What is Full Stack Marketing?
Although quietly gaining more traction, full stack marketing is still a neologism in the marketing universe. The term arose around the same time as more popular concepts such as ‘growth marketing’ and ‘growth hacking’, but it’s more than just another buzzword. So what is full stack marketing? And what sets full stack marketers apart?
Full stack marketing refers to a particular skill set, as opposed to a disciple. The term describes the abilities and the approach that some digital marketers are capable of executing, because they are knowledgeable about all levels of the marketing ‘stack’. These digital marketing professionals are better known as full stack marketers.
More common in the startup world than in larger companies, full stack marketers are both generalists and specialists. They’ve had exposure and experience at all levels of the marketing stack, and are highly adept at utilising a variety of different channels to find traction and return, then doubling down on what works and discarding what doesn’t.
Full stack marketers can drive growth without needing excessive resources or spend, and thrive in smaller organisations who don’t yet have the budget to hire a larger, more diverse marketing team. Often, as the company grows and personnel needs dictate a move from full stack to specialised marketing, there is less of a need for the skills that the full stack marketer originally brought to the table.
This is referred to as the ‘curse of the full stack marketer’ - their hard work eventually makes them redundant to the organisation that relied so heavily on them at the beginning.
The Origin of the Term
The term was first coined back in 2013 by Marcelo Calbucci and Morgan Brown. Calbucci was discussing the dearth qualified marketing professionals in Seattle - at least when it came to hiring for an early stage startup. The bottom line was, as he saw it, that despite the surplus of talent out there and the glowing resumes that startups often received, few of the candidates seemed to know enough about the various components of the marketing stack to be able to thrive in that sort of work environment - cut off from vast resources, agencies, other teammates and internal departments.
Sure, most who applied knew a lot about one channel - there were plenty of well qualified SEO specialists and social media managers out there. But how useful is a content marketer who doesn't understand PPC, or an email marketer that doesn’t know a thing about SEO, to an early stage startup?
Startups can’t afford to hire channel specialists, as that would mean employing an entire department in order to cover the full marketing stack. At most, they have the budget to employ one person who knows enough to be able to write SEO content in the morning, develop their own assets for social before lunch, manage Ads campaigns in the afternoon, and then ensure that their event tracking is working before heading home.
In other words, startups need marketers whose breadth of experience makes them highly flexible, and capable of making good calls when it comes to allocating both time and money.
Is There Any Relation to Full Stack Development?
Full stack developers are rarely experts in more than one area, however they possess the skill and understanding required to quickly execute software engineering projects as required. They're the ideal employee for a startup as they help keep staffing and operational costs low.
Full stack marketing is derived from this approach, and defines marketers who can work in any layer of the marketing stack. Full stack marketers can strategise and complete a campaign or project from start to finish - without the need for assistance. Their day to day tasks are both diverse and interdisciplinary, and they bring an incredible amount of value to companies.
What’s in the Marketing Stack?
There’s no set definition of the marketing stack - the qualitative and quantitative skills, technologies, and tools leveraged tends to differ by person, by project, product, and industry. The world of marketing stacks is broad, to the extent that there are currently more than 8,000 martech solutions on the market, according to Chiefmartech.com.
However, most definitions of the full marketing stack include a solid understanding of, and experience in SEO, SEA, Analytics, Content, Social, Email, Design, plus HTML/CSS, with an emphasis on highly developed analytical skills, technical skills, qualitative research abilities, copywriting, and storytelling.
One of the earliest articles on the subject, written by Wade Foster back in 2013 outlined the following 21 skills:
In Product Marketing
App Store Marketing
Landing Page Optimisation
Essentially, a full stack marketer should be capable of raising awareness using paid media and social, managing a website, from infrastructure to SEO, to localisation, to UX, data management, including CRM and marketing automation, (re)engagement through email and personalisation, plus interaction, in terms of customer support and internal communication, alongside web and business analytics.
What About ‘T-Shaped’ Marketers?
Full stack and T-shaped marketing are closely related concepts. Similar to full stack marketers who can work across a range of disciplines, T-shaped marketers have broad skills, alongside deep expertise in one particular channel. Both can function as a one-person marketing team or a one-person marketing agency, which make them ideal startup hires.
The horizontal portion of the ‘T’ refers to broad knowledge - facets that the marketer understands and is familiar with, but not an absolute expert in, whereas the vertical part of the ‘T’ underscores the singular depth of knowledge in one particular channel or area. A T-shaped marketer can traverse the full marketing stack, interweaving and deploying different channels as required.
The difference between full stack marketing and T-shaped marketing is often a matter of opinion. According to Gavin Llewellyn, “the difference lies in how the full-stack marketer excels through action”; contrary to Marcus Burk’s belief that, a “full stack marketer is nothing more than a digital marketer with T-Shape”.
It is worth noting, that regardless of how large or how small the difference between the two is - T-shaped marketers do have a better chance of avoiding the curse of the full stack marketer, as they can fall back on their specialisation.
A Blessing and a Curse?
Full stack marketers do well in startups and smaller companies because they are willing to learn almost anything in order to succeed. They’ll teach themselves how to write copy, how to build a landing page, and then how to drive traffic to it, in order to prove that their concept works and that they can scale it. If and when they do this again and again, they become indispensable.
But then the startup grows. New layers of bureaucracy are added to the decision making structure. It’s no longer possible to just build a landing page - the marketer has to pitch their idea to other teams to get buy-in, simply to find that it's then add to a long list of priorities that need to be actioned by the dev team.
If they’re successful, a full stack marketer puts themselves out of a job. The team expands, and pieces of what they do are pulled off their plates little by little. There’s now a full time content writer, social media manager, and performance marketing manager - as there should be. But the full stack marketer is no longer needed to integrate all these various elements and channels.
And that’s the curse of the full stack marketer. As Cody Boyte warns, “... without a clear specialty, your talent for being able to put together all the pieces has a tendency to get overlooked by your boss. Especially when you get a new boss.”
But if you can reconcile yourself with this fact - it can easily be a blessing as much as a curse. Every role has a shelf life, and there will always be another early stage startup that will welcome your talents, enabling you to do what you do best; developing and executing a holistic marketing strategy from the ground up.
And for most full stack marketers this is ideal. They’d rather work for a small 5 person startup where they have more freedom, then as another cog in the machine at a FT500 company. For many, it’s about the challenge of doing a lot with very little.
Can One Person Really Do It All?
Larger corporations have little need for full stack marketers - they already have an inhouse team in place, and often utilise the input of other internal departments or agencies to carry out graphic design, copywriting, or development tasks. With a team of experts working side by side - there’s little room for a ‘Jack of all trades’. And in truth, no single employee could carry out all of the tasks required, to the same standard, over the course of a 40 hour work week.
So how realistic is it that one person can do all of this for a startup?
If you ask Byte - the answer is a firm no. “You cannot, ever, be a full stack marketer. It’s not possible.” As Byte sees it: “the concept exhibits the same lack of understanding that I see often in many contexts. When you don’t know much about a topic, it’s very easy to gloss over the edges… to think you understand something when you’ve really only heard about it.”
Byte leans heavily on his own personal experience, to argue that “full stack marketing is a waste of time”, and concludes that he performs better when he ‘gravitates closer towards what he does best’.
“In the last year we’ve hired four other marketers for the team. Each hire has made me significantly better at my job because they’ve pushed me further away from being a full-stack marketer”.
However, no definition of full stack marketing as ever called on an individual to know absolutely everything, and excel at it. Yes - it would take years to become an expert, but full stack marketers aren't expected to be. They just need to get the ball rolling. According to Foster, who weighed in on the debate early on, “you only need to know enough to put something in place to build from. You only need to find one or two successful tactics early on to get early traction with the product.”
Once a startup has gained some degree of momentum, whether in terms of revenue or funding, it can hire experts to optimise the channels that are most important to the organisation. But in the short term, their first marketing hire needs to be knowledgeable enough about the marketing stack to develop and operate a comprehensive growth strategy with limited resources.
As the old saying goes, “a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
“... a unicorn that doesn’t even exist.”
Full stack marketing is not a new marketing discipline, but a term which describes the comprehensive skill set and expertise of a small but growing band of marketers. Perhaps it’s better to consider it a mindset, geared towards lifelong learning, filling the gaps in your skill set, being conscious of strengths and weaknesses, and of what you don’t know, as much as what you do.
Most marketers will excel in one or two areas, and need to work harder in others. And the likelihood of most generalists developing into perfect full stack marketers is limited. It would take years of hard work to become an expert in every single layer of the marketing stack. If not decades. If you ask Burk, "The perfect Full Stack Digital Marketer is a unicorn that doesn’t even exist."
“Hardly anyone will actually be able to master all the skills listed … But that’s not the point. Because in full stack marketing, the path is the goal.”
It’s both a concept and a model that can push you towards becoming a generalist, albeit one with comprehensive training and some degree of specialisations in a handful of areas. Full stack marketers are digital specialists who have extensive theoretical and practical knowledge, and can work in any layer of the marketing stack. They are as rare as unicorns, and highly desirable employees. For some, that's an ideal worth aspiring to, regardless of how feasible. It's more a mindset than a title, denoting a certain level of seriousness about developing your skills throughout your career.
A full stack digital marketer “is no more and no less than an interdisciplinary trained and experienced marketing and communications worker who is able to deliver projects from conception to execution and analysis”. They’re a one person marketing team, capable of developing successful campaigns at every stage of the marketing funnel - and who will always be in demand by early stage startups - absolute expert or not.