Excellence in digital marketing is no longer optional for most agencies and organizations – digital platforms are evolving at a breakneck pace, usurping roles historically played by traditional channels and permeating across every aspect of the marketing mix.
That makes hiring high-quality digital marketers one of the most important things for an agency or organization to do well. Unfortunately, the same things that are driving demand for digital marketing (a few of which I mentioned above) pose the greatest obstacle for hiring digital marketing talent – after all, how does one hire if for a role that is in a state of perpetual evolution? How do we craft a job description that is more likely than not to be obsolete within the year? What questions should we ask to find out if the person who looks good on paper is up for the challenge?
This is a topic to which I have given a substantial amount of thought and dedicated many hundreds of hours to over the past few years. And hundreds of interviews later, here’s what I’ve found to work best.
The typical interview (at least, in my experience) focuses on three “buckets” of questions, asked in a Q&A format with limited discussion or back-and-forth:
(1) Goals & motivational questions (“Why do you want to work here?” “Where do you see yourself in X years?” “What makes this company different than our competition?”)
(2) Hard skillset & experience questions (“Tell me about a time when you did X”, “How does Google determine which ad is shown in response to a search query?”, “What FB campaign goal would you use to accomplish X goal?”, “How would you structure programmatic display ad buys to convert prospects into customers for X product”)
(3) Soft skills questions (“How would you handle X situation?”, “Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge”, “What mistake have you made at least twice?”, “How would you handle a situation in you were asked to do something that made you uncomfortable?”)
And in the overwhelming majority of interviews, the questions from (2) are the focal point of the interview and are weighted most heavily by the interviewer, largely due to the fact that these questions have historically tended to provide the greatest insight into whether or not the interviewee will be able to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of the position.
What Works For Traditional Interviews Doesn’t Always Work For Digital Interviews
Here’s the problem we’ve found with this approach when it comes to hiring digital marketing talent: when platforms, strategies, and tactics are evolving this rapidly, the same technical process that produces good results today could produce massive failures tomorrow, simply by virtue of platforms, strategies & tactics changing. That is all made more complicated by the inherent “luck” involved in any successful digital marketing campaign (though few of us will admit it, as “luck” is not something that we are comfortable accepting – and that is another topic for another time).
The end result of this realization is that we’ve shifted our approach in interviews to focus heavily on process instead of results. That means we’re significantly less interested in the past results achieved in a specific scenario and more interested in the approach that led to those results, from a technical standpoint, a strategic standpoint, and a personal standpoint.
What does this mean for our interview more generally? Well, it means a VERY different type of interview format with a significant amount of back-and-forth, as well as dramatically different interview questions that are heavily weighted toward soft skills, critical thinking & process instead of traditional questions that assess hard skills and past results.
Below are some of the question types, along with specific examples, we’ve found to be most helpful in identifying exceptionally talented digital marketers to add to our team:
These questions tend to be “mini-scenarios” where the interviewee is given some baseline information, then asked to tell us how s/he would approach the situation. These questions do not have a “right” answer – the goal is to gain insight into the interviewee’s thought process, as well as observe how s/he handles ambiguous situations.
If during these questions, an interviewee asks for additional information, we often ask why that information is necessary, then choose whether or not to provide it (and we don’t worry about having this information prepared ahead of time; we invent a plausible answer on the spot since there is no right answer to these questions). In fact, we’ve often found that we learn more about the candidate’s process by asking why s/he would like the additional information than we do from “answer” we’re given after we’ve provided that information.
The beauty of these questions is threefold: (1) they are deceptively complex, (2) they are platform, strategy and tactic agnostic and (3) they are realistic (i.e. there are plenty of clients/potential clients who will ask similar questions in meetings, calls, etc.). As an interviewer, feel free to ask questions during the response – whether that be to question why the interviewee selected a particular approach, push back on a strategy/platform, or ask why the interviewee didn’t use an alternative method/approach. Done well, these questions should prompt a dialogue that provides insight into how the interviewee thinks on his/her feet and how s/he approaches challenging situations.
Below are a few examples of case questions– feel free to adjust them to your industry, challenges, preferences, etc.
- Imagine we have a client that is introducing their product to X country/market. This is a revolutionary product that the population has never heard of before but does fill an unmet need among the people. The population of the country/market is X, and our client would like to achieve 10% market share in 2 years. How large of a budget would you recommend, how would you spend it, and why?
- We have a client that is experiencing a decline in sales of their flagship widget product. How would you go about correcting this issue?
- How many X are located in/could fit in Y? (i.e. how many cows are there in Texas, how many ping pong balls could fit in a 737, how many potatoes are used at McDonald’s)
Great digital marketers tend to be strong analytical & logical thinkers – which makes a great deal of sense when one considers the *types* of problems they are asked to solve: the optimal way to structure accounts/campaigns; how to analyze methodically different bits of data to derive “big picture” conclusions about the efficacy of a particular strategy, platform or tactic; what the logical connection is between a two pieces of data (did one cause the other? Is one simply correlated to the other? Does a connection even exist?), etc.
We’ve found that great digital marketers tend to be individuals who exhibit a blend of creativity, problem-solving ability, and mental agility – and these questions are designed to test those skills. Unlike the case/scenario questions above, these questions DO have a correct answer (sometimes more than one) – though our focus tends to be concentrated on assessing the thought process rather than the final answer. Some examples of these types of questions are below:
- Given a 7-minute hourglass and an 11-minute hourglass, how do I boil an egg in exactly 15 minutes?
- Imagine I have three incorrectly labeled boxes. One contains only oranges, one contains only apples and one contains apples and oranges. You are not allowed to look inside any of the boxes, but you are allowed to request a sample from any box. How many samples do you need to label each box correctly?
- There are five bags of coins. One of them is full of fake coins, and the other four are full of real coins. The only difference between a fake coin and a real coin is the weight — a real coin weighs exactly 1 gram; a fake coin weighs exactly 1.1 grams. You have a perfectly accurate digital scale that you can only use only once. How do you determine which bag is fake?
“Explain it to Me” Questions
While it is wonderful to find candidates who exhibit problem-solving acumen & technical wizardry, those skills alone do not make a great digital marketer. Most digital strategies, platforms, and tactics tend to be relatively complex, which is why clients hire an expert digital agency in the first place. However, that doesn’t mean that the client wants hyper-technical, complicated communication from their partner – in fact, the client usually wants the exact opposite: simple, straightforward, easy-to-understand explanations that allow them to understand what’s happening without getting lost in the technical stuff.
Coincidentally, individuals who have an in-depth understanding of a complex topic often have the ability to distill that into simple, easy-to-understand language – so these types of questions can serve a twofold purpose: (1) they allow the interviewer to get a better sense of whether or not the interviewee truly understands a given topic and/or (2) they test the interviewee’s ability to simplify an incredibly complex topic under pressure. Here are a few examples of these types of questions:
- How do you explain a TV to someone who hasn’t seen or used one before?
- Let’s assume I’m 8 years old & in 2nd grade. Now, please explain to me what you do and why you’re good at it.
- Pretend I’m a small child. Explain to me how search engines (or social media networks) work.
As with some of the questions above, these are deceptively complex – and the challenge only gets greater if you (the interviewer) decides to ask questions during the response. These questions should be evaluated based on how effectively the candidate was able to explain the complicated object into simple, easy-to-understand language under pressure. Again, the goal of these questions is not to get a perfect answer, but rather to see if the candidate is able to articulate an answer that is accurate, demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the object in question and which stands up to reasonable scrutiny/questioning.
Building a great team is every bit as important as hiring brilliant individual talent, which is why these “old standard” questions are still relevant. These questions are included in every interview and are designed to help the interviewer understand how a candidate thinks, handles pressure and interacts with others.
- How would others describe you in 3 words?
- Tell me about a project/campaign/initiative in which you were involved that resulted in failure.
- Would you rather play chess or poker? Why?
- Would you rather be perfect & late OR good & on-time?
- What is the difference between a conversation & an argument?
- No one is perfect – everyone makes mistakes. Tell me about a time when you wish you had handled a situation with a coworker better/differently.
- When is the last time you made a mistake?
- What three things would you like me to forget about you?
Ultimately, there is no “magic” to these questions – simply asking them is not a cure-all to hiring great digital marketing talent. These questions are simply a tool that helps us understand how candidates think, which in turn allows us to determine the optimal candidate to hire for a digital marketing position.
At the end of the day, we’re looking for exceptionally bright people who understand how to think holistically, logically & strategically about complex problems, how to communicate those thoughts simply, and how to work toward implementing their solutions collaboratively. These questions just help us get a better idea if a given candidate fits that bill.