Rob Jackson, MD, Elisa DBi and Scott Brinker, Co-Founder, ION Interative recently caught up to discuss how technology is broadly affecting marketing; the emergence of the marketing technologist; challenges facing companies concerning building a true technology and data-driven culture and whether big data offers meaningful opportunity for marketers or whether it is a big fad.
RJ: So what exactly is a marketing technologist?
SB: A marketing technologist is essentially a technologist who works in marketing. These are the people who configure and manage marketing systems, like marketing automation, develop web sites and mobile apps, drive marketing analytics, implement conversion optimisation programmes, mine insights from big data, etc. They have software programming and IT skills, but their mission — and their passion — is all about marketing.
As marketing migrates further into digital, marketing technologists are more important than ever. They’re the folks who can actually shape the experiences prospects and customers have in these digital channels. That’s an incredibly powerful capability for marketing departments to have today.
RJ: There are some in the UK who think the education system isn’t set up to produce this profile of professional. Is it different in the States?
SB: It’s a challenge everywhere. Technological innovation moves very fast. Organisational change moves considerably slower, and the evolution of formal education moves even slower than that.
However, informal education is rising to the challenge. Thanks to the explosion of blogging, Twitter, Q&A sites like Quora and Stack Overflow, SlideShare, etc., you can tap directly into the wisdom and experience of experts and professionals for nearly every facet of modern marketing.
Of course, if you want to acquire skills this way, the onus is on you to seek out the right knowledge on the web, practice and experiment on your own, ask questions, engage with your peers online and contribute back to the community. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not neatly packaged, but the people who become comfortable learning this way are much better prepared to adapt to the future.
RJ: What are the main challenges you see companies facing with technology and data-driven cultures?
SB: In marketing, there are two main challenges.
The first challenge is that most marketing organisations don’t have much experience with managing technology or treating it as a creative medium. Historically, they’ve outsourced that to the IT department, or outside service providers. Now, however, that technology has become so entwined in the concept and execution of core marketing programs, that a “throw it over the wall” approach isn’t feasible anymore. Technology choices are now an integral part of marketing strategy and operations.
To solve this, marketing must splice technology talent and culture directly into its DNA. Technical and non-technical marketers should work side-by-side, collaborating daily. There should be a “chief marketing technologist” in the marketing department who serves as the right hand of the CMO for marketing’s technical leadership. Programming and data analysis talents should be as embedded into marketing’s gestalt as graphic design and copywriting are.
The second challenge is that marketing has a rich legacy of being driven by intuition and gut-based big ideas that are famously hard to measure. In digital, where it’s easy to try multiple hypotheses with A/B and multivariate testing and evaluate them based on quantifiable metrics, you can actually let the market decide which ideas are best. Run small experiments first, and then scale up the winners, but this requires marketing to embrace more bottom-up learning and temper its top-down dictates.
The most common two-word command out of the CMO’s mouth shouldn’t be, “Do it.” It should be, “Test it.”
RJ: What differences do you see between the business landscapes in the UK and the US?
SB: In the digital marketing space, the line between the US and the UK is actually quite hard for me to discern.
RJ: Big Data — revolution in our lifetimes or a big buzz over nothing?
The advancing capabilities we have to capture and leverage data are going to power some incredible innovations, in products, services, and the discipline of marketing. It’s yet another reason for marketing teams to blend left-brain analytical skills with right-brain creativity.
However, hoarding huge gobs of data doesn’t necessarily mean there’s value in it. It reminds me of the title of the book Kara Swisher wrote about the failed AOL/Time Warner merger, “There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere”. The irrational exuberance around big data today often sounds like a three-step plan of: 1) Collect a ton of data, 2) Perform some magic on it, and 3) Make lots of money. The step with the magic is a little hand-wavy.
To make big data useful, you need three things:
1. The data must be relatively accurate or “clean.” There’s a lot of stale data out there, and relying on it can actually lead you to make bad decisions.
2. The data must contain some meaningful insight that can be derived from it. Just uncovering a bunch of correlations is useless if you can’t translate them into business improvements.
3. If meaningful insights are uncovered, and business improvement identified, the organisation must then have the ability to quickly act on them. The half-life of data relevance can be quite short. This is probably the hardest nut for most businesses to crack, but the rise of new management approaches such as “agile marketing” are helping marketers get better at this last mile.
It’s less magic and more hard work.
RJ: Is it possible for companies to truly join the dots in a digital world that is proliferated and fragmented?
SB: Join the dots perfectly? No.
We can incrementally get better at it, though, and there’s tremendous value in working at that. Marketing has unprecedented access to the voice of the customers in the digital world, and that’s more of a blessing than a curse. It won’t be perfect, but it can be much better than it was in the previous age.
RJ: Where can you see this space going in the next few years?
SB: As they say, predictions are hard, especially about the future, but I am confident in two things. One: marketing will continue to move away from the periphery to the very centre of the organisation. Two: marketing is going to increasingly be a technology-driven discipline.Global Desk Editor