Taking it for granted?

Marketers haven’t exactly embraced the digital revolution with open arms. But as the job becomes more and more technical, those in the marketing world cannot afford to rest on their laurels. By David Reed

Marketers do IT with their eyes closed. That’s IT as in information technology. Increasingly the backbone of modern business, technology has been slow to gain acceptance in the marketing department.

Yet as ever more applications appear on the marketer’s desktop – from fast counts to analytics to campaign management – they are having to open their eyes to a new reality. Gone are the days when a knowledge of the four Ps (product, price, position and promotion) and an ability to brief a creative agency were all the skills that were needed.

In their place have arrived databases, reporting packages, workflow engines and the full range of digital marketing techniques. If you don’t know how to synchronise the latest leads generated by an ad campaign onto the mobile sales force’s laptop, your job could be up for review.

Old dogs, new tricks

It is a culture shock that awaits both new generation marketers and their older peers alike. University marketing courses still major on the theoretical underpinnings of marketing strategy. New graduates will soon discover that their day job involves far more number crunching and staring at screens than they ever imagined.

Equally, established marketers are faced with the need to adapt to the newly wired world. Without the right kind of training and support, both groups could find that they are making decisions about which technology to implement – and are then using those systems – with little real idea of their value or purpose.

David Hood, head of CIMTech, the technology group of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, recognises there is a knowledge gap. “We want to make marketing more relevant and accessible. At the moment, CIM is very academic,” he says.

Mind the gap

His group was formed seven years ago to bridge the gap between marketing and technology, trying to ensure that each party adopts best practice from the other. It now has 70,000 members, of which only 2,000 are also members of CIM. Having been swept up in the wave of interest in e-business, it is now trying to untangle the knots which many marketers have got themselves tied up in.

“Marketers have delegated, relegated and abdicated responsibility because they have seen it as just a technology issue, something that IT deals with. So no one has taken ownership,” he says.

This has been compounded by the backward-looking concept of what marketing is about. “It is still seen as something the company does to people. Everybody sees marketing as a function. It isn’t – it’s a philosophy and a process,” says Hood.

As long as marketing is dominated by the big brand, packaged goods model, it will struggle to adapt to the new reality in which customers are empowered by digital communications and their newly granted data rights. Unless marketers understand how technology has disrupted their old ways of working, they will not be able to specify what systems they require to do their new jobs properly.

Jon Epstein, director of Results, part of the Wegener Direct Marketing Group, says: “There are two types of marketers – those who are technique-based and others who are objective. A lot of excellent marketers worry about the ends and employ agencies for the means. But many clients get infatuated with the means.”

He draws a simile with pianos and piano players. Give a Steinway grand to a poor player and they will not produce a good tune. But put a good player in front of a pub piano, and they will get a good sound out of it. Technology is much the same – it does not give marketers the skills they need, only ways of exercising better those they already have.

What many marketers fear is that, by embracing IT, they will lose those critical soft skills. Instead, they need to recognise that technology allows them greater freedom to exercise those abilities.

IBM Business Consulting Services business research leader Professor Merlin Stone says: “I don’t think marketers need to understand the technology, but they certainly need to understand issues such as processes and data quality. This is definitely happening in the better companies and they are getting uplifts.”

Internal training in larger organisations has steadily been evolving to embrace the new IT tools. With the involvement of academic establishments such as the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM) or software vendors themselves, they run workshops on how to get the most out of the systems that have been put in place as well as where new digital channels fit into marketing practice.

Meeting requirements

This is useful where the technology has already been implemented and the company can call on its vendor’s professional services teams for training and support. But even these systems may not be providing marketers with what they need. In a survey carried out for Alterian last year, only two per cent of marketers said they would ask their IT department to provide data analysis.

Much of this frustration is down to the refusal of marketers to define what technology they need. “If marketers focus clearly on what they want to do and specify it carefully and realistically, they should get good service from systems people,” says Stone.

“Too often, though, marketers aren’t clear enough about what they want to do and what it will pay them to do. So they end up overspecifying and this leads to a complex system that doesn’t work,” he says.

Needs must be addressed

Part of what CIMTech has been developing is a needs-definition process for marketers. “That has never been done in the technology world – they are product focused,” says Hood.

Marketing services providers (MSPs) are increasingly recognising that they can play a role in helping this decision-making process. Their existing role in providing support for database management and analytics gives them a solid basis on which to build a new practice.

Rocket Science chief executive Alan Timothy says: “A needs analysis, however rambling, verbose and untechnical it may be, is where any marketer should start. If you don’t know what you need, then how can technology fulfil that need?”

It is this needs definition that will ultimately become the technical specification for a new system. Marketers often shy away from putting their needs into writing for two reasons. The first is that they fear getting it wrong and missing out something important. The second is that most marketers are not strong on process and so have no starting point for the exercise.

But if they can overcome this pain barrier, MSPs may be able to help them take the next step. “Essentially, we translate their words into ‘tech-speak’ on behalf of a client. As a neutral party, we will provide them with best advice in terms of what system to buy or, indeed, provide an objective view of a client’s current systems,” says Timothy.

This is precisely what Occam Direct Marketing recently did for a charity client. Like most fund-raising organisations, its core operating system was based on “bank- ing and thanking” – receiving donations and sending follow-up mailshots.

“You need a scheme of how the database has been put together, what tables it holds, but the client didn’t have one. What we did was put that in place for them. We are now being asked to advise them if they go out to find a new database supplier,” says Occam commercial director Jim Baggett.

Knowledge is power

“More and more we are being called in to deal with such issues. We’re trying to move up the value chain,” he adds. MSPs can help to fill the knowledge gap that exists between marketers and the IT function without the need for retraining or further education. Software vendors have started to recognise the new eco-system that is evolving and are responding accordingly. Alterian has created a data mining and campaign management tool that is rapidly becoming one of the industry standard tools for marketers. It sells exclusively through certified business partners and has targeted MSPs as a key market.

“A fundamental part of our strategy and market development is to ensure users get a whole solution that provides results, rather than just a technology selling exercise,” says Alterian chief executive David Eldridge.

By supporting MSPs in their use of the application on behalf of end clients, the software developer can be sure that appropriate support and consultancy is delivered. “There has been a huge amount of education in the market, not just around technology, but in how to do it right,” says Eldridge.

Meanwhile, marketers who are not working with a third party, have yet to implement IT in house, or are finding the demands of the new marketing difficult to meet, can always go back to school. “The key for our members is to stay up to date,” says IDM managing director Derek Holder.

Institutionalised learning

The institute runs frequent seminars on new techniques, such as digital marketing, as well as covering database technology within its core IDM diploma. “Part of our programme is to go into universities and talk about how applications affect what people do in the analytical world of marketing,” says Holder.

And if marketers still do not learn how to handle technology, then specialists might be drafted in to take over the job. A growing number of graduates with business and information technology degrees are stepping into the critical role of customer insight and analysis.

Since this is increasingly the engine room of marketing strategy, marketers need to open their eyes to the way in which their world is changing.