Tackling Technical Debt: Empowering Marketers to Overcome its Impact

By Natsha Ness

Published on 5 Jun, 2023

As marketers, we know how crucial it is to offer customer-centric products and services delivered in a seamless user experience. But here’s the thing: technical debt can put all that at risk.

It can compromise the quality and functionality of what we offer, leading to bad reviews, unhappy customers, and, let’s face it, lower revenue. 

In this article, we’ll dive into what we mean by “technical debt”, why it matters so much to us marketers (and to our organization as a whole), and most importantly, why we should do everything in our power to avoid technical debt in the first place.

What is Technical Debt?

Let’s take a step back and break down what technical debt means. Think of it as the aftermath of taking shortcuts during the software development, implementation, or integration processes just to meet immediate business needs or deadlines.

These shortcuts can come in different forms, like using outdated or inefficient technologies, underestimating project costs, skipping important steps like user acceptance criteria, unit testing, or code reviews, not thoroughly evaluating technology choices, and neglecting proper documentation or refactoring the code when needed.

Like financial debt, technical debt piles up over time as more code gets built on top of the existing codebase. And just like financial debt accrues interest, technical debt brings its own consequences. For example, it can result in higher maintenance costs, reduced productivity, and a decline in the quality and reliability of the software.

To effectively manage technical debt, software development, and technical operations teams must strike a balance between the need for speed and the need for quality and maintainability. By emphasizing the importance of maintaining this balance, we can address technical debt head-on and ensure that our software remains robust, efficient, and up to par.

But Why Should Marketers Care?

Marketers should pay attention to technical debt because it directly impacts the quality and functionality of the solutions we’re promoting. 

Here’s the thing: technical debt can make the software we rely on more prone to bugs, data discrepancies, crashes, and other pesky issues that can seriously harm the user experience (both for the marketer and the people we’re marketing to). And you know what happens when users have a bad experience, right? Reduced customer satisfaction, negative reviews, and, worst of all, lower revenue. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Technical debt can also throw a wrench into the gears of innovation. It can slow down the team, making implementing new features and updates more challenging and time-consuming. Imagine competing with other companies who quickly adapt and improve while we’re struggling to catch up with our competitors due to outdated technology and data. That’s not a good look, and it’s definitely not good for business. Plus, its strain on our internal resources can lead to missed opportunities to capitalize on emerging trends. 

The real kicker: technical debt creates broken processes that can really burn marketers out. Constantly dealing with software issues and fixing and reporting bugs instead of focusing on marketing strategies and campaigns is a recipe for exhaustion and frustration. 

We need smooth workflows and efficient tools to do our job effectively and enthusiastically.

When Marketing Suffers Due to Tech Debt

As you can see, tech debt creates real challenges for marketers in their day-to-day responsibilities. For example, when marketers encounter unresolved technical issues or outdated systems, it can hinder their ability to execute campaigns effectively, analyze data accurately, and deliver results that lead to sustainable business results. 

Here are five examples of how tech debt negatively impacts marketing teams:

1.Slow & Inefficient Processes

Accumulated tech debt often leads to complex and convoluted workflows, making routine tasks time-consuming and error-prone. 

For instance, a marketing and sales team using an outdated CRM platform can create limited automation capabilities. This debt has a significant trickle effect on anything from updating a field time to deploying updates that may be required for accurate lead nurturing. The operations team ultimately takes precious time to sustain an inefficient and undesired platform.

2. Data Inaccuracy in Reporting

Tech debt can significantly compromise data integrity, making it difficult for marketers to trust the information they rely on for decision-making. In addition, outdated or poorly integrated systems might cause data discrepancies, duplicate records, or incomplete analytics reports. 

Let’s use the example of Marketing Attribution in this scenario. When your systems are not integrated as they should, and your data is incomplete, it’s hard for both sales and marketing to understand where to place their best bets in the channels that might result in more revenue. This can result in extraordinary spending on the wrong channels and efforts because poor data might have pointed a marketer in one direction over another. 

In the case of Envestnet/Yodlee, this was an all too familiar story. However, after working with the team to set KPIs and moving to a modern attribution infrastructure (Marketo Measure / Salesforce / Tableau), delivering data cleanliness, and correct reporting, they were able to surface hidden gaps within their pipeline. This resulted in the marketing team’s better understanding of where to focus their efforts to drive more revenue growth for the organization. 

3. Inability to Adapt to Market Trends 

Rapid advancements in technology and shifts in market behavior require marketers to be agile and adaptable. However, tech debt can hinder their ability to leverage new marketing channels, tools, or strategies. 

For example, suppose marketers are trying to go to market in an ABM (account-based marketing) motion but are tied to legacy systems. In that case, it’s very likely they will lack integration capabilities with emerging platforms that allow for intent data and targeting against key accounts, like 6sense, for example. 

Due to this, they may miss out on potential opportunities to engage with their target audiences and key accounts effectively and in a more automated manner. 

4. Limited Personalization & Targeting

Marketing relies on delivering personalized experiences and targeted messaging to relevant segments. However, tech debt can limit marketers’ ability to effectively collect, analyze, and leverage customer data. 

Outdated or fragmented systems can pose a real challenge when implementing robust customer segmentation, accurately targeting audiences/personas, and delivering tailored marketing campaigns that truly connect with individual customer needs and preferences.

For example, you want to deploy a persona-driven marketing journey for new and existing customers. In this scenario, the marketer does not have access to CRM directly but has access to the marketing automation and the display advertising platforms to deploy campaigns. They see there is a field readily available that’s called “Personas”. On the surface, it looks like that field checks out, so they choose that field to segment their audience against. 

What happens? Marketers may unknowingly make poorly-informed decisions relying on a flawed data point. This scenario is not unique and can result in several challenges based on poorly constructed tech, leaving debt in the wake of the marketer’s path. Those challenges can be anything from that single Persona field resulting in:

  • A field mapped to the wrong data
  • A field mapped to no data
  • A field that is no longer in use
  • A field mapped to automation that isn’t desired for this program
  • A field that doesn’t map back to CRM for data accuracy
  • The list can really go on and on.

This familiar scenario will ultimately result in less-than-ideal campaign results, ineffective messaging personalization, inaccurate analytics reporting, team disappointment, and finger-pointing.

5. Compromised Collaboration & Communication

Marketing falls at the intersection of many departments within any org. Therefore, marketers must be at the table and collaborate with their technical and sales counterparts to be successful. 

However, tech debt can create barriers to collaboration, hindering marketers’ ability to coordinate efforts and share critical information efficiently. 

Outdated CRMs, marketing automation platforms, project management tools, or fragmented communication platforms can lead to miscommunication, delays, and confusion among marketing teams, impacting overall productivity and campaign execution.

While there are many technical ramifications, this also has personal complications. When there is a lack of the ability to automate technology and data due to poorly constructed platforms, this gives stakeholders who request updates a negative perception of the technical teams and the marketing and sales teams. 

Tech debt, without a doubt, creates un-needed conflict amongst teams in the high pressures of the modern workforce. 

From Crisis to Control: 6 Techniques for Marketers to Tackle Technical Debt

Now that we’ve delved into the consequences of technical debt for marketers, sales teams, and technologists, you might wonder: How can we fix it? Or even better, how can we avoid it altogether? We’ve got you covered with some simple steps and rules to kickstart your journey:

1.Start with Documentation

It’s a straightforward but often overlooked practice. When deprecating or implementing new or existing technology, document the technology, the data, and your plan of action. 

This way, both new and current team members will have a clear understanding of the technical intricacies throughout the system, enabling them to address any outstanding issues and lead the way in implementing automated improvements, thereby reducing technical debt.

2. Evaluate Build vs. Buy

When your team is at the intersection of deciding whether to update an existing/legacy platform vs. buying something new, ensure you weigh the balance of work properly before just diving into building on top of an already shaky foundation. 

Opting to buy modern technology may help mitigate tech debt early on. Ready-made solutions often come with the latest best practices, robust frameworks, and ongoing updates from SaaS companies. While this decision will not work in every scenario, when this can be made, it reduces the risk of accumulating debt from outdated or unsupported technology. Vendors also provide support and maintenance, saving time, money, and resources. 

On the other hand, tacking on a new platform to an existing one can create complications of its own without thinking through the risks and assumptions in this process. 

When you’re looking to make a big update and decide whether to build or buy new software, it’s important to consider and document all the requirements of everyone involved. Take into account the needs of all stakeholders when making this decision, with a key focus on reducing tech debt

3. Keep Technology Up-To-Date

Make it a habit to keep your overall technology stack up to date so your software can leverage the latest and most efficient tools and features available. 

This way, you can avoid any potential technical debt that might arise from relying on outdated or unsupported technology.

4. Prioritize Code Quality

Make it a priority to write clean, easy-to-maintain code right from the start of a project. 

While not all marketers code nor understand what goes into programming languages today, work with your developers and encourage them to write unit tests, user acceptance criteria and have regular code reviews. The critical thing for marketers here is ensuring there is time for your technical counterparts to do this if it relates to a marketing initiative you’re pining to get live. 

Doing so can prevent the accumulation of technical debt and make it much simpler to manage and update the codebase as time goes on. As a marketer, you can support the tech team by emphasizing the importance of clean code and promoting a culture of quality and collaboration so that your collective team is proud of the stack you’re all managing.

5. Proactively Plan to Pay Back Debts

Schedule regular refactoring sessions to improve the overall quality and maintainability of the codebase. In addition, refactoring can help reduce technical debt by identifying and addressing areas of code that are hard to maintain or have become overly complex.

For product managers and marketers, work with your technical teams to prioritize “paying back” technical debt at critical milestones in the product roadmap. Ensure you’re allocating resources to address technical debt as part of the development process and ensure stakeholders are aware of any code-freezes or feature enhancement freezes to support this effort. 

This can help prevent technical debt from accumulating and ensure the codebase remains maintainable and efficient over time.

6. Balance Speed & Quality

Finding the right balance between speed and quality is key in the development process. It’s tempting to rush a project to meet deadlines, but taking shortcuts can lead to even more technical debt, which can be expensive to fix down the road.

As marketers, we need to respect this. While we often have aggressive growth goals and ROI needs for our marketing initiatives, we must ensure we balance those goals with the need for quality across our technology stack. This way, developers and marketers can avoid the pitfalls of technical debt while still meeting deadlines and delivering top-notch software and top-notch campaigns that generate business value.

In Closing

Technical debt can really put a damper on marketing operations. It introduces delays, data inaccuracies, limited adaptability, reduced personalization, and even hampers collaboration. So it’s no wonder that addressing and actively managing tech debt is absolutely crucial for us marketers and technologists to do together.

By taking technical debt seriously and working hand in hand with our development team, we can tackle it head-on. When we address technical debt, we open the door to enhancing our operational efficiency, streamlining processes, and ultimately achieving optimal results in our day-to-day marketing activities. 

So let’s roll up our sleeves and prioritize tackling technical debt. Doing so ensures that our products and services deliver a stellar user experience, keep us in the game with our competition, and give us marketers the breathing room we need to shine and thrive. 

Want to learn more about how marketing and technology teams can work better together?

We’re here for it; talk to Shift Paradigm today.

This article is a collaboration between Tim Townley, Principal Strategist, Research & Data Insights and Natasha Ness, VP, GTM.

Written By Natsha Ness

Natasha Ness leads the go-to-market team at Shift. She has a blended background in marketing, product, design, UX, and sales where she's helped both small, mid-size and enterprise companies launch new solutions and optimize their existing. When she's not dabbling in the latest technology or building a campaign, she spends her free time with her two girls and husband, likely watching an anime together.
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