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Managing Technical Debt in Digital Marketing

Technical debt is the accrued set of technical issues that create friction during the pursuit of new business value. The term is often applied to software engineering practices, but it is also an invisible force working against marketing teams. The growing complexity of systems and services under the digital marketing umbrella inevitably leads to the accumulation of technical debt. Left unmanaged, technical debt can bring your digital marketing efforts to a grinding halt and potentially tarnish your brand.

Why It Matters

Technical debt typically accumulates with each new feature as the complexity of the system grows. It is not a precise measure but rather a heuristic one. In essence, for each technical shortcut you take towards a solution, you pay the price at a future date – by either resolving it or working around it. Technical issues become too numerous at a certain point, causing systems to be retired and others to be built in their place. Avoiding the debt altogether is generally not viable. The rate at which it increases is what is most important and most manageable. A well-managed technical debt extends the company’s life span and ensures that everyone dependent on the system can remain productive in the long run.

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Building Sustainably

Company websites are particularly prone to the accumulation of technical debt. Sustainability of the technical solution powering the website is generally not high on the list of concerns as it is built, resulting in that brand new website being decommissioned in less than two years. Add the plethora of tracking and marketing tools that are piled on to the website, and you have many moving pieces that are interdependent on each other. Issues with website components cross-interacting can lead to lost leads, double-counting of revenue, or just a poor experience for the visitor. Poorly written stylesheets can cause one aspect of the design to eventually breaking another component of the website. This risk inevitably leads many businesses to avoid adjustments altogether.

Ultimately, successfully implementing marketing technologies follows many of the rules of good systems design: being mindful of inter-dependencies, observing the separation of concerns, and building resilience at the individual component level. When deciding on what stack will work best, keep the following in mind:

  • Be mindful of interdependencies: Which systems will need to talk in order to answer the questions you have in mind? Are those systems built in a way that they even can talk? Will maintaining them together be overly burdensome?
  • Observe the separation of concerns: Does the system we are adding specifically and entirely address a problem we have, or will its primary purpose need to be tweaked to accommodate?
  • Build resilience at the individual component level: Will this additional system only work in conjunction with something else? Will it break if something else is removed/added?

Building Efficiently

It is always possible to over-engineer things, especially when the future roadmap or requirements are not clearly defined. Managing technical debt means making the right tradeoffs at the right times and having the process in place to determine what to do in any given situation. Left to their own devices, most seasoned web developers will want to find a best-in-class solution and implement it carefully. The hard part in today’s climate is dealing with the fast pace of modern web development. Real-world situations mean that it will sometimes be acceptable to do a quick and dirty implementation if the building is truly on fire. Having these types of rapid sprints is not a bad thing so long as there is ample room to go back and reevaluate what’s already there and clean the house at regular intervals.

A Measured Way Forward

Ensuring the team is well-educated about the best practices of the technology being applied is one of the best ways to minimize the amount of debt created. Technology vendors usually provide such information alongside other documentation indicating how best to move forward with their solution. Periodic technical reviews are also an excellent strategy to ensure that debt isn’t accumulating unchecked over a more extended period. Following a review, improvements to existing practices should be documented and adhered to in the future.

Finally, choose your tools wisely. There are now thousands of tools available to solve nearly every problem out there. Doing something quickly to support your teams doesn’t mean ignoring due diligence. Where able, stick with tools that follow and support web authoring best practices. This can go a long way in making sure your workflow is solid and that your website remains healthy and extendable for a long time.

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