Friday, March 04, 2011

Are We Making Marketing Automation Harder Than Necessary?

Summary: Is stressing the need for process change making marketing automation too complicated, or a recognition of what it really takes for success? Vendors take both sides of the argument. So did Aesop: see The Tortoise and the Hare.

Act-On Software officially relaunched its system earlier this week, offering a new interface and a new positioning. The interface is perfectly nice but the positioning is ultimately more important. The company’s press release puts the key claim succinctly: “The Act-On Integrated Marketing Platform disrupts the conventional wisdom that companies need marketing automation solutions that are expensive, complex, and require significant services engagements to get them up and running.”

I’m not sure that whoever speaks for “conventional wisdom” would agree that marketing automation solutions must be expensive and complex. My own position (loosely paraphrasing Einstein) is it should be as complicated and costly as necessary, but not more.

However, the real meat of that statement is the third item: “significant services engagements”. This refers to the idea that marketing automation must accompanied by comprehensive planning and process engineering, which often require external assistance. The oracles of conventional wisdom would probably agree. I know I do.

Act-On begs to differ. Their belief, outlined to me in January by Sales VP Shawn Naggiar and CMO David Applebaum, is that most marketers just want to get things done immediately with existing resources. Of course, no one could argue with that – we all want something for nothing. The real question is whether marketing automation can actually deliver value without marketers making a more substantial investment. Act-On is betting that they can, especially if aided by software that’s designed to make easy things simple. The company just received $4 million in funding from others willing to share the bet, on top of an initial $2.5 million.

It would be easy to dismiss Act-On’s proposition as something between wishful thinking and pandering, right up there with diet-free weight loss. But I’ve heard almost exactly the same argument recently from other vendors including Net-Results, Marketbright, and, to lesser extent, All cite the need for an intermediate step between the simplicity of email-only systems and the complexity of full-blown marketing automation. They see closing this gap as the critical requirement in spreading marketing automation to the masses, and as a great business opportunity for themselves. When so many smart people reach the same conclusion, it's worth serious consideration.

On the other hand, the vendors with the greatest success to date have stressed the importance of process. This is true not just at the high end of the market, but also at the low end, where Infusionsoft, OfficeAutoPilot and HubSpot all make huge efforts to educate and cajole their clients into using their systems fully.

Infusionsoft and OfficeAutoPilot are selling to much smaller businesses than Act-On, Net-Results, and the new Marketbright. Still, it's interesting that vendors at both ends of the spectrum have found that process focus is essential. Maybe success requirements are really different in the middle – but I’d say the burden of proof is on those making that claim.

If I want to start a good argument, I should probably end this post here. Drawing clear battle lines between vendors who believe in process and those who don't should certainly prompt some response.

But that wouldn’t be fair to either side. The process-oriented vendors do strive to make it easy to get started, and the start-up-oriented vendors do expect their clients’ processes to mature over time. And, while Act-On, Net-Results, Marketbright, and Genius all argue that their systems are substantially easier to use than products like Pardot, Marketo and LoopFuse, those vendors surely disagree. My own (fair but wimpy) opinion is that there are significant differences among individual systems but neither group is generally easier or more powerful than the other. Users have to do the hard work of matching the system to their particular needs and style. Eat your spinach.

That said, the role of process is an important and worthwhile subject for debate. The greatest danger I see facing the B2B marketing automation industry is that it will develop a reputation for failure. This is exactly what happened to CRM systems when people started to think that simply purchasing one was a guarantee of success. It took a long time and much hard work for the industry to overcome the stigma of the resulting failures. They have now established that careful planning and disciplined deployment are essential for clients to receive real benefits.

Perhaps we're doomed to repeat this history. It's the "trough of despair" in the hype cycle. But we can at least try to avoid it. My position is this: marketers can start small with their automation systems, but they should still go into the project recognizing that real value requires substantial change. Ignoring this reality is bad for everyone.


Howard J. Sewell said...

David: great points as always. As a long-time service provider in the marketing automation business, it irks me no end when software vendors make “you don’t need consultants to use our software” a central tenet of their sales strategy. In doing so, I’m convinced they do themselves and their customers a great disservice, and not just because it might prejudice those customers against firms like ours.

There’s an important distinction to be made between 1) not requiring outside resources to install and implement software, and 2) not requiring those same resources to be successful with that software in meeting the business objectives for which (presumably) it was acquired.

At this stage in the industry, even the most sophisticated MA solutions are now relatively easy to use. However, ease of use is not a guarantee of success. On the contrary: we’ve worked with a great many companies who, lured by software that is indeed “easy to use” and “easy to implement,” find themselves months later disillusioned with what little they’ve been able to achieve against their original goals.

You hit the proverbial nail on the head when you reference the experience of CRM vendors who now know that “careful planning and disciplined deployment are essential for clients to receive real benefits.” Can companies be successful with marketing automation without outside resources? Certainly. But I would argue (granted: not without self interest) that working with a qualified partner, one that’s practiced at planning, workflow development, content strategy, and creative execution, can help facilitate that success and substantially decrease time to value.

Howard Sewell
Spear Marketing Group

Michael Ward said...

You've fired me up again David.

The premise that "comprehensive planning and process engineering" is a prerequisite to success with marketing automation is a matter of perspective. In some cases it is. In other cases it's a non-starter. The big variables at play here are customer expectations and resources.

At Net-Results we've added many customers who have experienced "failure" with other marketing automation solutions as a direct result of complexity and mismatched expectations with other vendors. The "failures" I'm referring to boil down to situations where customer expectations are not being met. Vendor X tries to come in with "comprehensive planning and process engineering" but the customer just wants their leads scored, segmented and nurtured. Square peg, round hole.

But perspective runs both ways. We've experienced our own failures with customers whose expectations were for a (costly, bureaucratic) process/meeting/committee driven approach. In my opinion (and experience) many of these customers are simply finding a more expensive way to move slowly but, if Net-Results' way of doing things doesn't meet their expectations then choosing a different vendor is best for everyone.

We've also seen great success in the middle between these two extremes where customers get up and running quickly then engage with one of our consulting partners (like Howard above - great guy, great company) to take things to the next level.

My bottom line is this: It's clear that many organizations don't have the time and resources required to undertake "comprehensive planning and process engineering". Should these organizations do nothing? Should they continue to send undifferentiated email blasts with ConstantContact? Should they go on with no lead scoring, no trigger based campaigns, no effective customer segmentation? I say no. They should start leveraging relevance to their benefit with a system and process that fits with the reality of their time, capabilities and resources.

Michael Ward
Net-Results Marekting Automation

seanob said...

David - First, let me say that I appreciate all of the writing that you do along with your response to an email at an odd our on a night like tonight. I am on my second start-up and have been tuning into MA as a phenomenon in marketing. Coming from a largely off-line world, I am skipping several steps in evolution to now. To me, it comes down to the business rather than the MA system or the process engineering. If you have a good one, you'll get the benefit of learning as you go. If not, no perfectly designed process with the most perfectly engineered MA system perfectly matched to your needs will matter.

Your work and expertise has been great to follow. It would be great to work with you some day. Hopefully, this business gives me that type of opportunity.