The Get-Along Gang-December 2009

The Get-Along Gang-December 2009

Marketing and IT experts explain how their quest for a better Web site has resulted in a better working relationship.

This may not come as a news flash for those who have been a part of or watched as marketing and IT struggled through a Web site redesign. Sometimes the two departments don’t see eye to eye on Web issues. Marketing wants the Web site to be as functional and attractive as possible. IT wants to ensure that new software is secure and works within the company’s existing technology framework.

While they’re not necessarily opposing forces, IT and marketing needs do sometimes conflict, causing projects to derail and resources to be squandered. But some marketing and IT departments have found new tactics to work together in more collaborative and respectful ways to get Web site redesigns, updates, and other Web work done.

“It wasn’t uncommon several years ago for us to go to a client and sit down and pull together a meeting . . . and the IT and marketing people would be meeting each other for the first time,” says Jeff Coffey, director of interactive strategy at CRC Marketing Solutions, Inc., an Eden Prairie marketing agency that provides design, technology, and concept development services. “That’s pretty rare these days.” It’s more common now for marketing and IT to share in the ownership of the Web site.

Coffey says improved communications between the departments and communicating earlier in the Web development process have helped many clients avoid conflict. But problems remain. Here, interactive marketing professionals offer solutions for avoiding common Web team pitfalls.

Bending Time

Both marketing and IT are guilty of stepping on each other’s feet during the Web development tango. While marketing may be somewhat unrealistic when it comes to project timelines, IT may be less than nimble when it comes to taking on new projects and implementing new technology.

Timelimes are a big concern for both departments—as marketing tries to ramp up promotional campaigns, IT needs ample notice on Web deadlines. “When there is something new and hot, the marketing team needs it now,” says Tom O’Neill, vice president of software development for Sierra Bravo, an interactive development and technology firm in Bloomington. “They want to be the first on the block with the best toy.”
Of course, quick-response promotions are a legitimate need when a department is charged with driving business and increasing sales. But IT departments don’t like to rush projects. “It’s hard for IT to react quickly when it comes to systems development and operations,” says Mark Hines, vice president of strategic services at Ratchet, a Minneapolis-based Web services company. That’s because IT has evolved to focus on security concerns. In addition, O’Neill notes that IT wants to be sure to make changes and improvements correctly the first time so they don’t become management problems later.

Also causing tension is that marketing may underestimate the complexity of their Web-related requests. “They think a simple ‘paint job’ on the Web site should be as quick and easy as getting your car waxed and polished,” O’Neill says. “The under-the-hood-complexities of Web applications can be overlooked. This causes timeline conflict. Like when the marketing team plans an e-mail campaign, but IT staff hasn’t had the time to set up a landing page [to click through to from the e-mail].”

Despite the friction, Coffey says marketing and IT are doing a better job of getting together earlier in the Web site collaboration process. In fact, he says many of CRC’s clients worked out their 2010 Web marketing plans in the second half of 2009. “Five or 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for a marketing group to put a bunch of ideas down for their next year’s plan that had IT implications, but never review that plan with IT,” he says. Many marketing and IT folks now talk about their projects prior to getting them approved or moving ahead.

Lack of Capacity

Web development experts say that IT’s number-one concern is lack of capacity. This may be due to a lack of resources—both money and staff—and a rigid departmental structure that is more focused on security.

“Most companies are understaffed in IT,” O’Neill says. Not only that, but some companies aren’t tooled to implement Web sites or maintain them. To that end, Hines suggests companies know where their expertise lies. “If IT is set up to run an ERP system, e-mail, finance, or accounting system—that’s a different skill set than the Web site management [skill set],” he says. If Web development doesn’t fit in a company’s IT department, seeking outside help might be the logical next step.

That’s what happened at Red Wing Shoes when the company decided to improve its Web site. “They got to the point where they said, ‘We’ve got our hands full running every other business system in our organization, and because of our constrained resources we’re not able to provide the kind of service that marketing needs,’” Hines says. Red Wing worked with Ratchet to build a new Web site along with a system to manage it.
Security is probably the second most-cited IT concern. Let’s says that marketing wants to start a blog or put user-generated content on the Web site. The IT department’s first thought is to figure out how to accommodate the request without putting the company at risk. “They just want to make sure that what’s being implemented can be supported and that it can be secure,” says Trevor Olson, president of St. Louis Park–based Aware Web Solutions, a Web development consulting company.

Marketing-IT friction can also stem from who gets credited with the work. “There are a lot of subtleties and complexities that go into the IT work that just aren’t always apparent,” Coffey says. “With a marketing campaign, it’s very visual. You can touch it, you can feel it, you can see it, you can react to it.” But a lot of the work that IT does is behind the scenes. The department should keep marketing employees updated on its major milestones to increase understanding of its work.

Working Relationships

O’Neill notes that marketing’s number-one gripe may be that IT staff underestimate the importance of marketing initiatives. “IT folks have never-ending laundry lists of things they would like to do to update their systems and procedures, and often view such tasks as a priority over some fancy new logo for the Web page,” O’Neill says. “I believe a lot of IT people have the form-follows-function mentality and would rather ensure the security and integrity of their systems than worry about getting the marketing team’s Twitter feed displayed on the home page. Obviously, there should be a balance here.”

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Marketing could help get IT buy-in for its projects by explaining the business reasons for the work rather than saying: “Hey, we want a Twitter feed on the home page!” Hines says marketing must explain to IT: “Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Here’s the objective we’re trying to obtain.”

Translating business requirements—how marketing hopes to achieve company goals by redesigning or tweaking the Web site—into technical requirements that IT implements can be difficult. Olson suggests three solutions: Hire or train one person that understands the technology and the business goals to be the liaison between the marketing and IT departments; create a hybrid department of technologists who have a marketing background; or outsource a portion or all of the Web development.
The hybrid department is a new trend that Olson says he and his colleagues have been seeing more frequently. Instead of meeting with a traditional IT and marketing department, “we’re meeting with the Internet services group. They’ve created this hybrid team, which consists of members of both IT and marketing, and their focus is just the Web,” he says.

“I think one thing that is moving us to a better place over the last couple of years is the whole open-source software movement,” Coffey says. “We’ve seen IT departments be much more open to using open-source technology to solve the problems that marketers are bringing up.” Open source software is free or low-cost software that allows developers to alter the code to fit their site’s needs. It’s typically easy to implement, Coffey says, and without the cost and hassle, it allows IT to move faster and give marketers what they want more quickly.

For example, open-source software can be used to put a Twitter gadget on a Web site, or the entire Web site content management system can be open source. “We’re seeing a lot of situations where instead of being locked into a single, enterprise-wide [technology] infrastructure, we’re seeing IT being more open to smaller, more customizable solutions to solve specific problems,” Coffey says.

With flexible technologies that are less expensive than in the past, IT and marketing groups are open to all the creative possibilities, and the result is more effective sites that are being planned out with the expertise of both groups. While there may still be some gaps in understanding between IT and marketing, each is working harder than ever to understand the other’s frame of reference for making decisions. Adds Hines: “We have to work better together to achieve the results we want to achieve.”