Creating the right digital marketing organizational structure

Clients that have had more traditional marketing models often ask me: How should we organize for digital? Should we treat it as a completely separate functional unit, or should we integrate it into our existing marketing team? Or, in the case of billion dollar corporations, should we air drop digital experts into multiple business units to insert disruptive ideation into departmental planning? The short answer is… there IS no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to creating an organizational chart for digital marketing. Every digital marketing organizational structure has its own strengths and weaknesses. Classic organizational design theory tells you that it all revolves around the culture, and based on my experience, that has never more true in this modern era of digital.

In the earliest days of online commerce, creating the org chart was simple: Let’s put these alchemists on an island of their own, and see what they stir up. Back then, the coders and programmers were mostly in charge, and of course they mostly reported up to IT.  As ecommerce grew and became a more significant part of business operations, companies integrated digital capabilities into existing functions and business units, assigning distinct leaders and budgets. Today, ecommerce chiefs are found sitting at the long-table in executive meeting rooms, sometimes with SVP and even EVP titles.

Helping clients to determine the optimal digital marketing organizational structure, for me, begins by asking questions- lots of them- that focus on the “why” and the “how” of their digital marketing and ecommerce operation.

Here are a few of them:

1- How prepared is your organization to accept change? 

For a business that historically has marketed through more traditional channels, digital marketing can be culturally disruptive. The more that entrenched stakeholders will be a hindrance to change, the less isolated digital marketing should be from the existing marketing department. An effective way to accomplish this  kind of digital marketing organizational structure is by creating cross-functional teams that include specialists from both old media and new media. This hands-across-the-sea approach will help create a more collaborative and knowledge-sharing digital marketing organizational structure, and as I’ve written about many times, cross-departmental collaboration is a must in order for an organization to achieve scale in digital marketing and ecommerce.

2- To centralize or not to centralize?

Generally speaking, companies will de-centralize the digital marketing and ecommerce function when specific digital expertise is required within the marketing departments of multiple business divisions, or within the marketing branches of a particular division. For example, I worked with a Fortune 100 corporation not too long ago that wanted to digitize some of its corporate communications capabilities, and they hired my candidate, along with other digital specialists, to build out teams in email and social media across  marketing departments of multiple divisions.  For smaller and mid-sized companies where ecommerce is a large revenue driver, creating a more centralized “center of excellence”, as some might call it, will encourage broader adoption of digital marketing techniques, plus ensure a less siloed and more integrated approach to the company’s digital initiatives. It’s also a much more effective way to attract, hire and retain strong digital marketing and ecommerce talent.

3- Is there internal know-how to plan and execute a digital strategy?

Sometimes I get calls from companies that ask me to find them a Digital Marketing Manager with the intent of bringing in a more senior level leader, such as a Director or Vice President, at a later date.  If the internal knowledge base is lacking, or if a replacement hire is required, my advice is to always start at the top.  A seasoned digital marketing and ecommerce leader will know the right questions to ask and will then be able determine the best digital marketing organizational structure within the overall context of your go-to market digital strategy, and build it out accordingly with the right people in the right roles.