Tackling tech debt with Lindsay Rothlisberger, Head of Marketing Operations and Email at Zapier

Technical debt can inhibit B2B marketing teams looking to scale, and create a frictionless experience for their customers. 

This FINITE Podcast discusses what technical debt is, how it affects B2B organisations, what role marketing ops can play, and how to tackle it. The guest is Lindsay Rothlisberger, Head of Marketing Operations and Email at Zapier.

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Full Transcript:

Alex (00:06):

Hello everyone and welcome back to the FINITE Podcast, where today we’re talking about a challenge I think a lot of our B2B tech marketing listeners will be able to relate to, and that is technical debt. Technical debt is the idea that too much MarTech can hinder your team’s ability to do their job correctly, report accurately, and can even get in the way of great customer experiences. 

Our guest today is Lindsay Rothlisberger, who is Head of Marketing Operations and email at Zapier, so Lindsay is the perfect person to discuss this topic with. She knows how tech deck can arise, what to do about it, and more importantly, how to prevent it to begin with. Hope you enjoy!


FINITE (00:41):

The FINITE community is kindly supported by The Marketing Practice, a global integrated B2B marketing agency that brings together all the skills you need to design and run account-based marketing, demand generation channel, and customer marketing programs. Head to themarketingpractice.com to learn more.


Alex (01:00):

Hello Lindsay, and welcome to the FINITE Podcast. Thank you for joining me.


Lindsay (01:04):

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me Alex.


Alex (01:06):

Looking forward to talking. This is one that we haven’t covered before actually, but I think is an ever more critical one in the world of MarTech and growing investments in marketing technology. 

So we’re gonna be talking all about battling technical debt from a marketing perspective. So looking forward to diving in. Before we do, I’ll let you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, experience, current role, et cetera. I’ll let you introduce yourself.


About Lindsay’s background in marketing

Lindsay (01:32):

Awesome. Thank you. So I started my career in marketing in 2008. I worked in event marketing and demand generation and was always especially interested in marketing automation. So I started to pivot toward marketing ops around 2011. I worked in digital marketing at Oracle, where they had a very sophisticated marketing operations team and a lot of process. 

And then I went to a startup where I created the marketing operations function in a very sales driven environment. So I think being able to experience sort of both ends of the spectrum gave me a really unique perspective coming into my role here at Zapier, where I lead marketing operations and where we’re experiencing really fast growth. So we have to find the right balance of process and then speed and agility. 

So, that’s my overall background. Currently I lead marketing operations, email and project management teams. We have a marketing ops team of six here at Zapier and we’re responsible for MarTech all of our analytics and marketing lead management and campaign operations.


Alex (02:48):

Cool. Very nice. And so it sounds like between Oracle and the startup Zapier is maybe the middle ground.


Lindsay (02:56):

Yeah. I think I’ve found my happy place at Zapier. We’re still shaping things so I can kind of draw on both of those experiences to find something that works for us.


What is tech debt in B2B marketing?

Alex (03:09):

Very cool. Nice. So let’s dive in. I think an important place to start with this one is actually what is technical debt? Because some people may be familiar with it. Coming from a bit of a web development background myself I know the term from a more from a coding perspective, but I think it’s probably maybe a bit newer for some marketers. So I’ll let you explain what’s meant by technical debt.


Lindsay (03:32):

Yeah. I think in B2B marketing, most of us have experienced technical debt but maybe we just don’t have the language to describe it. So essentially it describes what results when you take the actions to expedite the delivery of either a campaign or a piece of functionality or a new type of marketing program like ABM, or maybe you’re trying webinars for the first time and you move really quickly. 

So maybe then you have to go back and refactor the way things, the way that you set things up so that you’re able to scale. So for marketers, I think also a lack of process can lead to technical debt. Again, you’re just trying to move really quickly. And then you end up having to go back later and fix some issues that you acquired along the way. 


Alex (04:20):

And why do you think we don’t really talk about it? Is it just because as you say, it’s all quite new and if you go back a few years, actually we weren’t using that many tools. I know every time we do something in and around MarTech, we look at Scott Brinkers MarTech map and every year it grows bigger and bigger and bigger. I guess, as that map grows so does probably proportion the technical debt as well.


Lindsay (04:40):

Yeah, exactly. There’s just so much more of a reliance on technology now, which is great. There are so many tools to solve many different problems that marketers have, but sometimes when you get up and running, you maybe don’t connect your data sources appropriately or maybe the types of marketing that you wanna try develops over time. And then you sort of lack the functionality. 

So a hundred percent, I think the growth in marketing technology as of late is one of the reasons that tech debt is becoming more of a problem for marketers.


What is the impact of tech debt on B2B marketing teams? 

Alex (05:15):

And where do you see the impact being from a marketing team perspective? Cause I think we can talk about after this the impact it can have on customers if technical debt isn’t addressed. But I guess there’s both the kind of internal impact to marketing teams, just trying to have an easy life and do things day to day. 

And then there’s the impact on the customer experience, which everyone’s probably received that incorrect email that got triggered or those kind of things, but maybe we can start with how it holds back marketing teams, if it grows into the big problem.


Lindsay (05:46):

Yeah. I think the biggest thing that you’ll start to see is that marketing execution becomes really inefficient. So sort of the speed at which you can execute starts to diminish and processes become very cumbersome. I think you’ll also, which I think ties a bit into customer experiences, you’ll start to see some issues with campaign performance, maybe your metrics start to decline, and you’re not quite sure why it could be an underlying technical debt issue.


Alex (06:21):

That makes sense. And I think particularly in B2B, there’s so much attribution and the length of the buyer journey, particularly in more enterprise B2B, , you maybe was, I guess Zapier is the middle ground, but it’s more of a SaaS self onboarding journey. 

Whereas Oracle was probably more of a big enterprise sales journey, but either way connecting the dots and all the attribution and analytics can be a big challenge. If you wanna follow stuff from all the way down to the closed one revenue line or however you measure things. I can imagine why that can get difficult on the reporting side. I assume you spend a fair bit of time helping people figure out reporting and connecting the dots.


Lindsay (07:01):

Yep. A hundred percent having separate data sources, data being collected in multiple different tools. If you’re not creating the right systems to process that data, format it and centralise it, it can make it difficult for marketers to measure.


What impact can tech debt have on B2B customer experiences? 

Alex (07:22):

And what about customers. I gave that example of getting an email trigger that you’re just, some CRM field changes or something suddenly you’re on a whole new journey and everything’s getting fired off. And then three hours later you get the, oops we made a mistake, but everyone’s been there. 

So I’m sure everyone working in CRM and email and marketing ops has probably had that moment in their career. But beyond that, what else is the impact from a customer experience angle of technical debt in the marketing world?


Lindsay (07:49):

Yeah. I think you hit on the number one thing. Customers can receive really irrelevant information. I’ve also seen customers begin to have a pretty poor experience with your website or your product, just finding the information that they need on their own. 

And then even as far as sales conversations or sort of any interactions, one to one with your organisation, if you don’t have the right information about where your customer is in the journey, what they’ve experienced so far, what types of marketing communications they have engaged with, it can be really difficult to have a meaningful one to one conversation, which not only creates a bad customer experience, but it also slows you down as a sales organisation or a marketing organisation in your ability to sort of help those customers be as successful as possible.


Alex (08:44):

Yeah. That’s probably the other one for me as well beyond the annoying wrong email is like the SDR or someone getting in touch. When you’ve clearly had a whole load of interactions a year ago and it’s annoying, but it also reflects badly on it almost damages the brand that goes for us to say, or you lose trust slightly, or you think in your head, this was like a large reputable, respected tech company. 

And then you think if they can’t even get this level of CRM and keep Salesforce tidy, then what does that mean for their product or their technology? What’s the rest of the experience gonna be like if those early interactions are poor? So yeah, it’s happened to me a few times recently actually, where someone’s got back in touch. 

And you just think like if you just type my name into your CRM or where you found me, like there’s a long history that you could quite easily, you would’ve thought you could’ve quite easily looked up and clarified, but anyway, there we go. How do you think it happens? Like what’s the root cause? Is it making quick and not carefully planned decisions about just buying more MarTech and just layering stuff on top of each other and not laying the foundations first? Is that the root cause?


What causes tech debt? 

Lindsay (09:56):

Yeah, I think there are a few things operations teams can really help to centralise MarTech purchase decisions and things, but just generally speaking, I think a lack of documentation and succession planning. So maybe somebody is really passionate about a particular tool, brings it on and then there’s really no documentation about how best to use it or why it’s here. And then the person leaves. And then you have a master cleanup, definitely lack of enablement of marketers or team members that use the tools.

So really proper training. And like I said, documentation opportunities for folks to ask questions and brainstorm the best way to set up new programs and then not having clear owners or admins of the MarTech tools can also lead to some issues. And then as we’ve spoken about before, I think having some ways of connecting tools to each other, to connecting data sources to each other. And that’s what a lot of folks use Zapier for in the ops world is to make sure that data is consistent across the many tools that we’re using.


Alex (11:13):

It’s a good point. I actually hadn’t really connected the dots, but I guess it makes sense that you guys are the connectors between a lot of MarTech tools. So that’s pretty cool. I was gonna ask, related to that was just that decision making around when you choose a MarTech tool or you invest in something new, sometimes it’s obviously MarTech is usually driven and owned by marketing people, but often there’s maybe procurement there’s other stakeholders in the organisation that might be involved in deciding what MarTech you are you’re using. 

Do you think some of the problem is stakeholders and who’s involved and the processes? And I guess a lot of marketers probably would say that they’d prefer to be left alone from it and those roles and just make decisions on their own. But maybe in this case, having some stakeholders involved could help prevent technical debt. 

In some cases, not suggesting that marketers left on their own would cause a technical debt buildup, but marketing hasn’t always been the most technical discipline and marketers are not technology people necessarily. Do you think those roles can help smooth things out and make long term plans?


How can marketing ops tackle tech debt? 

Lindsay (12:25):

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really important for marketers and marketing ops folks, especially to build good relationships with engineering orgs, product orgs, because if there can be sort of a consistent understanding of the needs of the business, like I think that extends beyond just a marketing team. 

So I always, when doing MarTech tooling evaluations, bring in those stakeholders really early on, make sure that they’re heard, make sure that the tool that we bring on is flexible enough from an engineering perspective to meet our needs. So I think a partnership across the organisation is really important. And our marketing ops team at Zapier is really invested in that.


FINITE (13:14):

Before we continue with the episode, I’d like to go a quick shout out to our partner, Terminus, the only account-based engagement platform built to deliver more pipeline and revenue through multichannel account based marketing as the only native multichannel marketing platform. It helps you convert target accounts through orchestrated campaigns, using personalised advertising, email signatures and chat bots. Visit terminus.com to learn why doing effective ABM at scale means better marketing.


Alex (13:39):

I had a CMO on the podcast a while ago, who said if they were building a marketing team from scratch again, the first person they would hire would be a marketing ops person, which I thought was quite interesting and probably says a lot about the world that we find ourselves in now. Maybe you can tell us a bit more about how marketing ops teams really do help with technical debt, I guess choosing the right tools, but also just day to day usage and operation of the tools?


Lindsay (14:06):

Yeah, absolutely. I think what’s great about operations teams is they provide you with the opportunity to have a team really accountable for that technology to really have ownership of it. They can focus on enablements and then they also kind of can have that centralised view of the customer. I think when there are many different marketing teams, maybe in a large organisation, running campaigns for different types of customer segments, marketing ops provides you with the opportunity to have that entire view in mind when making decisions about tooling and process. 

And then they can focus on ways to really streamline campaign execution to make sure that you’re efficient to make sure that data is in the right place. So marketing ops teams are just extremely, extremely valuable in the B2B marketing world right now.


Can marketing ops get in the way of marketing? 

Alex (15:10):

Definitely. Absolutely. What about the actual day to day side of things where marketers launching campaigns may just want to get things out the door and they’re in a hurry and time is of the essence and we’re all in fast growing tech companies and startups and got targets to hit playing devil’s advocate. Is there a perspective that marketing ops gets in the way and slows things down and is a bit boring and makes us use naming conventions and doesn’t sign things off and all of that kind of stuff? Like what’s your perspective on that?


Lindsay (15:40):

Yeah. You’ve gotta find the right balance. So for us, we have this philosophy that if it’s a really standard type of marketing program, if it’s repeatable, if we’re gonna be doing it on an ongoing basis, how do we make it super easy for teams to self serve and not need us? 

So we take that approach to all of our marketing programs. As a marketing ops team, how do we be less involved? How do we create the systems that make it really easy for teams to move quickly? And we do that by creating guardrails by standardising things that are repeatable by creating training and enablement for all of our internal end users who use our tools. So I actually think that marketing ops, when done well, improves speed to launch and creates more efficient types of marketing programs.


Alex (16:42):

Yeah. I like that reference to guardrails. I always use this analogy of a skiing flag. So like putting flags down the side of the ski piece so you don’t go off one side, you’re not gonna die like in an avalanche or something, but you have enough so that how you get down the hill is up to you, the slope I should say, but just don’t go off. Because you can be too prescriptive. 

You don’t wanna remove the ability for people to be creative or just to think for themselves. We’re hopefully working with bright, intelligent, motivated people and you don’t want to hold them back, but at the same time it’s difficult. It’s a really fine line to walk, to give enough guidance, but not too much that it’s restrictive and annoying.


How can you eliminate tech debt? 

Alex (17:22):

What about any examples? I’m sure you’ve seen all sorts coming, being in Oracle and then smaller startups and now Zapier, but maybe you’ve got some examples of how you’ve helped prevent or eliminated this build up of MarTech debt. It’s always nice to talk through some more tangible examples if you’ve got any examples at all.


Lindsay (17:45):

Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing I’ll just say before I jump into this is the most important thing is just being aware of tech debt. So just knowing that it’s there is just so important. So as soon as you come across something that’s off, document it, and then maybe it’s not something you need to tackle right away. You can document it, size it and then determine how urgent or important it is. 

But first, just know it’s there. So the first thing that I like to do is automate as much as possible to eliminate manual work because human error is often a major cause of technical debt. So we use Zapier to maintain consistent intake processes. 

So whenever we do content syndication, we use a zap to format the data and send it into our tools in real time so you don’t have those manual list uploads or you’re missing a column and you make those errors. The other thing that I love that I didn’t really understand the value of until I started working at zapper were alerting processes. 

So we use zaps to alert us of inconsistent data in our marketing tools. So maybe a UTM is missing, maybe an email campaign is active, but hasn’t sent any emails in the last seven days. We get a notification, a notification when our database grows at an inconsistent rate. 

So we keep those alerts on for any high risk types of programs, just to make sure that there’s no technical debt that we’re acquiring, that we might not be aware of. And then the next thing I think goes back into what we were talking about earlier and it’s determining the right level of centralisation versus process. 

So if you can really strike that balance, you can really start to prevent technical debt at scale. So having those guardrails processes, training and enablement for teams that use the tools, those are the ways that you can prevent tech debt before it starts.


Alex (19:52):

Yeah. I think that’s the big conclusion from this, that preventative measures are the key here. Like once it’s built up, it’s actually pretty hard to unravel and undo and can be costly and take time and take a lot of work. But actually if you can be aware of it and try and stop it from happening to begin with a good place overall.


Lindsay (20:11):

Yeah. It’s never fun to fight to prioritise technical debt. Like no one wants to make that the number one priority, but yeah, it can be important depending on what the issue is, especially if it’s related to compliance or something.


Alex (20:26):

Definitely. GDPR here in Europe and data protection, I feel like there must be a whole other career opening up for people at some point in the future, like a technical debt specialist. They probably already exist, but it’s only a matter of time probably. I was gonna wrap up with a few final, quick fire questions. The first one was gonna be your favourite MarTech tool or technology. I have a feeling you might say Zapier…


Lindsay (20:49):

I was gonna say, I mean of course it’s Zapier.


Alex (20:56):

It is a great tool. I am actually a big Zapier fan and use a lot myself. So it’s a pretty great tool for connecting things together. What would you say is your biggest challenge right now?


Lindsay (21:07):

For me, it’s leading a fast growing team. I’ve worked at a lot of companies where marketing ops, you have one or two people. And so now I have this team of six and I want to make sure that they have really clear swim lanes, that they understand the vision, that they have career paths, that they feel personally fulfilled when they come to work. So for me, that’s what’s keeping me up at night.


Alex (21:32):

And ending on an optimistic one. What about looking forward? What are you most excited about in the world of B2B marketing?


Lindsay (21:38):

So I think that when I first started in B2B marketing, it felt like we were sort of missing the human element to our marketing. It felt very much like you were speaking to a company, but recently I think there’s been a shift and we’re seeing more values focused marketing. You’re selling perhaps a B2B tool, but you’re talking to your buyer, your prospect like they’re a person and you’re talking about how you help them at work or in their day to day. And that’s just been wonderful to see.


Alex (22:17):

Cool. Well that’s a nice one to end on. I agree with you. I think we’re becoming a lot more human focused, which is great. Lindsay, this has been great. I think there’s lots to think about for everybody. Hopefully many of our listeners will be thinking more carefully about future MarTech decisions and also what they’ve got right now. So lots of good food for thought. So thank you for sharing everything.


Lindsay (22:35):

Thank you so much, Alex. I’m so grateful to be here.


FINITE (22:40):

Thanks for listening. Before we go. Just one final shout out to our FINITE partner, 93x, the digital marketing agency working exclusively with ambitious fast growth B2B tech and SaaS companies. Visit 93x.agency to find out how they partner with marketing teams to drive growth.


FINITE (22:56):

We’re super busy at FINITE building the best community possible for marketers working in the B2B tech and SaaS sector to connect, share, learn, and grow. Along with our podcast, we host online events, share content and have an active Slack community with members from around the world, including cities like London, New York, Singapore, Tel Aviv, Stockholm, Melbourne, and many more. Head to finite.community and apply for a free membership to strengthen your marketing knowledge, build your network and connect with ambitious B2B tech marketers across the globe.


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