What the %@#$ is marketing debt (and 5 ways to get control of it now)

What is marketing debt?

Marketing debt isn't money you owe the bank. It's similar to technical debt that engineering teams often talk about.

Product Plan defines technical debt like this:

Technical debt (also known as tech debt or code debt) describes what results when development teams take actions to expedite the delivery of a piece of functionality or a project which later needs to be refactored. In other words, it’s the result of prioritizing speedy delivery over perfect code.

I like to think of it like this:

Technical debt is work I avoid doing now, knowing I’ll need to do it in the future. I will pay for it later, plus interest. And I owe it to my product, my customers, and my company.

Sometimes it’s better to hit a delivery deadline than wait until the product is perfect. It’s understood that sometimes technical debt is part of the cost of getting things done on time.

Similar debt exists in marketing, too. And when it happens in marketing it’s worse for a business than a high-interest credit card to a 19-year old college kid with a fake ID and a drinking habit.

Ok, that's a bit over the top. Let's think through marketing debt.

An example of marketing debt

You’re faced with a problem and you know two ways you can solve it. The first way is quick, cheap and easy, but will only last a little while.

The other way is hard and complicated, but more likely to last a long time.

The difference between these two solutions equals your debt to be paid. The interest on that debt is the extra work you or a colleague will need to put in to make up the difference between each approach. This is the debt.

In engineering and development, debt includes bugs, legacy code, or missing documentation. In marketing, debt is sloppy design, off-brand graphics, poorly edited writing, and so on.

Imagine you need to post something on LinkedIn now and instead of sticking to brand guidelines, you dash something together in Canva. It looks good enough, the font is close to the brand font, the logo is tucked away in a corner, and you only used one new color that looks "close enough" to your brand's blue.

You hit publish and the post is now forever on your record.

Social media moves fast and this may be quickly forgotten. That is until the website team picks up this graphic and uses it in a blog post. The partnership lead puts it in a pitch deck. And because it was in the pitch deck, the newsletter team includes it in an email to all current customers.

The newsletter team then archives the email on a public page of your website and posts a copy of the note to your community forum.

You smack your forehead.

The horse, as they say, has bolted out of the #@$& barn.

Paying your marketing debt

Now imagine you have a big partnership event coming up and expect a lot of eyeballs on this new content. You should probably fix that graphic.

Like, everywhere.

This is your marketing debt come due and now you have to pay up.
To start, you need to catalog every place this graphic shows up.

Then you need to create a replacement image.

Then you start replacing the old image with the new one. You have to confirm links, traffic, tracking URLs, etc. are all setup properly.

Your debt is only fully paid when you’ve done all the work to replace the original image. Often it’s during this process of paying the original debt that you discover the interest. The interest on your debt can come in many forms, but more often than not it’s simply a lot more time, energy, and work.

A rich man buys it once. A poor man buys it twice.

Why does marketing debt matter? It matters because, as the saying goes, a rich man pays once. He invests his money and time wisely to get the outcome he needs with a solution that can last for ages.

A poor man pays twice. Once for the fast, cheap, easy way of getting what he needs. A second time for the replacement when the original purchase falls apart.

The same is true for engineering and marketing. Build it right the first time and it lasts for a long time. Build it "good enough for now" and you might have to buy a replacement.

Debt isn't always a bad thing

Not all debt is created equal and I firmly believe that good debt helps businesses grow. Good debt is a loan to fund growth.

Bad debt is soul sucking and can bleed a business dry. Bleh - bad debt gives me the shivers.

There is good debt in marketing, too. I think of good marketing debt as borrowing time from your future self. Some opportunities to grow your brand, your revenue, or your market share pop up and you have to pounce on them. Moving fast and creating a bit of debt to capitalize on a huge marketing moment can be a big win.

Like financial debt, taking on the right marketing debt can help your business.

5 ways to manage marketing debt

Marketing debt isn't something to be afraid of or avoided completely. In fact, it's probably not a big deal most of the time. Marketing moments can have short shelf lives and people probably move on too quickly to care.

But I think it's worth being aware of and thinking about from time to time. If you find yourself sighing at an old campaign you need to update, here are five ways to help manage your marketing debt.

  1. Planning for marketing debt. Software moves fast and marketing has to keep up. Speed makes it hard to plan, but an investment in planning pays off most of the time. Something will happen that forces you to move fast and create debt, so plan to recognize it and keep moving. Debt happens.
  2. Sometimes an opportunity pops up and you need to move quickly. If you move fast and strike the market with a blast, the rewards may be bigger than the debt. Accept that the debt may be worth it and move fast. The next point can help minimize this kind of debt.
  3. Templates, SOPs, routines, and rituals help you get it right the first time more often than not. Spend the time to build the systems that produce high-quality work and you'll be able to move faster with less debt.
  4. Navy SEALS say slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Muscle memory is amazing. Using SOPs and methodical ways of working, you'll build the muscle memory that allows you to move faster. But remember that if the pace feels too fast, look for moments to change your pace and give yourself and your team room to think and be deliberate.
  5. Ask "is my team big enough?" If you and your team never seem to have enough time and capacity to do the work properly, maybe it's time to grow the team.

Thank you to Pablo Stanley for the illustration.

Peter Preston

Peter Preston

I'm a Saas marketing manager at ThinkTilt, makers of ProForma for Jira. I'm also the founder of Dear Video, a recovering podcast host, and learning how to grown a brand on YouTube.
Brisbane, QLD