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Beth Dunn on her career path in content, using content design to solve thorny problems, and content career advice

Published 23rd June 2021 15 minute read
"I’m a writer and editor at heart. I can’t help trying to make something better when I see it could be improved."
— Beth Dunn Beth Dunn

Beth Dunn is a strategic content and communications leader, speaker and coach. She currently works at HubSpot as Manager of Product Internal Communications. Before this, Beth pioneered the content design practice at HubSpot; growing and leading the global UX content team.

Beth’s been working at HubSpot for over a decade now. She’s also an author, leadership coach, and seasoned speaker. In spring 2021, she released her first book, ‘Cultivating Content Design’.

As with all our other profile pieces, in this article, you’ll find lots of meaty insight, as well as tips and advice from Beth about working in the industry.

Beth Dunn photo
Beth Dunn

Career history, at-a-glance:

  • HubSpot logoHubSpotManager, Product Internal CommunicationsFebruary 2021 - present
  • HubSpot logoHubSpotUX Operations LeadSeptember 2019 - February 2021 (1 year, 6 months)
  • HubSpot logoHubSpotProduct Editor-in-ChiefMarch - September 2019 (4 years, 7 months)
  • HubSpot logoHubSpotUX WriterJune 2011 - February 2015 (3 years, 9 months)
  • HubSpot logoHubSpotManager of Content and CommunityOctober 2010 - May 2011 (8 months)
  • HubSpot logoHubSpotInbound Marketing ConsultantJanuary - October 2010 (10 months)
  • Freelance logoFreelanceInbound MarketerSeptember 2008 - January 2010 (1 year, 5 months)
  • The Arts Foundation of Cape Cod logoThe Arts Foundation of Cape CodDirector of Communications and TechnologyJanuary 2006 - September 2008 (2 years, 9 months)
  • Harwich Junior Theater logoHarwich Junior TheaterDirector of CommunicationsJanuary 2004 - December 2005 (2 years)

Beth’s early career and first roles at HubSpot

One of Beth’s earliest professional roles was doing communications, marketing, and PR for the Harwich Junior Theater, a historic and beloved community theatre on Cape Cod. It was there that she first began to see the potential for digital communications and marketing to transform the fortunes of small organizations like the HJT. And how the new technology could transform the role of content and communications people within those organizations, too.

It was when ‘Web 2.0’ was just beginning to emerge; bringing with it a new age of participative, user-generated digital content, and largely democratizing the ability to get found on the web. If, that is, you had powerful, relevant content to share.

“I was an early blogger and an early adopter of social media, so I was a big evangelist for the whole Web 2.0 thing. I saw right away what a game-changer it would be. So I was running around giving presentations to chambers of commerce and other interested groups about the virtues of starting a blog and marketing on social media and generally getting really out there and active on the web. And this was a few years before that sort of thing was really seen as valuable at all for smaller organizations and individuals. Like, why would we be on the web? The inbound marketing revolution just hadn’t taken hold quite yet.”

“And Boston was really emerging as a centre of that movement, and I was just a couple of hours away on Cape Cod. But two hours is a long way away,when you’re talking about business and relationships and getting involved. It was all just so tantalizingly out of reach. Boston was where I knew I wanted to be.”

“I could see that some kind of marketing and communications revolution was happening — and I was missing it! I decided that I had to get myself up there and get involved. So I left my nonprofit job and went back to school for an MBA. More to get myself out of my comfort zone and in Boston than anything else, although it turned out to have been a really fortuitous move.”

— Beth Dunn

Hubspot website screenshot
HubSpot website screenshot

Between 2008 and 2010, Beth studied for an MBA in Organisational Leadership in Boston whilst freelancing as a marketing and communications consultant on the side, to help make ends meet. As fate would have it, she soon discovered that one of her professors at business school had co-authored the first Harvard Business School case study on HubSpot.

“I was already a big fan of HubSpot because as soon as I started freelancing to support myself through business school, I’d started using their content and resources to support that work. I loved the website grader in particular. You just put in a URL, and it gives you this incredibly helpful report. It would tell you everything that needed working on in your online marketing strategy, which I could then take to my client and say okay, here is our plan.”

“By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to work at HubSpot. I’d seen enough of their philosophy and work and culture and team, I just knew this was the place for me. So right out of grad school, I started work at HubSpot as an Inbound Marketing Consultant, onboarding new customers and helping them thrive.”

— Beth Dunn

That first role was focused almost entirely on customer onboarding; she’d spend time on the phone talking with new customers, guiding them in their use of the platform and tools. She feels that starting in this way enabled her to get a proper sense of who HubSpot’s customers really were, what they wanted, and how the HubSpot product could do a better job of meeting their needs.

As Beth got deeper into her role, she started to see places where the language used in the software could be more helpfully worded; where customers were struggling with the UI, and why.

"I’m a writer and editor at heart, though it's rarely been a formal job title for me. And I can’t help trying to make something better when I see it could be improved."

— Beth DunnTwitter iconTweet this

“So I started going around to some of the engineers and making suggestions, about phrasing things more clearly, about our brand voice and tone, about using plain language, accessibility, all that sort of thing.”

— Beth Dunn

Soon, other people at the company were routinely asking Beth to proofread, then edit, then write various pieces of content. She had earned a reputation as someone who could impart a human, friendly tone of voice to all kinds of communications, and could readily phrase things in a way that would be well understood and even embraced by readers.

Photo of Julie (Devaney) Hogan
Julie (Devaney) HoganLinkedIn iconVice President, Customer Success & Strategy at Toast, Inc.

Beth is an outstanding presenter who consistently demonstrates a true passion for speaking about Inbound Marketing topics, and radiates a natural enthusiasm for sharing her expertise and thought leadership with audiences. I’ve had the opportunity to see Beth present at internal and external events and meetings, and her talent is obvious in both settings. Her attention to detail, ability to engage and energize an audience, and subject matter knowledge is unmatched. Beth would be an incredible asset to any panel, event, or series seeking a creative and dynamic Inbound Marketing speaker.

A formal move to UX writing at HubSpot

Beth’s next big opportunity arose in the summer of 2011 just over a year after joining HubSpot. That’s when the design team at HubSpot really started to grow.

“My job was still sort of loosely defined — I was sitting with the product team, managing the customer forums and writing help articles as needed. And continuing to work with folks informally to make the UI copy more consistent and helpful, based on what I felt customers needed from my work in the forums and writing the help docs.

“Then we got a new director of design, and he sat me down and asked me ‘so what do you do around here?’ And I told him how much time I spent working with the product team improving the content, and he said, ‘Oh, you're my UX writer!’ And I was like, ‘Great!’ I had literally never heard that term before.”

— Beth Dunn

From that moment on, Beth was the UX writer for the product team.

Product Editor-in-Chief

Beth’s range expanded from there — though she remained an individual contributor for several more years — as she collaborated with friends on the marketing team to develop the first house style guide, worked with engineers to build an internal editor bot, and worked with the cross-functional team that translated and localized the HubSpot product for the first time.

Eventually, however, she was asked to turn to people management and start growing the product content team. As for many people, it was a significant step.

“Becoming a manager of people was amazing because I had really loved doing the actual writing and content design myself, but I could see that the practice had matured past what I was able to deliver as just one person working across a large product landscape. So we needed more people — and different voices and viewpoints — to really be able to do the highest quality work at scale.”

— Beth Dunn

As she built out her team, she also busied herself with building out the content systems and processes that supported the work of the whole design team. She developed and facilitated a series of internal workshops so that anyone could learn how to create clear, consistent product content to a certain extent, using the tools and resources her team had built out.

Beth speaking at a HubSpot INBOUND event

Establishing a UX Operations practice

From leading the UX content team and scaling that work naturally grew the chance to build up the systems and processes for the whole UX team.

“We were growing so quickly, we realized we had to invest even more in building on our operational capacity, agility, and speed with a formal ops role, which I loved jumping into.”

“It’s no surprise that I tend to see things through a content design lens. And it was just the same with operations. We needed to do more to ensure that team members could access the information — the content — they needed, at the time that they needed it, in a way that made it frictionless for them to get on with their work. That’s content design!”

— Beth Dunn

"It doesn’t matter who your user is, it’s all content design. Internal audience, external audience, it doesn’t matter. The principles and practices of content design still hold."

— Beth DunnTwitter iconTweet this

“That was when I really started thinking about operations and internal comms being something you could tackle through a content design lens.”

— Beth Dunn

Beth knew that much of the content existed already, but it just wasn't easily discoverable or accessible as it could be. She decided to apply the practice of content design and information architecture to the problem of internal comms and operations, and the practice grew from there.

Beth’s role at HubSpot today: Product Internal Communications

That experience of applying a content design approach to team operations and internal comms led Beth to her current role of manager of product internal comms. She works with people across the company to keep the different parts of the organization strategically aligned and makes sure everybody’s getting the information they need to be able to perform at their best.

“It feels like I’ve come full circle, in a sense. I’m still incredibly excited about the power of content to open doors for people, to transform how work gets done, and to level the playing field and make our field more inclusive for people with all kinds of perspectives and approaches to things. That’s what excited me about Inbound marketing when I got started, that’s what excited me about Web 2.0, and that’s just evolved into enthusiasm for the power of content design to bring about positive change. That’s been the connecting thread through all of my work.”

— Beth Dunn

Photo of Diana Urban
Diana UrbanLinkedIn iconMarketing Manager @ BookBub | Fiction Author

Beth has done an excellent job creating microcopy for HubSpot apps. She's a very talented copywriter, and a true expert at customer communications. The tone of her copy makes HubSpot fun to use, and customers have been delighted by the messaging she's created. Whenever I need an opinion, a 2nd eye on copy, or advice on a project, Beth is the first person I turn to. On top of all her other responsibilities, Beth also manages the HubSpot customer forums, and her flair with words, patience, and empathy makes her the best person imaginable for the role. She's a true asset to HubSpot, and I'm glad I've had the opportunity to work with her.

Advice, recommendations, and tips from Beth

What advice would you give someone who wants to get into content ops?

“Think in terms of patterns and systems. Take a step back and look at the big picture. I know, it's hard when you're just getting started. Every UX writing team and every content design team struggles with scaling their work. But it’s a muscle you can develop, like anything else.

“Even when you’re deep in the weeds, try to take a few minutes and ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Does it even make sense? What is the goal? That’s when you can start to say, ‘well, what should we be doing? What does the user really need from us, now? What are we trying to solve here, anyway? Are we aligned with what’s going on over there in he journey? Can we be?’

“You have to try — early and often — to see the big picture and connect the dots in your work.’

"Our meeting-free Fridays at HubSpot make it much easier to set aside time to think bigger thoughts, take a step back and really dream big."

— Beth DunnTwitter iconTweet this

What would you say are the key skills and capabilities you look for when hiring for a UX writer or content designer?

“One of the things that I used to look for a lot was whether people see things at work as battles, wars, or adversaries. If they did, it was a bit of a red flag for me.

“I think a lot of people who are in this field have sort of been formed in that way, through no fault of their own, and it can be really hard to get out of that mindset, I know. But HubSpot is a place where we really do assume good intent, we really do work with each other with kindness and heart, and we seek out and respect each other’s opinion. It’s hard to remember sometimes that isn’t always the norm.

“So, if someone’s looking for ‘hills to be won’ and things like that, well I do understand that that's how a lot of companies work, but it's literally not going to get you anywhere here. You’re going to be expending a lot of weird energy that will just tire you out. We’re just not combative or territorial like that.

“What I love is seeing evidence of a bias toward collaboration and action and the ability to find common ground, to look for the good and the things you can do. Can you think about principles rather than personalities, and remain focused on solving problems for the user instead?”

Photo of Colleen Coyne, OLY
Colleen Coyne, OLYLinkedIn iconPresident at Boston Pride

I've been working with Beth for several months now at HubSpot where she develops content that helps our customers become successful inbound marketers. Aside from her outstanding writing skills, Beth is a compelling speaker. Her ability to take complex ideas and present them in simple and memorable ways makes her the ideal presenter. Her wide range of knowledge allows her to create interesting metaphors that resonate with all audiences. I strongly recommend Beth as a speaker or presenter.

If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice early in your career, what would that be?

"You are a writer. Own it. Act like it. It took me so long to figure that out."

— Beth DunnTwitter iconTweet this

“And this advice isn’t about whether content design is about the words or the structure or something like that — this is about me being blind to what my actual strengths were for years of my life. Decades, really. I’d always just seen writing as a means to an end, a way to sound like the people around me — in academia, in PR, in the arts, whatever it was. I could always adjust my writing voice to fit in. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that it was a skill; that it was something most people couldn’t do. And I should embrace that innate talent and build on it, invest in it, put it centre stage.

“I just, I never realized any of that until much later on in my career. And I think I would have gone a lot further, faster, if I had woken up to that fact.”

Do you see content design and UX writing as one and the same thing?

“I think that we're still figuring it out right now. I don't think that we've landed where we’re going to yet. I like to use these terms as relatively interchangeable to be inclusive as possible, because I don’t think the field has really decided yet what we want them to mean.”

Which books would you recommend to someone who’s early in their content career?

“It’s a little out of the tech realm of content, but I love to give people a copy of Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Instructions on Writing and Life. It's great writing advice in all kinds of contexts.

Book coverBird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott LinkedIn icon Twitter icon Published 1 Sep 1995

Bird by Bird is the bible of writing guides - a wry, honest, down-to-earth book that has never stopped selling since it was first published in the United States in the 1990s. Bestselling novelist and memoirist Anne Lamott distils what she's learned over years of trial and error. Beautifully written, wise and immensely helpful, this is the book for all serious writers and writers-to-be.

It's geared towards people who are writing fiction, but it also talks a lot about the writing process, overcoming imposter syndrome, not comparing yourself and just doing the work — all that stuff we never talk about but is so important to really thriving in your career. It’s full of encouraging words and helpful advice for the writer, and it still makes me laugh. And if you’re a writer, what could possibly be a better legacy than that?

— Beth Dunn

Beth Dunn: Further reading, watching and listening