If we could select one must-read business book released this year, it would be Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by New York Times writer David Epstein. The big theme of the book deals with the increasing trend occurring in many industries toward specialization -- the desire to become the “Tiger Woods” of one’s field by only practicing and getting better at a particular set of skills or gaining knowledge only in a certain area. And while companies and individuals certainly benefit from such expertise, there are big drawbacks to such an approach by both the individuals who pursue specialization and companies who seek specialists.
Indeed, we’ve seen this troubling trend for years in the field of marketing: Email specialists that only do e-mail, but don’t understand website design or e-commerce. Paid search marketers who only focus on Google Ads, but don’t understand content or native advertising. Social media gurus who don’t understand SEO or data collection and analysis. The list goes on and on.
Why is this a troubling trend?
If you think about the broader picture, the net effect is an increasingly siloed approach to digital marketing, where narrow specialization encourages an increasingly myopic view of the challenges that marketing teams face in identifying, acquiring and converting customers to their products and services.
For example, let’s say one of or more of your associates create a stellar email campaign. They work hard to craft the right subject line, take great pains to detail out the different emails for each part of the customer journey, they segment their lists well, time the email just right, do the right A/B tests on the primary call to action, and then hit send.
But then nothing happens.
No one converts. Maybe the landing page or website isn’t set up according to best practice. Maybe the e-commerce flow doesn’t work. Maybe they needed to lead with more content first. But they are only a specialist in email, so they don’t bother to understand how other parts of the marketing journey work. They technically “know” their area (email) but can’t help to figure out the broader solution and don’t see how everything else fits together. After all, it’s not their role! It’s someone else’s!
We’ve seen this happen in numerous places. Work gets increasingly siloed and companies lose out on the “bigger picture,” which is ultimately about converting customers to their products and services. Indeed, as opposed to other forms of advertising such as radio or TV or even print, digital is connected at each level of the funnel – from awareness, to engagement/acquisition to conversion and then advocacy. Through data and analytics, one can see the effect of various digital marketing tools working together, or in some cases, at odds. Furthermore, because marketing is about attention to detail – not just in the area one specializes in, but in all parts of the funnel/buyer journey -- one oversight (a poor call-to-action, a bad content post) – can impact a campaign greatly. So, focusing your staff’s efforts on just one piece without exposing them to the broader picture and nuances of other marketing tools can become a big liability.
The other point to mention is that specialization is also inherently (career-) limiting for the digital marketing associates that work for you. That’s because it’s easy to get pigeon-holed these days into one specialization or another. We know some marketing associates who only do digital analytics or only do paid search, but don’t know what makes a good piece of content work. Having some foundation in those areas would not only help them do their job better but also help them down the line if they manage others in the future.
Finally, we’re already seeing research indicating that our increasing specialization is having a negative impact on creativity and problem-solving – a critical issue from a marketing standpoint. After all, the broader the understanding someone has, the more creative they can be. The more they understand other fields (outside their own) and other people, the more they can put things together to come up with solutions for harder problems. These broader-knowledge individuals are, for the same reason, more adaptable as changes inevitably occur in technologies and society.
That’s not to suggest that specialization in and of itself is inherently bad. But gaining the bigger picture and a broader grounding of skills is something we think companies sorely need in their marketing associates and something that will benefit them both in the short term and long term.
We would love to hear your thoughts.