It is a common refrain on industry blogs - "marketers should learn to code" - but it doesn't really make sense.

Hands up, I've said it myself in the past. But what I was really referring to was learning the very basics of code, so marketers can get better at working with analytics, agencies and their tech teams. 

This isn't 'coding', it's general knowledge or interpretation skills; calling it coding is a bit insulting to developers (or is that being too reverent?).

Saying marketers should learn to code is the easy way out, the assumption that if only they understood how the internet worked, they could be masters of their domain (no pun intended).

But marketing is a whole lot more than that. It's a whole lot more than 'digital'.

In this article, I'll put forward nine skills that marketers should learn.

The controversy of the self-taught marketer

Marketing has obviously become a bigger industry over the past ten years as new digital technology has been brought to bear.

That growth is strong - recently released Government figures show that in the UK in 2014, the creative industries grew at double the rate of the economy, with advertising and marketing enjoying an 11% year-on-year rise (Department for Culture, Media and Sport figures).

The marketer's skillset has changed in tandem with technology, but some in the industry have questioned whether the abundance of self-taught digital marketers (often from a tech-minded background) shouldn't in fact undergo a bit of classic marketing training.

I'm referring to the Mark Ritson furore, who got the hackles raised by asking exactly this question. Mark commented that perhaps it's slightly strange that only four of 24 prominent marketing experts on Twitter have any formal training.

ritson

He makes a compelling argument:

"..despite their billing as leading experts in marketing it’s clear from even a cursory examination of the list that these people are actually experts in just one area of marketing – communications."

"They sell it using a variety of different, new conceptual names like “traffic”, “content”, “lead conversion” and “digital marketing” but this is what ancient professors used to call the promotional part of the marketing mix."

"Nothing wrong with that but this is a very small part of marketing discipline – about 10% by my estimation."

"The new breed of experts are big on tactics but light on market orientation, research, segmentation, positioning, brand equity, strategy and all the other rich substantive matter that makes up the remaining 90% of marketing once you take the promotional P out."

So, what should marketers know then?

Mark implied marketers should go back to school. In fact, his article proved to be a nice bit of promotion for his and Marketing Week's Mini MBA (which is back in Spring 2017 by the way).

You can view the Mini MBA syllabus, but I'm going to put forward my own alternative list of what marketers should know. 

Excel (and SQL)

No matter how sophisticated the world of integrated software-as-a-service solutions becomes, being able to query structured data with SQL or play with raw data in Excel is a big plus.

If all marketers have these skills, reliance on the data analysts in the team is reduced, relieving an often frustrating bottleneck.

It's also a fact that being an advanced Excel user will do no harm to a marketer's relationship with the finance department (a key ally).

Language

Oh for the golden days of David Ogilvy, when copywriters held the key to the kingdom.

Whilst an abundance of media formats may have distracted us slightly from the power of language, it still makes product and brand stand out.

The challenge for marketers is to separate the increasingly absurd world of agency-speak and corporate jargon from their outward facing and (hopefully) elegant language.

I frequently see the former bleeding into the latter (e.g. the use of the generic word 'content' in marketing communications).

But how can marketers learn about language? Isn't it something you have an aptitude for?

To a certain extent, yes, and good marketers tend to be good with words, but you can definitely improve your writing skills. Firstly, by reading more and writing more in your spare time.

27% of Americans did not read a book in 2015, and there's likely a few marketers amongst them. If you're in the business of crafting copy, you should be reading poetry and prose (not just 'books'), and writing your own.

My own A-Level-standard, overwrought poems might not be making an anthology any time soon, but the act of writing them has helped me in identifying good, bad, and merely mediocre copy.

Other more practical ways to learn: 

Market research and user testing

Marketers should have experience conducting focus groups, surveys and interviews. Below you can watch a basic primer on market research from the GOV.UK.

However, though the concept of market research for market segmentation and product differentiation is still vital, for many companies its definition has changed.

The customer journey, though it has arguably become more transparent, thanks to the internet, has also become longer and more convoluted.

Digital technology has brought an emphasis on service design as well as product design, with companies wrapping communications around their products.

What this means is that user testing is arguably more important than ever.

Marketers should gain experience in usability testing in order to truly understand the implications of service design. There's no better place to read about this than on the Government Digital Services blog.

As the ways in which customer needs can be met have diversified and moved online, marketers need to think again about Belch and Belch's model of consumer decision making (below) and how digital impinges on it.

How can services address problems, be found easily, be well differentiated, meet needs and not become a commodity?

Image via Sandy Kate Matt

belch customer consideration

Image editing

This is a similar argument to that for learning Excel and SQL. All too often, lots of simple design tweaks are funneled through the person who uses Photoshop.

Every marketer should be able to turn their hand to making GIFs, using Photoshop or InDesign.

There's a compelling argument made by Martin Belam for journalists needing to be able to create GIFs. The last sentence of his argument is arguably relevant to marketers:

"These steps [will] teach you something valuable about making content with digital tools that will appeal to a digital audience."

SEO

Of all the digital marketing disciplines, SEO is (in my opinion) the one that warrants deeper investigation by the general marketer.

It may not be necessary to understand the specifics of Schema markup or even canonical tags and the like, but it is vital to have a feel for the discipline.

Without an understanding of how Google works, then it's difficult to project manage a website build, content creation or effectively manage information architecture.

Very basic statistics

The proliferation of marketing software has bought with it a proliferation in surveys and statistics. And marketers should know enough to take some of them with a pinch of salt.

Even reading through a list of types of statistical analysis errors is beneficial in developing the ability to spot a massaged figure (small sample sizes, unrepresentative samples etc.).

Sorting vanity metrics from the most important should be a fairly easy task for someone who has done some quantitative analysis during market research.

HTML

Yes, I poo-pooed coding as a necessary skill, but basic proficiency with HTML is certainly a must.

Whether tinkering with an email template, a web page, or checking for SEO best practice, HTML comes in handy.

html

I do not condone the message on this t-shirt, I just needed to break up the text. (Image via Kris Krug)

Consumer behaviour theories

Everybody who has studied business in some form will know about Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

There are other consumer behaviour theories, and marketers should probably bone up on them if they are going to master market orientation, brand positioning and values.

Most importantly....

Fairly obviously, marketers number one priority is to understand their own company, their own brand, and their own products and services.

That means a dedication to using your companies products and services, getting to know your colleagues and culture, and understanding your competition.

In summary

I'm not really a marketer by trade (I've done a bit), and I think Ritson's Mini MBA covers the essentials of marketing according to the following definition (which I took off Quora).

  • Identifying who the customer is and the various segments of the customers.
  • Identifying the needs of the customer to help build the right product.
  • Deciding on the pricing strategy.
  • Setting up the distribution channels to act as the bridge with the customer.
  • Creating the communication strategy that conveys the values of the product to the customer.

However, my argument is that marketers increasingly need to be renaissance men and women.

Digital isn't everything, but it does dictate some new skillsets, of which basic coding is only one. This article simply puts forward a few of the things marketers might need day-to-day.

So, what do you think?

Ben Davis

Published 23 November, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (4)

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David Burdon, Director at Simply Clicks

Ben,
Nice article. And highly pertinent. I'm shocked how little grasp of "real" marketing most marketers have - digital or otherwise. Whether I'm dealing with SEO, paid search, advertising, analytics or website usability I find many of today's marketers appear schooled in a very narrow range of expertise.
Yes, a CIM, CAM, IDM Diploma or MBA helps. But is is the learning, application and appraisal of marketing that successfully teaches true marketing discipline.
Part of the problem may well be that digital marketing has become so specialised and marketing departments siloed, that marketers don't develop the expertise to see the bigger picture.

over 1 year ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Many marketers are simply too busy to do much research or strategy. So consider automating more of your real-time marketing tactics to free them up.

over 1 year ago

Stephanie Marris

Stephanie Marris, Marketing Manager at Experian

Great article - thank you

over 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Pete Very good point.

over 1 year ago

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