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Every Marketer Does Not Need To Be Technical

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I read a post on SEOmoz a couple weeks ago.  Every Marketer Should Be Technical.  There were some valuable links, all of which I plan to mine.  But I’ve got a few problems with a (the?) concept in this post.

Now I’m not a fan of labeling everything – growth hacking, technical marketing, SEO 2.0, etc. I only accept “inbound” marketing as a term under protest (it makes me itchy, like it was invented to serve a meta-marketing purpose, not completely unlike Valentine’s Day).  The author of this SEOmoz post had some congruent commentary on the labeling as well, but that notwithstanding, my first objection is with the title.

If this post were called, “Every Marketer May Benefit From Being Technical,” I could more easily get behind that.

If you read my blog (I’m thankful to those who do), you may have read rants on the definition of SEO.  The sun must be in the right alignment with the moon, because it’s a hot topic again (for the moment).  To recap my opinion – there are several definitions for SEO, and they’re all correct depending on what your goals are.  Some parts of SEO are not marketing.  Some of it is.  That said, there’s certainly a role for non-technical marketers in this space.  We still refer to SEO as an art and a science, right?  The “art” part only entered into the picture within the last 6 years or so. That’s clearly the marketing part.

If marketing were a solar system, we are but a single entity sharing off other parts of the system. I studied marketing my whole life, and ultimately landed on Planet SEO.  But I certainly acknowledge the other planets out there.  I had a 6 year career in a major digital agency, where some of the smartest, most influential marketers weren’t technical in the slightest. They didn’t need to be. They found ways to be successful with their toolset.  I refrain to use the word “limited” in terms of their toolset, because it suggests a negative connotation.

I’ve seen other SEOs essentially call out their peers for not knowing how to cache pages on their blog, build an .htaccess, scrape, etc.  I’ve always pushed back on that limited view.  If SEO is partially comprised of marketing, then this isn’t fair.

Does knowing the technical side of digital marketing help you communicate better in the digital space?  The author believes so.  I agree it can help, but it’s not absolute.  I believe the non-technical marketer can have just as valuable role online.  Depending on their role and the campaigns, maybe even more.  Their creativity is not limited by what they can do, which tends to happen to those who have a firm grasp of “their” rules (or, the extent of their technical knowledge).

A few years ago I was part of a social media marketing committee at an agency, where the entire channel was being built around developing a software that could measure the ROI of a social engagement.  At the same time the tool was being built, so were possible strategies we’d offer in our client package.  Ultimately, we drove ourselves into a corner.  We couldn’t come up with anything inspiring, creative, daring, influential, or original.  In this case the “technical marketing” component was an anchor.  I promptly (and proudly) quit that group, which to this day, still hasn’t officially birthed.  The smartest guy in the group – a non-technical marketer – also stepped out.  He continued to build some amazing non-technical digital marketing campaigns for some huge brands, simply by partnering with an analytics group who could do the monitoring and reporting with him.

Just like the old days.  The osteology is new, the heart is the same.

So, with that said, this comment thread particularly interested me.


explorionary | December 12th, 2012

“Stated simply, a great technical marketer can devise, develop, launch, and analyze their marketing campaigns without or no assistance.”

In the context of the headline and this definition, would marketers like Ogilvy, Halbert, Vaynerchuk, and Claude Hopkins be considered great or just outliers?



gfiorelli1 | December 12th, 2012

I think you have answered yourself calling Ogilvy and Co. “Marketers” and not “Technical Marketers”.

But, if you look back to their works, they were also technical marketers in their specific field, which, obviously, wasn’t previewing the importance of Internet.

Possibly an Ogilvy of the XXI century would be also a tech marketer, IMHO.

I liked your comment by the way, because in digging deeper in a possible answer, we could start talking about the competitive advantages an SEO/Web Marketing Agency may have with respect to a traditional Media Agency.


Jamie | December 12th, 2012

A great question. In the case of Ogilvy and Halbert, technology wasn’t what it is now when they were coming up, but I’d argue they were still quite technical for their time. Ogilvy helped pioneer television attribution, in addition to being a brilliant and creative mind. And Halbert was a pioneer (if not THE pioneer) of direct response. They were technical enough to devise these methods, perhaps not in the way we think of being ‘technical’ today, but certainly way ahead of their time.

As a side note, Ogilvy is using flash on their site. :-( This makes me think they may still be one of the best at branding, but they’ve got a lot to learn about the web.

My thoughts are more about being a marketer today, than in the 20th century. But I’d still argue that those who were the most successful had the creative mind along with the understanding and capability to measure what is successful.


There’s that label again.  That cornering “technical marketer” label.  It’s a term that scares me – like giving rock n’ roll too many rules, or telling an artist he has to paint in the lines.  I worry that a post like this will polarize SEOs who don’t read closely enough to comments like “…I’d still argue that those who were the most successful had the creative mind along with the understanding and capability to measure what is successful.”  If that’s all this post were about, I’d completely agree with that.

I don’t know the author and one of the commenters, but I do know David Cohen (@explorionary) from Seer Interactive, and his work.  He and I had a quick chat over the weekend about this post. It dawned on us that we might have the makings of a pretty good read.  From here on, inspired by the format of a Nick Eubanks / Anthony Pensabene post, a semi-real time continuation of our thoughts here:

 David Cohen

I felt like this post needed a soundtrack. For me, it’s the Foo Fighters song, The Colour and the Shape. It’s not a technical song from a technical band. But the Foo Fighters just work really well together, each contributing something unique to create their dynamic sound.

Alright. The title of the aforementioned post sounds like it bothered you. It annoyed me. “Every Marketer Should Be Technical“. Why? What’s the point?

According to the author, a great marketer can now develop a high-level marketing strategy, use SQL to pull email lists, write copy, design landing pages, and then code them. I’m guessing a great contemporary marketer should also know how to make a killer Hollandaise sauce, and know how to weld wine racks too.

 Bill Sebald

There’s some good commentary over at inbound inspired by the post we’re discussing.  I think it’s a real distraction if it becomes a “them vs. us” type of battle.  SEOs already deal with it against the design folk, straight copywriters, the UX/IA teams.  We don’t need a civil war, but at the heart of marketing is creativity.  Psychology.  The art of communication.  At some point years ago SEO outgrew its technical definition, especially when it became a marketing channel in several major agencies who did online work.  I watched it happen in my old company, as it left the IT department and moved into the marketing department.

There’s room in this industry for SEOs who only know development.  There’s always a need for the person who knows the whole jQuery library or can optimize web code (etc.), just like there’s always a need for the graphic designer, the database admin, the data analyst in an online marketing campaign.  That’s vital.  But that’s not marketing.  I used the example above of “technical marketing” being an anchor.  Clearly not the case in every campaign, but I believe it can happen enough to not accept a black and white opinion on this.

 David Cohen

As a marketer, here’s a dream come true scenario for me – you decided to build a tool that listens to people better so you can create context around your marketing better.

You bring a team of devs and designers together to build this tool. The team of devs and designers allows a rep from the social and marketing teams to be a part of their creation process. And then once this tool that’s designed to help marketers create context is ready for testing, you let storytellers, copywriters, social and PR people learn its nuances, test their behavior as they use the tool, iterate, and then roll out your minimum viable product.

Then as your next iteration launches into the jungle of humanity and you have a team analyzing user behavior, you also have a community manager and PR team confidently ready to attract attention and earn people’s trust to give the tool a try. And if you can get a community built around your brand’s vision and core beliefs, the potential to meet your business objectives is high.

So, I’m not into compartmentalizing people by labeling them. Let’s just build diverse marketing teams with people who do 1 or 2 things really well and see what happens.

 Bill Sebald

I like that.  It’s like a band (and yes, I consider a drummer – a non melody maker – a musician) – bring in all the SMUs and create together, dependent on each other.  Make it iterative and you’re aiming at agile development.   I’m with you 100% David, which I figured I’d be after guessing where you were going on the SEOmoz comments.

I think this is a pretty sound counter-opinion.  I also think the opposite (original post) could be offensive to some marketers.

 David Cohen

Maybe some marketers were offended. The headline was annoying but the post was funny, and then I got sad. Especially when it got to the “12 Ingredients To Be A Technical Marketer” part. Putting the idea that marketers have to learn how to do everything from web dev, design, copywriting and technical SEO wouldn’t leave much time for a marketer to learn how to talk to actually talk to people and understand markets.

Even if a marketer fits in the ‘technical’ category, they can become better at what they do by understanding the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the people they are developing and creating things for. Just like storytellers, copywriters, and social folks can learn from technical or analytical minded people.

Last point here. And this is about marketing leadership. I think one of the best things we can do is help marketers who are coming up through the ranks to understand that you don’t actually have to be the person described in the SEOmoz post to become successful and provide value to a team.

I think we can do better (me included) at giving young marketers a clearer vision for how they best fit in the broad and diverse world of marketing. And once they catch that vision, to help them gain confidence and a strong knowledge-base. Helping people who are eager to learn to build confidence and self-esteem is one of the greatest things we can do as professionals who’ve been in the game awhile.

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    The comments are do-follow. However, any comments that use keyword anchor text as the name will be removed.

    1. John Jackson
      January 3, 2013

      Firstly, fantastic article and I completely agree. The creative/non technical side of growth hacking/technical marketing/SEO 2.0 is just as important!

      I know this could rile a few people, but to be truly brilliant at everything SEO would you not have to have split personalities?

      The analytical and technical aspects require an introvert mindset, whilst communication and creativity rely on extrovert qualities.

      Whilst we should all have a basic understanding of all the aspects of inbound marketing, should we not also aim to find out where we really excel and where we can really add value, be it technical or otherwise?


    2. Gyi
      January 3, 2013

      Every Marketer Does Not Need To Be Technical, But Should Know Someone Who Is. :)


    3. Gyi
      January 3, 2013

      Every Marketer Does Not Need To Be Technical, But Should Know Someone Who Is. :)


    4. Rob Kaufmann
      January 3, 2013

      I like the idea of being well rounded but it’s important to know when to hand part of a project over to a developer. The issue I run into the most with ‘technical marketers’ is that a they can’t know all the gotchas of a programming language or platform after only a short amount of time researching it. Saving 10 mins by implementing some things themselves ends up wasting hours when you have to fix it down the line.


    5. AJ Kohn
      January 3, 2013

      I think a good marketer needs to have some technical knowledge. There are three big reasons.

      Sniff Out Bull Shit

      If you know enough about SQL or front end dev work you can call BS when someone tells you that what you’re asking for is difficult. Many times a developer might now want to grep the weblogs for Googlebot because it’s not fun, but it’s certainly easy enough.

      Better Communication

      I think it’s important to know enough about the technology to carry on a half-way intelligent conversation with a developer. You earn a lot of respect from these important team members when you can at least follow what they’re saying and ask a few questions which aren’t insanely stupid.

      Knowing vs Understanding

      You can learn and know a lot by simply watching and reading about something. But actually doing it (even badly) can lead to a lot more understanding. I’m not the best at PHP but I do it on my blog and by doing it I’ve learned a lot and would be able to better identify others who I could hire to do it better.

      So I think every marketer does need to be technical but that doesn’t mean they have to code, or that they have to have a deep technical expertise. They need to know a little bit about nearly everything.


      • Scott Dodge
        January 3, 2013

        I totally agree with AJ on all these points. Having technical knowledge is a great item to have in your toolbox, but it’s certainly not the defining element of a “good” SEO.

        I’m not the most technical minded in the bunch, but I certainly know enough to make concrete recommendations and oversee development tasks that directly impact SEO.

        I’ve been doing a lot of audit work lately, and having technical knowledge and a support system of those smarter than me have been infinitely valuable to the success of my work.

        Just wanted to chime in – I love these collaborative post formats. Keep up the great work!


    6. Mike
      January 3, 2013

      If I were an expert coder, I’d be off coding. If I was a genius artist, I’d be off writing a hit novel. If I were a numerical genius, I’d be a coke-addled stupidly rich banking type.

      I’m good enough at creative to communicate with the graphic designer, I can read code and understand how Google will see it and I can manipulate a keyword list full of coal to find the jewels.

      That’s the best thing about SEO. In a world that historically rewards extremes, it’s an industry where being somewhere in the middle is the ideal. If your talented enough in one area to not feel the need to dip your toe into another, you should really be off doing that.


    7. Joel K (@cstechjoel)
      January 3, 2013

      I find it incredibly strange that in a field like SEO, where we are constantly rolling the snowball down the hill and incorporating new functions and competencies under the umbrella, that we now demand EVERYONE under that umbrella possess a particular skillset.

      Should everyone in a traditional marketing agency be a great copywriter? No, but perhaps they should know enough to know what bad copy is.

      Should everybody at a web development firm be a fantastic graphic designer? No, but perhaps they should understand what great design looks like.

      We do not all need to posses every skill. It is my belief that SEO has progressed to a stage where you are better off having access to a team of folks with differentiated skills who can report on all sides of this elephant instead of grabbing the tail and shouting that it’s a snake.


    8. Michael King
      January 4, 2013

      The comment experience on this post is super confusing.

      I just wanted to jump in and reply to the Ogilvy thread. David Ogilvy was def a technical marketer in his time. He valued market research and testing and ultimately the TV attribution that Jamie mentioned in the same way we value technical measurement planning, A/B testing and testing in general. It was the exact same thing, just a different time and toolset.

      I (somewhat) help Jamie with the site so I obviously agree with him, every marketer should be technical. In the case of SEO, I honestly never understood how people could do it when they didn’t know anything about building a website. How do you justify telling a dev to make make changes to how JavaScript loads if you can’t explain it? How do you prepare a code snippet for someone to implement if you can’t code? Then how can you back it up when they ask you questions about it? In cases when I worked with people who knew SEO, but didn’t know websites or anything technical it was mostly them leaning on me to make sure their recommendations are right. To me that’s kinda like being a brain surgeon, that doesn’t really know how to operate.

      Beyond that….understanding the limitations of existing technology and having the ability to make what’s not there is truly liberating. You can essentially do anything you can imagine. That’s why agencies like R/GA are killing it because they are the modern Ogilvy in that they are inventing the next thing. They don’t just market…they create. Understanding the technology, seeing what’s there, what’s not and then creating the future.

      Not sure about you guys, but that’s the type of marketing I want to do not just writing deliverables and hoping something happens.



      • Bill Sebald
        January 4, 2013

        So focusing specifically on SEO (and not marketing as a whole, which this post is about), I actually think you can be just an SEO content writer. You can write for search and not know code. You can understand citations, LSI, etc. If you know all this, I still maintain you’re an SEO. Granted, I do think you’re limiting yourself severely as a service provider by not having the technical skills, but you’re still an SEO.

        I don’t mean to quibble over the text “should be” vs. “may benefit from”, but I kind of believe it matters.


        • Michael King
          January 4, 2013

          I don’t disagree that SEO is faceted and you can be content strategist and be an SEO. I more meant in the broad sense of being someone who is a comprehensive SEO, you should be technical.


      • Andrea W
        January 4, 2013

        “He valued market research and testing and ultimately the TV attribution that Jamie mentioned in the same way we value technical measurement planning, A/B testing and testing in general. It was the exact same thing, just a different time and toolset.”

        No. That’s not technical marketing. Thats basic marketing. That post was talking about the tech side of digital.

        This is like saying every marketer always was a technical marketer now.


        • Michael King
          January 4, 2013

          No. In Ogilvy’s time marketing was just driven by creative. People just threw ideas at the wall and saw what stuck a la Don Draper.

          Using Research, testing and attribution were the “technical” things to do that the time. In fact it wasn’t until the late 80′s and early 90′s when actual account planning became the norm.


    9. Melissa W.
      January 4, 2013

      THIS: “You can call BS when someone tells you that what you’re asking for is difficult.”

      Exactly. As a young slightly naive SEO, I’ve heard this a lot from people I’ve worked with. Usually, it’s just something that personally don’t see the benefit in. Saying “it’s too hard” or “will take too much time” is just a way of saying, “I don’t like it, I don’t want to do it,” and “you won’t tell the difference.”

      It’s unfortunate. At the same time, with a better understanding of some technical aspects, you can know when you’re asking for too much. Great response, AJ!


    10. Anthony Pensabene
      January 4, 2013

      i agree with mk a bit above. “SEO” is irreversibly associated to search engines, so i can’t help a Chinese student with their communicative abilities if I don’t speak/read Chinese.

      However, “SEO,” that is, what actually ‘happens’ is much broader than merely understanding how to read/communicate with the engines. Our industry overlaps into divisions of marketing. So, a developer may know how to speak to the engines, yet the optimization part is associated to marketing, communicating to clients, no? Sure, a savvy developer can ‘create’ shit all day. is it marketable is another question.

      the question is interesting, and will persist no doubt, but if we’re actually speaking about something tangible, there’s too many variables per project to immediately answer the question.


    11. Anthony Pensabene
      January 4, 2013

      also wanted to add that the online experience is evolving to the point where, i believe, strict technical knowledge is less of a treasure chest.. why i believe many link builders got pissed about panda- because it insinuated knowing how to take certain routes to links (maybe more tech-focused routes)no longer worked, and thus not profitable re clients

      a marketer once called me naive for thinking you could ignore google to successfully market. i think if you CANT do that you shouldnt be in marketing altogether. following the strict tech-stud road gets you to that post Dr. P wrote about metrics that matter.. a developer can’t help me keep people on page and make conversions with their developer/coding acumen alone. Could a savvy marketer do just about anything to “communicate” a business message, not specifically needing an engine? haha- see “business” before 1990


    12. Chris le
      January 4, 2013

      From a developer’s perspective: You don’t need to be technical to be a marketer. But you’ll waste A LOT LESS time if you pick up some basics.

      First, it helps A LOT when someone talks to me at my level. SEO lingo is *NOT* actionable for me. And sending URLs to someone else’s blog post doesn’t help because my entire setup is different. It’s NOT actionable. If you talk to me at my level, give ME /actionable/ recommendations, you’ll get results. FASST. That’s how you win at marketing. Getting results.

      Also, you can’t scale what you can’t delegate. I hate the word “scale” but … If you’re delegating work, you have two choices: a human or a machine.

      Knowing WHAT to do is baseline. You don’t need technical expertise for that. Getting good at what you do does not require technical expertise. Knowing HOW to delegate the work to a computer just makes you way more efficient than anyone else in the game. Technical expertise is no good to you if you suck at being a marketer.


      Pick up technical basics so you can be better at your job – communicate with people who need to get your stuff done and delegate work for scale.


    13. David Cohen
      January 5, 2013

      Calling Ogilvy a technical marketer, in the context of what the SEOmoz post communicated, doesn’t make any sense to me. Being a brilliant researcher and being the type of marketer Jamie described can’t be correlated in my mind.

      Maybe we need to do a better job (me included) adding some definition and context to ‘marketing’ and ‘technical’.

      For me, marketing was always about this: getting people’s attention, earning their trust, convincing them to take specific actions, and retaining them as a customer.

      There’s nothing ‘technical’ about this. Marketing is a people thing and a communication thing. And of course it’s about meeting business objectives. Ogivly didn’t need to know Python or Illustrator to accomplish this. It didn’t even need to exist for him.

      I know there won’t be much consensus on this, especially in the SEO community. But all I know is, when I’m sitting in a meeting with my client who has products that are used by 1 in 3 homes in America, my client doesn’t give a crap if I know how to a cross-domain canonical or code an HTML5 infographic.

      They want to know I understand how to solve marketing problems for them, that I understand how to communicate with their broader teams, and that I can execute initiatives with my team back at SEER.


    14. Andrew
      January 14, 2013

      I’m with you on this, Bill. By the way, how do you cache a page on a blog?


      • Bill Sebald
        January 16, 2013

        Hi Andrew, if you’re using WordPress (and it looks like you are), I recommend the WP Super Cache plugin. Install that, turn it on, and you’ll be speeding up your page load.


    15. Ellen Contreras
      January 17, 2013

      How do you plan to measure the ROI of your investment? Many marketers use site traffic as their primary metric plus “soft” metrics such as counting fans and followers and positive buzz. But more and more companies are looking for social marketing metrics that pack a better business punch, such as in increase in the number and rate of conversions.


    16. Martin
      February 1, 2013

      Hi Bill, in one of my costumer’s company (Travel agency) I cooperate with Marketing coordinator which is 100% out of tech side of marketing, but she is giving me the orders how I shall do my job (Webdesign and SEO). Anytime I design the solution, she totally change it, then I have to describe the reason of my solution and each case takes weeks more. So I vote and pray, could you learn a bit of technical background before you start making the mess of my life MISS MARKETING COORDINATOR? Thanks for interesting opinion clash.


    17. Gent
      February 7, 2013

      I definitely agree with you on this, Bill. But it surely helps if you got some technical skills like graphic design or programming. SEO requires a very creative mind in order to achieve results and every technical skill that you know is just an extra tool to help you along the way.

      Being a jack of all trades will definitely help you a lot especially in creating plans and strategies. Also, if you have a team of technical people in your disposition you will know how to talk to them and ask for the right things.


      • Michael
        February 13, 2013

        Too right. I think you need to be versed in all areas but not necessarily work in them all, unless they are small projects. At least you then know what needs to be done if not completely how.