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A marketer's guide to geek speak

A marketer's guide to geek speak Rebecca Lieb

Now that you know "pizza and beer" is too simple a solution to a problem that has plagued digital marketing since day one, how can marketers and the tech team play nicely -- even productively -- together, without snits, tantrums, attitude, and seething?

It's a problem that runs wide and deep. After all, technology (and by extension, technologists) is at the core of all digital operations. To work effectively, to create beautiful and effective sites, campaigns, apps, ad serving, email functionality, search optimization, you name it, the marketers and the dev team have to work together as colleagues, not as enemies. They must make an effort to speak the same language, and strive toward common goals.

That's not how it used to be. In the olden days (i.e,. the 1990s, when I headed marketing for a global cable network), I would develop a campaign for print or broadcast by employing the art of marketing mixed with the science of research. Once the creative department got things right, it was their responsibility to make arrangements for it to be taped, filmed, recorded, printed, written, or manufactured.

The closest I ever got to the technical end of marketing in that bygone era was signing off on invoices.

But technology is no longer at the service of marketing; it defines marketing. This places marketers on an unprecedented learning curve, requiring them to become conversant (and then some) with skills and tasks for which they are temperamentally ill-suited.

On the other side of the fence, the dev team must deal with colleagues who cannot express their needs in the language of the realm. Developers don't want creative briefs, value propositions, or mission statements. They demand minutely detailed specs in proper outline form.

Right brain vs. left brain
What's the difference between right- and left-brain thinkers? The left brain is considered analytic in approach, while the right is described as holistic or global. A successive processor (left brain) prefers to learn in a step-by-step, sequential format, beginning with details leading to a conceptual understanding of a skill. A simultaneous processor (right brain) prefers to learn beginning with the general concept, and then go into specifics.

Technology resides in the left side of the brain, the dominant cerebral hemisphere of most developers, programmers, and probably everyone in the IT department.

Marketers, on the other hand, tend to be right-brain. Right-brain thinking processes tend to be visual, intuitive, holistic, and integrative. The right brain excels at processing large amounts of unconnected information and instantly distilling meaning from it.

Meeting in the middle
OK, Houston. We already knew we had a problem. So what are we going to do about it?

Learn a reasonable amount of the other department's language
Marketers don't need to have mad programming skills, but if they do anything digital, they do need a basic understanding of the technological underpinnings of their operations. Just as you don't need to be a mechanic to drive a car, you really ought to have some fundamental knowledge of what the components are that make the thing move forward.

It's for this very reason that a number of organizations have created a relatively new C-level position: chief marketing technologist. (Consider following Scott Brinker's excellent on the topic.)

By the same token, the devs need to be brought into the marketing fold, as partners, not as short-order cooks. Adam Kleinberg, CEO of Traction, insists on making devs part of the creative process.

"They need to be part of the vision, the invention, the expansion of ideas," he said. "Too often they get stuck with a steaming plate of shit handed to them. Even when they are 'integrated' into the process, it's generally in a manner where they are reviewing work to tell creative what won't work. No wonder they're often perceived as grouchy and think everyone around them are idiots. Today's developer should be partnering with designers to solve problems together the way copywriters have for the last 50 years in traditional agencies. This is what inspires them. This is what gets them to care."

Perception: Devs are too technical
Are devs too technical? Depends how you look at it. To one another, probably not. To members of the marketing team, this perception is very often their reality.

As with other matters of friction between marketers and devs, this is often a matter of communication. Sure, it's incumbent on marketers to learn a little geek speak. By the same token, if a dev responds to a question in what sounds like technical mumbo jumbo and is asked to translate it into English, they should oblige. Politely.

In any working relationship between teams, finding common ground is essential. It's up to both parties to give a little. And it's incumbent on devs to justify their decisions and work, just as you must justify your own actions and decisions at work.

Moreover, communication is critical to the project getting done successfully and on time. According to a veteran marketer of several technology start-ups: "Sloppy or unethical technologists can bury problems behind a black box wall of BS. If a project is late, you need to understand. Was it poor scoping, project creep, bad management, legacy code, etc?"

While brilliant coding is the core competency for which devs are hired, they're also expected to be productive, cooperative team players. Just as a prima donna creative director or a diva copywriter deserves a dressing down no matter how well they're producing, the same is applicable to devs who sneer at the very notion of teamwork.

No one is indispensible. If you find that a developer (or a member of the marketing team, for that matter) is becoming a performance liability, treat him/her like any other employee. Companies that tolerate bad behavior have a cultural problem, and it needs to be addressed.

Perception: Devs are proprietary
What do they do in there all day? More than one marketer has scratched their head wondering. What's going on with the program? Why is it taking so long? Is the development work meeting expectations?

Part of this problem, of course, is not having a clue what the scope of the development project is. That's the marketer's own fault. As stated above, it's their duty to have a fundamental understanding of the project and technologies in question.

That said, it is perfectly reasonable to ask the devs to document progress and programs, and to set up periodic reviews of the work in question to ensure it's on track and meeting everybody's expectations.

Perception: Devs have the "one" answer
A complaint often heard from marketers is that devs have a tendency to approach problems with an imperious-seeming thumbs-up or thumbs-down. When presented with a problem, the tendency can very often be to offer a single solution. This can be because they believe the marketer doesn't understand the technical nature of the problem, or because they personally prefer that one solution. The truth about technology (as with nearly everything else) is that there are always multiple approaches and solutions to a problem or a challenge.

When presented with a single solution to a problem, ask for an alternative, and the pros and cons of each. Develop a culture in which there aren't single solutions for problems.

Culture counts
Company culture plays a bigger role than you might initially think in bringing the two very disparate groups of devs and marketers together -- and together productively. I've worked at companies where we didn't just work on different floors of the building but at different company campuses, in different cities. In the case of one organization, we were on different sides of the Atlantic. Meeting face-to-face was either impossible or actively discouraged, which made reaching any type of accord or fostering any semblance of a relationship a near impossibility.

We're all digital, and we're all more than accustomed to working remotely, but devs are human too (really!). Despite the left brain/right brain problems, the utterly disparate skill sets, and essentially different languages spoken by marketers and developers, a little face-to-face can work wonders in helping to establish lasting and productive relationships.

Maybe even over pizza and beer.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst in digital advertising/media for Altimeter Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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