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by Alex Birkett, Growth Marketing Manager, ConversionXL
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What Technical Skills Are Essential for Digital Marketing Pros?

Today’s guest post is from Alex Birkett, growth marketer at ConversionXL. The company is hosting CXL Live, a 3-day growth and optimization event in April. See the full lineup.

The path to becoming a top digital marketer isn’t always clear, though one thing that seems certain is that it’s increasingly valuable to have technical skills.

This statement isn’t completely straightforward either, though. What does it mean to be a digital marketer? And what does it mean to be technical?

What’s a “technical skill” in digital marketing anyway?

Depending who you ask, “digital marketing” can include SEO, PPC, sales copywriting, content writing, graphic design, CRO, analytics, and more.

And is Excel a technical skill or something everyone should know?

It’s hard to categorize these things.

According to The Balance, “Technical skills are abilities and knowledge needed to perform specific tasks. They are practical, and often relate to mechanical, IT, mathematical, or scientific tasks. Some examples include knowledge of programming languages, mechanical equipment, or tools.”

Investopedia also narrows it down to “mathematical, engineering, scientific or computer-related duties, as well as other specific tasks relating to technology.”

So I think it’s safe to say that according this definition, copywriting would not be a technical skill, but A/B testing and analyzing the effectiveness of landing page headlines would be. Similarly, understanding what a linear regression is would not be a technical skill, but knowing how to produce one in R or Excel would be.

While the parameters here aren’t exact, they’ll let us move forward with a general gut feel of what makes something a technical skill and something not a technical skill.

And digital marketing can be summed up by any marketing techniques applied in an online environment.

The rise of technical skills in digital marketing

The search for “technical marketers” isn’t new, but it does seem to be increasing.

More brands are going digital, and a good heuristic is that the more a brand invests in digital, the more technical their approach becomes.

This is sort of self-defined, as a technical skill is inherent to a technological medium, and using data analysis software, CMS platforms, etc., are all things inherent to digital marketing.

This is simply the result of the ongoing trend of marketers moving from traditional tactics to digital tactics—in particular repeatable, measurable tactics that are conducive to experimentation (growth marketing, right?).

A 2015 survey from Mondo found that “nearly all of those surveyed (98 percent) think the role of the marketer will continue to move away from the traditional model.”

Marriage of Tech and Creatives
(Image source)

Mondo estimated that by 2016, more than half of all new digital marketing hires will need a technical background.

Now that 2016 is hindsight, this seems fairly accurate (though perhaps I’m biased because I work at a CRO company). Anecdotally, almost all of the discussions in our CXL Facebook group and with our customers revolves around technical skills, advancements, and insights.

Gartner put out a survey in 2016 that said about as much. Marketing execs spent more on their websites, digital commerce and digital advertising than on any other categories that year, and they plan to spend more in the future.

In any case, the trend is moving towards the measurable, the technical, the experimental.

V3B summed it up well, saying, “marketers of the future will need to add a technological skill set to their creative talents if they want to take advantage of the opportunities digital marketing offers.

An incomplete list of technical skills valuable in digital marketing

Just to get on the same page, when I talk about technical skills in marketing, a few different buzzwords and titles might come to mind: growth hacker, full stack marketer, technical marketer, T shaped marketer, conversion optimizer, etc.

All of these things, though they carry different connotations, and depending who you ask, slightly different denotations, are representative of the new breed of technically skilled marketer.

So instead of splitting hairs, let’s just agree that the following list of skills can apply to any and all of those terms above.

The skills that follow aren’t arbitrary. They were chosen for a variety of factors. First, technical skills that I use frequently in my marketing role have to make the list. Second, I reached out to a ton of people in “growth marketing” to get their thoughts. Finally, CXL Institute has the unique ability to collect data on what skills are most in-demand and where the widest skill gaps are. I’ve also picked up on the trends from CXL Live.

CXL Live

The following technical skills are consistently missing but in demand, so learn them and experience a career growth boost.

Basic front end development

Almost no one will tell you that learning HTML/CSS and JavaScript is a bad idea. If you learn some basic HTML and CSS, you’re going to be a more valuable marketer.

You can spin up landing pages that don’t look awful, you can fully operate within an out-of-the-box CMS, and you can understand and interact with the web in a more robust way (for instance, SEO requires a solid amount of knowledge of HTML for anything technical or on-page).

If you learn Javascript, you’ll be even better at landing page creation and optimization and you’ll be able to run more robust A/B/n tests by yourself. You’ll also get more out of Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager, allowing yourself to work with advanced tracking, custom variables, and the dataLayer, just to mention a few things.

Solid places to start learning some basic programming:

Graphic design (Adobe Creative Suite)

I’m lumping a few different skills into this category. It’s not necessary to be an amazing designer, but it’s certainly helped me being able to hack together a graphic that doesn’t look terrible.

Knowing your way around Adobe Creative Suite allows you to do many things, especially if you have time-constrained designers: make promotional graphics for social media, make informative graphics for blog posts, mockup wireframes for new A/B tests, etc.

The better you are at visual design, the more deliverables you unlock. It’s the same with any technical skill, really. Before I knew Excel well, I wondered why it was so ubiquitous. But when I got good, I began to frame problems in terms of how I could solve them in Excel.

These are all tools for your toolkit, and the more you have, the easier you’ll be able to solve any problem, as well as come up with creative new ideas.

Here’s how to learn graphic design:

  • Lynda
  • YouTube has great tutorials
  • Just browse around for guides on Photoshop. There are tons of them (here’s one)

Excel

I hesitated putting Excel on this list because it’s considered a core skill, not just for marketers, but for almost anyone in the business world.

Then I realized two things:

  1. Excel, by our definition, is a technical skill.
  2. For everyone that puts Excel on their resume and actually knows it, there’s someone that puts it on their resume but has no idea what they’re doing.

And there’s a whole range of expertise in Excel. You can use it for something as simple as accounting and task management to do incredibly complicated predictive analysis.

Excel is a tool that allow you to think about problems differently, and most importantly, it’s probably the most transferable skill there is. Meaning everywhere you go, you can utilize this skill.

Learn it:

The best way to learn Excel, though, is to familiarize yourself with the interface and get the basics down, then solve actual problems.

Then when you’re good, get better and faster with this article.

SQL

Querying databases is another growing, valuable technical skill for marketers. It’s hard to get good with just learning and theory, though, so try to have data to practice on.

How to learn SQL:

Analytics tools

Consistently, year after year, the most requested courses from our audience are on Google Analytics.

Even if you think you know GA, you’re probably not getting the most out of it.

Plus, analytics technologies and solutions are getting more sophisticated and there is an increasingly diversifying set of tools to get the job done. So it’s inexcusable not to have at least a tepid understanding of tracking and measurement online.

Here are a few resources to get started:

Tag management

Same argument as the last one, but tag management is a bit newer and is progressing at a quicker pace it seems. Especially for a marketer, knowing tag manager to even a small level of comfort working within it will free up your development resources and allow you to deploy tags more quickly and efficiently.

Here’s an awesome primer course. Otherwise Simo Ahava’s blog is the best free resource out there.

Testing tools

I’m going to go into a more general category of Marketing Technology later, but testing tools are specifically important. Learning to run experiments is essential for modern digital marketing. Even if you just learn how to run simple ones by yourself, it helps free up resources and push things through faster.

And having a good understanding of testing and CRO allows you to work with designers and developers to get more complicated and effective tests up.

Learning testing tools depends on which one you use. Optimizely has a great learning resource. You can learn about CRO in general with CXL Institute, or read this post on conversion optimization if you’re starting from the beginning.

Become a Marketing Technologist

Adding on to the last one: it’s important to have an expert understanding of the MarTech universe and to know which solutions fit your use case.

This isn’t necessarily teachable by course; it’s something you get to know with experience and by trying different products and talking to peers in your industry.

Then, when the time comes for, say, email automation software, you can make strategic decision on which one is right for you and how it fits into your current tech stack.

Conclusion

Marketers are getting more technical. The skills of a good technical marketer, though, stop shy of those of a good analyst or engineer.

Let’s make that clear: you don’t have to be an expert at R or Python if you’re a marketer (though R has helped me a lot, I don’t recommend it as a “starter” technical skill to pick up if you don’t already have the above mentioned).

There’s also still so much value in being a specialist. If you’re an amazing copywriter, I frankly don’t care if you know what a VLookup is.

But if you want to be a growth marketer, a T-Shaped Marketer, a startup marketer, or any of the associated new and improved versions of a marketer, then learning the above skills is an excellent decision. They’ll give you marketing superpowers that others simply don’t have, and especially if you work at a startup, give you company an edge on those less technically inclined.

How have these technical skills helped you in your job? Which do you want to learn next? Let us know in the comments.

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Author Alex Birkett, Growth Marketing Manager, ConversionXL

Alex Birkett is the Growth Marketing Manager at ConversionXL.

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