Top Marketing Skills You Need to Know in Order to Master Growth (w/ Morgan Brown & Lindsay Craig of Shopify)
Top Marketing Skills You Need to Know in Order to Master Growth (w/ Morgan Brown & Lindsay Craig of Shopify)
In order to be a growth marketer, there's some key language you should know and tactics you should master. But you don't have to learn them all at once. In this episode Shopify's VP of Growth, Morgan Brown, and Director of Growth, Lindsay Craig, explain what the skills are that make up a successful growth marketer, and how they've learned them along the way.
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Matt Bilotti: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Growth podcast. I am your host, Matt Bilotti. And today we have a fantastic conversation between myself, Morgan Brown, who is the VP of Growth at Shopify, and Lindsay Craig, who is the director of Growth at Shopify. We talk all about marketing skills that you need to know and growth roles, what those are, how you get better with them, other core skills that you should know as a person operating in growth, and in any regard, this was recorded as a Clubhouse conversation, so we're going to go ahead and dive right into that. Thank you again for listening. If you like this episode or any others that you've listened to so far, hit that subscribe button. There's plenty of other good content there. And we will go ahead and dive in. Why don't we go ahead and jump right in? I would love to kick it off with something that will get people to see value right away. What would you each say is the number one marketing skill that any growth person needs to know? Full- stop if you knew absolutely nothing else of day- to- day marketing type work, what is something that you need to be good at?
Morgan Brown: I actually don't think it's a marketing skill, I think it's just curiosity general. Full- stop. That might feel like a bit of a cop out, but it really isn't. My degree is in biology, has nothing to do with marketing. I just learned by being curious. And I think curiosity drives a lot of understanding of many different things such as consumer behavior, such as why things work the way they do, such as questioning underlying assumptions. So I think that's the number one skill. And there's actually a way to increase your curiosity, and there are skills that you can learn around questioning models and all sorts of things to really drive that, but I would say that's the one must- have. And if I'm forced, I can give a very specific marketing one, but that's my go- to skill. So that would be number one. And then if I was really going to think about a very specific marketing skill, they're two sides of the coin. One is on the qualitative side of marketing, understanding what it means for positioning and language market fit and that type of thing. And then the other is just a real data fluency. And so, one of the things that I think is really interesting is this left brain, right brain mental model of marketing. And I think the people that identify skills on each side, if you will, and really hone in on them are the ones that can create some really special things in our craft.
Matt Bilotti: And on the note of, I want to dig into both these parts here. So the curiosity piece, talk me through how I can get better at being curious. Is it literally just I should start asking questions more often?
Morgan Brown: Yeah. At the foundational level, yeah, I think many people, and myself included, the way we learn about stuff is often through analogy, or pattern recognition, and that type of thing. And so that can be really helpful, but at the same time can also be really problematic and can introduce a lot of biases and gaps and understanding. That's also where a lot of the learning lives. And so, yeah, from a very tactical perspective, there are things like questioning models that can really help you uncover really what's happening. There's a great mental model that says the map is not the land, and basically what that means is usually when you're looking at an abstraction of reality, there are some gaps between that abstraction of what reality really is. And the same thing in marketing. If you're looking at a Google Analytics dashboard, if you're reading a user research report, or if you're just looking around at what other people in the industry are doing, you're not seeing the true underlying things that are happening, you're really just seeing a representation of those. And so, being able to overcome those through curiosity. So there's the five why's questioning model is very famous. In the legal field they use a term, and also in PhD and dissertation fields, they use the term murder boards, which are really just like," Hey, how do you take an argument and totally deconstruct it?" And so there's lots of great examples of questioning models and curiosity models that you can actually build and practice on. And that's something I've invested in over the last five or so years as just a personal growth area.
Lindsay Craig: Yeah, so I think Morgan was speaking to the scientific method and knowing how to test hypotheses and whatnot, and I think that's huge, and a complementary skill to that would be just knowing how to read data and basic stats skills, so being able to parse through signals from noise and navigate anything from Google Analytics to SQL, I think it'd be pretty difficult to scale anything as a growth marketer if you couldn't handle data on multiple platforms, or rather fluidly.
Matt Bilotti: So you both mentioned data here, and working through it and having a basic understanding. As somebody tries to think about how they can get better with it, where would you tell them to start? Is there a specific online resource they should dig into? Is it literally just get your hands dirty and just start staring at it and be curious about it as you go? Is it lean on other people internally? Is it a mix of these things? How can somebody get better with data?
Lindsay Craig: I think the second it becomes real you learn so much faster. I know I didn't really learn a ton in school, I took the classes, but it didn't stick. And then the second I was spending my own money doing real side hustles, or helping friends with their side hustles, you suddenly have way more motivation to get familiar with the data and really pay attention to it. So I think whether it's starting a YouTube channel, or a blog, or an iOS app, something to call your own will give you just that much more motivation to seek out new types of tools and then to google and figure out what you're actually looking at. So where to find the right insights for where your mobile installs are coming from, or whatnot. But I think that would be where I would begin if I wanted to learn data from scratch, is have something to grow and then learn that type of data first.
Morgan Brown: Yeah, I just want to plus one what Lindsay said here. There's really so many opportunities to create your own thing and learn by doing. I think of growth like medicine or law, there's a medical practice, a law practice. Growth is a practice, right? It's something you have to actually get your hands on and actually work through and do, and build skills over time. And so, yeah, whether you're starting a blog, a newsletter, a podcast, a Shopify store, you name it, there's a bunch of ways to get this hands- on practice. And then there's also a ton of educational opportunities that you can do out there, for example, Lindsay was talking about knowing SQL and data fluency, which I fully believe is a must- have skill. And Udemy, I took the Ultimate MySQL course. That's how I taught myself SQL, right? And W3Schools and all of that. LinkedIn Learning has a ton of stuff. There's tons of YouTube videos about doing data analysis. And if you're like," Hey, starting my own thing seems like a stretch right now," there's also other places that you can go and get access to data, or use data, and learn how to manipulate it around things you're interested in. For example, I am a big baseball fan, and that's really where I got my introduction to statistics. I also used to play a lot of poker, and that's where I did a lot of probability learning. And so you can think about different fields and hobbies that you're interested in. There's usually a pretty good data aspect tied to any of those, and then you can start to marry those, or tie those two things together, where you can take some of these emerging skills and that type of thing, and apply them to... What you need is a robust data set that you understand and that you can start to manipulate.
Matt Bilotti: I love that. So you can play around your own, you can take some courses, you can get a dataset. That's such a good idea to just find a dataset on something that you care about. What about learning on top of internal data, say you're working somewhere and you just want to start poking around? Are you going to get more in people's way by doing that, or is that something that you'd recommend as well?
Lindsay Craig: I have a hack for this that's sketchy, but it works really well. I will often try and find the closest dashboard or notebook to what I'm solving, and then get as far along as I can writing the query myself. And then when it inevitably breaks, I just go into a data channel, and I just say," Hey, does anyone know what's wrong with this?" And so you're not editing their raw work, and you're not asking them to do it from scratch, but you're getting as far along as you can by yourself. It's really effective because the second anyone sees an incorrect query, they're like," Oh, I can fix that." So you get your answers much faster than if you had just asked for help without sample work. That works really well at Shopify. Morgan, any thoughts?
Morgan Brown: No, I love that. I think that's super creative. At Facebook, all of the data tools are available to you, and they actually have things like a data camp, at Shopify, we also have a MySQL tutorial and that type of thing. So yeah, if you're at a bigger organization, there's probably some internal learning skills. I love, Lindsay, if you can find a data scientists that you're working very closely on, or you can pair up with and get some help on some of your queries and that type of thing, is a really great way to get started. I think one of the things that Lindsay is really good at, that is built into that, is that you have to understand the data that you're looking at. And that's why I think, yeah, if you look at a dashboard, you understand the data that's being presented to you, because I think sometimes at a big company there's so many data tables, it's not clear what's in the data tables, or what it's telling you. And so you really need that handholding to say," Oh, this is the data table you actually need," and that type of thing. So it's trying to find that trusted person that can point you in the right direction.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah, and I'll back this as well. At Drift, it's something that I've seen people be really successful with is, yeah, find a query, find something that looks similar to what you want, get as far as you can, and then show up somewhere to the data or the ops team and find the person that just likes finding the right answer. Right? And they'll talk you through and help you get there. To shift topics a little bit, how do you make the distinction between, let's say you're operating as a growth role of some sort. How do you make the distinction between a skill that you explicitly need to learn and get better at versus just leaning on someone else internally who knows that marketing skill best, or being able to get by without quite knowing it, for example, I think maybe a misconception out there that everybody who does growth needs to understand at least some paid ad stuff, or they need to be able to run paid ads, or they need to know SEO. How do you think about what that line looks of what do you actually need to know in the growth role? And what can you just have a very vague familiarity with?
Morgan Brown: Yeah. I can go first, I would love Lindsay's take on this. I think there's a core set of attributes that are really helpful to being good at growth, this inquisitiveness is one, the comfort with data strong, structured, logical thinking, understanding systems, how systems work, systems level thinking, the idea of going to first principles for decision- making. All of these are really strong things that can be applied to almost any problem inside marketing, inside product, wherever. So they're just valuable. So you want a set of tools that are broadly applicable and then you have to decide, are you a specialist or are you a generalist? And I think there's roles for both, right? We have some people in our company at Shopify who are specialists, they're the best in the world at what they do. Right? And you have some people who are generalists, who can bring a lot of these core attributes against any problem and be successful. And so thinking for yourself, okay, what's the most important thing for me? What's the most important thing for impact? I think Brian Balfour wrote the canonical post on the T- shaped marketer. If you haven't read that post, the general idea is, you want to breadth across a core set of competencies and depth in one or two particular ones where you can really excel. But I think there is a role for both people with lots of range, and Range is a great book if you want to check out that hypothesis, and there's a role for really true experts. And so I think both paths can be successful, it's just down to your strengths as long as you have some of these four underlying must haves. I don't know, Lindsay, what's been your experience?
Lindsay Craig: Yeah. I completely agree on the fundamentals. I think the more interdependent a skill is, the more critical it is to master it. So knowing how to set up an experiment, or a general understanding of how algorithms work, or how data moves through a funnel, or leads move through a funnel, and how that's stored in your data model, I think all that is critical. And then it gets a lot more optional as you look at channels and what your role is too. So to your point, I'm definitely am more of a generalist role. So I tend to go really deep on a new channel to learn it. And so if my team's doing a project in a brand new area, I'll spend a lot of time in reviews and understanding the mechanics of what they're doing, and then I'm pretty hands off. So I try and get the fundamentals down. But yeah, I think it ultimately depends on, do you want to go really big into paid ads, for example, are you going to be optimizing a multimillion dollar budget, or are you doing growth for maybe a community festival, and most of your tactics aren't going to involve paid, then you don't really need to know paid that well. So yeah, once you have the fundamentals down, I think it comes down to a Venn diagram of what does the role need, what are you interested in and what tools do you have available to you? Because in some cases you're also limited by what's available at the organization you're working for. I realize that's a, it depends answer, but I think there's no concrete answer.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. I think that this generalist versus specialist thing, I just want to double click on it real quick, because I think people have a sense that going to the specialist route ends up, it puts you in a confined space, in a confined role, with confined opportunities in growth or in marketing. I would just love for either of you to just expand a little bit more on what you think of that thought around specialists means you have less opportunities versus if you just remained a generalist.
Lindsay Craig: Oh man, I think that's such a myth. I was working in private equity. I was doing financial models before Shopify. And then I joined as a growth hacker doing really technical marketing. So I spent all my time doing SEO for an acquisition and really stuff that I was literally shipping code. And now I lead brand at Shopify. So I feel it all builds. And the skills I got in finance translated into data analytics for technical growth, my ability to write, VBA and code and Excel translated into shipping code. And then that mindset translated into running brand experiments and being able to tell you, okay, did this campaign do better than that campaign? And so I think in today's world, everything builds on each other and what's most important is you're just following what you're passionate about and you can pretty much learn all the other details along the way. What do you think, Morgan?
Morgan Brown: Yeah, I think both paths are super viable, it just depends on what you really want to accomplish, and to Lindsay's point, what the organization really needs. I love what Lindsay described is the Shopify jungle gym, where there's lots of ability to bring a core skill sets to different problem areas and that's something that's very endemic to Shopify's culture. I think in some places there's lots of runway to be the best in the world at a very singular thing, at a Facebook there were several very senior data scientists, director level and up, that had no reports, right? They're just really good at this exceptional thing. It was a very narrow, very pointy thing, but it had super high value. And so it's really a function of, yeah, what you want to accomplish and what the organization needs. I do think those underlying attributes are going to be the most fungible, or as your career evolves and twists and turns, those core underlying attributes are going to be the things that are always applicable, regardless if you go pure independent contributor route, or if you go into a more generalist, or people leadership role.
Lindsay Craig: Yeah. I didn't mean to suggest that generalist is the way to go. I just meant, I think you don't have to decide. If you start out specialist, you can go generalist. If you start out generalist, you can go specialist. And I think crosstalk.
Morgan Brown: Totally.
Lindsay Craig: ...there's just a lot of flexibility just given how fast everything moves. But yeah, some of my favorite people to work with are specialists.
Morgan Brown: Yeah. There's a concept at Shopify that we call the pointy object, and Lindsay, I don't know if you want to talk to that, because I think that's a really interesting term of art that we use here, but I think it does encapsulate what you just said. It's not one or the other, but it's this ability to be pretty differentiated at something that really matters.
Lindsay Craig: Do you want to speak to it? Because I feel I have a unique definition that's more nuanced.
Morgan Brown: No, let's hear yours. Let's hear yours, I'd rather hear yours.
Lindsay Craig: I've been told I'm a spiky object, which means I'm good at some things, but have some spikes. So what they're trying to say is you don't fit perfectly into a box, but that's okay because sometimes you need spiky objects. It's meant to say, we don't want everyone to be a perfect puzzle piece who has this exact skillset that fits into this job posting. Sometimes you need people to disrupt the system. Is that the same thing you're talking about?
Morgan Brown: Yeah, pretty much. And I think conceptually, it maps to this t- shape idea, or if you were to draw, if you've ever seen those diagrams where, it's a skills finder, or strength finder, where you plot points around a circle across a bunch of different dimensions. And the goal is you probably don't want a bunch of three or fives on everything, you probably want to be a bit spiky towards one area, and that doesn't necessarily need to be a channel or a marketing tactic, but it should be some skill that gives you some differentiation. And those are really highly valued at Shopify and likely elsewhere, because they become the experts in that area, or can bring some expertise to bear in an area that is uncommon. And that creates a lot of value usually.
Matt Bilotti: What you recommend is a good pathway or resource navigation to help them get to a point where they're better at that, because a lot of what you've talked about so far is more soft skills, more than it is hard explicit skills, SQL is sure it's an explicit skill, and that one's a little bit easier to understand and learn, but a decent amount of some of the marketing stuff that we talked about is a little bit more of a soft skill. So how can somebody think about, I can get myself better at it, or my team better at it?
Morgan Brown: One idea is if you have a manager who is supportive of your growth, you feel like you're in a good spot? One of the best things that manager can hear from you is that you have identified an area that you want to improve in, and you think it's valuable for the business and you want some support doing it. And hopefully you're in that environment where that person can champion that for you. At Shopify, we have budgets for personal development and individual learning. On the growth team, we have a company subscription to Reforge, so people can learn their growth market, build their growth skills. But I think when it really aligns with what you're trying to accomplish at work, and if you're in the right environment, getting your manager involved, because it can give you what Lindsay talked about early on, is that hands- on experience, that real world experience, where you can practice knowing that someone's helping you develop this. And then you can augment that with personal development on the side, whether it's Udemy, reading books, whatever. But I would push a little hard. I actually don't think some of the stuff that I've talked about, they're not marketing tactics, but curiosity is a skill that can be built. Logical reasoning is a skill that can be built, data analysis. These are hard skills, and I think, so for example, one of the things I was personally bad at early on was logical reasoning. Right? And I realized I was struggling with my argumentation and justification of why we should do things versus why we shouldn't. And so I literally practiced to take the LSAT, because the LSAT is the best test of logical reasoning out there. Right? And so I literally bought the book to study for LSAT, took an LSAT course and dramatically changed how my logical reasoning works. And so I think even though they're not core, you would call them skills, they're more soft skills, soft skills can be learned, right? Like communication can be learned, all of that stuff. So even if it's soft, or more broadly applicable, don't discount your ability to actually learn it and change the way you think about it and leverage it as a tool. That's just a big one for me.
Lindsay Craig: Something that I noticed other product managers didn't naturally look at, or think about, was where the users are coming from. So they would often spend a lot of time really deep in the funnel without looking at what their funnels were for their product end to end. So I think having a really good sense of how people move through your product and what your conversion rates are at each step is just so key, because then it's a lot easier to prioritize your roadmap. And I was just surprised how many folks didn't actually know if I said, okay, in a given month, how many of our total users go to your product page? A lot of PMs were more focused on really specific feature usage than a top of funnel stat like that. So I think awareness of what constitutes your funnel, where is it measured? How is it changing over time? That's really important. But that said, I think PM is the perfect role to transition into growth from, because you can do real- time experiments, you have resources, and you can pull on all these exciting levers. So as long as you have the foundations that Morgan spoke about, I think you're in a really good spot. The other thing too, I would just say is, PMs often are so focused on the user experience within the product that they don't spend a lot of time analyzing traffic sources. And thinking about how they can manipulate the world beyond their product. So they know the second a user gets there what they're going to do, but what happens if users don't show up? Where are you going to get them from? And so spending time on third- party analytics tools, like Similarweb and Areps, there's free ones and paid ones, but reverse engineering other products, and starting to get a sense of traffic mix for your competitors, can help you build that muscle that you'll need when you transfer into growth. Morgan, what do you think?
Morgan Brown: I love the personal board of directors concept. I think it's a great mental model.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. I completely agree with that pair up with somebody that knows it well. I've found that through mentorship, seeking out somebody that knows the thing and just asking them if I could pick their brain with about it, have a 30 minute call, whether that's an internal person at my company, or it's somebody external, just talk to them a little bit and then see if I leave the door open like," Hey, if I have any other questions about this, can I ping you with it?" And having just your go- to people for any given X, Y, or Z tactic, or channel, or strategy, or a means of thinking I have found this is the best way that I level myself up there. Thank you so much for listening to another episode of the podcast. If you're a fan of this one, go check out the library of dozens and dozens of others, other amazing guests, other great topics, tons of learnings in there that I have learned, and I know listeners have as well. If you like this episode, I would super appreciate a review on a podcast app. And I just want to say as always, thank you for spending your time listening to this, I know there's plenty of other things you could work on, watch, listen to, do whatever it might be, and you're choosing to spend that time here. So I really appreciate it. And I will catch you on the next episode. Thanks.