Friday, July 22, 2011

HubSpot Spreads Its Wings

The folks at HubSpot have been busy this summer, announcing their acquisition of Performable in June and their HubSpot App Marketplace last week. Both events mark a continued expansion of their product.

The company gave me a brief preview of the App Marketplace back in May, when the public beta had just launched. App markets are quite the fashion right now, and HubSpot’s joins the Eloqua AppCloud announced in June. In both cases, what’s really happening is the vendor has published APIs that make it easier for other vendors to build products that integrate with their systems. Such APIs are available to varying degrees for other marketing automation products too, so an app marketplace isn’t quite as huge a leap as it may seem. But marketplaces do make it easier to find compatible applications and, done right, ensure that deployment is very simple.

I couldn’t find a public list of the available HubSpot apps, but their press release cites a connector for Microsoft Dynamics CRM and my notes from May mention custom analytics and shopping cart integration.

Unlike smartphone app stores or AppExchange, the marketing automation vendor app markets won’t establish their products as “platforms” for a broad range of tasks (although the vendors can dream). They instead extend the functionality of the core product and, mostly, simplify integration with other products that already exist independently. In other words, the app markets are useful but not huge strategic differentiators.

Acquisitions, on the other hand, can be strategically decisive. HubSpot didn’t make that claim for its Performable deal, which shows an admirable sense of reality. Performable offers some interesting capabilities but nothing that radically alters HubSpot’s market position.

The main feature of Performable is an ability to define “events”, which can be page visits, form submissions, or other Web behaviors. This is a useful extension of standard Web behavior tracking techniques. Like other Web tracking, it requires users to install a small Javascript tag on their Web pages. Performable also has existing connectors with a variety of social media, help desk, email, billing, chat and CRM systems. Events and connectors make it easy to build a central database of customer behavior.

Performable leverages this central database with some impressive reporting, showing the first, last, and intervening sources (i.e., the Web site they came from) for visitors who reach each event. Although HubSpot already had reasonable Web analytics, Performable's ability to incorporate additional external activity is a substantial improvement.

Events can also trigger multi-step campaigns that send an email or call an external URL. The URL calls can including parameters with customer information or other data, providing lightweight integration with nearly any external system. Performable also has an impressive landing page builder that supports a/b testing and can ensure that visitors assigned to a particular test group are treated consistently in later visits.

However, the multi-step campaign engine is quite basic. It allows wait periods and conditional steps, but does not allow grouping to automatically exclude customers who meet one condition from subsequent steps. That's a pretty basic feature, typically used to send different messages to different segments at the same stage of a campaign. Users who wanted to do this would need to write conditions for each step that exclude conditions for previous steps. This can be a pain-staking and error-prone chore.

Multi-step campaigns are a weakness in the existing HubSpot system, so it's disappointing that Performable doesn't provide much help. Somewhat similarly, Performable relies on third-party email systems, so it doesn't directly improve HubSpot’s existing email engine, which also lags competitors.

But HubSpot made clear that the Performable acquisition was as much about getting first-rate development talent as about the product itself. In fact, the entire Performable staff joined HubSpot after the acquisition and Performable CEO David Cancel is now HubSpot’s Chief Product Officer. So in that sense, at least, the acquisition is indeed strategic.

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