Thursday, July 03, 2014

StrongView Moves Beyond Email to Real-Time, Contextual Marketing

Today's email vendors face an interesting business challenge. On one hand, building a high-volume email engine is a lot harder than you’d think, so business is strong despite near-commodity status. But marketers want to integrate email with other messaging channels, so a stand-alone email platform is increasingly unattractive. The obvious solution is to add other channels and, even more important, features to control the decisions of when, how, and to whom messages are sent. This puts vendor at the center of the marketing operations, helping them to retain clients and charge higher fees.

Indeed, this strategy has succeeded for many vendors: ExactTarget, Responsys, Silverpop, and Neolane all grew from mostly-email to broader systems that were purchased by larger vendors as the foundation of an all-compassing marketing suite. Other email providers have remained independent but still expanded their scope to remain competitive and grow.

StrongView, which was original email specialist StrongMail, has followed this course. Rotating banners on the company Web site position StrongView as a “product platform” and “marketing cloud” as well as mentioning “cross-channel lifecycle marketing”, “present tense marketing”, “true one-to-one communication” and “the first customer insight solution supporting unlimited cross-channel interaction data”. This may set a world record for buzzword intensity, but that’s okay so long as the underlying product matches the implied promises. On the whole, I’d say it does.

The key to all this is the one unfamiliar phrase on the previous list: “present tense marketing”. This is StrongView’s own coinage, intended to describe their proprietary view of context-based marketing (which strikes me as plenty buzzy all by itself, but then I have a low tolerance for such things). The gist of contextual marketing, in StrongView's definition, is to tailor customer treatments to the current situation (location, device, environment, past behaviors, etc.), so those treatments lead the customer in a profitable direction. StrongView sees this as the future of marketing and has defined its strategy as helping marketers make the transition by providing the necessary technology and supporting services.

StrongView earns considerable credit in my book for articulating a proper strategy: one that defines not just a goal (helping marketers make the transition) but also the method for achieving that goal (by providing the necessary technology and services). Still, articulation is just a first step. The next is even more important: implementing the method effectively.

StrongView has identified several key implementation requirements. Necessary technologies include real-time analytics to select best treatments; dynamic message assembly to construct those treatments; and multi-channel routing to deliver the treatments via email, SMS, mobile apps, Web pages, social media, and display ads.

Of these technologies, content creation, dynamic assembly and delivery are extensions of the company’s original email functions. StrongView has supplemented them by building an impressive campaign flow designer that handles complex, multi-step programs.  Predictive analytics rely on external modeling tools, but the vendor will compensate with prebuilt models and with services to create custom models. There’s also a methodology to guide creation of campaigns and models.

All these functions require a much larger, more flexible data environment than a traditional email system.  StrongView has stepped up to the challenge by building a data store using Amazon RedShift.  This closes a critical gap faced by email vendors trying to reach the next level.  StrongView has also knitted together everything from content creation and campaign design to execution and reporting in a tightly integrated user interface, another requirement in providing the speed and efficiency needed for a “contextual” approach.

Finally, we come to services.  StrongView recognizes that many marketers will need help in making the transition towards more advanced marketing techniques, so it is offering marketing strategy, analytics, technical development, campaign design, creative, production and delivery.  These are sold on project or retainer basis as appropriate. StrongView is clear that these services are intended to help marketers supplement their own resources, not to convert the business into a service agency.

All told, this is a pretty complete package. Although StrongView’s vision is far from unique, they have carefully worked through the implications to define and deliver a complete solution.  This should be enough to get their customers started.  Results will determine what happens next.

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