Thursday, February 05, 2015

VEST Report: Latest Trends in Marketing Automation, and Where's My Hoverboard?

I just finished the latest release of the B2B Marketing Automation Vendor Selection Tool, a.k.a. VEST Report. The new version includes a big technical change: instead of the interactive Flash document that was very cool but people often had trouble running, it’s now a combination of PDF for the core document and Excel spreadsheet for the detailed vendor scores. That’s a technical step backwards but will actually make it easier for buyers to access the detailed vendor information, and in particular to screen for vendors with particular capabilities. Less is more, I suppose. The good news is that this format lets me expand beyond 25 vendors, which was the maximum the old system allowed before running out of memory.

Of course, none of this is your concern, Dear Reader. What’s you'll find more interesting is that the VEST provides an opportunity to see new patterns emerging in the industry. Usually I do this by taking a close look at which features have become more common since the last report. But this time there were a few more obvious changes that stood out. Here’s what struck me.

- more micro-business vendors. All six of the vendors new to this report sell primarily to small businesses, and most are “all-in-one” systems that combine marketing automation with integrated CRM. They join another six vendors from previous editions who also serve this market. I'm also aware of several other vendors, not yet in the VEST, who also compete for this business. Many of these firms are new while others have been around for a few years but just hit my radar. What this says to me is that the all-in-one segment is more crowded and more mature than it has seemed. Of course, there’s still a huge opportunity – hundreds of thousands if not millions of potential clients have yet to buy their first system. But anyone planning to enter this business had better realize they will be fighting for new customers.*

- agency relationships. It seems that just about every vendor in the VEST now touts special features to support marketing agencies that resell the system to their clients or operate the system on the clients’ behalf. This isn’t exactly new but what once seemed like a niche strategy now looks more like a standard approach. It’s always been obvious that agencies were a sensible channel for marketing automation vendors to pursue, but I’m beginning to wonder whether agencies might turn out to be the primary channel for such systems, excepting only direct sales to large enterprises. If this happens, the reason will be that agencies provide the missing skills that have prevented so many companies from taking full advantage of marketing automation systems by themselves. Vendors have been knocking themselves out for the past five years trying to educate marketers to run their systems.  Perhaps having agencies run them is the real solution instead.

- social data. Maybe my biggest surprise was finding that many if not most vendors have now added features to automatically look up new contacts in social networks and add that data to their marketing automation or CRM profile. This seemed like magic three years ago when I first saw John Ferrara's Nimble do it; but now it’s commonplace. In fact, any vendor that hasn’t developed their own technology can just integrate FullContact to do it for them. So the competitive advantage is now precisely zero. (Okay, not zero: some companies surely do it better than others.  But that’s a much weaker selling point than being one of the few firms to do it at all.)

- ad tech integration. This one isn’t so common yet, although Oracle Eloqua, Marketo, HubSpot and some others have announced some ad retargeting partnerships. Google Adwords integration and advertising through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn audiences are more widely available but I don’t include them here. But despite the slow growth, there’s no question that serious integration between Web display ads and marketing automation programs will become much more widely available. What I won't do is predict how quickly that will happen. But I’ll certainly add it to the list of VEST questions so I can track it more closely in the future.

- dogs that didn’t bark. That’s a Sherlock Holmes reference, not an insult to technologies that haven’t been as widely adopted as the industry seemed to expect. Okay, maybe it’s a bit of both. In any event, I didn’t commute to work today on my hoverboard, and you probably didn’t sit down to do advanced mobile marketing, predictive modeling or revenue analytics in your marketing automation system. Those three – mobile, predictive, and revenue analytics – are all technologies that should take off, but so far are not deeply integrated with most marketing automation platforms. Maybe mobile has become so ubiquitous that I don’t even notice it, but, so near as I can tell, few vendors have done more than make it easier to create emails and Web pages that look good on mobile devices. Surely mobile can do more than that. Predictive analytics are growing quickly but so far are still done by specialized vendors rather than built into the marketing automation platform. (Yes, there are a few exceptions like the machine learning features of dbSignals and RedPoint. But they’re exceptions.) Revenue analytics is only discussed by a couple of companies; although important, it doesn’t seem to have captured the industry’s imagination. I haven’t given up hope for any of these, but no longer expect them to quickly become part of the mainstream.

So those are my impressions while the VEST updates are fresh in mind. The report is well worth buying if you want do to your own industry analysis, or (its primary purpose) are searching for a new system. As I say, the new format does make finding vendors with specific features much easier. You can find more information or place an order at Let me know what you think.

*In fact, the micro-business segment is even more complicated than I’ve suggested. The real competitors are companies like ConstantContact who are providing a broad range of services, such as local advertising, that extend well beyond marketing automation and CRM. There are also many vendors with specialized services for vertical markets such as plumbers and funeral homes. Come to think of it, I recently noticed that one of my many plumbers (don’t ask) uses a system developed by a funeral home website firm. If there’s a logical connection between those businesses, I don’t want to know about it.

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