November 17

The crucial skills of a data-driven marketer

Be productive. Learn something new. Improve yourself. During the pandemic that’s been the mantra of a lot of people writing articles on Medium, talking on podcasts, making posts on LinkedIn and more.

The thinking goes that if there’s one thing that the pandemic and its consequences have done is present the opportunity to learn and grow your skillset. This article is another in that line — specifically aimed at marketers involved in CRM, Loyalty, and Direct Marketing — but before I start I wanted to get something off my chest.

If you’re doing no self-improvement, don’t worry

Not everyone has the mental capacity to deal with this right now. Maybe you have young kids, maybe you’re struggling with mental health made worse by lockdowns, or maybe you’re working lots of jobs just to survive and the idea of free time is laughable.

I was watching a Patton Oswalt standup special on Netflix recently and he mentioned a phrase his wife used to say before she tragically died a few years ago. It applies more than ever now:

“It’s chaos. Be kind.”

That applies to others and yourself. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself and those you care about functioning and don’t feel bad about not doing what you ‘supposedly’ should. There is no should right now.

I am super lucky. Yeah, I’m not employed right now but in general, my situation is OK. So I am trying to use at least some of my time to learn and create and become a better marketer. If you’re in the same boat then please read on!

My patented skills framework

I have been in CRM / Loyalty / Data-driven marketing for over 20 years and worked with some very talented practitioners from whom I have picked up a lot. I have distilled down what makes those practitioners great into four areas:

The goal is to be in the centre of that Venn diagram by improving your skills in the area(s) in which you feel you are lacking. This article will take each area in turn and give you some resources with which you can improve.

1. Statistics

Picture of a graph

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Off all the things I see missing in the people I have worked with, this is number one. To be a CRM practitioner you must grasp a couple of basic principles so that you can measure the impact of your activity with some certainty. Those principles are:

  1. Understanding control groups, required cell sizes, statistical significance, and statistical power. You need to understand how to set up tests, how to interpret the results properly and crucially to understand the need for any results to be replicable.
  2. Understanding targeting mechanics like propensity & predictive modelling and their impact on things like recommendation engines and “Next best product” capability.

Reference material

For general statistical improvement, I recommend
Statistics I & II For DummiesIt’s easy to follow and starts from first principles. It’s super handy as a reference tool when you’ve forgotten something too.

I wrote more about experimental design here which includes links to some more detailed articles explaining the key elements needed in getting the most from your testing.

In relation to recommendation engines, this is a great article on the different types available. But as I note here beware black boxes. Customers like to know why something has been recommended to them.

Finally, this is a great article from Analytics Toolkit on statistical significance and power. In fact, that whole website is a valuable resource.

2. Behavioural Science

X-Ray of brains

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

It’s very easy in CRM to disassociate yourself from the customer. Primarily because we reduce individuals to numbers. We talk about cell sizes, we spend a lot of time with data analysts and technology providers. Case in point — I just wrote a section about understanding stats.

But understanding human behaviour is as important, if not more important. Data can only tell us so much — for example, are you really clear about the range of possible motivations behind the behaviour you’re tracking in your data? Do you know the best way to convince someone to do something you want them to?

If you can improve your knowledge here it will allow you to create more effective messaging within your creative and talk more effectively with your brand marketing counterparts.

Reference material

To get a general overview of some key elements of Behavioural science I would start with “Choice Hacking’ by Jennifer Clinehens. NB I am biased here — she’s my fiance — but it’s genuinely a great place to start.

If you want to go deeper either of Richard Thaler’s books ‘(Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’ which he wrote with Cass Sunstein or ‘Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics’) are well-written and easily understood.

A great example of Behavioural Science being applied is ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’ by David Halpert which tells the story of Behavioural science being applied within the UK government which had more parallels to marketing than you’d think.

Finally, if you want to go to the source have a read of ‘Thinking, Fast and slow’ by Nobel prize-winning Daniel Kahnemann. It sets out a lot of the foundational ideas that support behavioural science. Be warned though — it is not an easy read. It’s dense and can be a little rambling in places.

If you want to go deeper again then Jennifer also pulled together a list of courses and qualifications you could try in this handy article.

3. Technology

Image of clouds

Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash

There are so many clouds in marketing now it boggles the mind. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of every marketing or advertising tech platform but I would recommend knowing the big players (Adobe, Salesforce, Oracle) and having a grasp on the main components of a marketing tech stack.

How many data-driven marketers could confidently explain what DMP is for example or what new improvements there are din email functionality are? These technologies are tools for you to use and you need to know how to wield them.

Reference Material

This is a lot harder than the others largely because the information is so distributed, there is so much detail and vendors like to make it hard to compare functionality. However, I have dug out a few articles that should at least explain the key components you’d need to understand.

Here’s an article on the Top 10 marketing clouds and their constituent components. Each vendor has plenty of information on YouTube should you want to go deeper into a specific cloud.

In this complex world, picking the right vendor is tough and this is a great article on the key steps to picking a new technology vendor.

I also found this super-handy glossary of multi-channel marketing tech terms. It’s from a vendor so there are some sales links but it gives pithy explanations for some key terms.

One warning — This world is a real rabbit warren so beware. Tech is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

4. Marketing Strategy

Marketing Strategy image

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Make no mistake — if you specialise in a marketing discipline you are making yourself a tactician, not a strategist. CRM is a tactic. Loyalty is a tactic. Ideally, however, they are part of a strategic marketing plan.

You’re part of a bigger machine, which functions best when each part knows its role in delivering against the marketing strategy and how each part helps or hinders the others. Every piece of empirical evidence we have shows that integrated marketing across multiple channels is the optimal route for marketing success.

As a result, it helps to broaden your marketing knowledge in general, understand other marketing specialisms and how your specialism can best contribute. It’s also crucial if you have designs on being a Marketing Director / CMO — you will need to have a broader, strategic view of marketing to succeed in those roles.

Reference material

This is tough because essentially this is saying learn all of marketing. However, as someone from a data-driven marketing background, I have found most useful those philosophies that focus on empirical evidence of effectiveness.

A great start here is to read ‘The Long and Short of it’ by Les Binet and Peter Field. They show how marketing channels must be integrated and how marketing strategies must have a view of both the long and short term to truly create effective growth. They have built on their original work with additional papers like ‘Effectiveness in Context: A Manual for Brand-Building’.

How Brands Grow: What marketers don’t know’ by Professor Byron Sharp was a gamechanger for marketing when it came out by taking an empirical look at marketing effectiveness.

I would also follow Mark Ritson through his column at Marketing Week. Sadly a lot of his stuff is behind the subscriber paywall but his columns are usually free for the first week they are up. I’d recommend a couple of his YouTube talks as worthy of a listen too (like this one. Be warned he uses some pretty interesting language!). He also runs a Mini MBA program if you have a lot of spare cash lying around.


The best thing I ever did for my marketing knowledge was to complete my diploma with the Institute of Direct Marketing in the UK. It gave me foundational knowledge that I still use to this day. So whatever territory you’re in, seek out the equivalent and invest in training if you are really serious about improving.

The Bottom Line

If you have the time and mental capacity, now is the time to invest in yourself. I hope this framework and these resources give some mental exercise and maybe introduce you to some new ideas and perspectives.

But if you don’t have the time or mental capacity, don’t worry. These are unique times — don’t be too hard on yourself by comparing yourself to that which others are seemingly able to do.

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