Developing professionals for the digital era

In the discussion about the paper “A Heteronomous Consumer Romance”, for the Tell Me a Story podcast, Mike Molesworth (who authored that paper) reflected on how the job of a marketer has changed as a result of the digitalisation of consumption. It’s a topic that Lee QuinnSally DibbLyndon Simkin, Mathew Analogbei and I also discussed in the paper “Troubled Waters: The Transformation of Marketing in a Digital World”, published in the European Journal of Marketing, where we noted that:

“(T)he evolving digital landscape has precipitated a sense of crisis for marketers and the role of marketing within the firm. This extends beyond simply remedying a skills-gap and is triggering a transformation that has repercussions for the future of marketing and its practice, thus diminishing functional accountability”.

Najmeh Hafezieh, Neil Pollock and Annmarie Ryan also pick up on this theme, in their paper ““Hacking marketing”: how do firms develop marketers’ expertise and practices in a digital era?”, published in the Journal of Enterprise Information Management, but with an interesting twist. They look at how marketing professionals adapt to that new reality, how they develop the skills and adopt the approaches that enable them to operate in an environment where “unprecedented access to large volumes of data, creat(e) many opportunities to offer consumers more value through enhancing their experiences

Hafezieh and her colleagues used a case-study research design, centred on a “global digital business (based in the UK) that offers travel search services for flights, hotel booking and car hire to their users, (with) operations in Europe, Asia and the USA with approximately 1,000 employees”.

Hafezieh and her colleagues describe the focus on data at this organisation:

Data, which are generated by the users, are analysed and used to build campaign ideas and hypotheses, which form the basis of the campaign experiments”. In this data rich world, marketing experts are expected to “have the capability of analysing large volumes of data, to (re)define relevant metrics, and to measure the impact on the users and the business… measuring every state of customer journey, and (re)defining what’s valuable”.

To operate in this environment, marketers need to be become “T-shaped professionals”. That is, they need to keep abreast of different areas of marketing such as affiliate marketing and search engine optimisation, while also developing in-depth expertise in one area of digital marketing (e.g., search engine optimisation). At this specific company, this was done via a formalised training programme:

(The company) developed a training programme to upskill all individual experts in various squads, both marketers and engineers. The program covers 32 topics in engineering, marketing and data science. For example, T-shaped marketers can run tests, analyse the results, measure the impacts and control how to enhance user experience”. 

One example mentioned in the paper was the social media advertising manager who learned how to code so that they could pull data themselves. The ultimate goal, we are told, is to allow marketers to have the necessary technical expertise that allows them to work independently from other areas in the company, while also being able to “communicat(e) and collaborat(e) across different specialism areas”.

Hafezieh et al (2023)’s findings resonate with what my former students tell me. They tell me that they need to complement the general knowledge about consumer behaviour and marketing management processes acquired in their university programmes, with in-depth technical knowledge about specific digital environments, in order to understand how these platforms work and the analytics available. Though, for those professionals operating in smaller (or less visionary) organisations than the one described in this paper’s case study, that continuous training is achieved through independent study and certification schemes, such as Google Digital Garage.

But whether this is done through a structured, in-house training programme, or on a needs-base by the professionals themselves, there is clearly a new work practice emerging: one where professionals become highly specialised in specific channels, and need to have both marketing (including consumer behaviour) and technical training.

In recent years, I have incorporated various analytical techniques and tools in my teaching such as auditing a company’s website (performance, traffic, ….) and analysing social media comments (themes, sentiment…). However, one barrier that I have come up against, over and over again, is that many students come to marketing because of its creative element, and really do not like working with numbers.

If you have come across this resistance (whether it is marketing, human resources or other management area), how do you deal with that? How do you show students the value of this type of education / training, and how do you ease them into the more technical aspects?

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