interns should develop during their stay: professional skills, marketing skills, and "swing" skills.

What should your content intern learn?

Professional Skills

Many of the office skills we take for granted-from writing good emails to conducting meetings that don't put people to sleep-are learned skills. This portion of the curriculum is typically learned through osmosis in an office environment but can be quickened by consistent feedback throughout your intern's time with your company.

Content Marketing Skills

We'll dive into this more deeply in a moment, but this is the brunt of your content marketing intern program. The goal of this material is to help your students connect the dots between high-level concepts they learn in school (funnels, audiences, etc.) to actual marketing practices. You'll also want to give them a full view of the content marketing process to help them decide what roles might interest them most during their career.

"Swing" Skills

I graduated college with a degree in writing, literature, and publishing, which I thought was going to be a perfect foundation for the copywriting job I took as my first gig. Today, less than a decade later, I have experience with formats ranging from e-books to webinars and video, I code in four languages, and I'm just as comfortable with data analysis as I am with writing a blog. Meanwhile, most entry-level marketing positions today list Photoshop as a desirable bonus skill or seek content creators who can double as email and social media specialists. "Swing" skills are how you give your interns the freedom to explore tertiary marketing practices that help them stay dynamic in today's highly demanding skills market.

A good way to structure this learning is with a two-phase approach, where each phase takes about half the time of your intern's stay. In the first half of their stay, give your intern one or two weeks to try tasks at different stages of your content pipeline and use this time to ingrain knowledge of high-level marketing structure and practice. This is where many of your professional and content marketing skills are learned.

Content marketing intern

Image attribution: Andreas Klassen

In phase two, sit down with each content marketing intern individually and discuss what "swing" skill they're interesting in trying out, and then synthesize that learning into a capstone project that combines content marketing knowledge with a dynamic skill. The goal of this phase is to encourage your interns to take part in some self-learning in a structured environment while also pushing them to produce something tangible they can take with them at the completion of their program.

I typically like to encourage interns to tackle broad, strategically minded speculative projects: Graphic designers pitch brand updates or redesign; coding-curious interns propose tracking or automation strategies to improve content distribution; management-minded interns build their own content campaign strategy from scratch. Your brand almost certainly won't implement these proposals (in fact, some state internship laws make it illegal for you to do so), but you should work to revise your intern's plan thoroughly so that by the end of their program, your intern can leave with a project and a specific recommendation from your team that will help them stand out for future job applications.

Skills for the Future

The last piece of the puzzle is what you actually teach your interns. Thankfully, as long as you're giving your interns exposure to your full marketing process, they will likely cover most of this material by the end of their stay. But even just a bit of extra structure will help your interns truly excel.

At the completion of your program, your content marketing intern needs to be able to do two things: Complete basic-level tactical tasks and be able to speak professionally about high-level marketing concepts and strategy. Likewise, content marketing today has taken on a markedly two-sided nature, with one foot in a creative or editorial mindset and the other in web optimization and technical expertise. To hit all of these areas, I like to think about content marketing skills as a simple matrix.

Content marketing intern matrix

Ideally, your intern should spend some time completing tasks that are both tactical and strategic, technical and creative. After some exposure to these four areas, they should also be equipped to choose a capstone project that touches on two or more of these areas in a cohesive way.

At the highest level, you'll want to ensure that your interns spend at least some time in each of the following areas:

  • High-level content strategy thought and practice

  • Content pitching, creation, and editorial

  • Search engine optimization, both content specific and site-wide

  • Basic distribution tactics, likely social media and email

  • Basic analysis, likely in Google Analytics or your CMS

  • A creative skill outside of writing, like photography, design, or video

  • A technical skill outside of SEO, like HTML/CSS or marketing automation

Content marketing intern

Image attribution: Brooke Cagle

A Win-Win Situation

At the completion of each of your internship program cycles, there are a few ways you'll realize true value for your company-even without using interns for free labor.

The first and perhaps most practical benefit of a healthy internship program is that it sets your business up with a pre-trained, pre-vetted pipeline for entry level hires. There is considerably less risk involved in hiring a worker who already knows and works with your team, and it only helps that their previous training is specifically tailored to your content processes. This is also a benefit that compounds over time-internship programs with a reputation for eventual hiring quickly become competitive, drawing in ever more competitive candidates who are easier and easier to hire.

A second, less obvious benefit comes for your own workers. One of the best ways to gain expertise is to teach, and the constant presence of interns in your office will ensure even your most specialized workers have to give some space to revisiting essential marketing concepts and best practices. Over time, this should manifest as incremental growth in your team's competency and knowledge base. Depending on your program's structure and scale, it can also help reveal potential candidates within your team who might have a knack for team management.

What it all comes down to is that the benefits on both sides of an internship program are meant to be educational more than financial. Interns will require work. They ask endless questions, require extra review, and are more than likely going to mess up at least one of your processes at some point. But we've all been there, and the process of nurturing students through this stage of their professional journey is how we not only encourage better hires for our own team but how we also create a healthier industry overall.

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Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?