Marketing is from Mars, IT is from Venus

I’ve spent over a decade in the Big Leagues of interactive marketing. I started in the low rungs as a web developer, and slowly worked my past the coding to see the bigger pictures: what made marketing work, why certain campaigns were better than others, how to think like a client, and so forth. These are all truly interesting skills, and helped a lot with the projects I worked on.

One thing that regularly amazed me, however, was how often a client’s internal IT group seemed to have non-trivial input on almost every aspect of an initiative, from the way it was hosted right down to the specific use of a given image. I often found myself watching our best-laid plans being eaten away to the point of delivering something I was less than happy with. The repeat experience led me to focus on one inexorable fact:

IT departments should never have any input on the marketing website. Ever.

Before the IT folks all try to kill me, please understand something — I’m on your side. My background is technical — I have done corporate IT in my previous lives, and am well aware of the implications and consequences of a haphazard platform rollout or a half-baked application install. I know why Sarbanes-Oxley creates havoc every quarter. And yes, I too have denied people hardware upgrades merely for the reason that I didn’t see the need. I know where you’re coming from.

To over-simplify things, it’s the men and women problem: they’re both human, but communication and understanding sometimes comes in very short supply. Hence the book, and the numerous parodies thereof. (Though why women got stuck with the toxic atmosphere planet remains a mystery to me.) In my view, IT and marketing are on equally distant worlds, with the same challenges to understand given needs.

This is not about just mere communication. This goes past communication to perceptions, politics, policies, and also budgets. The resulting confounding confusion ends with uncertainties, namely: who actually is responsible for the website, who owns the website and its operation, and who pays for it. (Yes, IT and marketing work for the same company, but each has their own budgets.) This is where the tug-of-wars start, and why IT tends to get sucked (or shoved) into the website space.

Like I said, IT, I’m on your side. And believe me when I say this: You do not want to handle the trouble of the marketing website.

Simply put, a marketing department’s purpose is to sell a company’s products or services. As the adage goes, you have to spend money to make money. In the world of profit/loss, a marketing department is almost entirely loss — they spend the money to raise awareness and encourage sales of their organisation’s wares.

An IT department’s purpose is to support the organisation’s internal operations through implementing technology standards, ensuring stability and control over technology infrastructure, and assisting when things go awry. Like marketing, internal IT is entirely loss as well — it is the traditional form of a “cost center”, meaning it doesn’t even feed directly into a revenue chain. That also means that it’s a constant focus of cost control.

The two departments also (typically) report up through different executives as well, with marketing going to a marketing-oriented office (such as a Chief Marketing Officer) and IT going through the financial/administrative office (such as a Chief Financial Officer). This means that messages provided to each of them are different, the directions given to them are different, and their are told to focus on different things.

Which means, of course, that when the marketing department asks for something, the IT department will think it means something else.

In my experience, this usually arises when a company’s web presence is the point of discussion. This is the ultimate tug-of-war: marketing needs the freedom to do what they need to do to their job, and IT sees this as something they need to own and support. Almost invariably, it ends up getting messy, and the marketing department ends up subservient to the IT department.

Now, before all you geeks out there cheer for this apparent victory, this is a bad thing. As alluded to above, IT departments do not understand marketing needs. What IT departments see is a need to keep things in line with supported standards, and keep costs to a minimum. This misunderstanding has been lampooned many times in cartoon, often sending those in the industry to nod their heads sadly at the truth.

Consider the following scenario: Marketing has a project that will raise awareness for a new product. Their budget allows for about two weeks of work, and will have a one year lifespan. They want to really reach out to Gen Y as a primary audience. When Marketing and IT see these rough requirements, they’ll each see something different:

Marketing ViewIT View
Project NeedMicrosite to support a new sales campaignUpdate to the website
DeadlineTwo weeks“When it’s ready”
Content ManagementSimple, easy, something an intern could useCorporate standard implementation (large, usually unwieldy and expensive)
Creative visionRich media that engages user with branding and productFlat HTML works best with the corporate standard

There’s two places where IT falls short: understanding the creative aspect of marketing, and the need for flexibility. Marketing campaigns are highly creative, by sheer necessity — remove the creativity, and all you have is a message without hooks. The flexibility allow marketing to react to need, as well as attempt strategies to better broadcast a message. Such flexibility flies in the face of most standards, which strive for stringent consistency.

In other words, marketing is not something an IT department should ever want to understand. I assure you, it can make your head hurt.

So what are we left with? In my view, keep IT doing what IT does best: supporting the internal infrastructure of a company, and staying out of the website game.

As for the website, it should never live with the company (unless the company itself is geared utterly around its website, but that also changes the game entirely). The website should live at an external location with a third-party hosting vendor. There are thousands to choose from in all sizes, shapes, securities, and softwares. You do this because you don’t want to have to deal with the infrastructure of a website that supports your business (either directly or indirectly), and because it allows a marketing department to do things that would scare the bejeebus out of an IT team.

So, dear IT friends, do yourselves a favour: if someone ever tries to suggest you take on the task of managing the company’s website projects, do yourselves a favour: run. And leave behind a note with the five hosting sales reps who cold-called you last month.