What Marketers Can Learn From Software Developers

Everyone knows that marketing has changed dramatically over the past decade.  Indeed, it continues to change rapidly today.  While there are many contributing factors to the whirlwind we’re experiencing — search, social, mobile, content, big data, and so on — we can sum it all up in one phrase: digital disruption.

Marketing, arguably more than any other discipline, has been thoroughly reshaped by digital dynamics.

This has caused an interesting shift in the nature of marketing management.  As marketing has become a “natively digital” profession, the challenges of managing it have taken on many of the characteristics of another natively digital profession: software development.

As strange as it might seem, modern marketing probably has more in common with software management than it does with classic marketing management.  What software-as-a-service (SaaS) enabled for developers – agile and frequent updates released immediately to users, and directly observable customer analytics delivered back to the product team in real-time — is highly analogous to how marketers now work with content marketing and social media.

The patterns in managing these two fields have become remarkably similar.

So if marketing and software now share many of the same dynamics, are there management ideas that we can cross-pollinate from one to the other?  What can marketers learn from software developers about managing in a digital world?

It turns out that there are a surprising number of management concepts from the software community that we can adapt to marketing.

Agile Marketing Is A Great Example

One of the best examples of marketing successfully borrowing from the software profession is the growing adoption of agile management methodologies.

You’re probably already familiar with the term, and quite possibly the practice, of agile marketing.  Inspired by agile software development, marketing has evolved from primarily yearly and quarterly planning to shorter and more fluid plan/work cycles, often called “sprints.”

Each sprint is typically just a couple of weeks long.  It begins with an updated plan of the team’s priorities and ends with a review and retrospective of what was accomplished and how.  This accelerated cadence enables marketers to run programs and projects with tighter feedback loops and to react more quickly to new opportunities or threats in the market.

This is exactly how modern software teams develop and deploy web and mobile software.

Agile marketing has also embraced a number of ideas from the lean software movement, such as the use of Kanban boards – picture a whiteboard with columns for the different stages of work being done, with tasks written on sticky notes moving across the board as they’re completed.  Kanban boards help marketing teams collectively visualize their overall workflow and provide greater transparency into the team’s priorities and operations.

Philosophically, agile marketing also recognizes that it’s the individual contributors working on these tasks who should have the greatest say in how their work gets done.  While strategies and priorities continue to be decided by top-down leadership, front-line marketers, who are closest to the market in the age of social media and real-time metrics, are encouraged to operate with much greater independence and responsibility.

This too echoes the dynamics of software teams.  Leadership sets the course, but individual developers wield considerable influence in how things are implemented and significantly affect the outcome.

Innovation And Scalability

In addition to Agile, marketers can draw inspiration from many other software and IT-oriented frameworks.  For instance, the IT analyst firm Gartner developed the notion of “bimodal IT,” in which an IT organization manages critical infrastructure in a structured fashion, with long-term plans, but manages time-sensitive business application development using more evolutionary and agile approaches.

We can appropriate this same idea for “bimodal marketing.”  A significant portion of the marketing budget is invested in promotional vehicles with relatively predictable effects — managed with efficiency and scale in mind.  But in parallel, marketers also allocate a portion of their resources to experimental programs, which are managed separately to maximize fast feedback and innovative risk-taking.

Instead of campaigns that are designed, launched, and retired in distinct stages, marketers increasingly run campaigns that operate in a more continuous fashion, continuing to evolve as they go.  This is comparable to how software-as-a-service products are now developed and managed, with new features continually being added in “perpetual beta.”  Marketing can administer its innovation pipeline using techniques that are similar to how product managers orchestrate the continuous design and rollout of new software features.

Marketing Managers As Product Managers

If you consider any touchpoint that a prospect or customer has with your company as a kind of “product” — and if you believe that delivering delightful experiences at those touchpoints is one of marketing’s chief responsibilities in a digital world — then the parallels between marketing managers and product managers become even more direct.

Marketing has traditionally worked with messages and media.  Messages are what we seek to communicate.  Media is how and where those messages appear.  But with marketing now frequently realized through interactive experiences such as websites and mobile apps, marketing today also designs and implements “mechanisms.”  Mechanisms are the way customer touchpoints function.  And what we do with these mechanisms in marketing is as important as what we say.

The intersection of three elements: messages, media, and mechanisms; is how marketing renders customer experience.

This mirrors the elements of software creation — code, UI, and data — remarkably.  Code embodies the mechanisms by which software operates.  Data are the messages software deals in.  And UI is the media through which software interfaces to people.  The intersection of these elements in software is how user experience comes to life.

What-Marketers-Can-Learn-From-Software-Developers-1Image source and copyright: Scott Brinker

When you contemplate these two disciplines side-by-side — marketing and software — they seem more and more like identical twins every day.  This isn’t just because marketing uses a lot more software now, although that’s certainly true.  It’s because the world itself has been eaten by software, as Marc Andreessen famously claimed five years ago. In a digital world, marketing is inherently entangled in the dynamics of software.

This represents a tremendous opportunity for marketers to rewrite the rules of marketing management.  And the good news is, we can steal a wealth of great ideas for how to do this from our colleagues in software development down the hall.