Why "Full Stack" Marketers Are The Future of Digital Branding

The archetype of the indispensable, jack-of-all-trades startup employee doesn’t just apply to engineers anymore.

The term "full-stack developer" has been buzzing around the Internet for years as shorthand for a coder who can build everything from the back-end server to the front-end design and controls.

These optimally skilled people have inspired a "do it all" attitude across the entirety of the tech industry. Given their fragile nature, it’s clear that startups in particular need these jack-of-all-trades types. But that doesn’t just go for the engineering team.

With the relatively recent introduction of data-driven marketing, digital marketers are finally earning their keep in the eyes of the tech community. While full-stack devs are busy writing code in multiple languages, the ambitious "full-stack marketer" is carving out a comfortable place in startup culture.

This recent shift in digital marketing raises quite a few questions and reveals much about our values and our vision for the future of the industry. To dive deeper, I recently spoke with six full-stack marketers during a SpinnakrTalks panel to discuss where we’re headed. You can see the whole conversation here, but I’ll outline our main findings below.

Marketing Fluff Does Not Exist in the Digital Realm

Digital marketing is so much more than it used to be; it’s so much more than the "fluff" of the past, and full-stack marketers are proving this with their daily successes. That age-old marketing joke about not knowing which half of your marketing spend is going to waste is no longer true.

With data analysis skills, full-stack marketers can segment social media management and sharpen branding. Zapier’s Wade Foster outlined 21 skills that startups should look for in a full-stack marketing hire. Among them are SEO, PR outreach, A/B testing, lifecycle marketing, content distribution, and coding. During our conversation, Wade remarked that the reason he wrote about 21 skills was purposely to illustrate how diverse marketers at early-stage companies need to be. And when I asked our six panelists about what makes a successful digital marketer, almost all replied that the ability to measure, adjust, and measure again is key. WebbROI’s Casey Armstrong said it perfectly: "If you can't measure your efforts and make decisions on them, what's the point?"

First Came The Growth Hacker

The concept of technically driven marketing harkens back to the time of the growth hacker, the magical marketing-engineering hybrid who we haven’t heard much about lately. At the beginning of the year, it seemed like everyone was talking about growth hackers, but overuse of the term caused it to become stale.

I suspect that the growth hacker of yesterday is becoming the full-stack marketer of tomorrow, only this facet of their marketing faces in-house. Full-stack marketers need to get the technical team to keep the company marketing-friendly. Mention’s Clement Delangue noted that a successful full-stack marketer should be able to convince the rest of the team that marketing matters using the data and analytics collected on a day-to-day basis. In other words, FSMs should be able to let their work make the case for more of their work.

Don’t Try To Be An Expert In Every Layer

The marketing stack is complex and traverses every surface of the marketing funnel and the customer lifecycle. The beauty of a full-stack marketer is that he or she knows how to reach and engage every single touch point of these funnels and cycles. That’s why it’s important to understand search, social, blogging, PR, email marketing, remarketing, lead nurturing, and everything in between. Having this wealth of knowledge, however, does not mean that full-stack marketers need to be experts in every layer of the stack, but a company is better off hiring someone who has novice-like skills in HTML/CSS and search marketing and can build on those as needed, rather than someone who is solely driven by creative ideas.

Being an ambidextrous thinker—that is, using both the left and right brain—makes full-stack marketers qualified to work at lots of companies, and doesn’t pigeonhole them into one specific niche or industry. Bislr’s Gonzalo Mannucci was spot on when he said "startup culture has made marketers the ‘entrepreneurs of their own careers,’" and that we’re building "career security, not job security." If you can grow one company using the right tools and skills you can surely iterate on the process and improve upon those same skills at your next job. Doing so is simply a microcosmic action stemming from a person’s work-related successes.

Master The Generational Link

Having studied generational characteristics and influence during college, I started to see a connection here. Gen Y and its desire to experience "startup culture" in the workplace (i.e., entrepreneurial spirit, casual dress and environment, flexibility, work/life balance, enjoyable perks) has begun to influence larger, more corporate companies. The reasoning is that if these are the types of environments our incoming workforce craves and wants to work at, larger companies will need to adapt to accommodate them, or Gen Y employees won’t stay long term.

With startup-born full-stack marketing, I can see how this shift could start to permeate traditional marketing practices, just as startup culture as a whole has begun to influence the traditional business world. It will no longer be enough to come up with great ideas, you’ll need to know how to execute them as well. And given that technically knowledgeable marketers are so much more efficient, it’s plausible that larger companies will want teams of full-stack marketers, rather than continue to team creatives with the tech-savvy employees and mediate the back-and-forth until projects are completed to perfection. G2 Crowd’s Eric Metelka says we’re already seeing this happen: "Look at the movement to learn to code. There's also a lot of movement around data science. Both of these will bleed into marketing for the better." Let’s hope so.

So Where Are All the FSMs?

The problem now is that every early-stage tech company wants full-stack marketers, but there aren’t yet enough to go around. Red8’s Victor Ramayrat explains that this is "why full-service agencies still exist, albeit at a higher price tag." So does the rise of the full-stack marketer mean the death of the digital agency? Only time will tell. For now, it’s important to continue to support and encourage the thirst for technical knowledge that full-stack marketers crave. Now, if you’ll excuse me—Dash, SumAll, and WordPress are calling.

Rishon Roberts is the marketing manager at Spinnakr, a new kind of analytics that takes action for you. She’d love to connect with you on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Joseph Morris]

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  • Matt Tutt

    That's a great piece, thanks for the explanation. I've seen full stuck digital marketing mentioned several times recently so was just looking to see exactly what it entailed. Personally I think there's also a lack of courses available for those looking for a broader range of skills in digital marketing, which is an area that colleges and universities could improve.

  • MarieYveline

    Thanks, Rishon! I feel that for most marketers in the first few years of their careers it's a race to get to that point where we can call ourselves full-stack. I just can't understand why this stuff isn't taught in business school. I'm setting out to learn Wade's 21 skills via my blog www.omalou.com; wish me luck!

  • Anthony Reardon

    This segment really captivated my attention Rishon. Nice job!

    Let's see.. the whole thing is loaded. I went through and read up on the 21 skills and I find myself right there. I checked out the growth hacker segment and a lot of that sounds like me. I even reviewed the whole Branch segment and I can appreciate where you guys are coming from. Yet, I still have to disagree with a lot of it. Go figure, lol!

    I guess what stands out to me foremost is the ability to discern what is most important. Data just doesn't cut it IMHO, but the insight from experience you get learning/ doing definitely. Marketers talk about data and measurement so loosely, but it still amounts to educated guessing. "Educated" and "guessing" are somewhat contradictory terms. You could argue it's principally not much different than anything done with traditional media like print, radio, and tv back in the hay day.

    On the other hand, there's an obvious market for it. Decision makers want it and respond to it. So even though I think you have to be able to glean qualitative to really make a difference with people in their full complexity, I still find myself appreciating data- just not the way it's intended. Not that it's new. Same effect throwing a graph chart in front of business people 20 years ago. The new push is just the same old thing masquerading as reform, and people are too quick to blow the hype out of proportion. Honestly, what were marketers doing before data? I mean, you were either throwing money away or putting it to good use. It's not a 50/50 chance thing like you suggest. If you know what you are doing you are going to be effective. If you're just lost as a marketer, data is not going to help you do any better. Can't forget that it's increasingly competitive on an increasingly level playing field.

    Back to qualitative- I wondered why you have to discern between growth hacker and full stack marketer. You slap a label on something and it makes it easier to distinguish and talk about it. Kind of the same principle as branding. The way you guys talked about it was like the two concepts were more autonomous, but from my experience I see more intersection or cooperation of those skillsets than not. The same kind of dynamic comes into play when you've got marketers building up one label at the expense of another, but here I am as an audience not feeling it.

    I can appreciate it has a lot to do with where you are coming from. When you talk digital marketing, you'll probably find people are coming from an area of focus that falls into one of three categories: technology, creative, or user-experience. You can jump on the whole "left brain/ right brain" selling point, but for me that's one of the big examples I use to point out the lack of complete solutions to meet business needs and the response of agencies trying to stretch into areas they really don't know much about. It's ironic because the more progressive firms I see out there today really try to leverage this, and no doubt it hits home, but I'm also finding if you are really into telling people what they want to hear today you are probably way off.

    Had to get that in there, but for the rest of it I can actually agree. Where I am coming from has a lot to do with being entrepreneurial since the 90's, so when you try to do your own startup, you naturally start with yourself and an idea, and you find yourself trying to learn/do as much as you can on your own. You're probably working a job here and there too, so you have to be that much more dynamic and acquire whatever skills along the way. I think if you have that "do whatever it takes" mentality across the continuum of "anything and everything", you'll naturally find yourself arriving to that full stack suite. At the same time, you'll probably become more critical of what you read/hear/see, and economical in terms of what's a waste of time and what veins of activity are worth investing yourself into.

    The best compliment I can give you is I thought your segment was worth a deep dive. Thanks!

    Best, Anthony

  • Rishon Roberts

    Hey Anthony -

    Glad to see this piece resonated with you, even if you don't entirely agree :) I totally understand your points of contention, especially regarding data. The big data movement of the last couple years has certainly made marketing much more clear, but of course we can't make everything automatic or even 100% clear because humans are human. One of my favorite points in the Branch conversation (and I'm so glad you took a look!) was when one of the panelists (I believe it was Casey) said user/customer psychology is still the most overlooked aspect of marketing. Regardless of trends, statistics, and studies, marketers are still dealing with intelligent humans who have their own opinions and complete freedom to change their minds or to consciously ignore the calls we make to them. Without a doubt, data helps us get closer to capturing the attention of the people we want to be looking at us, but there are always outliers and anomalies.

    As for the overall concept of the full stack marketer; it's such an exciting space to be in. I feel myself constantly being challenged and encouraged to learn more. One of the saddest parts of graduating college was knowing that I wouldn't be in a classroom 5 days a week, but in a way I still am - just with a different angle.

    Thanks so much for sharing your opinions with me, always nice to connect with people. From reading your strong opinions, sounds like you might make an excellent panelist in a SpinnakrTalk sometime. Feel free to shoot me an email to chat about that :) [rishon at spinnakr.com]

    Take care,


    P.S. Sorry for the delay in responding here!

  • Anthony Reardon

    Oh yeah! Finished my stack early and have been looking forward to connecting with you all day.

    Taking a closer look at Spinnakr, I actually like what I am seeing. Guess I generally take a stand on the notion that data is the new answer to marketing.

    There's just too much emphasis on data services, cloud solutions, and analytics. They have their place, and my company is right there in the mix offering these too.

    Like I was saying, graphs & charts are nothing new at all. I pull out my old Memory Jogger II and am reminded that it is just as important to find the right way to convey data for specific actionable outcomes. It's not just about balancing left brain/ right brain. You've got to have a grasp of psychology- even cognitive science- to understand how to make use of data that can reconcile business objectives and audience needs.
    I'll be in touch! Best, Anthony

  • Vince Usher

    As a Double Degree marketing student six months away from grad, I feel the intense pressure to learn coding skills, and am quite sour about the lack of insight the universities show in not offering these courses to our major cohort. Even graphic design skills I've had to learn and master, myself, on my own time. While I go to uni and learn the same old irrelevant marketing guff people learned 30 years ago in the same lecture hall, to get a piece of paper that says, you could market 30 years ago, but good luck finding a job now.

  • Rishon Roberts

    Vince - totally feel this pain. Since a lot of university courses clearly haven't updated their materials (and thus are not preparing students to enter the marketing world straight away), this is exactly why learning these types of skills is an investment in our own careers...and maybe even our happiness and sanity? My resolution for 2014 is to learn basic graphic design skills and to finally finish the coding courses I've been taking online.

    My college didn't even offer a marketing major! I've been extremely fortunate to find incredible internships that have taught me how to be a marketer from top to bottom. Now I just need to refine some skills to make sure I'm always set up for success and efficiency.

    Spinnakr is going to release an ebook very soon (a complete guide to full stack marketing) so be on the lookout for that on our blog (spinnakr.com/blog). In it there are a ton of resources for people like you and I who have to rise to the challenge to bulk up on design/code skills, etc.

    Appreciate the comment and good luck finishing up school and entering the job market. Just keep in mind that attitude is everything. A willingness to learn and challenge yourself will take you far :)