The T-Shaped Digital Marketing Framework

Authors Note: All frameworks have moved to a new home at Strategy Umwelt. Please join me at this new platform for a revised list of mental models, strategy frameworks and principles

Without sounding like a broken record, digital has added a huge amount of complexity to marketing (although on the flip side, also a huge amount of opportunity) . The problem we face is the pace of change at the moment - attempting to stand up against the tide of innovation can feel hugely daunting.

There is a great quote from Jocelyn K. Glei from Maximise Your Potential that sums this up:  

“The lightening-fast evolution of technology means that jobs can now become indispensable or outmoded in a matter of years, even months. Who knew what a “community manager” was ten years ago? What about an “iPad app designer” or a “JavaScript ninja"?
A substantial portion of the working population now earns its livelihood doing jobs that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago. And even if the nature of your job hasn’t changed, chances are you’re using new and unanticipated technology and skills to perform that job. Think of the designer who blogs, the comedian who tweets, or the filmmaker who raises a budget on Kickstarter.
Ten years from now, we’ll probably all be doing some new type of work that we couldn’t possibly imagine today. That thought is both exhilarating and frightening. How do we prepare for a future filled with uncertainty?”

In marketing, this sentiment is no doubt felt quite keenly. Just focusing on the old traditional marketing “basics” will not guarantee success, which means we all need to expand our toolkit in order to advance the businesses we own, the people we work for, or our own careers.

So if things are changing at such a rapid pace, and because of that we can’t focus on everything, how do we cope with this change?

An interesting way to tackle this problem is the “T Shaped” learning framework (I initially discovered this via Brian Balfour) . This can potentially be applied to any number of skill sets and industries, but being a marketing & advertising blog, this post is applying it to digital marketing.

A Note on Digital Skills

The unfortunate reality of the rapid change in digital is that the traditional means of learning skills no longer apply. A few key points to remember:

  1. There really isn’t a single key source to teach us everything. This applies to University or College as well - while they can teach basic foundations, by the time they have adapted to what is current, there are a lot of things that are much more new. You will need to derive knowledge and research from a wide net of sources.
  2. While we will always need specialists, you more and more need to understand how different disciplines interact with each other in a digital ecosystem. Specializing too much in a single thing is like putting all of your money in a single marketing channel - it can open you up to danger (as an example, think about how much Google and Facebook have changed in the last year, and the effect on pure SEO practitioners or Community Managers).
  3. Getting your hands dirty is the best way to learn. There are a lot of courses online that promise to teach you things, but unless you try them out in the wild, you won’t get a solid understanding. You may fail in a few attempts, but remember that it is only a failure if you and the business fail to learn something new.

The T-Shaped Digital Marketing Framework

On to the framework. This is divided into three parts:

1. Base Knowledge Layer

This covers the non-marketing and advertising subjects that form the foundations of digital. These tend to filter down through the next two layers.  

2. Marketing Foundation

Traditional marketing subjects. These are used heavily across the final layer.

3. Channel Expertise

This layer covers any channel used by marketers and advertisers to reach an audience using digital tools.

The T-Shaped Approach

With the third layer, it is almost impossible to become an expert at every channel - each of these are evolving unbelievably fast, and new channels are emerging at an equally fast pace.

The goal here is to have a very basic understanding of each, but develop a much broader specialized understanding on one or two key items.

What to focus on will depend on what the business or agency you work for demands, and what you are passionate about. Also consider what emerging channels might be becoming much stronger, and take a bet on developing your skills there.

T-Shape Digital Marketing Framework; With a Paid Search Specialisation.

T-Shape Digital Marketing Framework; With a Paid Search Specialisation.

Deep Dive: The T-Shaped Layers

A quick overview of the various skills as relevant to right now.

Base Knowledge Layer


In digital, everything should be measurable. Basic statistics help in making sense of the numbers. Most Universities or Colleges should teach a simple foundation, so brush up if needed.  


Understand code, and the basics of front end. There is nothing worse than a marketer who doesn’t understand the work that goes into crafting code, so try and learn and play around with HTML, JavaScript and CSS first hand.

Product Design & UX Principles

Good design is no longer a nice to have, more and more it is a competitive advantage. Understand how the elements of design interact with marketing. Understand the basics of usability and testing. Potentially understand why so many designers whinge about making a logo bigger (and develop a better retort when they play this card). 


The hot topic at the moment for marketers, and something that is only going to bet bigger and more of a focus for businesses. Understand how to develop an Analytics Framework. Brush up on making sure you are not focused on vanity metrics, and can derive the “signal from the noise” by understanding insights vs trends.

Behavioural Psychology

Statistics and Analytics help you understand what customers are doing. Behavioural psychology answers the ‘why’. Understand the basics of digital marketing - e.g influence, cultural tensions, social & interest graphs, elements of gameplay, or the network effect. 

Brand Positioning / Storytelling

People respond to stories, not features. Storytelling through branding and positioning are critical to stand out and create momentum. Understand frameworks like the Golden Circle.

Marketing Foundation Layer


Conversion Rate Optimisation refers to processes and tactics to uncover why users are not converting to a p[articular action, and the things you can change to improve it. This ultimately has a direct impact not he bottom line. Brush up on the basics of Landing Page Optimisation as a start. 

A/B Testing

Approaching marketing scientifically, not like a dark ages wizard. How to run tests, and achieve statistical significance. How A/B testing interacts with CRO.

DB Querying

Save time. Wait for your IT guys to pull the data a month from now, or do it yourself. Learn the basics of segmentation.

Photoshop & Wireframing

Learn basic photoshop. Potentially learn a basic wire framing tool like Balsamic. Be able to play around with designs, create basic mockups, or visualise a user journey.

Excel Modeling

Understand Excel (side not, I despise Excel. This one is always tough). Pretty much all Analytics tool end up in Excel at some stage. No doubt your business stakeholders will also be used to this format.


Understand the psychology behind copywriting. Understand the basics of different channels - blog posts, headlines, Google Ads, Facebook posts, content, content, content.

Funnel Marketing

The ability to map out and understand the journey from awareness to purchase / conversion of the customer. Bonus points for applying this to different business types (e.g e-Commerce versus Lead Generation).

Channel Expertise Layer


Understand the different types of viral distribution (e.g the network effect, MEMES, Community), and more importantly how to measure, model and analyse this distribution. 

FB Ads

Highly evolving as Facebook tries to sort out its model. Understand the evolution of formats, and the fairly unique targeting options.


High volume. Very complicated. Potentially going to see huge shifts due to cookies. Understand the basics, retargeting. Bonus if you can get your head around trading desks.


Very new. Growing massively. Try and get your head around the various players (Apple & Android are a must) and their human design principles. Understand Responsive Design.


Highly effective is used right. Understand best practice, and understand testing. It is very important to understand the SPAM act and your country specific rules and regulations.  


Demand harvesting. One of the most effective due to the customer intent. A must if your dealing with e-Commerce.


Understand the basics. More importantly understand the way Google has changed things in the last two years especially. Understand what is important right now.


Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagtam, YouTube, Vine, Snapchat. The list goes on. Get a simple understanding of the big players, the emerging ones, and more specifically which publishers and tools for which strategies.


Developing media coverage or attention on anything you do is important. PR tends to be undervalued (primarily because a lot of people do it badly). Try and understand the difference between good and bad PR practices).


Understand and develop sales models. Defining engines of growth. 

Content Marketing

So hot right now. Understand its relation to SEO and social. Branded content as a bonus. 


Affiliate marketing. Ensuring that you derive as much value as the partner in the exchange.


There you have it, a simple framework to define attention as we move through 2014, with the added focus of one or two specialised areas to build out. Just remember, the tools we use today are not the tools we will use tomorrow, so be prepared for the unknown and adapt your learning as you progress.