November 14, 2015

Why IT People Need to Know a Little Bit About Marketing

Recently, I attended a meeting of our local 501 Tech Club and NetSquared group. The crowd was composed of IT folks and people interested in technology. The topic was…marketing.

Wait a minute. Marketing?

Yes! Audience Personas, to be precise. I wondered, “Why would technical staff care about audience personas?” “Communications and IT people need to work together on this,” said our presenter, Lisa Hirst Carnes of Arcstone Creative.

I’ve been thinking about that statement and wondering if it’s one facet of a bigger concept.

When IT staff understand the business case for marketing technology–such as how a marketing automation tool could supercharge outreach efforts, thereby extending the organization’s educational mission—they can help ensure that the necessary technology investments are made. This applies not only to marketing, but also to any function or department that the IT department supports. I once did a project with a music school that was looking for a database solution to support their student recruitment and registration process. We gathered the IT director and the recruitment staff together to talk about their business processes, workflows, and the level of technology skills among recruitment team members. We also talked about problems the current system was causing, and how better data management would lead to a better student experience. Equipped with this insight, the IT director was able to recommend a practical solution that was inexpensive and could be tailored to their requirements. And what’s more, he got it set up and deployed quickly, so they could start providing a better experience to students right away.

When IT staff understand how technology makes or breaks what matters most for the organization in terms of marketing, they can better prioritize their time. For example, they probably already know that if the website goes down, they had better drop everything and get that fixed immediately. But when faced with five other tasks for the marketing department, how do they know which ones are most important or urgent? Understanding what matters most for each major department of the organization is as helpful in business continuity planning as it is in prioritizing support requests. A leadership development organization I know examined each area of operations to determine which systems and data were mission-critical, asking themselves, In the event of a crash or outage, how long could we reasonably wait to have this system restored? That knowledge guided their disaster recovery plan and their spending on backup systems. For them, marketing systems were not the highest priority for disaster recovery But if your mission hinges on the ability to get critical and urgent information out to the public, then fail-safe or redundant communication tools should be a top priority, and IT staff can help you plan for that.

With a basic grasp of the strategy behind marketing efforts, technical staff can suggest tools and tricks to better achieve marketing goals through technology. At the Tech Club event, when Lisa talked about ways to gather information about audience personas, someone suggested a pop-up survey and another person said she could cross-tabulate survey data. Technical staff know how to do automation and data analysis stuff that marketing people might not even realize is possible.

Ultimately, the point is not that IT staff need to know about marketing, or accounting, or social work, or acting, or organ donation, or any of the other things that happen in your organization. The point is that IT staff need to know their internal customer’s needs and priorities in order to do their best work. Which brings me back to audience personas. The concept of audience personas is all about building a rich understanding of the audience member’s point of view. I’ve seen the difference it made when an IT consultant took the time to do this for a nonprofit employee who was having trouble with a remote network connection. Instead of spewing technical jargon over the employee’s head or merely solving the technical problem, he asked her questions to understand the context in which she was experiencing the problem, and offered an alternative that was a much better fit for her.

Karen Graham
Karen is a sought-after speaker, trainer, writer, and consultant with expertise in technology leadership and innovation, nonprofit software, and digital strategy. As Idealware's program director she leads a team of researchers, presenters, and writers who create technology information resources designed to help nonprofit leaders put their vision into action. Her past experience includes leading the technology consulting services and nonprofit technology learning and networking programs at MAP for Nonprofits, helping to build the nonprofit CRM/database solution provider thedatabank from a startup to a thriving software company, and various roles in arts and human services organizations. She holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management from the University of St. Thomas. Idealware is a program of the nonprofit Tech Impact.