Thursday, March 26, 2009

Multi-Step Campaign Interfaces: A Quick Vendor Survey

If you read this blog regularly (and who doesn't?), you know that I see a lot of demand generation systems. Naturally, the vendors showing them to me have all thought very carefully about their designs and made the best choices they could, typically based on feedback from their customers. As a result, they tend to be quite certain that they have made the right decisions and are correspondingly unreceptive should I suggest otherwise.

The area where this comes up more often than any other is the design of multi-step campaign flows. There are two basic approaches to this: use a flow chart, or present a list of steps. My own opinion is quite firm: flow charts don't work. They look good in demonstrations and can lay out simple processes quite nicely. But they get impossibly convoluted once you try to do something complex.

I say this with the fervor of a reformed sinner, since for many years I looked at flow charts as the mark of an advanced marketing automation system. But in all that time I never saw a flow chart interface that actually did a good job handling complexity. So I've reluctantly concluded that flow charts are only suitable for serious technical experts.

Such specialists are fairly common at big consumer marketers such as banks and retailers. These organizations have marketing operations staff members whose entire job is to set up campaigns. They do perfectly well with flow chart interfaces, which indeed are standard on enterprise marketing automation products (e.g. Unica, Teradata Relationship Manager, SAS Marketing Automation, Siebel Marketing, Alterian, Aprimo, SmartFocus).

But the vast majority of demand generation systems are installed in much smaller marketing departments, where setting up campaigns is just a fraction of the user's job. Those people don't have the time or inclination to master the subtleties of a flow chart interface.

Of course, holding an opinion strongly doesn't make it correct, even when I'm the one doing the holding. So I thought I'd take a little scan of the demand generation systems I've looked at to see how the vendors themselves had voted. I'm pleased to see that the majority of vendors (11 of 16) , and particularly those tending towards serving smaller clients, have in fact chosen against the flow chart approach. (Gone against the flow, as it were.)

I don't expect this news to change the minds of vendors who made the opposite decision. In fact, if they're any kind of marketers at all, they'll argue it's a competitive differentiator. But at least I'll feel more justified the next I tell one of them I disagree with their choice.

Here, then, is a list of vendors (alphabetically) and their interfaces.



Act-On Software












Manticore Technology
















Silverpop Engage B2B


Treehouse Interactive


True Influence


(1) embeds simple list- based campaign in a larger flow chart. I'm in favor of that approach.


Karel said...

Hi David,

I'm not sure why you didn't include such systems as Teradata Relationship Manager (TRM) or Unica's Affinium Suite in your survey. Having quite advanced knowledge of TRM I'm pretty sure that creation of a complex multi-step flow chart within TRM's GUI is definitely a job for standard marketing people.

I can provide you with more details upon your request.

Karel Jabornik

David Raab said...

Hi Karel,

Products like Unica and Teradata Relationship Manager (along with SAS Marketing Automation, Aprimo, Alterian, SmartFocus, Siebel Marketing and SAP CRM) belong to a different class of system, which I generally refer to as "marketing automation". They have some business marketing clients but are primarily used by the "big consumer marketers" in mentioned in the post and, in my experience, are typically operated by specialists. They do indeed all have flow charts, which makes sense for that set of clients.

MarketingMark said...

I've worked for or with a number of Marketing Automation companies / software packages over the years and am currently working with Eloqua.
In Eloqua's latest release they offer the best of both worlds with a simple button on the top of the Program Designer UI that switches between a list interface or a flowchart interface.
I've found that the list interface (as you state) is absolutely best for the simple stuff, and I use it 90% of the time. However, sometimes I find myself creating something complex in the list interface and suddenly realize I can see a visual in the flowchart, click and presto, I have a whole different perspective on what I've created. Switching back and forth between the two at any time has been a godsend since I discovered it. -Mark LeVell

Ric said...

Hello David,

Interesting article. I'm a very visual person and I've created some flow charts of my business processes. I don't find it difficult to map these out at all, even though they are quite complex.

Why do you find the programs cannot handle the complexity when a simple tool like mindmanagar (by mindjet) can handle flows with ease?

Of those that do include flowcharts, which do you suggest does it best?

Ric Robertson

David Raab said...

Hi Ric,

Everyone is different, so if complex flow charts work for you, that's great. In my experience, though, most marketers find that once you get past a few branches, it becomes too hard to see what's going on. Vendors who have done more extensive research confirm this.

If by "best" flow charts you mean "most powerful", I'd say the top-tier firms including Eloqua, Neolane, Marketbright and Market2Lead would be the ones to look at. On the business-to-consumer side, the enterprise marketing automation systems including Unica, Aprimo, SAS and Teradata all offer extensive flow charting as well.