Basketball players in a team huddle.
PHOTO: Harris Walker

The New York Times (NYT) once selected its marketing technology similar to how the 168-year-old company prints its newspaper: as a linear process with a beginning and end. That’s a fine process for a paper to create words and images and print them. The marketing and engineering teams at the NYT have learned, however, that the martech selection process isn’t quite as simple. In fact, the process should reflect the new digital way the print media organization delivers its news, which is agile, flexible and ready for the next unpredictable trend.

Taking a cue from product development and software engineering, the NYT marketing and engineering teams revamped its marketing technology selection and ecosystem with this constant mantra in mind: martech tools have features and capabilities that constantly need to evolve with the rapid changes in the market.

In part 2 of our series with marketing practitioners discussing how they approach building a marketing technology ecosystem, we interviewed the NY Times director of product for marketing technology and its VP of engineering. 

It's a real-world tale of where marketing meets engineering and how adaptive teams, like martech, constantly iterate and evolve.

Check out Part 1 of the series: A Look at One Organization's Homegrown Approach to Martech

Tough Love for an Old Martech Process

NYT's first step in improving its processes was to identify its marketing technology blockers, which included:

  • Siloed marketing channels that needed to be integrated.
  • Technology that was getting complex and interdependent.
  • The marketing team selecting tools without collaboration from the technology team.
  • Understanding that a linear approach to implementation was no longer viable.

Things have changed. Pamela Della Motta, director of product for martech at NYT, moved from strictly marketing to more involvement with engineering. She has three product managers on her team, and each is supported by an engineering team of 4-12 engineers. Gone is the outdated, old marketing technology selection model of:

  1. Learn current marketing tool is outdated
  2. Find a replacement tool
  3. Implement said tool
  4. Launch and 
  5. Move on to the next project

That old model included gathering feedback and learning after a product was delivered. In other words, wait to fail, then reboot. It resulted in redundant systems with overlapped features and functions because feedback for the various technology only happened at end of implementation. Over-customized tools affected user experience and were incompatible with other tech in the Times martech ecosystem. Delays stemmed from investigating issues found in redundant systems. 

“A lot of things were happening inside marketing, who just went off and bought their own technologies without really understanding what was under the hood or how things work,” Della Motta told CMSWire. “From marketing's perspective, we’d see something, and the technology looks simple enough, but when you bring it into our stack it's no longer simple.”

Marketing, Meet Engineering

Headshot of Kristian Kristensen
Kristian Kristensen

And that’s why marketing works far more closely with engineering now, and why Della Motta is a dedicated conduit between the two factions. Enter engineers like Kristian Kristensen, vice president of engineering for ecommerce for NYT. It’s good to be integrated (marketing and engineering) because that’s the reality for NYT subscribers and consumers. They don’t think in ways of "marketing is communicating to me" or "IT is communicating to me."

“It’s the New York Times communicating to me,” Kristensen said. So, the thought process is, why shouldn’t the internal teams be integrated as well? “People don't buy marketing. They buy the product,” Kristensen said. “And so marketing has to be part of what that the product is. When you have functional silos, it is very easy to think narrowly around things like, ‘I just need to do email marketing. I need to do marketing on social channels.’”

Onboarding, for example, should not be viewed as a pure email marketing strategy. “If you think about that in isolation, you don't get the full benefit because in reality the onboarding has to be something that's built into the product,” he said. For instance, how does the onboarding process integrate with apps on the NYT website? “You have to think about things in a more holistic manner,” Kristensen said.

Related Article: 12 Things Marketers Should Know About Martech's New Categories

Buy or Build Your Marketing Stack?

The NY Times doesn’t have a heavy emphasis on either build or buy. Della Motta harkened back to when marketers would simply discover a need and buy something. “When I was sitting in the marketing organization, of course it made sense to buy because marketing wants things fast,” Della Motta said. “They want to get their hands on a tool and use it. Nobody was thinking about how do we integrate the data, how do we make sure the data from this tool plugs into our systems. … It caused problems.”

Marketing Tech’s a Data Problem

This, they said, is a problem that working with engineers like Kristensen solves. To begin with, martech selection isn’t even a marketing problem, Kristensen said. Rather, it’s a data problem. Do I have the right data in order to identify targets, prospects, existing customers and whatever it is marketing wants? “And so it really becomes a problem of how do we make sure that we exchange this data in the best kind of way that's actually true and makes it correct,” Kristensen said. 

Scott Brinker’s marketing technology supergraphic in 2018 told us the best tool in each category is not going to come from the same vendor, Kristensen noted. The martech landscape seems to have solutions for every marketing problem, but, Kristensen said, “someone has to do the stuff.” “In some ways,” he added, “you have to figure out how you are going to approach this system integration and this data integration problem.”

Related Article: MarTech Conference Attendees Discuss Top Customer Experience Priorities

Continuous Iteration Fuels Martech Ecosystem

Headshot of Pamela Della Motta
Pamela Della Motta

How does the NYT do this? By being agile with continuous improvement through iteration. Delivering value in smaller chunks faster and more often. They don’t set end dates for product delivery. They ship fast and often, get feedback and learn. Product owners drive development and enhancement of martech. 

According to Della Motta, martech product managers need to:

  • Set a martech vision.
  • Understand user pain points through user research and discovery.
  • Create and manage a martech product roadmap.
  • Ensure user adoption.
  • Manage stakeholder (marketing, engineering and data analysts) expectations through consistent communication and constant iteration (being agile).

This process is in effect because the reality is that today's digital world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. “It’s more like an agile approach,” Della Motta said. “We thought, Well, what if we approached all the different needs that marketing has as far as technology is concerned through the way we look at product management?”

Related Article: 4 Agile Principles for the Modern Marketer

What Do You Value Most?

Forming your martech stack ultimately comes down to what your organization values most, according to Kristensen. Where do you consider yourself to have a competitive advantage? “The things that we believe are important for us we hold on to internally because it has a key impact on the way that we conduct business and the way that our processes work,” Kristensen said. “We tend to build those things ourselves and have a deeper understanding about how those things actually work internally.”

When you’re thinking of buying martech, determine whether the functions and capabilities reflect a core function of what your organization does. “And if it's not, we know we should probably go and build it,” he said.

Keeping Martech Internal

Email delivery, for instance, is produced by a vendor. Creating the email, its template, its messaging, however, is built internally “because we believe that being able to iterate and innovate on that is really important to us. If you look at our newsletter business, it works really well for us, and it's a great acquisition channel. And so we want to make sure that we can innovate on that. But actually shipping that out once it's HTML generated isn't super important for us.”

Something that’s not important now may matter tomorrow in this volatile world. That’s where prowess from folks like Della Motta come in — keeping an eye on industry and market trends. “We're not fully transformed,” Della Motta said. “We're still working through how we can respond quickly to the very rapid changes of the market.”