T-Shaped Marketer skill set

The T Shaped B2B Marketer: The Importance of Being Deep and Wide

I was first introduced to the idea of a “T shaped marketer” in Mike King’s session “Technical marketing is just the price of admission” at Inbound 2015. It gave me a better understanding of where marketing is today and what I need to do to be a successful marketer.

If you’ve been in inbound marketing for very long you know that no piece of inbound marketing can succeed on it’s own. In order to succeed, your different inbound tactics have to work together to form a comprehensive strategy. As I showed in my post “The B2B Inbound Solar System: Dimensions of A Solid Inbound Strategy” you can’t do SEO if you don’t have content, you can’t have content if you don’t have a website, you can’t have social media if you don’t have content and so on and so forth.

Because of this, it often helps to have a broad understanding of inbound marketing to be effective. But you can’t know everything about everything, so what’s the balance? The solution to this predicament that many have proposed is the “T-shaped marketer.”

Where Did It Come From?

Mike King didn’t invent the concept. It’s been around for awhile, but was first introduced to the spotlight in 2010 by the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown in the article: T-Shaped Stars: The Backbone of IDEO’s Collaborative Culture.

Brown describes a T shaped person as such:

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.

Brown and other T shape advocates contrast T shapers with I shapers and Generalists.

I shaped people – Have a high level of expertise in one area, but are not aware of the big picture. They often beat the same drum in every meeting and fail to think creatively to solve problems.

Generalists – Can talk the talk on a variety of subjects, but lack any deep understanding on any one topic. These people can struggle to gain the respect of their peers and to deliver compelling results.

The T shaped person is proposed as the solution to both of these shortcomings. They have their specialty, but they can also collaborate, see the bigger picture and think up creative solutions.

How Does It Apply To Marketing?

The T shape concept has a lot of appeal among marketers, and more specifically marketers involved in SEO. Ironic as it is, just search “T shaped marketer” in Google and you will find countless articles by SEO agencies. Maybe other people are writing about it and are just getting beat out in the serps by all these SEO experts? That’s a lesson in itself, but I digress…

This excitement from SEOs over the T shape is because of the growing complexity of SEO and therefore the growing need for SEOs to understand a wide variety of subjects.

SEO used to be about finding low competition keywords with a relatively high search volume and building links to your website. Now SEO is about so much more than that. In 2012 Whiteboard Friday, Rand Fishkin of Moz laid out the skills that an SEO should have:


Site Speed 

Accessibility/Responsive Design

Content Strategy 


Press & PR

Classic SEO (keywords, links, urls)

and hundreds of other things…

Three years later, with search engine algorithms becoming ever more complex, this list is more important than ever. Today, the price of only doing classic SEO is higher than it’s ever been. If you don’t expand your realm of knowledge, you will not be able to do SEO effectively.

Rand’s point is not that you have to be an expert at all these things, for the vast majority of people, that’s not possible. But, that won’t keep you from having to operate in each of these realms.

The trick is picking a point of entry and then expanding from there. This is a diagram from Distilled’s Mike Tekula’s blog “Building a T-Shaped Web Marketing Skill Set

T-shaped b2b marketer diagram

Common Barriers to Becoming T Shaped

In this diagram, the point of entry, the one specialty is content. As soon as you begin to try to develop a deep understanding of content, you will find that content has to be shared and it has to be optimized for search. Your quest at mastering content will uncover countless other skills that beg mastery.

When you have this realization there are two traps:

1) Getting completely distracted from your specialty

Ex: “In order to do content well I have to know how to do SEO, social media and web design, so I’ll stop working on writing and start dabbling in SEO and social.”

Don’t lose focus. While it will enrich your understanding of content to learn something about SEO, don’t let it distract you completely from your specialty. Mastering a subject takes time, and if your constantly dabbling in everything, you will master nothing.

2) Setting up imaginary boundaries so you don’t have to learn anything

Ex: “I know that getting your content shared is important, but social media isn’t my job, so I’ll just keep writing and let other people worry about it.”

Excuses like this will destroy your inbound marketing and your T shapeness. Getting results will require you doing things outside of your job description. Accepting this will make your life easier in the long run.

Being T shaped isn’t just for content strategists and SEO’s. No marketer today will be useful unless they understand at least something about SEO, Content and lot of other things.

There Is No Perfect T

In your search for T-ness, you will never arrive. Marketing is always changing. As soon as you round yourself out a little more, you will realize you have to spend a little more time honing your core specialty.

Alas, there is no perfect model, being T shaped isn’t a guarantee of success. As Adria Saracino points out in her article: “Don’t Let Your Agency Fall into the T-Shaped Black Hole“, there are things to watch out for with T shaped marketers.

She proposes five ways to make sure a company uses T shaped marketers most effectively:

  1. Clearly voice your expectations, and be consistent.
  2. Create a clearly defined workflow procedure that capitalizes on each employee’s T-strengths.
  3. Work with employees to define their T-shape and create job function boundaries.
  4. Build a culture of collaboration — start by encouraging it daily, praising those who do it well, and leading by example.
  5. Provide employees with access to the tools they need for T-growth and collaboration.

Inbound Marketing 101: 5 Keys to Generating Leads on Your Website

1 reply
  1. Angela Higbee
    Angela Higbee says:

    Really cool post, Luke! “T shapes” is something I’ve only heard in passing, and am now extremely interested in! This is definitely getting shared on Twitter 😉

    Thanks again!

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