Friday, November 01, 2013

Bislr: A "Marketing Operating System" That Includes Marketing Automation As An App

There was a really interesting discussion this week over on Scott Brinker’s ChiefMartec blog about the evolution of marketing automation systems into “platforms” that each support a swarm of satellite applications connected through open APIs. This is something I’ve already thought and written about quite a bit, but the discussion did advance my understanding of whether any marketing automation vendor gains a business advantage if third party applications can connect to all of them.  I think the answer is: probably not.  This means the platform strategy provides less value than many vendors and investors assume, although it may be needed for competitive parity.

The other issue that just started to surface as the discussion petered out was the nature of platform integrations.  Part of this had to do with the scope of the integration available (that is, which functions are accessible via the API).  Another aspect was whether it matters how hard it is to create the integrated applications.  Traditionally, marketer automation users have needed just a little technical skill to connect an existing application through an API, but the developers themselves have needed considerably more skill to create the connectors.

I had a related discussion on Wednesday with Act-On Software, which just announced its own open API and expanded partner exchange  Act-On's technical lead said part of this project involving reworking its APIs from SOAP to RESTful protocols precisely because REST connectors are easier for partners to create. A separate talk with Bislr, which calls itself a “marketing operating system” and considers marketing automation itself just another app, offered an even more extreme contrast, describing Bislr’s goal of making app development something that even “semi-professional developers” can do.

It's debatable whether Bislr’s approach is significantly different from being a marketing automation “platform”, but Bislr itself is clearly part of a new generation. The current marketing automation leaders – Oracle Eloqua, Marketo, Salesforce Pardot, Silverpop, Act-On, etc. – date from the mid-2000s and were originally built to feed leads to The newer products, including Leadsius, Salesformics, Leadsberry, Target360, and Inbox25 as well Bislr, were all launched after 2010 and some are barely out of beta. Their function lists closely resemble the older marketing automation products, but they differ in other ways including primary integration with CRM systems other than Salesforce, lower pricing, focus on ease of use at the expense of advanced features, more native social media integration, and, presumably, more modern technology under the hood. Apologies if that description seems a bit vague: the only one of vendors I’ve looked at in any detail in Bislr. So let’s talk a little more about them.

As previously mentioned, Bislr presents itself as a “marketing operating system” that hosts user-selected apps in the same way as a smartphone or tablet. Conceptually, this allows greater flexibility than traditional marketing automation systems, because users could load the app of their choice for a particular purpose and could only add functions they really want.  This truly is different from the current marketing automation "platforms", which provide a core of standard marketing automation functions before any external products are added.  But so far, all of Bislr's apps come from Bislr itself, so Bislr does effectively provide its own set of core functions and users can't substitute another app for those functions if they prefer.  The closest Bislr comes to the vision is in content creation, where basic functions are built into its email, landing page, and form design apps, but users can also employ a separate app called BislrFX for much more elaborate HTML5 “responsive design”. 

Bear in mind that Bislr’s intention is precisely to allow such third-party applications, and indeed to make it easier to build them for Bislr than other products. The system is built on a cloud-based non-SQL database, which should help. But, ironically, the more different Bislr is from other marketing automation products, the more third-party vendors will need to change their standard integrations to connect with it. To me, this is a big problem with the platform strategy: even though third party vendors would like to connect with as many platforms as possible, there’s at least some cost in adding each new partner. At a minimum, the vendors will connect with the most popular systems first. More worrisome, if the industry becomes so concentrated that a few marketing automation vendors have most of the clients, the third party vendors may never bother to build connectors for the other systems. So, even though the platform strategy theoretically allows smaller marketing automation vendors to compete by giving them features they didn’t build themselves, it might not really play out that way. We can expect the larger marketing automation vendors to gently push things in that direction by letting third party products offer advanced functions that are unique to one marketing automation system – making the third party products less attractive on other platforms.  At least, that’s what I’d do if I were in their shoes.

But I digress.  Until Bislr adds outside apps, buyers should look at Bislr's existing apps in comparison with corresponding features of conventional marketing automation systems.

The list is includes all standard marketing automation features:workflows, email, attribute- and behavior-based lead scoring (separate apps for each), social sharing and listening, landing pages, Web forms, calls to action, a/b testing, real time reporting, CRM integration with and NetSuite, Webinar integration with GoToWebinar (due soon), campaign tracking, and “Web hooks” to integrate via external systems. It also adds some that are less common, including social data appending, blogging, and Web content management. 

The quality of the apps was also impressive. Bislr says its goal is to provide easy-to-use versions of the most important functions, not to offer every possible feature. But the workflow engine provided a wide range of prebuilt actions, triggers, and conditions. The email, landing page, form, and call to action options all seemed reasonably complete. Social data appending can search 27 sources, will automatically identify potential matches, and adds social activity to each customer profile. Users can create dynamic lists and see a detailed history of an individual’s interactions.

On the other hand, Bislr said it doesn’t synchronize with custom objects from and it doesn’t directly control which users can edit specific marketing campaigns or assets. It does let clients control access by creating multiple accounts within a single implementation, for example allowing a global enterprise to have different accounts for different regions or product groups plus a global account to share materials, contacts, and reporting.

Bottom line: Bislr is worth a look based on what it delivers today, whether or not it fulfills its broader vision tomorrow. Pricing starts at $1,000 per month and is based on a combination of contact count and features available.  The system was launched in February 2013 and has about 100 current clients, including 40 mid-size or larger enterprises.

No comments: