Thursday, February 09, 2012

NurtureHQ Offers "Dead Easy Marketing Automation". Is That Enough?

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

New-ish marketing automation vendor NurtureHQ showed me its product recently. It’s really nice. Clean interface, easy to use, all the standard marketing automation features. Particular strengths in:

• split testing (separately for email subject lines and versions)
• lead scoring (automatically reduces scores from older events)
• CRM integration (Highrise, Capsule CRM, Sugar CRM,, and an open API)
• marketing analysis (users can track multiple outcomes per campaign)
• content management (nice email/form/page builder, user-defined variables can be shared across messages to make changes easy)
• selection, segmentation, and campaign flow based on list tags (highly intuitive)
• low price ($495 per month for up to 20,000 contacts and 10 users with unlimited emails and landing pages and no annual contract)

In other words, this is a worthy alternative to Act-On, SalesFUSION, Net-Results, MakesBridge, Genoo, and other small business systems. Definitely take a look if you’re in that market for that sort of product.

But there’s my problem: “that sort of product” is widely available already. NurtureHQ hopes to differentiate itself as “dead easy marketing automation”, which it arguably is. But is it so much easier than the other products I just listed? I think not.  Regardless of whether it’s the easiest of them all, the difference isn’t likely to be large enough to matter.

Naturally, NurtureHQ disagrees. Before building its system, the company spent six months talking to current marketing automation users.  Many said they never progressed beyond email because the next step was too hard. This led NurtureHQ to believe that an even easier system could find a broader market than current products.

Other vendors have asked the same questions and reached the same conclusions.  But I’m beginning to think those marketers were really saying something else. What they found “too hard” wasn’t the software, but the planning and content creation needed for serious marketing automation. Without a clear understanding of what they wanted to do, they couldn’t figure out how to get the system to do it. That’s not a software problem.  Even a system that could build programs just by reading marketers' minds wouldn’t work if those minds didn't know what they wanted in the first place.

This isn’t a new insight. Marketing automation gurus have long argued that companies need to define their processes in advance of deploying a new system. The case was made yet again this week in an excellent blog post by Joby Blume, describing his former company’s struggles with marketing automation. (Be sure to read the comments). Howard Sewell of Spear Marketing Group made a similar point on his own blog. I reached the same conclusion myself in a post using data from a Gleanster report on marketing automation.

None of this means that “ease of use” is a bad strategy for NurtureHQ and others. On a practical level, ease of use helps sell systems to people who otherwise wouldn’t buy them. But vendors can't succeed if their clients fail – especially they rely on revenue from subscription renewals. So it only makes sense to sell marketing automation to companies without adequate processes, content, and other resources if those companies understand they’ll need to add those resources later. To really ensure success, vendors must actively help their clients through training and, in some cases, services to do the work for them.   Vendors including LeadLife, Genoo, and MakesBridge already offer low-cost service packages for their clients.  Other vendors also have service arms and agency partners to help out on a project basis. Third-party training resources such as the Marketing Automation Institute (where I’m a board member) can also help to fill the gap and benefit from substantial vendor funding.

What does this mean for the software vendors themselves? If the real keys to success are marketers’ skills and processes, does it really matter what’s in the software? To put another way, is marketing automation software already a commodity?

I hate to say it, but, to some degree, yes. There are certainly differences among products, both in capabilities and ease of use. But most marketers can find several systems that will meet their needs. This means vendors are increasingly competing on other dimensions including their own marketing and sales skills, cost structures, supporting services, pricing, and financial resources. As I pointed out last week,  it’s no coincidence that four of the five largest vendors are venture-funded (six of seven, if you include Infusionsoft and HubSpot). Another factoid that makes the point even more clearly: three of the four fastest growing received major new funding in the past year.

Still, I’m not entirely ready to give up on technology as a major differentiator. What’s needed is more radical innovation than a better interface. If the real barriers to success are creating content and identifying appropriate programs, then technology must address those directly. There are some already tools to help generate content, such as systems for news curation  and video posting.  I can't think of any products that recommend the right marketing programs, but proper analytics can identify patterns that reveal opportunities, and it’s perfectly conceivable that a rule-based system could check for known issues and make recommendations. HubSpot’s marketing grader does a something like this although it only examines externally-available information.

Of course, marketers will still have to create content and design programs. But better technology could dramatically reduce the necessary effort and move marketers past the deer-in-the-headlights paralysis of not knowing where to start. Vendors who really want to expand the market beyond the resource-rich few should look in this direction.

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