EinsteinThere’s been a lot of talk recently about how marketing is evolving, and marketers need to keep up.

I’m still not sure of the exact definition of “growth hacker,” since everyone seems to be putting their own spin on the term still, so I’ll use the term “technical marketer” in this post to mean someone who works in marketing and uses technical skills (e.g. programming) to enhance their work.

To start with, let’s see what people are saying about this idea of marketers getting technical and why it’s important.

Starting in 2013, after the CMO realizes that he/she does not have the skill sets in place for data analytics proficiency, 50% of new marketing hires will have technical backgrounds.

This is one of the more bold predictions I came across when researching this post. It comes from IDC’s Top 10 CMO Predictions for 2013. I’m not sure that all marketers will necessarily need to come from a programming background, but learning technical skills on top of your marketing expertise can certainly be useful. In fact, it seems like the general consensus in the marketing world is that those who don’t keep up with new technologies and learn how to leverage them will be left behind.

The marketers who know SQL, can write code, leverage APIs, and perform quantitative analysis will be the most desirable and productive individuals in our industry. Those without these skills will find it increasingly difficult to find ideal career opportunities. — Jamie Steven, CMO of Moz

I like the way Julien Smith described the current evolution of marketing on his blog:

The answer as to why we should be doing everything harder, better, faster, stronger is because otherwise, your competition will. Conclusion: We have no choice but to evolve.

There are even full courses and websites dedicated to teaching technical skills to marketers, from copywriting and email marketing to databases, web design and statistics.

Technical Mktg Blog Post_026


But where do you start? There’s a wealth of knowledge out there and so many skills to learn that it can be difficult to work out what to do first. I’ve gathered some advice from marketing experts and those who are going down this road (or already have) themselves which will hopefully help us find a good starting point.



1. Ivan Kirigin: Do try this at home

Ivan Kirigin recently shared his experience from Dropbox, Facebook and his new startup YesGraph in a Reddit AMA. One of the questions asked of Ivan was about how to move from a digital marketing role into a growth-focused role, and what skills are best to learn. Here’s Ivan’s response:

More coding skills makes your more marketable. I would focus on being able to manipulate data to get questions answered.

He also shared some great ideas for working on this in your spare time, including blogging regularly about a product you like, why you like it and what you would improve about it. His second idea was to focus on personal projects that can help you learn about data manipulation. For instance, he suggested tracking your steps and sleep with a Fitbit and learning how to use Fitbit’s API to turn that data into a graph on a daily basis, or turning stats about how many emails you send and receive into a daily graph. Ivan’s final piece of advice was:

You don’t need permission or school or an employer to make yourself an expert, just hard work.


michelle2. Michelle Sun: Be inspired by the success of others

Our very own Buffer growth engineer, Michelle, shared with me her best suggestion for learning about the technical side of marketing: learn from those you admire. Michelle suggests you start out by observing services and apps that you already use and collecting inspiration from them. Be a student of growth strategies and tactics, she says.

Be on the hunt for inspiration. The latest game you installed, or your favorite app—how did they grow?

A favorite example of Michelle’s is LinkedIn’s recent changes to increase growth. Here’s what it looks like, courtesy of Sandi

MacPherson: linkedin

You can see that some of these profiles (those which actually exist on LinkedIn already) have an option to “Connect” while others (those that look like LinkedIn profiles, but are actually just the names of people from Sandi’s address book who haven’t signed up yet) have a different call-to-action: “Add to network.” This slight difference means that in an action that seems to be the same, you’re connecting to some people and actually inviting others to join LinkedIn, growing the network’s user base. Clever.

Michelle says we also need to ask why a particular tactic worked for someone else. I love this approach, because what works for one company might not be the best option for you, so digging deeper can help you to make clever decisions.



3. Fred Wilson: Start with Codecademy

Fred Wilson told a great story on his blog of someone who came up with so many startup ideas that he couldn’t implement himself that eventually his wife told him to “just go do it,” and he set out to become the technical co-founder he needed. He started out with Codecademy to get a basic intro to programming, and later used other resources to build out his skill set. Fred suggests this route for anyone who’s “not technical”:

So to all you people out there who are sitting on your big idea and just can’t figure out how to get it built, I would suggest you build it yourself. It can be done. It is done. Every day. By someone who takes the initiative to just do it.

He even included this short anecdote about someone who asked his advice on this exact question:

A few years ago, I was doing some sort of public speaking thing and in the Q&A, a young man asked me for advice for founders who aren’t technical. I said, “If you aren’t technical, I suggest you get technical”



4. Jamie Steven: Aim for breadth and depth

CMO at Moz, Jamie Steven, is so convinced that marketers need to learn technical skills that he’s even created a whole site dedicated to this purpose: TECHNICAL MKTG. One of Jamie’s first points about the importance of marketers with solid technical skills is that you need both breadth and depth of skills and knowledge:

You have to know what to ask for and how it’s done. Without both of these capabilities, you’re prone to be less efficient than a colleague or competitor who does.

Technical Mktg He makes the good point that this is important for startups and small businesses in particular, where budgets are constrained and most roles are more generalized than they would be in a large company. Jamie explains that breadth and depth mean both having the knowledge of a traditional marketer, but also having the technical skills to implement your own ideas:

These are individuals who have both knowledge of marketing channels, methods, and techniques, but also have the specialist technical knowledge to understand what’s possible and what’s not, and to do the work themselves.



5. Will Lam : Jump in the deep end (with friends for support)

Will Lam wrote a blog post last year about his inspiration to take up the journey of become a technical marketer:

While it’s great to keep learning SEO, there’s an entirely different world outside of SEO and Inbound Marketing in general. If we’re not tackling problems in entirely different ways than what we’re normally used to, we’ll be pushed aside and made irrelevant (in the long term).

Will’s approach was to jump into the deep end of learning to code, starting with tools like Treehouse and Codecademy, and with the help of his friends to keep him going. One of Will’s techniques for learning new technical skills was to start collecting useful links into a list. He’s collected articles and videos about learning in general, programming, and the road to becoming an engineer.


andrew chen

6. Andrew Chen: Learn from others

Andrew Chen’s best advice is to look up to those who are already successful in technical marketing/growth hacking roles and learn from their experiences.

The best answer is, learn from someone who’s already good at it – if you’re technical and creative, it’s well worth the time.

He collected a short list of suggested experts to take note of, and suggested using Clarity.fm to speak to successful people in the field. Of course, a blog post like this is a good start as well, since you can review advice from several experts and choose what works best for you. Have you been down this road before? Do you have any other suggestions for getting started?

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like The 8 most important business tools that keep our company on track and Turning your marketing upside down: Why you should put more focus on existing customers

Image credits: Jamie Steven

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Written by Belle Beth Cooper

Belle is the first Content Crafter at Buffer and co-founder of Exist. She writes about social media, startups, lifehacking and science.

  • Personally I hate the ‘growth hacker’ term. ‘Technical marketer’ is a bit better, though I think the ‘T-shaped marketer’ concept is a better way to frame it.

    • Belle

      It’s a tricky one, Barry. A lot of people fight against the term “growth hacker” in particular, and I saw some recent debate about whether it’s just a “brogrammer basterdization of the term ‘marketer’.” I don’t know the answer, but I think a term that describes the skills you use, like “technical marketer” might be the best approach.

    • I think technical marketer would be an all encompassing generic term that doesn’t have any negative connotations attached to it. I like the T-shaped marketer – I remember reading about it in one of Distilled’s blog posts.. but most people will scratch their heads and inevitably say, “What’s that”?

  • LucidGal

    It’s the “learn to swim” thing. I don’t love the daily learning curves and normally couldn’t care less what happens “under the hood.” (Ask my husband who resets all the electronics after the electricity comes back on.) But I don’t have any choice if I want to survive as a marketer. It’s amazing the number of people who just throw up their hands and quit, as if they could have afforded to do that when the telephone was invented. I’m over 50 and I embrace all the technology I can.

    • Belle

      That’s awesome! I think that will prove to be a good approach 🙂

      • LucidGal

        Hope so… I’ll be working a few more years. ;o)

  • Excellent post! I have been contemplating on whether I should take a more formal approach to learning more of the technical side of marketing. I know a little CSS and HTML, but I’m nowhere near being an expert. This post couldn’t have came at a better time as I’m always on the lookout for new ways to continue to make myself more marketable in this field.

    • Belle

      That’s awesome, Patrice! I’m in a similar boat and definitely want to learn more about the technical side of marketing.

  • Kevin Trye

    Interesting post. But is it better/easier to up-skill a technologist, gaining essential marketing know-how, or to take someone with a marketing degree and add in technology? Obviously the former is easier since most traditional marketing people I know freak out at the technology aspects and aside from some obsolete references to SEO, is just not part of most marketing degrees.

    But marketers and technical people can sometimes work well as a group. For many years I worked as one of three engineers for a large corporate marketing department. It was a great experience for all concerned. As the technologist I learned much of marketing and hopefully the marketing guys took on a bit of the technology. Maybe technical marketer should have been my title although most days were spent simply troubleshooting or on implementation work. Sadly most technical people are inevitably seen as the fix-it guys, not to get involved in proactive planning work.

    • Belle

      I think it can go both ways, Kevin. Jamie specifically says in his Moz post that marketers can become technical and developers can be great marketers. I like the idea that regardless of your background, if you want to upskill, you can.

  • Belle, I look forward each day to your posts on the Buffer blog. Thanks for the great advice and links!

    • Belle

      Thanks Donna!

  • WHOA! What the?? I was quoted ON BUFFER’S BLOG??? Geez,I wrote this and didn’t think much of it.. thanks for including me in this Belle! This truly made my day! 😀

    • Belle

      No problem, Will! It was great to add the perspective of someone who’s going through this, rather than looking back at the process. I’d love to see an update on how you’re going if you have the time to blog about it!

      • I am about to 🙂 Went through Jamie Steven’s list on Technical MKTG – tackled email, SQL, and Excel and got back on the horse with learning Rails. I’m competent (striving to be more “T-shaped”), but I know enough to be move the meter 😀 Followed you on Twitter.

  • I’m against the idea of one person being an expert in all 12 of those things. I mean, sure, someone can do it, but talk about being overloaded!

    I think it’s much, much better to split that list of 12 into 4 parts… at least! In my perfect world – i.e., in my head – there would be one super awesome person assigned to each of those “tasks”.

    A team can get so much more done, do it much better, than a jack-of-all-trades person.

    • As usual, great post Belle. I agree with most of the points about marketers needing to get technical skills to survive the onslaught of a new breed of marketer coming through.

      I think it’s good to maybe learn things one step at a time. It can be overwhelming task to work towards being a T-Shaped Marketer. I agree with Ray here, there’s blurry line between being a left-right brain marketer and being a jack-of-all-trades.

      It’s important to carefully choose what skill you want to build upon and keep it simple. For example, if you’re a marketer that already knows HTML and CSS, then the logical step would be to learn javascript and then possibly move to node.js or once you understand one language you can try SQL.

  • All are OK except the Copywriting and Forecasting/Statistics part.

    I don’t think quality copywriting is a trait of a technical individual whose a lot more applied and mathematical in things compare to a copywriter who needs to be a creative individual whose only job is to make things look way better than they are (lie without remorse). It’s hard to find a tech guy able/willing to do copywriting right.

    Forecasting/Statistics is also really scientific math intensive stuff. It’s not within the grasp of just about anyone. A good statistician is almost always just a statistician. Most likely won’t be a good developer.

    So I’m saying that the list is good if you just want people to have an idea in stuff… But if you want them to be good, REAL GOOD, there’s some items you need to let standalone… I know because I’m all the above and then some. But I’m fully aware of how far from a good copywriter or statistics guy I really am.

    PS: When I say copywriting, I mean the real deal. No just typing keys and writing copy. And when I say statistics I mean advanced stuff. No just take obvious data and make pretty charts.

    PPS: Excel, seriously? All structured data should exist in DBs, IMO.:)

    • I’m more of an Excel kind of guy myself, Claude. 😉 Couldn’t find my way around a database if my life depended on it.

    • “It’s hard to find a tech guy able/willing to do copywriting right.”

      I’m a tech woman doing copywriting right. We exist too.

  • Kirill Sofronov

    Great article, I recently posted a question on Quora where people can share their opinion on skills of a (I call it) full-stack marketer. Feel free to add you ideas: http://www.quora.com/Startup-Advice-and-Strategy/What-are-traits-and-skills-of-a-full-stack-Marketeer

  • Belle, this is a fantastic post. Technical knowledge is more and more a must. And in the world of personal brands, I’m quickly discovering that in some sense we’re all marketers, and are expected to understand all kinds of technical know-how that used to be a specialized field!

  • Buffer just gets it. I’m proud to pay for this app

  • Decision.io

    I think this is your best post yet!

    I’ve also started on this journey myself. Starting with basic html, then CSS, and now Javascript. Down the road, I plan to at least become competent in Python 3 to gain some appreciation for what our dev team does day in and day out.

    If I love it… maybe it’s a career change some years down the road. If I just like it, I become a dangerous marketer that can also pick up some small dev tasks here and there as needed. In the startup world this mash up of skills is deadly! Imagine not having to bother dev every time you need a small change made!

    As for the term “growth hacking”, I tend to see it as someone that knows how to build growth into a product or service itself. For example, Dropbox did a great job of this by giving you enough space to get started and the opportunity to get more by sharing their awesome product with your network. It worked beautifully because Dropbox is a quality product to begin with. By rewarding you to share a free product that you would have shared anyway… they really encouraged that viral growth.

  • SandyFischler

    We’re marketers who just learned to code! It seemed to be the only way, even before we’d heard the term “growth hacking.” Trying to find a technical co-founder who would work for equity is basically unobtainium, so if you need to get a product to market you learn to make it yourself.

    We just finished One Month Rails and built about half of our app through their course, we hope to launch in the next 4 weeks.

  • Felix Brown

    Wonderful i haven’t up till now read an article like this. hats of to you man the information and guidelines with the headings used are simply wonderful! do share more things like this

  • Andres Leo Florez

    HI. You when your in a boat and it’s about to sink ? I’m the annoying guy who is reminding everyone that the boat is sinking. There is no doubt in my mind after working in a star-up using my conventional marketing degree experience that you HAVE to know more than just the marketing principles. I’m on the road to learning and it is so uncomfortable to try and learn skills that seem so out of reach. However, the exciting part is getting to that point where you feel capable. Today not knowing technical marketing is not knowing marketing period and it will be more obvious as the months go by. I’m on codeacademy, I tried taking an SQL course at my community college and failed, I’m working on understanding the ins and outs of social media and I often post one thing 3 times cause I’m learning. It sucks but I’m learning and it is slow but again I’m learning. Hope everyone takes the advice of the author’s and contributors in this article. Get on it. Time does not wait.

  • Shashank Venkat

    But when you say learn code, which programming language are we referring to? Is there any particular language more effective for marketing work? For instance, I know Python has a smooth learning curve and is useful for data analysis.