Why Are SQL Skills Required for Online Marketers to Be Successful?

In the late 1980s, Oracle was my first job out of college. Oracle required all workers to complete a three-week intensive training course on SQL, the language used to retrieve data in relational databases, at the time. You were sent to a training program in a hotel for three weeks to learn SQL 20 hours a day, regardless of whether you were a developer, a marketing professional, or a receptionist. Yes, it was 20 hours a day - Oracle was serious about their work. "Why in the world do I need to know SQL when I'm on the marketing side?" I remember wondering at the time.

I was completely mistaken! After more than two decades, I've produced tens of thousands of queries and use SQL virtually every day in my employment. I've come to the conclusion that SQL is a skill that every online marketer should have. "To be in internet marketing, you have to be a data geek," as many online marketers like to say. If you're a data nerd, you'll need to be able to acquire and evaluate data independently. Let's face it: the proliferation of the Internet has resulted in massive amounts of data being stored in SQL databases these days. I've seen far too many Internet workers who don't know SQL who are held captive by IT and forced to wait for IT to construct another query for them. If you have to rely on others for a critical aspect of your job, you won't be a world-class Internet professional.

I've been starting my work day almost the same manner for years. I receive a variety of reports about the business's health via email. They basically provide me with a high-level view of the client funnel. How many people visited the site? How many people have signed up? How many people placed an order? Some of these are gathered via Google Analytics, while others are gathered from transactional systems. Most of the time, the reports point up problems that need to be looked into further. I go deeper into Google Analytics if the data is in there. I run SQL if the data originates from transactional systems. Canned reports aren't going to cut it; I need to be able to dig into the data in whichever way I need to address the questions that have developed from the prior day's data. By 9 a.m., I usually get the answers to my queries. If I were waiting for an answer from IT or a marketing analyst, it would take hours at best and potentially weeks. I need to be self-contained.

For a marketer, learning SQL might be frightening. Many SQL books on developers' desks are the size of dictionaries and appear to be quite intimidating. However, SQL has become significantly easier for a variety of reasons. For business people, there are a plethora of books that discuss SQL. Furthermore, the tools have progressed significantly. When you use a visual query tool, it makes creating queries a lot easier for someone who is just getting started. It's a tremendous assistance if someone on the IT side has been kind enough to explicitly designate the tables and columns. Even better, most query tools will automatically join the tables together if IT has established the main and foreign keys.

Here are my recommendations for a marketer that wants to learn SQL:

  • Purchase an excellent SQL fundamentals book, but read only a portion of it before trying it out in a hands-on session. Continue reading and putting it to the test. You get my drift.
  • Microsoft Access is an excellent place to start. Access performs a fantastic job at importing data from Excel, making it quick and easy to get started. It's also simple to export data from Access to Excel so you can show others what you've accomplished. (Because of the Excel integration, I still use Access virtually every day.) Access is also advantageous since, if everything goes horribly wrong, the worst thing you can do is cause your local machine's CPU to spike to 100%. Finally, Access lets you to see design queries and see the SQL underlying them, which is essential for SQL beginners. My one warning with Access is that there are some minor SQL variations between it and the database systems used by most businesses, such as Oracle, MySQL, and SQL Server.
  • When you're ready to tackle a real-world project, ask your IT department to set you up on a reporting server with read-only access. You want a secure environment where you can't erase sensitive information and where a CPU-intensive query won't prevent customers from accessing your site. Before approaching IT, I strongly advise you to familiarize yourself with some of the things you can do badly in SQL that can drain every last ounce of CPU from your server. Do you know what a Cartesian product is, what a full table scan vs. hitting an index is, and how to lock a table? If you don't understand what those terms mean, you're not ready to write SQL against a real-world system yet; keep reading your SQL books.

Aside from analytics, knowing SQL has a number of other advantages. I've used it to send exports to important customers and partners, for example. It's what I use to create intricate, targeted email marketing campaigns.

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