What Marketers Must Do to Grow Their Brand of Thought Leaders

March 30, 2016 Daniel Ruyter

What Marketers Must Do to Grow Their Brand of Thought Leaders

Sophomore year in college, I met one of my best friends in life—John. I always admired John for his quick wit, sense of humor, and ability to draw. He had such a creative mind, and I envied his ability to create something from nothing with relative ease. Personally, I always felt stuck in my left-brain dominated thought processes, where I felt relegated to simple stick figure creativity. After graduation, I felt very at home in the software development field, where methodologies, logic, and execution ruled.

When I first made my way into marketing, I thought I would find myself a bit out of place because, in my mind, marketing largely revolves around thinking creatively. We marketers are asked to tap into the visceral emotions of our customers, eliciting a response to our messages, as well as optimize content and experiences in order to maximize conversions. But my belief that marketing is a purely creative endeavor has given way to a view of a very diverse field that draws from both creative ingenuity and highly technical delivery methods. Marketing, essentially, brings both sides of the brain together within a single field, and it has really allowed me to discover a creative side to myself that I never knew I had.

If marketing was once responsible for coming up with game-changing ideas, and information technology was tasked to deliver them, these two disciplines are now merging, coined marketing technology (martech). The left-brain, right-brain split is catching up to some in the field and it’s the job of marketing leaders to identify this gap within their teams and take corrective action so that their organizations aren’t left behind. Too many creatives and not enough tech, or too many techies and not enough creatives offers a dangerous imbalance that leaders must correct as soon as possible.

Thinking Creatively about the Marketing Thought Leadership Skills GapThinking Creatively about the Marketing Thought Leadership Skills Gap

The skills gap between technical and non-technical marketers has been growing for almost a decade now. It started out small and unnoticeable, but it’s starting to make a real impact on marketing teams around the world.

While not all roles require technical prowess, basic knowledge is still required of most modern marketers. I would argue the skills gap has widened because many in marketing aren’t provided the time nor the ability to dig into a concept, issue, or project. They’re not afforded the ability to be their own thought leaders, because, let’s face it, we all have deadlines to meet and thinking only slows us down. Deadline-driven projects and bottom line results sometimes mean that corners are cut while teams are often encouraged to do first, think later.

With the rise of martech, marketers are now being asked to solve complex problems with technology tools, and to do so, they must be encouraged to think deeply; they must explore various scenarios to come up with problems that may arise, as well as the solutions to correct them ahead of time. If marketing teams aren’t afforded the ability to think proactively, a constant game of playing catch-up will ensue, leading to reactionary marketing, a divergence from core strategies, and ultimately frustration.

The Marketing Leader’s Role in Building a Team’s Potential

Imagine a world where a marketing leader’s budget is unlimited and her team’s skill sets are both plentifully creative and technical. She would have few fears of the changing marketing landscape, because there are no limits to her team’s potential.

While I’d argue that the latter sometimes is still the case—a great team’s potential is nearly limitless—the former most certainly is not. We’re all tasked with building our teams and fulfilling our duties with limited financial and human capital resources.

As a marketing leader, one of my biggest challenges is optimizing those finite resources. Marketing leaders are tasked with getting the most productivity, creativity, and ingenuity with the resources we have on-hand, and to do so, we have to identify and work to correct any skills gaps in our team and encourage thought leadership and critical thinking at every turn.

So how do you do that?

Anything Can Be Learned—Including Martech

When it comes down to it, skills are just skills—that which can be learned. I don’t personally know anyone that was born with the ability to skydive, do you? But with some guidance, practice, and perseverance, skydiving is a skill that can be mastered, despite some very real initial fears. The same goes for martech skills—they can be learned by almost any marketer. As leaders, it’s our job to help ensure our modern marketing teams have a solid cornerstone in marketing technology to help our teams grow their technology skill sets from within. An organization that focuses solely on the creative, operational, or otherwise non-tech aspects of marketing in-house while outsourcing all the technical tasks will struggle to improve overall brand storytelling effectiveness.

I’ve found that having at least one team member with a solid foundation in technology can help an entire marketing team. Preferably that team member is in a leadership role of some sort. The in-house digital expert is often tasked with guiding the technical aspects of marketing projects, while providing guidance to the rest of the marketing team. Digital skills can be acquired by doing, and when you have a solid digital presence on your team, all those around that expert will inevitably pick up the skills and thought processes needed to be successful in their own digital efforts.

I’ve personally experienced this very phenomenon throughout my career on both sides of the equation. In one example, I was able to help a non-technical team weave the use of digital analytics into its fabric, where it became second nature to build, deploy, measure, and improve their marketing efforts. On the other side, I also worked side by side with a very capable technical architect. While my role only bridged the technical and business sides of the organization, I learned so much from him about the mechanics of the tools we were deploying so that I could answer both the “how” and “why” of what we were doing with more personal insight. Digital expertise can spread among team members—almost as though by osmosis—and organically grow digital skills within and across marketing teams. But first, marketing leaders have to plant that seed and encourage it to grow.

Inspiring your marketing team to develop martech skills

Encouraging Thought Leadership and Critical Thinking

I’m convinced that many modern marketers actually have more technical aptitude than they realize, even if they don’t consider themselves to be highly technical. What’s often holding them back is their ability to think critically about a project for a meaningful amount of time.

It’s the role of the marketing leader to encourage those in your team and organization to be marketing thought leaders—to exit the reactive marketing and business as usual “we’ve always done it this way” approach. Marketing leaders must make time for their teams to think through the details of projects, dream big about new efforts, and understand the details of what it is they need to do now, tomorrow, and a month from now to make their efforts more successful.

How can you make sure all your team members are encouraged to think critically about a project or campaign? Marketers really only have three basic needs from marketing leaders to make this happen:

  1. Ample time to deep dive into projects
  2. A team culture that encourages critical thinking, questions, and cross-functional collaboration
  3. A physical environment that’s conducive to thought

Affording your teams enough time to think creatively doesn’t have to be a significant interruption to their day, if time is managed well. I’ve found that spending just an hour each day thinking through the details of my projects has helped keep them on track because I have a much higher degree of clarity. I then bring that clarity with me to the project team and pass that along to them. Clarity of purpose for a project team on a complex project can make a huge difference. It’s not necessarily the amount of time that matters, but more that they are provided time interruption-free.

I suspect most marketing leaders, if asked, would say their team dynamic encourages critical thinking. But before you answer, consider these questions first:

  • When was the last time your team had either strategic or project brainstorm discussions?
  • Have you ever sat down and encouraged discussion where there were no bad ideas?
  • Are team members encouraged to raise issues and concerns openly and without fear of reprisal?
  • When was the last time a new idea (successful or otherwise) originated from a non-leader?

Lastly, the physical environment that your team operates within is important in their ability to perform at a high level as well. If they’re surrounded by fluorescent lights and no windows, how can they be asked to think outside the box if they’re inside one for eight or more hours a day? You don’t have to provide anything too fancy—even just allowing for a creative-focused shared space for them to go for an hour or two per day can make a world of difference in their ability to think creatively and critically about their projects.

Marketing leaders will always be faced with the potential for more work than they and their teams can handle. It’s absolutely critical that we encourage all team members to be critical, creative thinkers and become thought leaders within our organization. If we’re able to successfully accomplish this, we’ll get more done and we’ll have happier, more fulfilled teams.

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