Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Act-On Software Adds Webinar Integration to Small Business Demand Generation

Summary: Act-On Software provides a solid set of demand generation features at a small business price. This review was revised in May, 2010 to reflect developments since the original post of March, 2009.

If you look at the Web site of Act-On Software, you’ll see a typical set of demand generation features: email marketing, demand generation (equated with landing pages and forms), lead nurturing, Website visitor tracking, channel (partner) marketing, and lead scoring. Oddly, it does not highlight Act-On’s most distinctive advantage, which is tight integration with Webex for Webinar presentations.

Working with Act-On is like working with other products: users build emails, landing pages and Web forms; track activities through page tags and cookies; do scoring and segmentation with activity history and lead attributes; and pass qualified leads to Salesforce.com. The specific features to do this are reasonably powerful: for example, emails and Web pages can be built from scratch, based on templates or imported, while the templates themselves can be built from components stored in a central library. The components can include prebuilt surveys, which can be embedded in an email or linked to a separate Web form. This is more than many other products offer.

The system also offers above-average flexibility in its delivery arrangements: clients can send the email either from their own servers or through Act-On, and can display Act-On-host forms within external Web pages as iframes.

Act-On does a good job of capturing activity history and form entries. The system will track both known and anonymous visitors, using the IP address to look up the company of anonymous visitors and linking to JigSaw to show company information It can also send alerts when it sees visits from specified individuals, companies, or locations. All activities for a given lead (identified by an email address or cookie ID) can be used for scoring and segmentation. Data posted to Web forms can also be stored in a central file. Scoring rules can reference both lead attributes and activities, and are updated in real time as new data arrives. Users can also apply scores, attributes or activities to define lists that are updated in real time.

So far so good, and now we can talk about Webinars. Users can define a Webinar within Act-On, entering name, time, date, duration, password, and teleconference number, and then push this to their Webex account. They can also create a registration page and form, auto-response message, invitation emails, reminders and follow-up emails. The system will feed the registrations into Webex and pull back attendee lists, gathering all the related data within Act-On for reporting. This is a significant improvement over the usual situation, where data is scattered between the different systems.

But remember that channel marketing listed on the home page? It’s pretty limited. Dealers and similar channel partners can be assigned Act-On accounts with access to the library of marketing materials, including documents and email templates. They can also import lists and execute email campaigns. The parent company can’t use the partners’ lists (always a sensitive issue) but does have access to responders. At present, email templates are either fully locked-down (no changes allowed) or totally open. Act-On plans to refine this so the parent can allow partners to change some portions of the template and not others. Even with these changes, the channel management features in Act-On don’t compare with Marketbright or Treehouse International. (For more information, see my blog post on Marketbright and my post on Treehouse International.)

Lead nurturing supports multi-step, event-triggered email campaigns. These are defined as a sequence of steps with conditions inside each step to select different messages for different individuals. Campaign steps can also assign leads to a new list, change a data value, and wait a specified period before continuing. In addition, users can assign an exit condition to each campaign that removes leads at any step when the condition is met. This is used to end a message stream when leads are submitted to sales or qualify for a different campaign with higher priority.

Act-On describes its contents as stored in a collection of lists rather than a conventional database. I found this perplexing in my original look at the product but have decided after closer examination that it's mostly a matter of semantics. In practice, customers maintain a single “master marketing list” with all lead profiles and an activity history linked to each profile. The other lists are either segments derived from the master list or supplementary data such as survey responses that are best kept separate from the main profile. The system has standard connectors to import data from Salesforce.com (it can pull members of a specific campaign, all contacts or all leads), Microsoft Outlook, and Webex. It can also take data from Excel, comma-separated text files and its own Web forms. Data can be automatically synchronized at user-defined intervals.

The system also provides an unusal Twitter marketing feature that makes it easy to scan for prospects and send them standardized messages. See my May 2010 post on social marketing feature for details.

Pricing is based on the number of “active” contacts (defined as having an interaction or receiving a message), starting at $500 per month for 5,000 active contacts. It’s hard to compare this with other vendors, since most charge based on database size or communication volume. But it seems competitive with small business-oriented demand generation systems and lower than products aimed at larger firms. There are no set-up fees, clients can have month-to-month contracts, and you can start with a 30 day free trial. So this is a pretty easy system to buy.

Act-On also offers a sales automation system that could be an alternative to Salesforce.com. Pricing on this starts at $14.95 per month for three users and 1,000 contacts.

Act-On released its beta version in June 2008 and started selling that October. As of April 2010 it had about 80 clients. Most are small or mid-sized, but they also include Cisco, which invested in Act-On in 2008.

1 comment:

Raghu said...

David, thanks for the very detailed review of our service.

One point I want to make: it's entire possible to set up a central marketing database. (In fact, we have one for our own company.)

The key point is that it is not *required*. Many companies prefer to use Salesforce.com as the database of record.

This approach (which I used with great success at Responsys also) makes it easy for customers to get started, since the system conforms to users instead of making users conform to the system.

Though everything feels "list based", everything is stored in a database on the back end.

Raghu Raghavan
CEO, Act-On Software