Can your business plug the digital skills gap?

Dan Chorlton, CEO of GOA Marketing, argues businesses have a responsibility to foster a culture of continuous learning

To state the obvious — the last few years have been mightily disruptive.

Not only has the pandemic impacted how marketers work, with many teams now opting for a hybrid model, it has also changed consumers’ priorities. Add to that the growing concerns over privacy and third-party cookies and the ongoing juggling act of marketing in an omnichannel era, and it becomes apparent why the skills marketers need are evolving.

As the marketing mix becomes ever larger and more technical, there has been a growing demand for a variety of data-driven and digital skills in marketing, many of which can be too technical to fulfil. This has created a digital skills gap within marketing, and as automation and digitisation in the sector grows, there are fears that this gap could widen even further. Change is a huge driver of this with all the platforms constantly moving the goal posts which impacts the method of doing best in class work.

Addressing the digital skills gap is accelerating up the UK government’s priority list. As part of the Autumn Budget review, Sunak promised to drive a “skills revolution” with an overall investment of £3bn to “spread opportunity across the UK”. It should be noted that Gove’s more recent flagship levelling up whitepaper, devised to lay out exactly how it plans to do this, was highly criticised for being ‘not ambitious enough’ on addressing key issues such as digital literacy funding support and skills. But then, what can you expect from a report allegedly lifted directly from Wikipedia.

Fortunately, the government is not the only party responsible for closing the skills gap. Additionally, businesses have a significant responsibility — and opportunity — to look inward at their teams and audit the skillsets they possess against their objectives and foster a culture of continuous learning.

Explaining the digital skills spiral

According to a new study, marketers’ digital skills have stagnated or declined at every level of seniority between 2020 and 2021, with expertise in analytics and data dropping the most. Almost seven in 10 marketers fall into the lowest two quantiles for their analytics and data abilities.

While the tumble is easy to explain, as new analytics options and changes in cookie rules raise the overall complexity of digital marketing, it is nonetheless a “worrying” indication of marketers’ ability to analyse and improve their work, the study claims.

For example, in our own digitally niche world of paid search, we need employees with abilities like the special-data driven curiosity to review datasets, glean insights, and strategise what’s next. Data literacy must be built more broadly if marketers are able to demonstrate their commercial ability and better influence business outcomes and decisions.

Does upskilling offer a solution?

Technology isn’t going to wait. The need to continue upskilling just to stand still was apparent before the pandemic — the risk now is that it will only continue to grow, and the skills gap could become unmanageable.

In response, many brands have announced significant investments in skills programs. For example, Unilever has invested heavily in upskilling its marketers on digital and other “future-facing skills”. It has developed a “huge” curriculum to ensure that marketers are constantly learning, believing that 70% of upskilling should happen on the job.

It’s equally essential, however, that marketers use their newfound skills so they can help the team hit their business goals, whatever they are. You must give people a clear vision of what it is that you’re going to be able to achieve with this hot new Ferrari Martech stack that you’ve got in the garage, otherwise it’s just going to sit in the garage, gathering dust.

Specialisms are here to stay (for now!)

However, there is still a place for hiring specialists in certain areas, particularly when a discipline is brand new. When a specialist is recruited early on, they can educate the rest of the business on how to implement the technology or methodology on a deep technical level to become standard marketing practice within the organisation.

Technology does not take care of itself, but it is not uncommon for organisations to assume that it does. Marketing and technology leaders are often guilty of investing in great martech tools without fully understanding the need to hire marketing talent, upskill the staff or commission the specialist agency services to make the best use of them.

Find the gap and learn from it

How then can businesses decide what to prioritise when it comes to hiring and upskilling?

Examine your organisation’s tools, skills, and channels, determine which of these are working to their full potential, and identify what insight or capability is missing that could hinder the achievement of business goals. Weight this by spend – if you spend 50% of your budget on Google, then invest the same amount of time and resources assessing it.

General Motors, for instance, has just begun a major global upskilling programme for its marketers. The company has identified 22 key skill sets touching on innovation, personalisation and modern martech, it believes marketers will need to thrive. By thinking ahead rather than looking at the here and now, you can make smart decisions about the future.

The government, along with businesses in the private sector, must commit to much more ambitious spending to upskill the population and provide high-quality training to equip our nation with the skills of the future. Indeed, we can’t know for sure what 2022 will bring, but having the right skills mix in place will ensure marketers are in the best position to tackle the challenges and opportunities that arise.

Featured image: Jakob Owens / Unsplash

Dan Chorlton

Dan Chorlton is a performance marketing strategist who started working with data in 2005. He has been an active participant in the digital boom and has helped transform digital media departments at many agencies. An operational expert who led the largest global search and social transition in history, and has run digital performance campaigns for blue chips like Google, Unilever and Disney driving significant growth through scientific backed testing and extensive knowledge of the specialisms.

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