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I’m not a pilot, so stop asking me to the fly the plane! Why marketers are marketers and coders are coders


I don’t know about you but, when I fly, I take comfort in the knowledge that our pilot is an expert at what he does; he or she is up there in the cockpit, pressing the right buttons, monitoring speed and altitude or at least monitoring an autopilot that knows its stuff. That the pilot is there and is generally doing all the right things to ensure our plane avoids a terrifying, vertical spiral towards oblivion, is kind of reassuring.

I think you’d agree that the sight of a pilot emerging from the cockpit to push around the drinks trolley, distribute meals, or respond to passenger requests for an extra pillow, would be somewhat alarming. And for good reason: The pilot is a specialist, an expert at flying the plane. The rest of the flight crew are also specialists – at flight navigation, customer service, passenger safety and the like.

Flights work because this group of trained specialists combine to deliver a product that is the sum of their areas of expertise. They understand their roles, they communicate, and in extreme circumstances, they combine forces to try to avoid the aforementioned spiral to oblivion.

The same can be said for most other professions. Nurses, solicitors, graphic designers, engineers, web developers. The list goes on.

It’s common sense really.

But, apparently not when it comes to digital marketing.

Generalists vs digital marketing experts

A trend appears to be emerging in the world of digital marketing. Many recent digital marketing job advertisements are demanding an almost baffling array of production, html, and graphic design skills, along with good old fashioned digital marketing nous.

Remember the days when digital marketing, or ‘online’ marketing for those of us old enough to have lived through the dot com era, was about the promotion of brands and products to consumers; communication with customers and selling to them through digital channels?

We developed and executed strategy, we built online brands, we created email newsletters and online advertisements, we developed loyalty programs, we optimised and marketed through search engines, and more recently we engaged with our customers through Facebook, Twitter and the like. We worked closely with web developers and creative types to build and enhance websites. We maintained content. We measured and analysed results. We integrated digital and traditional channels to create a consistent message for our audience. We may have even dabbled in website and usability and accessibility. We worked to deliver an entire digital customer experience.

Surely that’s enough work to weary the most enthusiastic of our kind? Not anymore.

If employers and recruitment agents are to be believed, a new super-breed of digital marketer has emerged from the cyber wilderness, a kind of morphed producer, editor, web developer, and ‘traditional’ digital marketer. They can code, they are sophisticated graphic designers, they have extensive experience maintaining sites in numerous content management systems. And their Javascript , CSS, PHP, and Flash are ‘highly desirable’.

Um, newsflash. This is at least two, or possibly three, distinct roles. Producers and editors are specialists. Developers are specialists. Graphic designers are specialists. Granted, many if not most businesses don’t have the financial luxury of hiring multiple specialists. But I strongly suspect that most employers don’t even understand the distinction between these specialties. They have a budget to hire one person to do ‘digital stuff’, and they then bundle everything that is currently lacking in their organisation’s skill sets into one homogenous role, misleadingly named a digital marketer.

I’ll admit that there are probably a few highly experienced and clever Super Marketers out there who can fulfil all of these specialist needs. But they are few and far between. And they certainly don’t work for $70k per annum.

And if this is such an easy combination of skills to demand, why not get your Drupal team to start writing your media releases? Why not get the traditional marketing team to sew their own company branded t-shirts? What? You’d outsource some of those tasks? Or you’d just let the experts do their thing?

Not all companies are guilty of attempting to create an army of generalists, but from startups through the business food chain, there is an increasingly expectation that marketers should be able to code. Yet, coders are not expected to be able to market or do sales.

Yes, I know that CodeYear has been a huge success, lauded by the venture capitalists and industry commentators alike. But in reality, do you want your business, being run by a bunch of people who are all just kinda okay at things, not really good at their jobs?

So can you, as an employer, solve this dilemma? I think so. Regardless of the size of your company, my advice is to really think about the most important functions of your digital requirements:

  • Do you want to build, or fundamentally improve or restructure a site? Then you probably need a good developer who understands the user experience and can manage things like outsourced user testing and visual design.
  • Do you want someone who can maintain and optimise your content, enhance some decent images, and run your SEM campaigns? How about I introduce you to some great content producers.
  • Do you want to genuinely market your business and your products, to activate and engage your customers in the digital space? Then you’re probably looking for one of those old fashioned digital marketers who can outsource, or work closely with, developers and graphic designers when required.
  • Got two competing sets of requirements? How about hiring two part-time specialists, so you can fulfil both?

In short, find someone who can deliver on the most important aspects of your digital strategy and then get them to coordinate the outsourcing of the rest. Or upskill other staff who show potential and have the interest in learning new skills.

If you’re building a business, invest where it’s needed. Don’t mistake a generalist for an expert. Sure, in the scheme of things the consequences of hiring a generalist instead of an expert digital marketer aren’t as dire as letting someone who’s not a pilot fly the plane.

But then again, a vertical spiral towards marketing oblivion is no fun, even if it’s just a metaphor.

Chrissy Coomber is a digital marketer with 15 years experience. In a shock twist, she has nothing to sell other than her experience and expertise.