This post is based on an episode of MarketerHire's marketing operations webinar, MarketerLive. Watch the original video here — and for all the latest updates on MarketerLive's second season, sign up here.
The Forbes marketing team, run by CMO Lynn Schlesinger, is a content scaling machine. From email marketing to social media marketing, and everything in between, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between Schlesinger’s media marketing team and one at a content-focused tech company like Shopify.
Both companies put content marketing at the center of their marketing structures – and use it to drive revenue, grow their owned audience and more.
For Forbes, that’s because content isn’t just part of a flywheel. It's the product itself, so scalable distribution is core to the business.
For Forbes, content isn’t just part of a flywheel. It's the product itself, so scalable distribution is core to the business.
But content is changing quickly. There are now more ways to consume it –– via podcasts, newsletters and blogs, just to name a few –– than ever before.
The same is true for marketing tactics and disciplines. Marketing channels continue to grow in their number and their complexity. It takes specialists to handle the latter, and a lot of strategic testing to handle the former.
Which new channels and formats are worth testing? Which are worth scaling? And how do you do it without burning out your existing team and exhausting their bandwidth?
That is where Taha Ahmed’s team comes in. Ahmed is the VP of Corporate Development at Forbes, and he doesn’t have a team. At least, he doesn't have a full-time one. Ahmed hires growth marketers primarily on a freelance basis, to test out new channels and strategies to help grow Forbes’ business.
The goal is always the same: grow the audience, grow the subscriber base, grow the profit margins on Forbes’ content.
The ideas and strategies that perform then get handed off to Schlesinger’s team, who work to scale the idea and fold it into the larger marketing machine.
This separation of marketing scalability and growth testing is crucial. It gives both departments more flexibility and clarity –– helping them to hire better, retain employees longer, and hit goals faster.
3 keys to delineating roles and preventing employee burnout
At Forbes, the team structure helps define marketing roles — but it’s not enough on its own to protect employees from unrealistic workloads. Here are some other ways Ahmed and Schlesinger make Forbes’ marketing team a reliable results-driver, and a sustainable place to work.
1. Clear expectations.
Everyone at Forbes is expected to have an entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, Schlesinger interviews for it when she’s hiring, saying she is always looking for “people who are happy to learn new skills and try new things.”
But, an entrepreneurial spirit shouldn’t be code for doing three full-time jobs at once — and ultimately burning out. Separating the marketing department from a larger business model testing group keeps Forbes’ marketing roles focused. Each team has their own marching orders.
“Clear expectations about what the job is and what the business demands of the person are vital,” says Ahmed.
“Clear expectations about what the job is and what the business demands of the person are vital.”
2. Well-planned onboarding.
Setting those clear expectations, both Ahmed and Schlesinger agree, begins with effective onboarding.
It sounds simple, but it’s not so common. In a MarketerHire survey of 130 marketing leaders in the U.S. across technology and retail, 23% said they didn’t feel confident in their onboarding processes for new full-time hires.
Meanwhile, 17% didn’t feel confident in their onboarding processes for freelance hires.
The Forbes marketing team has a strong playbook for full-timers and freelancers alike. It involves three key steps:
- Creating a clear 30-60-90 day plan for each role
- Introducing new hires to important employees and business partners
- Assigning new hires a good amount of solo work, including reading brand guidelines, project/team background and history, to help them get up to speed.
“It’s on the hiring manager and team to give everything they can to help this new hire be successful in their new role,” Schlesinger said.
3. Flexible hiring.
A laser-focus on people management and organization is vital to Forbes’ marketing success — but managing and organizing people and teams isn’t a perfect science.
That’s why Forbes’ org chart has built-in flexibility. Managers don’t default to a full-time hire — they can use freelancers, and in a variety of different ways.
For instance, Ahmed uses freelancers almost exclusively, due to the short-term nature of testing projects and ideas.
“Freelancers have given me a tremendous amount of flexibility to move things quickly in the event something is not working,” says Ahmed. “The business is changing so fast and you need to be able to have the right person to do the right job at that particular time.”
“Freelancers have given me a tremendous amount of flexibility to move things quickly in the event something is not working.”
Schlesinger relies on freelancers in a very different way. Often on a marketing team, there is a clear need or skill gap that can’t be filled by someone in-house due to bandwidth. Here, Schlesinger advises marketing leaders to not rush so quickly into a full-time hire.
Instead, she recommends defining the role and pinpointing its long-term value. If that is a challenge, or if anything about the timeline of the need is unclear, that’s a good sign you need freelance help.
In other words, short-term projects or projects with a high level of uncertainty tend to get freelance talent, so the marketing team can figure out the direction and scope before taking up too much of a full-time employee’s time.
“We’ve found freelance support to be very helpful as we try to scale up to meet demand if we’re not 100% sure if that demand is going to be with us long term,” says Schlesinger.
“We’ve found freelance support to be very helpful as we try to scale up to meet demand if we’re not 100% sure if that demand is going to be with us long term.”
She also noted that thinking through hires this way helps ease burnout for the full-time team, opening up their bandwidth so they can focus on projects they are excited to work on.
Hiring freelancers often involves different criteria than hiring employees, though, according to a MarketerHire survey of 130 marketing leaders in the U.S. across technology and retail.
Respondents said communication skills are the most important skills leaders are looking for in both full-time hires and freelancers. But detail-orientation tied for the most important skill for freelancers, whereas presentation skills (arguably another communication skill) came in a close second for full-time hires.
Clearly, roles, skills and expectations for full-time hires versus freelancers are different. Part of flexible hiring at Forbes and beyond: flexible hiring criteria.
Clearly define your needs before you hire — or else
Even if your current company isn’t large enough to need two separate departments for marketing and testing, there’s a lot leaders can learn from Schlesinger and Ahmed.
Ultimately it comes down to this: Burnout is often a result of poorly-defined roles. That failure falls on the leader who defined the role, scoped the project, and set up the onboarding.
Don’t let your need for a marketing result blind you to the longer-term consequences of not planning properly, right now. Fast-forwarding your hiring priorities without due diligence only increases your operating expenses and employee turnover in the long-term.
Fast-forwarding your hiring priorities without due diligence only increases your operating expenses and employee turnover in the long-term.
Balance is the key to building a sustainable work culture. Balance responsibilities between roles, and balance full-time hires with freelancers.
Even if, like Ahmed, all your direct reports are freelancers, and the only full-time hire on your team is… you. Sometimes, that’s the perfect balance.