Ann Handley gave herself the title chief content officer in 1997 when she co-founded marketing news site ClickZ.com with the late Andrew Bourland. Handley, 48, said she had not heard anyone use the term before.
"At that time using the Internet for marketing and content creation was a new concept," she said. As chief content officer of ClickZ.com, Handley hired an editorial staff of five to write articles for the site and managed marketing and search engine optimization.
She and Bourland later sold the site to Internet.com in 2000 for $16 million in cash and stock, but Handley held onto her title as she moved to the marketing advice site, MarketingProfs.com. There, she oversees all articles and multimedia pieces that run on the site and a staff of eight as well as outside contributors.
A growing number of organizations are hiring chief content officers to promote their brands and expand their digital reach, say Handley and others in the field. At some companies, the role has created an unexpected and lucrative career opportunity for writers, editors, marketers and media personalities. They can earn as much as seven figures -- especially at companies that sell content as their primary business.
Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, earned $2.4 million in 2010 as the online video company's fourth highest paid employee, according to a company proxy statement. Sarandos, 47, joined Netflix in 2000 after spending 12 years as a regional director of sales and operations for the video distribution company ETD.
Different kinds of companies have created similar roles. Jim Grubb, chief demonstration officer at the technology giant Cisco Systems, works with teams of in-house product marketers, according to a company spokesman. Claudia Cahill, chief content officer at Omnicom's media agency OMD, leads a new content division for clients.
Defining the Role
Just what chief content officers do is somewhat murky. It varies from place to place. At many companies, the chief content officer has some oversight of marketing, public relations and editorial management, said Robert Rose, 46, a digital marketing consultant and co-author of the book "Managing Content Marketing." The goal of the job is to use "content" to draw more people to buy or use the company's products.
"Most organizations are discovering that creating, directing and managing content is a separate and distinct function and that it needs a leader to handle that process in an intelligent way," said Rose.
Having authority over functions that reside in many different divisions, however, contributes to the fuzziness of the role as well as making it difficult to do well. "It's a somewhat untenable position to be in, especially at a larger organization," said Will Schutte, a consultant at the global recruiting firm Spencer Stuart based in the firm's San Francisco office. "That's because you're working across a broad enterprise and it's difficult to own all of those functions."
Managing Content for Patch
Rachel Fishman Feddersen joined AOL's Patch on Feb. 14 as chief content officer of the company's 863 Patch sites, a newly created role within AOL's hyperlocal news network. She received the job offer from AOL's higher-ups after speaking at an Advertising Week panel in the fall about using the Internet to reach moms.
"I happened to hit it lucky since Tim Armstrong, Jon Brod and Brian Farnham were all at the panel," said the 41-year-old mother of two who left her role as digital editorial director of the Swedish media publisher Bonnier's Parenting Group.
Fishman Feddersen's task at Patch is to help drive consumer strategy, grow readership, and eventually turn around a three-year-old business that isn't yet profitable. In her new role, she is charged with improving the content of Patch's more than 1,000 journalists and outside partners.
Fishman Feddersen reports to Jon Brod, the head of AOL's ventures, local and mapping unit, who reports to AOL's chief executive, Tim Armstrong. She is positioned above Patch's editor-in-chief, Brian Farnham, who also reports to Brod.
"The goal here is to be able to grow very quickly by mapping out a plan that works for the individual sites and the organization as a whole," she said. "But I don't plan to step in and set a bunch of mandates that make people feel like they can't get their work done. The best thing is for me to be inspirational rather than dictatorial."
Fishman Feddersen's new job is a big step up from her previous role at the Parenting Group where she oversaw an editorial team of 12 and worked alongside 20 magazine editors for more than four years. She started her career in 1994 as a reporter covering the pharmaceutical industry for the Chevy Chase, Md. news publisher FDC Reports.
Rank and Salary Distinctions
The rise of the chief content officer has occurred most noticeably at media and entertainment companies that serve online audiences, said Schutte of Spencer Stuart.
While the role of the chief content officer has become a high-level position at companies that sell content as their "bread and butter," the position and salary are typically lower at companies that do not, said Lynne Seid, a partner at the Chicago-based recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles who heads its digital marketing practice.
At companies that sell products and services outside of media and entertainment, such as software and financial services, the name chief content officer is likely to be bestowed on an existing employee as a title promotion, said Seid.
The real change among those companies is having their marketing operations become more of an in-house job, she said.
"At some large organizations, the role of the chief content officer might be on equal footing with a VP title and report up to the chief marketing officer," said marketing consultant Rose. "It may also be a function and secondary title that a company's director of marketing assumes."
Outside of high-profile digital media and entertainment companies, there are no real salary standards among chief content officers, said Clare McDermott, editor of the Content Marketing Institute's "Chief Content Officer" magazine. "The average salary of a CCO depends on the size of the company and the prestige of that role within that company," she said.
Getting the Job
The key to getting one of these jobs is having both strong creative and analytical skills and a proven track record of making the two work in conjunction, said McDermott.
"Some people mistake the role of the chief content officer as being akin to an editor-in-chief," said McDermott. "Those writing and editing skills are important, but it is also a job where you have to understand analytics, know the role of social media and know how content is distributed in addition to how it is created."
Still, any candidate looking to become a chief content officer should have several years experience in traditional journalism, said Handley of MarketingProfs.com. "You can have a nose for stories and sharp digital intuition, but you really have to think about your audience first," she said. "Journalists are the only people in my mind who can do that naturally." Handley started her career as an associate editor for the Boston financial newspaper Banker & Tradesman in 1985.
Others say it is too early to determine what the best qualifications are to become a chief content officer.
"What we are going to see happen is the same thing we saw in social media over the past few years," Rose said. "These chief content positions are going to become more senior level and as people begin to succeed and fail at them, the expertise that is needed is going to become more clear."
Write to Damian Ghigliotty at Damian.Ghigliotty@dowjones.com