Is your marketing organization struggling with the pace of digital? “Hacking Marketing” is the answer [Review]

  • Scott Brinker’s book explains how modern marketers should adopt software development practices. Columnist and Third Door Media CEO Chris Elwell reviews the new release.


    Disclosure: “Hacking Marketing” was written by Scott Brinker, who is the program chair of MarTech: The Marketing Technology Conference. The author of this article is the CEO of Third Door Media, which owns the MarTech event and Marketing Land.

    Most marketing organizations are in transition. While they’ve adopted strategies and tactics to cope with the speed and complexity of the digital world, the foundation of their processes and organization is rooted in the analog past. That disconnect hinders performance, innovation and data-driven decision-making.

    Sound like your marketing organization? Then Scott Brinker’s new book, “Hacking Marketing,” is for you. In it, Brinker articulates the reasons why marketing needs to be modernized, offers a framework for doing so and suggests strategies and tactics for accomplishing the job.

    Here’s the thesis underlying “Hacking Marketing”:

    • Digital has changed marketing profoundly, and marketers who rely on organizations, strategies and tactics developed for the analog world will be (or have been) left behind.
    • Software developers have time-tested methods, tactics and best practices for succeeding in the fast-paced digital environment.
    • Those methods, tactics and best practices are relevant for and can be applied to marketing.

    Digital has changed everything: Software is eating the world

    GE’s latest TV commercials feature a young developer who tells his friends he’s gotten a job developing software to run trains and hospitals. A far cry from GE’s traditional messaging, which emphasized that they made locomotives and medical devices. Marc Andreesen was indeed right, “Software is eating the world.”

    Marketing is no exception. It’s become a software-powered discipline, and that’s changed virtually every aspect of the business function, as well as the tasks performed and talents required of marketers.

    The transition to digital means marketers must cope with five “digital dynamics” — speed, adaptability, adjacency, scale and precision.

    “Digital environments enable far greater agility, innovation and scalability than were ever possible in the physical world.” — Scott Brinker in “Hacking Marketing”

    Marketers who ignore this reality and continue working on annual or semi-annual schedules — where they roll out campaigns without testing their effectiveness — are being left behind. Those that lack the organizational flexibility to adapt to changing conditions are suffering the same fate.

    In addition, communications from marketers are increasingly mediated by software – CRM, marketing automation, platforms (e.g., Google, Twitter) and browsers — all of which impact the user’s experience. What’s more, marketers are increasingly creating software to accomplish their objectives.

    Revenge of the nerds: Hacking is good! Make it part of your marketing DNA

    It’s the original, positive definition of “hacker” that Brinker conjures in “Hacking Marketing.” To explain it, he cites a letter from Mark Zuckerberg that accompanied Facebook’s SEC filing for its initial public offering. In that missive, Zuckerberg described the company’s hacker-inspired values as being fast, bold and open.

    Zuckerberg’s vision and Facebook’s execution of it hold important lessons for marketers. Facebook’s experience demonstrates that the hacker spirit can be applied broadly to companies and departments, that the management philosophy is scalable and proven effective after decades of experience as practiced by software developers. In the digital world, marketing and software development are very similar exercises.

    Agile and lean: Applying software development practices to marketing

    Brinker’s suggests that software development methods are relevant to marketing based on his own experience, i.e., software developers have been working in digital environments for 40 years. He comes to the conclusion naturally, given his background as CTO at a marketing technology company and as a former developer himself. (Brinker insists the team he manages won’t let him near the code base now.)

    Adopting the agile management practices of a software development team is a key framework. Agile divides tasks into short phases of work that are frequently reassessed. Short phases (called “sprints”) and frequent reassessment enables coders to overcome the complexities of continuously changing requirements. Since marketers operate in dynamic environments now, too, adopting agile practices is a way to overcome the complexities.


    The second philosophy Brinker advocates is “lean,” which was popularized in Eric Ries’s bestseller “The Lean Startup.” It describes methods for teams — business, development, marketing — to build products in a way that increases their probability of success using an iterative process. That process brings products to market fast, solicits customer feedback early and often and conducts experiments and adapts quickly based on results.

    Two agile management tactics from the software development world that Brinker recommends be applied to marketing are the Scrum and Kanban.

    Scrum is an agile methodology that prescribes a specific process for project management that relies on short, iterative cycles of work called “sprints.” Scrum also is characterized by:

    • prioritizing tasks by creating a transparent “backlog”;
    • assigning tasks to small, cross-functional teams;
    • daily 15-minute meetings among team members to review progress and where team members say what they plan to accomplish that day; and
    • “review” and “retrospective” meetings to discuss improving the process for the next sprint.

    Kanban is a method of visualizing workflow that involves a simple, shared method of tracking progress. Benefits include “pulling” tasks through a process that can be easily monitored by team members, limiting work in progress and promoting continuous incremental improvement.

    Fans of HBO’s Silicon Valley were treated to a parody of Scrum and Kanban in the series’ famous “scrum” scene (Warning: contains adult language!).

    Agility begets innovation, innovation begets scalability… issues

    Once agility becomes embedded in the marketing culture, it facilitates two critical elements of modern marketing success: innovation and scale.

    Prototyping, beta testing, continuous deployment and collaborative design are all enabled by agile teams working in software-powered environments. Innovation results when elements of messaging, media and mechanisms (software-mediated customer and user experiences) are systematically and continuously tested to improve results.

    But innovation has a counterweight: scalability. The fundamental challenge of scale is taking what is learned through innovation and adopting or deploying it throughout the marketing organization. Scale and innovation emphasize different, but equally important, priorities. While innovation “encourages a ‘fail-fast’ approach, ‘scalability’ strives for ‘fail-never’ robustness,” writes Brinker.

    Brinker offers a two-track solution to the conflict. Ideas that are being incubated should be managed to maximize innovation, while programs and capabilities being deployed throughout marketing should be managed for scalability. Management of the “edge” of innovation and the “core” of marketing activities takes place simultaneously; successful “edge” initiatives are ultimately propagated throughout the organization and become part of the “core.”

    Lots of useful ideas for the taking and making your own

    While advocating the use of agile and lean practices, Brinker acknowledges that each organization must adapt them to its own circumstances. Think of “Hacking Marketing” as a guidebook to inform thinking, rather than as a recipe to be followed strictly.

    Perhaps best of all, this book is exceedingly readable and appropriate for everyone in the organization. The read is worth the time invested for all team members, even if the benefit is solely sharing the ideas and vocabulary. I plan to share it with my entire organization and recommend that you do, too.

    Here’s where you can read sample chapters and order “Hacking Marketing”: Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.

    (Some images used under license from


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