Marketing technologists, growth hackers, and regression to the mean


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Marketing Technologists, Growth Hackers, Digital Marketers

One of the arguments I sometimes hear is that the role of marketing technologists has a limited future because, eventually, every marketer will be a marketing technologist.

I’m usually skeptical of those assertions because I know so many marketing technologists who have deep technical skills — such as systems architecture and software engineering — that (1) take a significant investment to acquire and (2) don’t seem necessary for most marketers to possess.

I’m a big advocate of having people with technical depth on the marketing team, but I don’t believe that everyone on the marketing team needs to be a hardcore technologist.

But not all marketing technologists are equal in their technical talents. Many of them are mostly adept at learning and operating more advanced marketing software, such as complex marketing automation platforms and big web experience management systems. They know how to piece together multiple components into a marketing stack. And they can do some lightweight programming with scripts and HTML. But that’s usually where their tech skills taper off.

That’s not to downplay the importance of those marketing technologists — they are immensely valuable in today’s marketing environment and in high demand.

But I also agree that the baseline skills for someone with the “marketer” title in general must continue to rise. Eventually, most marketers should be able to evaluate, configure, and operate a wide set of marketing technology. They should be able to “think programmatically” — since more and more marketing will be programmatic in nature. And, as marketing software improves, it will make more advanced capabilities more accessible to less specialized users.

This does not mean that marketing technologist skills are going to fade in importance. Quite the opposite: marketing technologist skills will become a requisite baseline for working in marketing.

Now, two caveats to this:

First, we’re not there yet — and won’t be for a while. I would estimate that this “reunification” of marketing technologist skills into the baseline requirements of being a modern marketer as being at least 5 years away. Of course, there will be many individuals who blend those skills in ahead of the curve — and that will be highly advantageous to their careers. But on the visible horizon, marketing technology management is still a specialized capability.

Second, even after “reunification” there will be ongoing technology specialization. While many tasks that require a marketing technologist today will be doable by baseline marketers, there will still be a set of more advanced technical work that will require more specialized skills. I’m primarily thinking of software engineering, which I believe will continue to be a profession that will demand deep technical expertise beyond what most marketers will want or need to acquire. But I think the need for software engineering will be entwined with marketing’s mission in a digital world for the foreseeable future.

This brings me to the graph at the top of this post.

This predicted phenomenon — of marketing technologists being a temporary specialization that largely regresses back to the mean of what defines a “marketer” — seems analogous to the pattern we’ve seen with digital marketing and, possibly, what we’re seeing with growth hacking too.

For a while, digital marketers were specialists that raced ahead of baseline marketers with their unique knowledge and domain expertise. But today — even though we’re not there completely — we see the reunification of digital marketing into the standard definition of marketing. Digital marketing is just an implicit part of marketing now.

Although, important to note, it took 20 years.

I also suspect this is the pattern that we will see with “growth hacking.” I realize that may be controversial, as many growth hackers feel they are more than marketers and bring a very different viewpoint and skill set to bear. And today, that’s absolutely true. But as the world becomes more and more digital, it seems like marketing has only one place to go: marketing will be responsible for customer experiences that grow the business. And they will absorb the skills and mindset of the growth hacker in their quest to achieve that.

In both cases, the skills don’t go away. Digital marketing skills are essential for every marketer to have today. Growth hacking skills will be essential for every marketer to have in the future. And those pioneers who are ahead of that curve — they’ve got a powerful edge that’s great for their careers.

The difference with marketing technologists, however, is I believe there will continue to be an ongoing specialization for those with advanced technical capabilities — above and beyond tech-savvy baseline marketers. But they will be true specialists.

However, I don’t think anyone sees a future for ongoing specialization for “digital marketing” though — after reunification, that evolutionary branch will no longer be separate.

My sense is that “growth hackers” won’t persist as a specialization either. Again, that’s not to say that the growth hacker movement is going away — growth hackers will become the new de facto marketers. Whether marketing is conquered by growth hackers or growth hackers are assimilated into marketing is an inconsequential distinction that will only matter to the people who make it happen.

But maybe growth hackers, like marketing technologists, will evolve further specialization. In fact, maybe those two branches merge in their specialization, circa 2020?

Now that I think about it, I think we’re seeing this same pattern play out with data scientists in marketing too. And like marketing technologists, I think there will be an ongoing specialization there too — but the majority of the tasks that we allocate to data scientists today will become baseline capabilities of marketers in general.

What do you think?

Thanks to Kaila Colbin for her great article on marketers and growth hackers that catalyzed my thinking on this.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Scott Brinker
Scott Brinker is the president & CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of post-click marketing software and services. He writes the Conversion Science column on Search Engine Land and frequently speaks at industry events such as SMX, Pubcon and Search Insider Summit. He chairs the marketing track at the Semantic Technology Conference. He also writes a blog on marketing technology, Chief Marketing Technologist.


  1. As a general term “technologist” infers that someone with this title would be a specialist in the latest and greatest. 500 years ago, one could consider printing press operators adding ads to newspapers, as being marketing technologists. In the future, this same term may still be used to describe those at the peak of technology progression.


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