Having spent over 20 years working in enterprise software sales and development, I’ve seen how the tech sausage is made – from both the sausage maker and the sausage pusher perspective. Given this experience, I’m, perhaps, less charmed by the promise of tech and more wary about technology investments than most content marketers. Yet, the tech stack for my own company still continues to grow. How do I future-proof my business from racking up even more tech debt? That’s a question I pose before every tech purchase.

It’s the same question we should all be asking.

What is tech debt?

Tech debt is realized when your technology does not properly support the functionality you require. There are two ways it commonly gets incurred: by mismanaging your tech stack or by inheriting it from your chosen vendor(s). Circumstances contributing to the problem can include:

  • Insufficient internal planning
  • Lack of communication between marketing and IT
  • Lack of communication between your company and its vendors
  • Immature product development
  • Suspended product development
  • Lack of product training
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Internal restructures at your company and/or a vendor’s company

The Avoiding Tech Debt Without Avoiding Tech panel discussion at Content Marketing World 2019 provided some deeper insights into the problem, along with areas to focus on when looking to address it.

Demystify the “magic” of the machine

Carlos Abler, who recently led content marketing and strategy at 3M, advised marketers to consider the value they’re trying to realize through technology.

“People bring in technology to fix human issues,” Abler said.

If leadership assumes tech replaces people, they’ll expect marketing automation to happen with a push of a button, says @Carlos_Abler Click To Tweet“If leadership drives purchasing decisions over something they don’t fully understand, they might expect marketing automation to happen with a push of a button. That occurs when they’re operating on the logic that machines are going to replace people.”

If this kind of faulty logic is a key factor in your tech decision-making process, then the first step you should take is ensuring everyone in your organization understands the reasons behind the decision to invest in marketing technology.

Set realistic implementation expectations

It wasn’t that long ago the IT department made all tech decisions. They ran a closed ecosystem and, frankly, they preferred it that way. With a global skills shortage for IT professionals, business critical systems get first priority and marketing rarely makes the cut for in-house development. We now have enough budget and commercial choices available to purchase our own software, but it can cause problems.

Andrew Fingerman, CEO of Libris by Photoshelter, discussed the need for internal collaboration of IT and marketing.

“When the marketing team asks for a tech investment, someone has to customize it and integrate it into the existing technology framework,” Fingerman said. “When you make a tech investment, you need to go in with your eyes wide open. Dreamy assumptions about implementation and the value you’ll get out of the tool will derail you.

Dreamy assumptions about the value you’ll get out of new content technologies will derail you, says @awfingerman. Click To Tweet

“It’s essential to do your due diligence and validate the purchase for all stakeholders, not just marketing. Your IT folks have to do the implementation. They need to look at documentation, blueprints, and the API (application programming interface) provided by the vendor. They need to validate it’s a job they can do.”

If you don’t involve IT at the beginning, the bar for ROI gets higher, schedules slip, and pretty soon you’ve incurred a lot of technical debt before you’ve even gotten off the ground.

Whose priorities reign supreme?

Keep in mind, too, the goal of most IT organizations is to reduce the number of vendors they work with. Selecting a suite of tools can be a trade-off between the power to specialize and the need for integration simplicity – while you may prefer to work with smaller, specialized tools, your IT department is likely to want an all-in-one platform that requires less customization and configuration.

On the other hand, while a single solution might sound like a great idea, especially for larger enterprises, they can also require a lot more time for training and familiarization, and implementation can take weeks or months before the product is available for use.

Understanding the vendor technology landscape

Technology is costly and time-consuming to produce; there’s not a vendor in the world that goes to market with a fully formed tool. They produce a minimum viable product (MVP) and then enhance it in stages. If you’ve purchased an MVP, the clock on tech debt starts ticking immediately.

Ed Breault, vice president and CMO at Aprimo, urges marketers to explore a vendor’s technology road map before making an investment, and offers a great analogy to illustrate the issue:

“If the end goal is a car, the MVP is a skateboard. That progresses to a scooter, then a motorbike and, after several versions, the vendor releases a car,” said Breault. “If you never evolve the product, the debt starts to add up.”

Marketers need to determine whether a tech product is a strategic fit for their organization’s requirements based on the vendor’s projected road map – not on the story the vendor may be telling about their future capabilities. A scooter with fancy wheels, racing stripes, and a rearview parking camera isn’t getting you any closer to driving a car.

“If you don’t have good vision of the technology framework, you’ll end up in the wrong place down the road,” said Breault. “Make sure technology is being stair-stepped up to the goal place. There should be progressive layers of adaptability, responsiveness, and predictability.”

Implement technology with progressive layers of adaptability, responsiveness, and predictability, says @edbreault. Click To Tweet

To implement Breault’s advice, ask about the long-term vision for the product and the schedule the vendor is working toward.

  • Are they building their own technology? How many developers are working on the project? How much are they investing annually in developing the technology? They may not share a dollar amount, but knowing what percentage of their overall revenue is reinvested into R & D is a good indicator of the long-term chances of reaching the promised land of a fully realized vision – and doing so within a timeline that will accommodate your needs as a customer.
  • What is their integration strategy with other content tech products? Do they have strategic partnerships with complementary products? Do they offer an API to make their system open to other vendors?
  • How many marketing experts are employed by the company? Are they marketing people creating technology or are they technology people dabbling in building marketing products? In our age of disruption, I’ve seen a lot of cowboys seeking to fill gaps in current technology offerings with slick-looking solutions and an MVP focused specifically on a common pain point. The problem comes into play when no one in the organization has a good understanding of what it will take to evolve the MVP into a product with long-term, strategic advantage.
  • Are the developers in-house or outsourced? If the code is being outsourced, what is their long-term commitment to maintaining the software?
  • Are they acquiring technology? If so, how do they plan to integrate the separate pieces of technology, and how long will this process likely take? An acquisition strategy might sound good, but lots of small pieces of technology don’t always make a functional system any more than nine women, each one month pregnant, add up to a baby.
  • Is the technology you want to purchase core to their business or is it part of a secondary portfolio? (Or worse, is it a leftover from an acquisition they don’t intend to support?) The marketing tech-scape is loaded with great products that were purchased then parked, and the reasons for doing so aren’t always altruistic or beneficial for the customer. (I’m still mourning the downfall of SlideShare.)

A responsible vendor will have good answers, be happy to discuss their plans, and probably already have documented it for distribution to its prospective customers.

Invest in a sound process to pay down your tech debt

Partner with your IT department to ensure you’re avoiding as much tech debt as possible. While they may not appreciate the nuance each product can bring to a content marketing initiative, their advice will be invaluable in assessing the long-term viability of any solution or company. Getting them on your side early is going to pay dividends – and help future-proof your program against excessive content tech debt.

Marketers have more than 7,000 martech tools available – from tiny, one-function gadgets to enterprise-wide behemoths designed to provide all things to all marketers. Content tech allows us to create better audience experiences, extends our reach in ways we couldn’t imagine before the internet, and enhances creative endeavors across all media. The challenge is to find the right mix of technology to support your content lifecycle without adding to the frustration of ever-increasing technical debt.