There was a time when e-commerce and digital marketing tasks were so baffling to “regular” business management types, it was automatically lumped in with IT. Because it was somewhat technical it seemed only the most geeky could handle it (as my Grandma says, “you must understand this – you do computers”).

Not to insult my technically inclined brethren (no, really – I was once an IT Director!) but your average IT professional, however talented and truly indispensable, is probably not the ideal person to manage your digital marketing efforts. Would you put a developer at the helm of your trade show booth? Almost certainly not. It’s just not that role’s skillset. Similarly, your most visible marketing channel should only be owned by someone with a strong handle on customer experience, marketing, and brand positioning.

Maybe this is old news for you. You could be way ahead of the curve on these expectations. If so, good for you! But do you know what it is that makes this particular marketing channel so difficult to staff with just a few heads?

E-commerce is still the love child of Marketing and IT. So much of the work involved is technical. More than that, data and statistics become even more prominent in digital marketing than in more traditional media for two reasons:

  1. Availability – the internet has simply made it possible for us to access deep levels of data like we’ve never been able to easily capture and review before.
  2. Immediacy – for the first time, we have an instant view of what’s happening. We can literally launch a campaign today and gauge its (initial) success tomorrow.

Subsequently, the digital marketer has to be even more on top of data and analysis than marketing professionals have previously been. This hybrid field requires a balanced staffing solution.

Evolution of the e-commerce professional

Over time, there have been trends in hiring to meet the e-commerce needs of organizations. What started out as an indistinct, mysterious, IT-managed project, became an outsourced service, often provided by a single consultant. Managing the digital channel was one of the newest, and still very ambiguous, job duties in many organizations. As the economy tightened, it was therefore one of the easiest to hire out rather than supporting dedicated staff.

As the role evolved and swelled with responsibilities, it became necessary to hire more than just one handy geek to keep things moving smoothly. Many companies began to bring it back in-house, but this process has been rocky for many. It’s very challenging for managers to define the necessary roles, figure out how to delegate responsibilities, and understand when to bring in additional help for what is still a very new specialty and largely unknown to many hiring managers.

For small to medium sized business, this model has prevailed:

An in-house core team is responsible for overall strategy and direction, under either sales or marketing. That team is owns whatever the company views as either the most crucial, or the easiest to manage, areas of the e-commerce need. For instance, a brand that has strong design skills in-house may keep much of that oversight while hiring out for website management. On the flip side, if technical skills are well developed, coding and development might be maintained alongside some marketing and analytics, while the creative bits are outsourced.

A word about marketing in the digital age

Marketing is creative, nuanced, artistic and intuitive. Digital marketing is technical, agile, and in many ways, worlds apart from traditional marketing roles.

There is nothing else like the roles in a small e-commerce team structure. I’ve found that the larger a company is, the more their e-commerce positions look like traditional marketing. They morph into things that sound much less digital, and much more specific (like Customer Acquisition Manager) and relegate the more technical stuff out separately. They may also just fold all digital marketing in with the traditional side, treating it as a small off-shoot.

While larger teams have the luxury of getting granular with their needs, in-house digital departments in smaller businesses need to be lean and flexible. More than that, I see a deep benefit to keeping the specifically digital perspectives embedded in the business roles.

These are new rules we’re playing by. The “old” approach to business growth, brand building, and marketing just doesn’t work anymore. Unless the digital is built into the marketing, the e-commerce and mobile inherent to the business, we’re likely missing a large and crucial piece of the big picture. Roles become siloed and the digital side – the people who maintain the channel that interacts with consumers directly, every day – is overshadowed by the traditional (and potentially inappropriate) methods.

Start with your department head

Whether you’re hiring a digital marketing manager, e-commerce director, or VP of digital, you must start with this pivotal position. Responsible for oversight of your website(s), digital sales channels, online branding, and all related areas, your one key player must have two vital characteristics:

  1. Broad e-commerce experience with at least one specialty (digital marketing, website management, etc.)
  2. Management skills (proven experience fostering teams)

Depending on the size of your company, the other resources you have available, and the sophistication of your digital channel, you’ll need to first identify the experience level required. You might be able to get by with a lower level manager who has some digital marketing experience and can keep projects on track because they’d report to a deeply engaged and savvy Sales/Marketing professional… or you might need someone who single handedly spearheads the digital channel for a company that is competent with internal supporting roles like Finance and IT, but does not otherwise have a strong handle on online business.

If you’re lucky, you might stumble onto one of those few e-commerce professionals who got into the industry early enough to have seen it evolve over the past 15-20 years. They’re a rare breed, and because that moment has passed, there are no new inductees. But those of us who have been steeped in the culture of e-commerce since the ground floor have a big-picture understanding that is hard to come by in those newer to the field.

With your e-commerce leader at the helm, and the full buy-in of senior leaders, begin to develop the team around that key player.

Three ways to form small, in-house e-commerce departments

Be proactive as you establish your in-house e-commerce team. Building these groups with a clear philosophy will help managers slide talent in where they fit well, make sure all bases are covered, and feel empowered to motivate and inspire.

As you’re building your small internal team or bringing it back in-house, choose one of the methodologies below as your starting point for the department. Each one lends itself to expansion over time, so you can logically break apart each position and make the roles more granular as the workload increases.


Option 1: Establish roles by general function

This methodology is common. There are traditional ways of classifying job functions, and we can apply those groupings here as well.

Start by mapping out the broad collections of responsibilities:

  • Marketing (analytics, promotions)
  • Data (product, reporting)
  • Creative (graphics, html)
  • Content (product descriptions, blog, emails)
  • Social media (may be absorbed by marketing or content)

While this seems logical, these days there is so much cross-over. In this industry, it’s unusual to find someone who has focused specifically in just one narrow path. Remember that if your online presence is new, you may be able to group some of these together if you can find a good fit for the combined role. Understanding the differentiators between them, though, will allow you to logically split them when the need arises, as your channel becomes more demanding.

As you grow and find that it is time to split a position into two, please stay closely in touch with the employee whose role is about to shift. Ensure that the conversations flow both ways. Ask which responsibilities they feel most competent at, which they think could be most easily handed over, and in which areas they feel the deepest sense of ownership. Support the dedicated staff you have to avoid  alienating them or causing feelings of relegation.

Option 2: Hire a left brain and a right brain

Not everyone subscribes to the theory that each side of the brain controls certain types of thinking and that people are generally left or right brain dominant… but the science aside, this is a valid approach to hiring a small starter team to help get you off the ground.

Consider your personality types. A “left brain” person is analytical, preferring logic and data, while a “right brain” person is creative, intuitive, and thoughtful.

Now, find someone who has some experience with inventory management, analytics and reporting, and who enjoys geeking out on numbers and statistics, and you’ve got a left brain rock star!

Next, look for a creative type who has some experience with content and writing – that’s crucial here, as those communication skills are not optional in the department. Marketing experience is helpful as well as the ability to keep a promotional schedule on track – and boom! Right brain perfection!

Your tasks will generally categorize themselves into one bin or the other. When there is crossover, I find it best to let the two roles duke it out (or preferably, work together). For instance, SEO research is data for sure, but it’s also about content and presentation. If you allow your left brain to own it alone, you’ll wind up with word choices that may not be compelling to the consumer. Whereas if your right brain is in charge, your product names might sound fabulous, but miss major opportunities for traffic building.

I find that these gray-area tasks are most common shared or doled out according to the specific personalities of each employee (or managed by the department head, perhaps with input from the two brains):

  • Search engine optimization and research
  • Merchandising on site
  • Search term monitoring and opportunity identification
  • Outreach (bloggers, larger customers, partners, etc.)
  • Other areas that require analytical reviews and adjustments

Get to you know your employees, figure out who would shine in those gray-area tasks, or encourage collaboration for a balanced approach.

You’ll need to have your manager in place to keep the two brains on track and take ownership of the larger, strategic management of the channel, including:

  • Selecting, budgeting and managing third party partners
  • Strategic initiatives and overall management
  • Product selection and merchandising strategy

This plan leaves plenty of room to expand over time as workloads fill up. There are bits you could peel out of both to form a new role. In the meantime, share the burden and run a lean department as you ramp up.


Option 3: The fill-in-the-gaps approach

Beginning with your e-commerce team leader may put you in a strong position to have a number of duties already covered. If you promoted someone internally, or found a diamond in the rough without very deep experience but with glowing recommendations, a solid foundation, and a major drive to grow, let your leader own some pieces initially.

They might be experienced or particularly adept at specific areas. If so, let the manager keep some bits within their job description. It often makes the most sense to start with marketing tasks, as these feed most directly into high level strategy.

Next, tap your other internal teams. Have a strong data person in Finance who’s chomping at the bit for increased responsibilities? Maybe they could pitch in on some data management. Is there a creative type who’s well versed in print collateral but inexperienced at digital design, invest in an online course and give it a whirl! Pull resources from IT for integrations and inventory management, or from just about anywhere for the administrative or logistic needs such as organizing physical samples or managing communications with bloggers.

Obviously, capacity must be considered, but those who are looking to bring more value to their positions should welcome the opportunity to contribute to this exciting initiative and a strong manager will understand how to inspire and solicit help without sapping too much time and souring relationships with other managers. Make sure basic business etiquette practices are maintained, such as keeping managers in the loop when requesting help from their employees, and respecting busy times in those departments by submitting requests well in advance and pulling back when things are heavier.

Then you can identify, with your manager’s guidance, the other functional areas that require new hires. Fill in the blanks. Over time, as the team grows, you can either move some of those pinch hitters from other departments into e-commerce full time, or release them back to their original positions and hire a full time replacement.

By evaluating the personalities, interests, skills and experience of your internal staff first, you create the opportunity for advancement which is great for morale, and move proven performers into positions they might find newly engaging and energizing. Let those “blanks” between your talent translate into a need you’ll fill with hires.

Keep anything that’s not e-commerce specific outside of the department

Finally, identify the bits that you do not have to take on as e-commerce functions specifically. These areas can be covered by the business services managed elsewhere in the company. You’ll need to come to terms with the fact that the business needs of this technical department will differ from others. But establish the expectation that the digital channel is highly valued and that these other players help to enable its success.

Some areas that can be successfully handled outside of the e-commerce department:

  • Finance and budgeting
  • Administrative, Data entry
  • IT, Anything you can automate
  • Strategically selected out-sourcing, Strike mission consultants
  • Third party partners that do some of the work for you (some providers are more hands-on than others)


The E-Commerce team structure in the long term

Over time, you have the opportunity to empower a strong digital team to carry your company through these changing times. Make sure not to treat this as an after-thought. Mark my words, this is the direction everything is moving.

By owning these processes in-house, you are embracing the current state of business and fostering the support your digital team needs to carry your brand through with its unique voice and message, whether you ultimately keep your e-commerce team embedded under a larger umbrella or allow it to stand alone as a digital department.


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One Response to Three Ways to Build Your In-House Ecommerce Team Structure

  1. Mark Reynolds Mark Reynolds says:

    Awesome post, Emily. Thank you!

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