The state of marketing training - getting marketing out of the organizational junk drawer

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher April 12, 2022
How to turn marketing into an organizational Swiss Army Knife - some useful tips from expert marketers.


Modern marketing is a catch-all. It gets all sorts of  new strategies and technologies but rarely does anything practical come out of the mix. Or at least that’s how Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, and Val Witt, President of MarketingProfs, saw it as they kicked off the keynote at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum.

According to them, every other department in an organization has clearly-defined roles - finance, sales, customer support, but not marketing. In fact, Handley went so far as to liken marketing to the junk drawer you have in your house - it’s full of stuff, some of which is important, some not so much. The problem is, you never really know what you have in it.

Clearly she didn’t mean that marketing is mostly junk, but she was making clear what so many of marketers know - there are a lot of strategies and tactics in a marketer’s toolkit, and they keep coming. So much so that it’s hard to keep track of them all, impossible to use them all at the same time, and challenging to figure out which ones to use and when.

And just when you think you have the right mix figured out, a shiny new thing appears, and you have to decide if, how, and when to add it to the mix.

Marketing is also unpredictable, they said. Just as no two junk drawers look the same, no two marketing teams/strategies look the same. What works for one company may not work for another, or it works differently.

It’s “awesome and unnerving,” they said and it points to something critical - marketers need to be ready for anything.

But are they?

Being ready for anything that arises requires the marketer - and the wider marketing team - always to be learning. In fact, they need to be not just learning, but understanding how new things fit with old and how to adapt without pulling your hair out of your head (or finding a new job, which might actually be easier and less painful).

MarketingProfs did a study that looked at the state of marketing training; they wanted to know what it’s like to work in B2B marketing today.Some stats of note:

  • Only 19%of respondents feel prepared for their future in marketing
  • A third feel effective in their current roles.
  • But one in three marketers feel burned out.
  • Some 16% think it’s very easy to solve problems as a team. 
  • But a quarter feel that not everybody on the team has a basic understanding of marketing.

The struggle to get a handle on marketing is not just tied to the individual marketer, but how the team both works as a whole and how they learn together.

The reality is Marketers are often left to their own devices to decide what training to take and, in some cases, how to pay for it. In the MarketProfs study, 46% of individuals and 50% of teams took paid training in 2021. Another 20% of teams and 33% of employees participated in free training, and the rest had no training at all.

The two top reasons organizations train their teams are to level up their skills and fill existing gaps. But when marketers were asked to choose what kind of training they took, the majority said they would take training to solve immediate problems over broadening their knowledge.

This choice to train on things they need to know now makes sense. With so many moving parts to any marketing strategy, who has time to think about something you aren’t working on currently. It’s the “keeping the lights on” mindset that marketers get caught in. There’s not enough time in the day to do it all.

Of course, that’s not the best approach, because what happens when something new comes along is that marketers scramble to understand what it is and if they need to fit it into their current strategy. Add another complication - what happens when they decide they want to bring in this new technology or technique and no one on the existing team knows about it? Are they putting added pressure on team members that are already maxed out? Or will they have to hire someone new to the team and  potentially frustrate team members who might have wanted to learn something new? Neither situation is optimal.

Every marketer needs the appropriate amount of time to learn about new things as they come along, and that should be part of their job description. Those new things come from what the marketer is interested in and what the team wants to keep an eye on, and it ensures the team stays on top of what’s coming down the pipe.

How to help marketers get a handle on things

Witt and Handley had some advice for marketers to help them move forward and “rescue marketing.”

Firstly, it’s important to tie training to business goals. Look for learning opportunities that can help contribute to those goals. It helps to have a budget for training (50% of non-managers and 17% of managers aren’t sure there even is budget for marketing training). And it helps to have a process in place to decide what training is needed.

In the chat during the presentation, Erika Heald, a marketing consultant, offered this suggestion:

I helped my team make the case for their training opps by doing a concrete career plan that showed what they were trying to accomplish and the variety of learning opportunities they were pursuing.

Witt and Handley also recommended creating team learning goals. For example, suppose there is a concern that not everyone on the team has a basic understanding of marketing. In that scenario, you could set up a series of workshops or ‘lunch and learns’ where each team member can teach others about a particular tactic or technology. You can also do training that shows how different technologies and programs fit together, giving everyone a clearer understanding of how all the pieces connect to build an overarching marketing program.

You can also do team learning for new technologies and new strategies where everyone has an opportunity to learn together and talk about how this new approach could work for their company.

Handley urged that everyone needs to “stay open and curious” because that’s the key to staying relevant.

Another recommendation was to focus on execution over theory. If the training you receive is practical, you will understand how to make it work in your company. So while theory is good, there also needs to be elements of how to put it into practice. Some suggestions included frameworks and checklists. To that, you might add things like homework that you can bring back to the class to discuss, fine-tune and then implement in your own company.

It’s also important to measure, adjust, and repeat, Handley advised. Training is a lifelong pursuit, especially in marketing, where things are continually evolving. You should tie training to job performance, something only 39% of managers currently do. I would add not just performance of current responsibilities, but also participation in bringing new ideas and concepts to the team.

My take

The junk drawer is a very good metaphor for marketing today. But someone in the chat offered an alternative: marketing is like a swiss army knife. Marketing does employ many different tactics and programs and just as much technology.

A marketing leader with a good understanding of all the possible alternatives can figure out the best programs to implement at the right times - much like knowing which tool in a Swiss Army Knife to use to solve a particular problem.

That doesn’t mean that a leader should be an expert in everything. Instead, they need to build a team where each marketer can go deep and spend a good chunk of their time getting better in their assigned area, including understanding how other areas fit.

In a Swiss Army Knife scenario, not every tool is used simultaneously, but it’s easy to see what you have, and it’s pretty clear what each is used to do.

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