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Soft skills – What are they?

When working with agency partners as part of our MSc Digital Marketing, the subject of soft skills comes up quite frequently. But what are they, and why are they so important to employers?

Soft skills - definition

A quick google search brings up the following definition of soft skills:

Soft skills definition

I would say that's quite a broad and general definition and actually sounds near impossible, seeing that it appears to imply that you have to interact harmoniously with anyone and everyone. What if the person is just really unpleasant, mean, or nasty? Can you be 'harmonious' then?

Actually, I think we need to be more specific, and look at it from an employer's angle.

Soft skills in the workplace

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) talks about five core skills that are key to working in today's world.

social skills - feedback
CC image courtesy of Tanja Föhr on Flickr

The website states that

Employers have identified these skills as those that are most likely to be needed in any work environment.

The five Core Skills are: Communication, Numeracy, Information and Communication Technology, Problem Solving and Working with Others.

Out of those 5, Communication (written and oral) and Working with Others are social and therefore soft skills. Let's look at some examples to understand why they are relevant in a professional environment.

Soft skills examples

Examples of soft skills in the workplace could be:

  • giving effective presentations (public speaking, oral communication, confidence, etc.)
  • writing clear emails (succinct, persuasive)
  • cooperating with others (putting aside differences in the interest of a common, greater goal)
  • adapting oral / written communications to needs of others / audience (e.g. more formal / less formal)
  • listening to others' viewpoints and being respectful even in disagreement (it's ok to disagree)
  • anything else focused on relationship building with others - the emotional side (Wikipedia associates soft skills with EQ - Emotional Intelligence)
innovators need empathy
CC image courtesy of Tanja Föhr on Flickr

This list is by no means complete - what all examples share is that these skills can be learned, and improved upon. Since they are social, you must learn them not through theory but through practice  - when interacting and communicating with other people in a professional environment.

It's hard (impossible ?) to teach this stuff from a book, but you can create an environment that allows social skills to develop (e.g. supportive, encouraging autonomy and 'self-management').

But this blog post started with a question: Why are soft skills important in the digital marketing industry?

We already know that digital marketers need broad and vertical skills - what Rand Fishkin of Moz calls T-shaped, that is, having broad knowledge across many disciplines, with 1-2 areas of deep knowledge (e.g. search and social). But soft skills, as it transpires, are equally as important.


Modern Marketers and soft skills

Our agency partners aren't the only ones emphasising soft skills as a key requirement for digital marketers. Earlier in the year, econsultancy published a list of 15 essential skills for modern marketers. The data is based on a survey of senior level marketers, and an unexpected outcome was the emphasis respondents placed on 5 soft skills:

essential skills for marketers


It appears that you can't just have an idea, you also need to be able to sell your idea:

So in addition to the usual broad knowledge areas and vertical skills areas, marketers need the right soft skills to be able to work across the organisation. The best ideas will founder without buy-in across the organisation and support from multiple teams.

It's all about persuasive communication, and being able to relate to people - to ensure you get heard.

Another observation from the report was an emphasis on self-motivated learning. That's not surprising, given the incredible pace of change in digital.

CC image courtesy of Anthony Easton on Flickr

But is there really a soft skills revolution? I think it's about a balanced approach- you can't just have soft skills without subject knowledge; equally, hard skills without soft skills will only get you so far.

As for digital marketing education, we can teach broad and vertical skills. And soft skills need to be embedded in the learning environment (see my post on teaching digital marketing for further exploration of the topic).

Finally, I think that soft skills can improve through passion. If you have passion, or love for a subject, then you're more likely to want to connect with people who too are passionate, which makes communication and relating to people much easier, and more effective.





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