5 Technical Things Marketers Need to Know to Stay Competitive

Marketing has become a technical, analytics-based field that calls for new areas of expertise. Today’s best marketers are taking cues from startups, quickly executing and iterating on their strategies. Read on for 5 things you should understand if you want to be on top of your game.

Several factors contribute to the increasingly technical nature of marketing. One is simply the availability of good software—freemium and tiered pricing strategies give startups and small companies access to tools without paying thousands a month. Another is access to far more data than even a few years ago, with a trend toward open APIs and abundant integrations among marketing applications. And finally, a leap forward in data processing and machine learning capabilities has contributed to better insights from the data that’s been unlocked.

In the last 12 years, marketing has been reinvented.

–Tomasz Tunguz, "The New Marketers"

All of this means marketers need to be comfortable using new technologies and understand how they work. Those that do will be able to glean insights from powerful analytics tools, generate leads and attribute closed deals to specific campaigns, and have greater visibility into the ROI of marketing efforts overall.

If you’re in marketing, it may be time to assess how well you know the following:

1. What Your Marketing Tools Are Capable Of

Too often marketing teams don’t use the full functionality of free or cheap products like Google Analytics. They sign up and use the default settings, leaving their most useful insights undiscovered. But when 65% of marketers say generating traffic and leads is their top challenge, it makes sense to get the most out of the tools you have on hand.

This post on advanced Google Analytics tricks from Neil Patel is a great place to start. Or, dive into our Automation & Analtyics Series for great tips on setting up affordable marketing technology.

2. How APIs Connect Your Website and Marketing Apps

APIs translate data from one application to another. If you don’t know how they work, you’ll have trouble conceptualizing why and how your different tools can integrate. Most marketing tools use APIs to take action based on data from sources like your website or customer database—you have already interacted with a Google Analytics API if you've ever added their Javascript snippet to the header of a website.

To use an API, developers must add code snippets to their website or app that initiates communication with another program's API. Here's an example—a developer wants to build an app that suggests vegetarian recipes to users. They don't want to build their own list of recipes, so they have two options:

  • Write a script that reads recipes from a site like allrecipes.com the same way a human would, then find a way to tag and organize them.
  • Connect to a recipe API like this one to receive reliable data in machine-readable format, displaying only recipes with a property of 'vegetarian' in the Spoonacular database.

Reddit’s ELI5 subreddit does a great job of explaining (like you’re five) APIs here and here. You can also learn a lot by playing around with tools like Zapier, whose entire premise is to connect unrelated apps via APIs and send data between them.

3. The Structure and Power of Databases

If you think data storage and manipulation is for only developers to worry about, think again. Databases are behind every tool you use—your CRM, your website, your automation tools. Those tools have given you a nice user interface to perform basic functions like querying your data, but the underlying infrastructure is what allows you to do things like display the right content on your website or keep track of customers and the products they buy.

Here are some common problems that stem from database issues:

  • Slow website speed and poor functionality
  • Inability to add certain fields or properties to customers or products in your CRM
  • Issues with integration tools like Zapier
  • Limitations on email or web content customization

At the very least, you should know which of your marketing tools allows database customization like Salesforce custom objects. This lets you to keep track of new items related to customers and prospects in whatever way that works best for you. If you plan to set up marketing automation, you should also know what information is accessible from your website's database—in WordPress, for example, ecommerce plugins will modify your database to include things like customer purchases, refunds, and lifetime value.

You can geek out on more database knowledge than you need with this great writeup from Ars Technica.

4. How Web and Software Development Relates to Marketing

You don't need to become a developer to get acquainted with core concepts and a little useful code. In marketing, knowledge of a few key areas can take you a long way.

Frontend Development with HTML, CSS, and Javascript

Most marketers are expected to know at least some HTML and CSS basics so they can make minor changes to things like email campaigns or landing pages without the help of developers. But if you’re a bootstrapped startup or small business, you’re likely to need much more than that. Even the simplest of websites on user-friendly platforms like Squarespace and Shopify require injection of code for almost any customizations beyond font and color manipulation. Rather than follow the start-to-finish structure of a code academy, this kind of development is better learned by doing. For a reliable reference, try Mozilla’s resources for developers.

Beyond simple template customizations, marketers must work with frontend developers to build websites and landing pages that support marketing goals. While it’s not necessary to learn Javascript, for example, you should know what it does and when it’s used. Developers will appreciate your ability to make informed, realistic requests for improvements to your site’s content and UI.

Conditional Logic in Automation Tools

In email automation, you’ll use conditional logic to create dynamic emails that target specific customers segments and behaviors. A popular example is Liquid, a templating language built by Shopify that’s written in Ruby and used by many of the top automation tools. It lets you do things like include a specific CTA or paragraph in an email only if a customer has specific attributes (a certain subscription tier, a recent purchase, a time zone). Understanding how code like this relates to your website and database of customers gives you much greater control over the structure of your marketing automation strategy.

5. How Developers Do Their Jobs

Today's marketers often work very closely with web developers (and product engineers, if at a tech company). Those who understand the various developer roles and how they affect marketing's efforts will be more successful in aligning the two functions.

This article from product development agency Metal Toad is a fantastic explainer for non-developers who want to understand the work web developers do and what technology is relevant for each type.

Tunguz notes in his article that "The new marketers are a different breed - tenacious, nimble and deft with numbers." If you plan on being included in that group, stay close to the technology that drives marketing forward.