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How to Become a T-Shaped Marketer: What Marketing Career Gro…

Before becoming a marketer, Brian sold insurance.

Alfred was in the army.

Arielle was a health coach.

I was a sports reporter.

And now look at us! We’re a team of eight Buffer marketers, with vastly distinct backgrounds and educations, who collectively bring in 20,000 Buffer signups each week. Many of us fell into marketing, accidentally or on purpose. We’ve been learning as we go.

And where exactly are we headed?

Good question! We benefit a lot from free marketing courses and great educational content. However, it’s not often the case that we have a specific vision for the skills we gain or the path we’re on.

Does this resonate with your marketing experience? Do you have an easy way to answer, “What does it mean when we’re asked to become ‘T-shaped’ marketers?”

Since I’ve stepped into a leadership role on the marketing team, I’ve become the one posing the T-shaped question to others, so it seemed time to figure out what T-shaped means for us at Buffer and what it might mean for digital marketers beyond Buffer. Here’s what I came up with. I’d love your thoughts!

(Caveat: This is all verrrry much specific to the way we do marketing at Buffer. YMMV, though hopefully it’s a good starting point for you and your team. Feel free to copy and edit!)

The Diagram of a T-Shaped Marketer at Buffer

Buffer T-shaped marketer diagram

This is how we view a T-shaped marketer at Buffer. Feel free to grab a download of the Sketch file or Canva template we used to build this, if you’d like to customize it for your company.

Generally-speaking, everyone on the Buffer marketing team will have all the base knowledge and marketing foundation skills listed in the diagram; plus, each teammate will have chosen at least one main channel in which they are an expert.

Much more on this below, but first, I’d love to explain more about the idea of T-shaped people in general.

The concept of a T-shaped person comes from the world of hiring, and it describes the abilities that someone brings to a job — their depth and breadth of ability. The vertical, up-and-down stem of the “T” represents one’s depth in one or more areas, and the horizontal, side-to-side stem of the “T” represents one’s breadth.

The vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.

Often times the word “generalist” is used to apply to a T-shaped person; though in our case at Buffer, a generalist would be someone with a relatively short vertical T stem and a very broad horizontal T stem.

Our T-shaped marketer diagram relies heavily on the foundation that Brian Balfour laid with his T-shaped description back in 2014. In his post on becoming a customer acquisition expert, Brian laid out a blueprint for how someone could grow their marketing skills. Brian based his research on an article from Distilled. Both Brian’s and Distilled’s articles are great places to start if you’re keen to learn more about T-shaped marketers.

The 3 Components of a T-Shaped Marketer

As you can see in the diagram, the abilities of a T-shaped marketer fit into three different components:

  1. Base Knowledge
  2. Marketing Foundation
  3. Channel Expertise

T-shaped components

Base knowledge is the non-marketing-specific areas that will suit you well no matter your job.

In theory, anyone who applies for a marketing role at Buffer would have competence with these abilities, and anyone on the current marketing team would focus on leveling up in these areas first and foremost. These basic abilities really do trickle down and inform the other skills you need.

Everyone on the marketing team should feel comfortable with all base knowledge boxes.

Marketing foundation is the marketing-specific subjects that are useful across most all marketing channels.

Our list is an incomplete one. For instance, Brian Balfour’s 2014 model includes conversion rate optimization (CRO) as a foundational skill. We don’t expect everyone on the team to have foundational skills in CRO (in fact, we view it as its own channel in which you can become an expert). Also, Brian mentions database querying. That’s not as important to us. The marketing foundation at your company is likely to entail some unique skills of its own.

Everyone on the marketing team should feel comfortable with all marketing foundation boxes.

Channel expertise refers to audience and acquisition channels.

There are soooo many of these, and we’re constantly finding new ones. For instance, product marketing wasn’t a channel for us a couple years ago. Now, it would serve us well. And on the flip side, there are areas, like sales, that we don’t do at Buffer.

The idea with channel expertise is that someone will have one or more channels for which they have great depth of knowledge.

When a T looks like an M: Variety within channel expertise

As you might experience for yourself, it’s not always the case that your skills fit a neat and tidy T shape, especially as you keep evolving as a marketer.

The T shape is definitely just a framework. On our team, we have a variety of people with a variety of skills, all at different depth and breadth.

In some cases, the T might have three vertical stems of different lengths. (An “M.”)

For others, it might have one really, really deep stem.

If it helps, here’s a quick view of how our current team looks within the T-shaped marketer model.

Alfred, Content Crafter

Alfred T-shaped marketer diagram

Arielle, Community Strategist

Arielle T-shaped marketer diagram

Ash, Managing Editor

Ash T-shaped marketer diagram

Bonnie, Loyalty Marketer

Brian, Digital Marketing Strategist

Hailley, PR and Communications Strategist

Mike, Product Marketer

Spencer, Growth Marketer

How to level up your T-shaped marketer skills

Of course, once you know where to head with your growth as a marketer, one of the next questions to ask would be how to get there. Fortunately, there are a ton of resources on most any marketing skill you could hope to achieve. Here’re a few of the resources we’ve found helpful as we’ve leveled up in all the different areas of a Buffer T-shaped marketer.

Base knowledge

Behavior Psychology

Knowledge in this area helps you better understand why people do what they do —  a handy skill in most any job, particularly so when you’re eager to understand why people click, like, share, and buy.

Storytelling

We see storytelling and copywriting as different things. Storytelling is about knowing how to put together a narrative. Copywriting is about knowing the right words to use to express that narrative.