The new marketing mandate: Learn fast

  • Marketing technologists find themselves in the unique position to mentor their fellow marketers as the landscape changes rapidly. Contributor Justin Dunham explains how.

    The new marketing mandate: Learn fast

    Marketing has changed. It used to be that we wrote ads, built brands, ran events and published content.

    But digital marketing is so much more. Everyone on your team needs to be a data analyst. Your blog manager needs to understand Google Analytics. Your product marketers need to understand who’s in your database. If you’re a CMO, you have to understand your entire martech stack, what it can do for you and what it can’t. We all have to learn new ways of doing our own jobs — and of working together — in order to be successful.

    In this new environment, the most effective digital marketing teams will be those that learn the fastest. And marketing technologists are uniquely placed to help. We understand both the human and the technology side of marketing — and as a result, we can be facilitators, advisers and guides for our fellow marketers.

    The result? Better, more effective, and more responsive marketing.

    Here’s how.

    New technology in the organization

    I want to talk about heart surgery for a second.

    Specifically, this Harvard Business Review article, “Speeding Up Team Learning.”

    For the study, the authors followed surgical teams at 16 major medical centers, as they learned how to perform a new type of minimally invasive heart surgery. This surgery has much better outcomes for patients, but technologically, it’s much harder to learn for surgical teams.

    One of the first observations that the authors make is that this new technology “significantly alters the nature of the team’s work.” And this is a key point. When new technologies arrive, they change the way people work together. It isn’t just about layering new technology on your existing organization. It’s about changing the way your organization works. Accepting this change is an important part of taking advantage of new technologies, in the operating theater or anywhere else.

    The authors also observe that the new technology “requires greater interdependence and communication among team members.” That should sound really familiar. Hundreds of project management tools have cropped up in the past few years to help marketers — and others — deal with this new reality. Surgeons couldn’t get a better outcome for the patient without communicating a lot more, and neither can we.

    I’m not saying that more project management tools are the answer. But I am saying that more, and more effective, collaboration is key to deploying marketing technology successfully. There’s just too much going on for any one person to be able to solve problems by themselves.

    And the problems the surgeons faced with this new procedure are very similar to the ones that we face. In the new operating theater, “information is now delivered by digital read-outs.” So everybody in that operating theater is no longer just a surgeon. They’re also a data analyst. Just like in marketing today.

    What the fastest learners did differently

    After following the successes and failures of these surgical teams, the authors drew some conclusions about what predicted a team’s ability to use technology more effectively.

    First, some things that did not matter:

    • Management support didn’t matter. If you had a CEO in the hospital who was really into this new type of surgery, it didn’t make a difference whether or not they learned it fast. Conversely, if a CEO didn’t care, a team could still learn the procedure really well.
    • The status of the team leader didn’t matter. Having a hot-shot surgeon as a team leader didn’t make a difference as to whether they would actually learn the procedure effectively.
    • Formal reviews didn’t matter. This third one is really interesting. Successful teams did their learning in real time as the operation was going on.

    What did matter was this:

    “Teams whose members felt comfortable making suggestions, trying things that might not work, pointing out potential problems and admitting mistakes were more successful in learning the new procedure.”

    There are lots of ways to think about this conclusion. Some people would interpret this as suggesting an experimental approach. Others have talked about this as “emotional safety.” In the software community, you might hear about “blamelessness.” But the overall point is that learning requires openness, candid discussion, and a willingness to make mistakes.

    Leveling up your marketing team

    What does that mean for us, and what does that mean for marketing?

    Let’s start with openness. Whenever I come in to consult for an organization, or in marketing teams I’ve led in the past, I always suggest being more open with the organization, and with each other, about what we’re working on. This often takes the form of a public board where team tasks are posted, together with their relative priorities and statuses. Jira is good for this, as is Trello and any other system that lets you display tasks in a Kanban board format.

    We use the board as the source of truth. The next task for everyone is whatever card is next on their board. The result is that everybody else in the marketing organization can see exactly what we’re working on, ask questions and understand what we’re doing. And we can build meetings around the board, too, where we make sure everything that’s being worked on can be discussed in an organized way.

    And discussion is important. It’s easy to think that we have a lot of data, and therefore we know what’s going on and don’t need to talk about it. Website traffic is going up — that’s good, right?

    But actually, having all the data kind of complicates the additional work. Website traffic might be going up, but we need to understand why. We need to understand whether it’s converting. We need to understand what caused it to go up.

    Discussion helps because we can think together about what the data is really telling us. We can figure out the little things that we can do to fix the problems we’re seeing.

    And an open discussion is also better for junior marketers, because then they feel more liberated to question what’s going on. I find so often that junior marketers are the ones who actually have the best idea about what we should be doing next.

    A culture of openness and discussion also helps us make mistakes more efficiently. (That’s not a typo — I really did say we should make mistakes more efficiently.) Mistakes are how we learn. Sometimes the only way to understand software is to run it.

    If you take the attitude that somebody who made a mistake is incompetent or they don’t know what they’re doing, it makes it a lot harder to address the real root cause of problems. In the world of software and algorithms — which is today’s marketing world — it’s usually a process issue, rather than a person issue. Diagnosing what caused someone to make a mistake, and then assuming that the team can learn from the mistake, is critical for progress.


    Openness, discussion, mistake-making and experimentation. These are the hallmarks of an effective digital marketing team. Of course, we want to be efficient and focused in all things. Of course, we also want to be knowledgeable. And of course we want to be effective. But the best digital marketing teams, and the most creative ones, will increasingly distinguish themselves by learning fast.



    [Article on MarTech Today.]

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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