Why CMOs must expand their tech skills in the digital marketing era

We look at how the skill set of the chief marketing officer is changing and why understanding how technologies play together is vital in their ongoing success

The balance of power in the c-suite (at least as measured by dollars spent on IT) is shifting. Where once the CIO held most of the purchasing power and the decision-making capability to determine which technology investments would drive business forward, the CMO is poised to take a much more strategic role in a data-driven business climate.

According to a frequently cited January 2012 research report by Gartner, by 2017 the CMO will outspend the CIO on technology. The traditional CMO role, focused solely on marketing campaigns and branding, is becoming obsolete, if it isn't already, says Rona Borre, CEO and founder of recruiting, hiring, and consulting firm Instant Technology.

"I don't think a CMO in the traditional sense exists anymore. CMOs today have to account for the digital age -- the digitization of everything," Borre says.

"Marketing professionals have to be tech-savvy, have to be well-versed in content optimization and be able to understand the importance of social media, data analytics, the Internet, search and so much more," Borre says.

[Related: Gartner Says CIOs and CMOs Must Learn to Collaborate on Digital Marketing]

In this respect, she says, the "new" CMO role will overlap that of the CIO, but with a continued emphasis on legacy marketing and branding activities, she says.

"The CMO of the 21st century is someone who understands how all these technologies play together; a tech-savvy, content-optimization focused person with a digital understanding and a branding background," Borre says.

CMOs Facing New Skills Challenges

That means the CMO of the future will face challenges previously taken on by the CIO, including how to use technology to market and brand products for the most effective reach in a digital era, and how to prove the success of such efforts and increase ROI, says Kimberly Samuelson, director of marketing for electronic content management solutions company Laserfische.

The way customers interact and engage with companies has changed dramatically, Samuelson says, driven by the rise of "new media," to use the term coined in the 1990s.

[Related: What Do CMOs and CIOs Really Think of Each Other?]

Research and purchasing decisions are made using digital technologies, and the advent of social media means that both positive and negative feedback can be delivered in an instant, Samuelson says. Businesses also can track the minutia of customers' online shopping and buying behavior, allowing them greater control over the sales cycle, she says.

"The way that customers engage with companies has changed -- everything from the way they research and buy products and services to how they share those experiences with others; buying through Web stores and sharing reviews and recommendations through social media," Samuelson says.

"More than ever, the CMO has to be the customer's mouthpiece and the owner of the customer experience within the company, by seeing that experience from an outside perspective," she says.

To do that effectively, says Laura McGarrity, vice president of marketing at hiring, recruiting and consulting firm Mondo, CMOs must rely on tools and resources that first track customer behaviors online, and then help mine the extensive stores of customer data to direct business' activity; tools that might once have fallen solely under the purview of the company's CIO, she says.

"They'll have to know how to select and use technology to get into the real nitty gritty not just what customers buy, but how they go about buying it," McGarrity says. "What sites are [customers] looking at? How important are social media sites and blogs? What kinds of advertisements are they clicking on? What promotions or special deals are they responding to? How many different places do [customers] go to do research, how many reviews are they reading before they buy? What influences their decisions?" she says.

The Data-Driven CMO

Of course, to accomplish all this requires an understanding of the advantages of technology, data gathering and analysis, and data mining, as well as some grasp of how big data can deliver actionable business insights to help companies better service customers, increase revenues, and even develop new products, says McGarrity. These skills and knowledge, again, are areas where the CMO and the CIO roles overlap, she says.

"CMOs must have the skills to understand big data and how that can translate to better customer experience, improve ROI and measure spending accurately," she says. "The CMO role is definitely becoming more data-driven, and it's a place where CMOs can join forces with the CIOs to make marketing initiatives more impactful," she says.

Proving CMO Value

Of course, there are limited resources available for IT initiatives, regardless of department, says Laserfische's Samuelson, meaning CMOs will have to fight for every dollar allocated. But here, CMOs have a distinct advantage, in that they can point to data to prove the success of their initiatives, she says.

"Where CMOs will emerge triumphant is their ability to prove that their initiatives work, that by applying certain methodologies, gathering and analyzing customer data and then iterating their marketing and business plans to better meet customers' needs, they can deliver the ROI they promised," she says. "They will have a proof-of-concept, and that will mean their initiatives will be seen as worthy of further investment," Samuelson says.

That doesn't mean the allocation of resources has to turn into a battle royale, though, Samuelson says. CMOs must develop internal advocates and get buy-in from across business units and within the C-suite to help market and sell their initiatives. And, she says, once colleagues see the benefits of smart, customer-focused, business-boosting marketing initiatives, it shouldn't be difficult to get their support.

"A few years ago, I was told by a Fortune 500 executive that one of the best things he ever did was hire a marketing executive specifically to 'sell' IT-based initiatives to the rest of the company," Samuelson says.

While that's not the norm for most businesses, it can't hurt to start thinking about the changing role of your CMO as demand for these professionals starts to rise, says Instant Technology's Borre.

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at sflorentine@cio.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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