The evolution of citizen technologists: a new, data-powered reality for marketers

09/01/2020 - Matt Mehus

“Citizen technology” is not a new concept in marketing, but it’s one that has renewed relevance for marketers today. First popularized by Scott Brinker of HubSpot and others several years ago, the trend springboards off of the continued democratization of technology with low code, no code and no build tools and platforms — and not just across marketing, but enterprise applications, too. The concept is simple: “[give] non-technical marketers the tools and empowerment to build apps, analyze data sets, and route data between different cloud services on their own, without having to take a ticket and wait (and wait and wait) for an expert in IT — or even in marketing ops — to do the work for them.”

While the concept is simple, what’s changing is the speed at which this trend is being adopted by enterprise marketing organizations. Why is this a good thing? The more that technology is democratized and moves outside the walls of development and IT, the faster marketing groups can iterate, optimize, go to market and add value to the business. This is a logical next step of the trend that’s seeing marketers increasingly in positions of leadership — and contributing to enterprise goals at deeper and more meaningful levels.

The beginnings of citizen technologists

Before we take a look at how marketers are becoming citizen technologists and what the future may hold, let’s take a brief look back at some of the history of “development without programmers.”

In 1982, James Martin published a book titled “Application Development without Programmers.” From the preface, it’s noted that, “The number of programmers available per computer is shrinking so fast that most computers in the future must be put to work at least in part without programmers.” And, indeed this was the beginning of that idea with 4GL, computer-assisted software engineering and early rapid application development tools. And while an important starting point, this idea did not pick up greater momentum for a number of reasons with one of the most important centering on the fact that when you’re too far ahead of your own troops you look like the enemy. It was ahead of its time.

Jump ahead to the 2000s when the internet was continuing to explode and applications were moving to the cloud. We start to see this trend infiltrate the Marketing function with new tools being developed to support a broadening list of use cases for low-code applications. WordPress and HubSpot are two perfect examples of mid-2000s low-code marketing applications that are now synonymous with their categories and have created thousands of citizen marketing technologists. In 2014, Forrester legitimized the trend by formally defining the low-code market as, “platforms that enable rapid delivery of business applications with a minimum of hand-coding and minimal upfront investment in setup, training, and deployment.”

The marketing roles of citizen technologists today

Because we’re Marketers at 280blue, I’m going to focus on the Marketing function as it relates to citizen technologists. As Scott Brinker has noted, “Marketers are steadily evolving into app creators without ever explicitly crossing a bright-line boundary, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a developer!’” So, what makes Marketers ideal for leveraging low-code technology? There are a few major synergies between marketing and these kinds of accessible tools — creating a ripe environment for high-impact citizen technologists of a number of varieties to emerge:

1. Marketer as Developer: Continued focus on agile marketing

Marketers began adopting development concepts like agile in the early 2010s, and the trend has continued to gain momentum. Indeed, as this framework has taken root across marketing organizations, it’s become critical for teams to be able to optimize and iterate quickly. This requires marketing teams to make changes to their programs as close to real-time as possible; they often cannot wait on ticket backlogs or getting priority from technology administrators. As Marketers become citizen technologists, they’re able to respond quickly to changes in the market, produce and rapidly iterate campaigns, leverage inputs from other teams to augment programs and experiment continuously. For example, CMS platforms like WordPress allow non-technical marketers to rapidly respond to abrupt changes in the market by updating content, changing calls to action and adjusting imagery.

2. Marketer as Data Scientist: Increasingly data-driven enterprise goals and reporting requirements

The marketer that can serve as data scientist will always be relevant. And, as programs, channels and buyers evolve, marketers need to be able to produce actionable and digestible insight rooted in data quickly — and on the fly. Whether it’s to gain an understanding of the marketing funnel, perform attribution modeling, track engagement across your segments or assess web analytics, citizen marketing technologists are taking advantage of a number tools, like Google Analytics, Databox and many others. With such tools, marketers can scale the function’s ability to critically evaluate and uncover actionable insights from data — without relying on data scientists or other functions.

3. Marketer as Strategist: Modern marketing concepts like marketing orchestration and intent-based data, built on modern buying practices

As buying practices have become more complex, it’s critical to have fully integrated marketing programs that target the right message to the right audience through the right channels — in addition to the ability to adapt programs and optimize quickly and iteratively. This trend, paired with the advent of increasingly sophisticated digital platforms (intent-based data, orchestration, etc.), has forced marketers to become citizen technologists. As a result, marketers are turning to automation tools like HubSpot, which offer low-code platforms that provide a single view into the marketing ecosystem — allow marketers to go-to-market quickly and make changes on the fly.

4. Marketer as Product Manager: Increasingly valuable product-led growth strategies for SaaS businesses

As more and more companies explore freemium and trial growth strategies, the way that marketers support those strategies is shifting. Marketers are acting like product management in terms of how they fold in communication plans and upsell programs to in-application channels. When free or limited features are seen as marketing tactics, it requires marketers to understand and participate in the development process in ways they haven’t traditionally. To serve marketers in this way, low-code tools can be used to allow for rapid development and launch of new in-app marketing programs to support this growth strategy.

So, if marketers are ideal for being citizen technologists, and we understand the value that capability brings to organizations, how do we create a culture that cultivates this?

    1. Embrace experimentation. Iteration and experimentation are at the root of citizen technology, so it only makes sense that your culture embraces those ideals, as well. As the tools marketers need continue to grow, and their impact continues to deepen, organizations need to be run with a bias towards experimentation, not throttled with a fear of failure.
    2. Tear down traditional silos. The biggest commercial silo is often seen as the barrier between sales and marketing. However, we also need to consider IT and development teams as partners in the growth of citizen marketing technologists. Collaborating in new ways with technology counterparts is a critical component to building a culture of citizen technologists.
    3. Continue to prioritize agile marketing. Many organizations have latched onto the buzzword “agile marketing.” But to truly instill a culture that embraces citizen technologists, it’s critical you go beyond seeing agile marketing as something you do, and instead view it as who you are.

Where do we go from here? As marketers move from code to low-code to no-code to no-build tools — what’s next? Technologies like AI and machine learning have already started to impact citizen marketing technologists’ worlds through customer experience platforms, optimization through automation platforms and intelligent targeting. And, with funding for low and no-code startups continuing to grow with companies like Hevo and Paragon, it’s clear that citizen marketing technologists are not going away anytime soon. If we look to the past for guidance, we know a few things will likely happen: We will continue to move further down the democratization of technology curve, where AI and ML will support marketers (and others) in new ways; adoption of technology will happen faster and faster, creating a flywheel for citizen marketing technologists; and new formal and informal teams and partnerships will form between IT, development and marketing, creating broader digital groups. All of this highlights the value that marketing will be expected to bring to the table — and the value that citizen technologists will be uniquely able to deliver.