How Marketers Can Save Companies From 'Technical Debt'

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Technology has opened up new opportunities for marketers, and rapidly. It's becoming ever easier to implement systems, drop in new applications and ship digital products. We're benefiting from economies of scale and the democratization of technology.

But everything has a dark side. In the case of rapidly implemented technology, that dark side is what we can call "technical debt." In some ways, technical debt resembles credit card debt, where you defer your financial responsibilities while you enjoy the now. It's borrowing from the future, but the future arrives sooner or later, and usually with an expensive lesson.

Remember the Y2K "bug"? Panic arose when people realized that some programs were using two digits rather than four to represent the year. When the new millennium arrived, these dates would tick over to 00, not to 2000. People were preparing for complete technological disaster. The Y2K problem was a technical debt problem, but fortunately one that was "paid off" in time.

Technical debt is all around us

Technical debt isn't a term that marketers often run into, but that's going to change. Technical debt should be a concern of anyone running an engineered system, which is basically every business in the world today. And when your job is to present your organization in its best possible light, the looming consequences of technical debt can make your job much harder.

You may need to bring in extra developers to help refactor your code or switch out that simple off-the-shelf solution for one that's costlier. These issues directly affect your customers and clients, potentially damaging your brand and unquestionably expanding your workload.

Technical debt as list aging

The credit card metaphor we used earlier is a useful one, but the thing about technical debt is that not all of it needs to be repaid. Not only that, but often you won't know what needs to be repaid, when, or how much it'll cost.

There's a better comparison we can make, and one that'll hit home with marketers: list aging. Your marketing lists are targeted, accurate and comprehensive when they're first built. But over time, contacts move on, change positions or update their email addresses and preferred methods of outreach.

These imperfections within your list become your "debt." The longer you continue to use that list, the less precise it becomes, and the larger the costs of bringing it into line. It's estimated that B2B data decays at around 2% per month, or roughly 25% per year.

What can marketers do?

Doing business requires compromise, context and adaptability. This means that some degree of technical debt is unavoidable. Additionally, not all debt is created equally. Intentionally accrued technical debt is different from unintentionally accrued debt, and long-term technical debt can have very different consequences from short-term debt.

With an awareness of this, marketers can work as a liaison between business and tech teams to ensure that good development practices are in place -- and minimize the impact of that debt on consumers or clients. Business-minded staff tend to be overly optimistic about an organization's ability to carry technical debt, while developers are usually highly pessimistic about it. By educating both groups about effective technical and business decision-making, it's possible to help minimize technical debt, or at least take a more strategic approach to the type of debt that your organization accrues.

Marketers can also help analyze why certain technical, financial or tactical decisions are being made, and try to guide organizations towards only incurring debt under one of two conditions: First, when it is accrued for proactive, strategic reasons; second, when it can be easily identified and remediated when the budget allows.

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