Several vendors have shown me their new campaign management interfaces recently. All were refined, attractive, and thoughtful. Each had subtle features that appeal to a connoisseur: floating tool pallets! Fly-over icon labels! Dynamic menus! Curved lines! But they’re all still basically the same flow charts that Frank Gilbreth (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame) introduced in 1921 and we've seen in marketing systems for more than 20 years.
Now, I’m not saying marketing automation vendors should find a new approach just because I’m bored with the old one. But the truth is that the old way doesn’t work: every experienced developer I’ve ever spoken with has told me they’ve found users get confused when flow charts grow past a handful of branches. That’s true even though users themselves design campaigns by drawing a flow chart on a whiteboard. If you watch that process closely, you’ll see that (a) users themselves have trouble when their diagram gets too complex and (b) they can’t make much sense of it when they come back the next morning (assuming the whiteboard wasn’t erased).
Developers have taken two approaches to this challenge. One is to add features that help manage complexity – all those floating pallets and pop-up menus. These do help but it’s like Chaos Theory as explained in Jurassic Park: piling complexity on complexity eventually ends in a catastrophic collapse. The other approach is to simplify the experience by removing capabilities such as multiple branches and recursive loops. The extreme version of this is interfaces that define each campaign as a single sequence of steps, with no branching at all. This is certainly comprehensible but it can prevent marketers from doing what they want.
Something more radical is needed. Developers must think outside the flow chart. One way to start is to consider interfaces they’re already using in other systems.
- touch screen. Dragging and poking at a flow chart with your fingers instead of a mouse wouldn’t be much of an improvement, although it would help. Creating splits by stretching an icon until it breaks into pieces might be kinda fun. Scaling up or down the way you zoom into online maps – and having the level of detail adjust automatically – would definitely be an improvement. But I’m guessing there are some more dramatic alternatives that avoid the flow chart altogether. Think about your favorite touch screen apps and see what comes to mind. How could you design a marketing campaign with Angry Birds?
- voice activation. I have no interest in speaking the same commands I could type. But a system that understands voice commands has natural language capabilities to infer what I need based on context and past experience, and thus save me the work of defining the details explicitly. (Think IBM Watson on Jeopardy or iPhone Siri.) If you think about the primal whiteboard scenario, what really happens is the marketers say “let’s add a split here” before drawing it – so a natural language approach could be a big time saver by skipping the drawing step altogether. Or the system might actually ask questions and make suggestions that lead the marketer through the design process: Who is your target market? How many reminder emails do you want? Might I suggest you add a reward: here are the best three to consider.
- virtual reality. The biggest problem with flow charts is they are inherently two dimensional. This means that intersecting branches must visually overlap, which is very confusing. Could a virtual reality interface let marketers follow each path independently, like walking down a street or flying through a forest? This comes closer to simulating the customer’s experience – perhaps the marketer could be pelted with messages as she passes through (I’m thinking of monkeys throwing fruit), and toss them back as a response. Or, imagine a road map that traces the customer's physical journey through both the real world and cyberspace, with marketing messages presented as billboards and interactions as conversations with passersby. Or could you map the customer journey itself – a trip through the funnel – with a similar presentation of billboards and conversations? Think of a child's board game like Candyland or, perhaps more appropriate, Alice's trip down the rabbit hole.
- data visualization. Think of all those cool illustrations you’ve seen of social networks, molecular structures, Web behaviors, economic trends, geospatial data, manufacturing processes, and who knows what. Why can't marketing systems do better than flow charts and pie graphs? How about a three-dimensional campaign diagram that you can rotate and zoom on three axes? Or a six-dimensional view using height, width, depth, color, size, and shape, with a slider for time? Some of these might be hard to interpret but even a flow chart takes some training to understand. I'm certain that creative design can pack more information into a simpler package.
- games and simulation. Could a marketing campaign sprout like a tree, growing more complex over time and bearing customers as fruit? Simulation games use simple rules and a few user choices to create elaborate cities, empires, and organisms. Some already let users run model businesses. More advanced versions of those programs could use rules derived from your customers' actual behavior to test alternative campaign designs and pick the ones most likely to succeed. The campaign details would be built by the system, so the interface becomes less important, although marketers would still need to review everything before deployment. These designs would be inserted into the matrix of existing programs, so the system could model each program’s incremental impact on the full customer lifecycle and on other program results. This leads directly to the Holy Grail of Marketing Optimization (which might make a fine multi-player quest game, come to think of it).
- multiple views and viewpoints. Most of today's marketing automation systems already let administrators control which features are available to which users. But everyone with access to a given feature usually sees the same thing. The one exception is that salespeople are given wholly separate interfaces tailored to their needs. But this approach should be carried over to other personas within the marketing department – the CMO’s view of campaigns is radically different from the marketing operations person’s, and they should not be looking at the same flow chart. Even the same user might want different views at different times, depending on the task at hand.
- customer perspective. I’ve already touched on this but it’s worth more attention. There’s a strong argument that the fundamental notion of separate marketing campaigns should be replaced by integrated customer treatments across all channels and life stages. The flow chart interface is based on the individual campaigns, and becomes impractically complex precisely when campaigns are expanded to accommodate too many contingencies. A customer-centered approach would develop rules for each situation rather than stringing together rules for many different situations. Those rules would be simpler because they dealt with a narrower range of conditions. They could also be spread between campaign logic and dynamic content logic, and many might be replaced altogether by predictive models that choose the highest-value treatment. The explosion of channels and contacts has made integrated customer treatments essential. Marketers need a fundamentally new interface designed to provide them.