Marketing and computer science

I believe that the future of computer science — or at least a branch of it — is in the marketing department. And vice versa. Marketing departments need to hire computer science grads. Computer science researchers need to work on marketing problems. And there’s a golden age of prosperity awaiting both disciplines in this collaboration.

Let me explain with three points.

Point #1. I had the privilege to hear a talk from Christos Papadimitriou at MIT last month. (For those of you without a computer science background, Papadimitriou is a legend — sort of what Brett Favre is to football — and one of the masters of computational complexity.)

The theme of his talk was “computer science is the new math”. By this he meant that computer science is no longer just a stand-alone branch of science so much as it is now a tool that is adopted by all the sciences. He gave examples from physics, biology, and social science, where the algorithmic lens of computer science has enabled incredible breakthroughs in the past several years.

With the Internet in particular, computer science is now intertwined with the social sciences, understanding how people behave online, individually and in groups. And this is where computer science and marketing collide. Social networking dynamics — which are of critical concern to marketers — are the living incarnation of graph theory problems in computer science. Improving the effectiveness of advertising by leveraging people’s patterns and preferences is a challenge for optimization algorithms.

Computational problems in marketing are sounding more and more like theoretical computer science dissertations.

Point #2. The inspiration for this blog was the realization that (a) marketing is becoming more and more centered around technological channels and methods, yet at the same time (b) marketing as a whole is still rather technologically deficient in its DNA. No offense intended: most marketers have simply focused on other areas of expertise. Previously marketing could rely on IT and/or vendors to “make it happen”, without prying too closely under the covers.

Unfortunately, this Platonic separation of tech and marketing grows less tenable every day. The success of digital marketing initiatives are often inexorably tied to the details of their implementation. The diversity of technologies in the marketing sphere today — from campaign management to search engine bidding, from web analytics to lead automation — is staggering. New categories of marketing applications seem to arise every year (social marketing management, anyone?). Decisions for selecting the right packages and platforms for each fall on the marketer’s shoulders, along with the challenges of maintenance, customization, and integration to weave them together. Think it’s daunting now? Semantic marketing may be just around the corner, and that’s all this and a bag of chips.

If you know what you’re doing with marketing technology, you can have a real competitive edge. If you don’t, you can blow a lot of time and money with little to show for it. The stakes are high. Marketing has to become tech savvy.

I’m not saying that all marketers need to be computer scientists. Just as not all marketers need to be “creatives”. But as the aesthetics of creative talents such as graphic design and copywriting have been absorbed into the marketing gestalt, so too must be the talents of algorithms and architectures. The worldview of computer science needs to be cross-pollinated throughout marketing, even if it emanates from only a small percentage of the team.

Point #3. I just read in Computerworld that the computer science graduating class of 2007 is the smallest this decade, at least here in the US. This is alarming at both a microeconomic and a macroeconomic level, for industry and academia. (Unless you’re reading this from India or China, in which case your future is bright.)

Part of the reason I think interest in computer science degrees has waned among college students is the image of their career prospects. Not to oversimplify, but CS grads have typically had two career options outside of academia: (1) software product development, epitomized for many as getting a job in engineering at Microsoft or Google or the next hottest start-up; or (2) “IT”, managing systems and software inside an organization.

The former remains very exciting, as it promises (however elusively) Internet age fame and fortune. But there are only so many of those jobs, and competition for them is extremely fierce. Out of a class of CS grads, how many do Microsoft and Google take on?

IT careers, on the other hand, have just not been viscerally appealing to many teenagers. You don’t hear them exclaim, “I want to work in IT!” It’s not that it’s not good work, important work, necessary work, well-paid work — it is. And there’s definitely room for stars to rise. But maybe not so much as other careers. Some of this is perception, some of it is reality.

Marketing is sexy though. Part of the solution for inspiring more computer science majors is to develop a career path in marketing technology (“martec“) that elevates their talent and skills to front-of-house demand generation and top-line growth, with all the glory and rewards that can offer.

Marketing and computer science can save each other.

Joint membership in the AMA and the ACM? I think that’s the future.

P.S. As I was going to get the link to Computerworld, I happened to see an ad for an M.S. in Marketing and Technological Innovation from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Maybe the future isn’t so far away.



  1. This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!

  2. Aurelius — thanks for the kind comment and encouragement. Was just visiting your blog and love your latest cartoon (“I’m an Internet marketer”, “What’s that?”). I’ve been in that situation a hundred times.

  3. Love this post. I am currently a Digital Marketing Manager who is also now a Comp Sci student. Wish me luck!

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