Thursday, April 10, 2014

Marketo Conference: Small Changes, Big Picture

Marketo wrapped up its three day Marketing Nation conference yesterday, having once more displayed its own marketing prowess by attracting national media attention (see here and here) with an appearance by Hillary Clinton. Still, the real focus was on Marketo’s own announcements, which included several product changes and a new positioning. (I wasn’t at the conference but Marketo briefed me on their plans.)

The product changes were quite modest: new search engine optimization features for entry level users; a global marketing calendar; and relabeling of InsightEra, which Marketo purchased in December, as Marketo Real Time Personalization. The SEO and calendar features are still in beta and will be rolled out this spring and summer. Real Time Personalization already exists, obviously, and will remain a separate product that can work with any marketing automation system.

The company also announced a deal to use Acxiom data for personalization and, somewhat more interesting, to coordinate advertising messages purchased through Acxiom with email and Web site messages delivered by Marketo. This borders on integration of Web display with marketing automation, an extremely important trend. But it's Acxiom, not Marketo, doing the hard part of matching advertising audiences with identified individuals.

Marketo placed these changes in the context of unveiling itself as “customer engagement platform”. Ordinarily, I don’t pay much attention to these announcements: after all, Marketo has pivoted more than Ben Franklin dancing a gavotte. But Marketo had the hype-blasters turned to 11, so the news is impossible to ignore.

My main reaction was, what’s new? Marketo has described itself as a platform for at least a year now (see this press release, for example) and I’ve been talking about marketing systems as platforms for even longer. More important, the value of platforms has been widely recognized through the tech industry for decades: classic examples include’s own AppExchange, Apple’s iPhone AppStore, Microsoft’s operating system software, and, going way back, the original IBM System 360. The appeal of the platform model is obvious: platform systems are quasi-monopolies (or actual monopolies), so their owners can charge high prices while the app developers compete brutally with each other and must keep prices low. Consumers are intuitively reluctant to accept the monopoly relationship, but usually trade away their freedom because no other choice available or in exchange for convenience and low total cost. App developers make a similar calculation, trading lower margins and less control for the larger marketplace and less development expense.

The trick to winning these benefits is becoming a platform in the first place. This requires a large customer base, easy access by app developers, enough power to be useful, and a barrier that keeps the monopoly intact., Oracle, IBM, Adobe, Microsoft, and other contenders to own “customer experience platforms” all did it the hard way, by first building up a big customer base for their conventional systems and then opening that universe as a platform to app developers.

Every major marketing automation vendor has tried to do the same.  But their customer bases are nowhere near as large, so what’s actually happened in most cases is that app developers have integrated their systems with multiple “platforms”.  One of the more subtle tricks in the platform playbook is to prevent this by making your system different enough from others that it isn't easy to support them as well.  This is usually done by means of a uniquely structured application program interface. But developers won’t put up with this unless a platform offers a big enough audience or other benefits to make it worthwhile. It’s doubtful that Marketo, or any other remaining independent marketing automation vendor, has the market power to do this.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying the platform approach is a bad one for Marketo.  I’m saying they lack the market strength to erect barriers to collect monopoly rents. They’ll have to keep their APIs simple enough that app developers can integrate with other marketing automation systems as well.  This means Marketo will be competing with other platforms for app developer relationships and can’t rely on Marketo-exclusive apps to attract new customers or prevent old ones from leaving. This is good news for app developers and marketers, if not for Marketo investors.

But it’s not enough to decide to be a platform. You have to decide whom the platform will serve and what functions it will include. In the case of customer management, the big question is whether the marketing system should be separate from sales and service systems. The obvious answer is they should be the same: after all, we want a unified customer experience across the entire life cycle, so all departments delivering those experiences should be on the same platform. Indeed, Marketo seems to imply as much with the term “customer experience platform”.

But in an excellent blog post describing the new positioning, Marketo VP Marketing and co-founder Jon Miller makes clear that Marketo believes marketers alone are in charge: “marketers are responsible for an all-consuming process that starts with attracting initial buyer attention and continues all the way to locking in customer loyalty and advocacy.” To remove any doubt, he later clarifies that the “customer engagement platform is the core system of record for marketing, just like CRM is the system for sales and Human Capital Management is the system for HR.”

I’d say this approach is debatable.  It will probably be harder for a marketing-owned system to integrate with customer-facing systems in other departments. Certainly other “marketing cloud” providers like and Oracle would argue otherwise – that, at the least, there should be a shared customer database, and probably some shared processes to select customer treatments, even if those treatments are delivered by channel- or department-specific systems.

Marketo’s conclusion does position them as the best choice for marketing buyers, since they are the only marketing platform vendor with such a limited scope. To quote Miller again: “The marketing platform provider should be a partner to marketing, a company that truly understands what’s happening in marketing and that 'has marketing’s back'. Your marketing platform is not an add-on to sales technology, or a component of an IT solution. It’s the core foundation to all aspects of marketing success. That’s why at Marketo, we think that a marketing platform should come from a company 100% focused on marketing.” Fair enough.

The second big question is what’s included in the core platform and what’s provided by partners. In many ways, this is where the discussion moves from theory to reality, since there are specific choices to be made. Marketo’s published diagram lists three major functions at the platform layer – decisioning (a.k.a. “the brain”), database (“marketing system of record”) and analytics. They put an application layer on top of that, including marketing automation, interactions (real time personalization, search engine optimization, social marketing), and operations (marketing management). The third layer includes delivery in different channels (email, social, landing pages, sales, web/mobile personalization, search). APIs are available to connect each layer to third party applications.

My own definition of the platform layer is pretty much the same as Marketo’s. But Miller’s post lists six components of a marketing platform, corresponding to both the platform and application layers. And Marketo actually delivers functionality across all three layers. In other words, Marketo is not actually selling the platform by itself: it sells the platform in combination with applications and delivery systems, some of which are included and some of which are optional.

At first I thought this violated the platform concept, since the vendor’s own tools will likely have tighter integration with the rest of the system than the APIs make available to third parties. But, on reflection, there’s no requirement for a platform to be fully “application neutral”. Marketo seems to be proposing to sell a basic set of applications and delivery systems and let clients supplement them with third party applications as needed. APIs are an escape hatch for emergency use only, not Lego blocks that let users build a custom collection of products from scratch.

There’s a good case to be made for bundling the platform with applications and execution systems, boiling down to that it saves marketers from having to make a lot of choices before they get started. It also justifies a much higher price than the platform alone, especially if the monopoly position is unavailable. Of course, this ends up looking an awful lot like a traditional marketing software suite, which is exactly what Marketo was and remains under the hood. Marketers excited by the platform vision should look very closely at the reality before assuming that Marketo, or anyone else, can deliver the benefits they expect.


Ian Goldsmid said...

With Marketo evolving from a Marketing "Silo" to embrace the total Customer Experience, and Salesforce (longer ago in history) moving from a Sales Force Automation "Silo" to embrace the total Customer Experience (as far as I understand it) - if we look at the logical evolution of those two Platforms (while temporarily ignoring current user base power/size) who has the best overall complete vision to become the future leader in the "Age of the Customer"?

Are there any strengths / weaknesses that suggest each one might end up taking separate paths perhaps by differentiating into B2B vs B2C leaders?

David Raab said...

Marketo has made very clear that their current focus is on selling to marketers, whom they see as controlling the customer experience platform. Salesforce has taken a broader view of offering products for marketers, sales, and service departments, all sharing the same underlying platform to some degree. I feel the broader Salesforce vision makes more sense.

I also feel that the different departments will intersect primarily at the level of shared customer data, along with some shared analytics and treatment selection. Other activities, such as departmental operations and treatment delivery, will remain largely separate for each department. This can happen without preventing a fundamentally unified customer experience.

Unfortunately for Salesforce, their core database was designed to support sales automation and is severely limited in how much it can be extended. This is why they kept ExactTarget on its own database to pursue the high-volume B2C market. It would take massive reengineering to change this. Perhaps they could just switch everything over to the ExactTarget database, but I don't think that is fully adequate for all demands, either.

Both Salesforce and Marketo are trying to add B2C cliets to a largely B2B base. I doubt either will become primarily B2C. But it's possible that Marketo will find itself leading in the niche market of companies where marketers really do control the customer experience platform. I think that will be a minority, but it could be big enough to support a nice business.