Specific changes include:
- a new contact database that is much more flexible than the original HubSpot database, allowing access to all types of email and landing page interactions within HubSpot and to social media activities imported to the system. The new database is built with HBase, which accesses Hadoop files. More on that later.
- “smart lists”, which are rule-based definitions of contact groups whose membership is updated automatically as contact data changes. Apologies if that’s a bit jargony; it just means the lists are always current.
- “smart calls to action” which are dynamic content blocks driven by the smart lists. That is, users define which contents go to members of different lists. The blocks are stored in a library and the same block can appear within multiple emails, HubSpot landing pages, or external Web pages. In practical terms, this means things like: users who have already downloaded one piece of content can automatically be offered something else.
- “smart forms” (do you sense a pattern?) which don't repeat questions a client has already answered. This isn’t quite true progressive profiling, which would replace questions that are answered with ones that are not. But it removes a major annoyance.
- workflows (hah! Bet you expected “smart flows”) that are triggered by smart list-style rules and can include multiple steps with multiple actions assigned to each step. Available actions include changing contact data, sending a record to CRM, updating a lead score, setting a lifecycle stage, and changing the call to action.
- social media tracking that captures responses to system-generated social media messages within the contact database. The responses are associated with specific individuals, so they can be used in smart lists and workflow rules.
- iPhone apps to view some reports and individual contact data
This is all good stuff, although far from revolutionary. Dynamic email content, for example, is available in 14 of the 22 systems in our VEST report. HubSpot recognizes that these are not new features but argues they’ve made them easier to use than competitors. I’m not so sure – the rule builder underlying the smart lists and workflows looks pretty much like every other rule builder, and the workflows themselves are also similar to the sequential flows in other systems.
This isn’t a criticism of HubSpot, but just a recognition that these are inherently complicated features which plenty of smart people have already tried to simplify. Radically better approaches may yet be found – I had an interesting chat about some possibilities with HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah – but so far, the state of the art is what it is.
The new release also includes improved email and landing page designers, A/B testing for landing pages (not available in the entry-level version of the system, alas), enhancements to the app and service marketplaces, and expanded training services. The company said the coming year will bring enhancements to existing components including the blogging and search engine optimization applications.
What’s really important about all these changes is not whether they’re unique, but how well HubSpot has pulled them together and how it teaches its clients and resellers to use them. This is where HubSpot has always been strongest, and the vision it set out this week – of highly relevant marketing messages for each individual – is indeed advanced. (It’s also one I agree with – see this post on why the marketing funnel is dead.) If HubSpot can get marketers to focus on that sort of targeting, which is quite different from traditional campaign-oriented promotions, they can indeed have a revolutionary impact on their clients and the marketing industry.
And what about HBase? Although HubSpot didn’t talk about it in its marketing materials, switching from a conventional relational database to the Hadoop-based system is almost certainly the most radical feature of the new release. So far as I know, HubSpot is the only marketing automation system using HBase.
I discussed this a bit with HubSpot Chief Product Officer David Cancel, who joined the company when it acquired Performable, which was itself built on HBase. Cancel said HBase takes more resources than a conventional database engine but provides direct access to all details of each contact’s behavior history. One immediate benefit is that HubSpot now allows custom fields – up to 1,000, in fact – which it didn’t previously. Ad hoc reports against the HBase data isn't available yet but is due before the end of 2012.
Longer term, I suspect HBase will make it easier to add custom objects and to deal with unstructured and semi-structured data such as Web logs and text comments. This could make HubSpot fundamentally more flexible than most B2B marketing automation systems, whose data structures are tightly linked to CRM data structures. As I mentioned last week, the main exceptions to that rule today are the high-end marketing automation products, which were built for consumer marketing applications and assume a custom data structure. Having that flexibility in product for small-to-mid-size businesses could open up some possibilities that truly do make HubSpot unique.
(Wondering about the alligator man picture? Well, one of the sessions at the HubSpot conference said that having pictures in your blog posts increases readership, so I thought I'd give it a try. If you want me to justify that particular image: she's getting a message she doesn't want.)