Friday, June 19, 2015

Mautic Offers Free, Open Source Marketing Automation

The only real question about free, open source marketing automation from Mautic is what took so long. The core features of B2B marketing automation have been well understood for nearly ten years and prices have been dropping steadily for about the same time. Open source has been successful in related applications including analytics (R, Jaspersoft, Pentaho), CRM (SugarCRM, vTiger) and Web content management (WordPress, Joomla, Drupal). Small businesses constantly cite cost as a major roadblock to adoption. So the opportunity seems obvious.

Mautic campaign builder

The reason for the delay may be as simple as the generous funding available to marketing automation start-ups.  This made commercial products more financially attractive to potential developers and probably scared off others who couldn’t compete for attention on an open-source shoestring. Or perhaps people felt that the real barriers to adoption were lack of time and skills, so even a free product would not unlock a large new segment of customers. The failure of freemium (though not open source) offerings from LoopFuse and Genius are strong evidence that being free is not enough. (See this post for more on that.)

Or maybe it’s just a matter of timing. David Hurley, the open source industry veteran behind Mautic, argues that marketing automation has just now become widely enough understood for many marketers to purchase it without a lengthy sales cycle.  I suspect that’s true but still wonder whether those buyers will know how to use a system effectively once they get it. Hurley's hope is that the user community will largely support itself through public forums and that service professionals such as consultants, agencies, and Web developers will fill the rest of the gap. Mautic certainly has an appeal for service vendors, since it removes the cost of payments to a HubSpot or Infusionsoft. Mautic will encourage such support by building a marketplace for users to sell or share resources such as workflows and templates. It is also putting together its own set of templates and workflows to help users get started.

What about the product itself? I promise I’ll get to that in a minute. But first let me cover one more business issue, which is that there are two ways to get Mautic. You can download the source code for free at Mautic.org, install it on your own server, and modify it as you please. Hurley said this has appealed to some large firms and government agencies who want to modify source code for themselves and to run an on-premise deployment. Or, you can sign up at Mautic.com, which will host a system with up to 2,500 contact names, one user, and three integrations for free. Mautic.com runs an enhanced version of the system called AllydeMautic, provided by Allyde, a for-profit business also run by Hurley. Starting this week, users can also buy a Pro version of AllydeMautic for $12 per month. This gets them further enhancements including unlimited database size, custom domains, additional integrations, and a second user. Allyde will eventually add other packages with more features. But pricing will remain well below standard marketing automation products.

None of this would matter if the actual Mautic product were no good. After all, the real cost of marketing automation is the time spent running the system and creating content and the real value comes from improved business results. In other words, a free system that wasted users’ time or produced substandard results would be a very costly investment. To judge whether Mautic is really a good deal, I set up a free account at Mautic.com and tested it for a bit.

My general impression was positive.  The interface is straightforward and intuitive, using tabs to make advanced features available without intimidating clutter. I do have some quibbles – most annoyingly, objects like emails and contact records open in a “view” rather than “edit” mode, so an extra mouse click is almost always needed to get real work done. But, for the most part, things worked efficiently and about as I expected.

The functions cover all the marketing automation bases: you can import contacts or enter them manually; assign them to lists; create emails, Web pages, and Web forms; upload other assets; assign points for lead scoring; build multi-step, branching campaign flows; and integrate with CRM systems.  I started with the lead import feature, which was rather barebones.  You can import a CSV file but not an Excel spreadsheet or other format; map the input file to database fields but not see a sample of the results; create custom fields but not custom tables; apply tags during the import but not link people within the same organization using a company field.  On the other hand, the system automatically imported pictures of people on my test list, presumably from public social media profiles. It apparently could have imported more social data if I had connected with my own Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn accounts.

Content building was more impressive. Users are presented with a free-form canvas to build emails or Web pages, with the usual controls for fonts, colors, inserted images, URL links, etc. Emails can include personalization tokens such as {first name}. Predesigned email templates give more structure in the form of blocks for headlines, body text, footers, unsubscribe messages, and viewing the email as a Web page. Template-based emails can also be linked to a landing page. Advanced tabs for emails let users specify the sender name, sender address, reply address, BCC address, and attachments. Emails and other content can be assigned to categories and given dates when they are published and unpublished. Forms can be attached to campaigns and users can specify where to send the visitor after a form is submitted. Forms support a variety of input types including fancier options such as radio buttons , checkboxes, and Captcha validation. There are some other features too: the set is pretty complete.

The campaign builder was better still. It offers a real drag-and-drop interface to build a flow chart with a modest list of actions (send email, update lead, push lead to integration, add or remove lead from a list, change campaigns, and adjust lead points).  The flow can branch on a few lead behaviors (downloads asset, opens email, submits form, visits page). Movement can be triggered by user behavior, happen after a specified number of days, or be scheduled for a specific date and time. The real power will come from pushing leads to external integrations with CRM, email, social media, and cloud storage. There are about twenty of these, including major vendors in each category. More will be added over time.

Lead scoring is also fairly powerful.  Scores can be adjusted by actions or triggers. The actions can be generic or specific: that is, being sent any email or being sent a specific email.  That’s better than some commercial systems, but doesn’t include advanced lead scoring features like limiting the number of points that generated by repeating an action or reducing points for past behaviors over time.  Triggers can be linked to reaching a specified point total.

All told, these features are enough to run a reasonable marketing automation program.  Unfortunately, my experience was marred by considerable bugginess: features to select a list and upload an image weren’t working when I tried them, although a note to tech support received prompt human response – under 15 minutes – and the issues were resolved within an hour. I might have been testing on a particularly bad day, but it still seemed odd that such basic features could be broken without anyone else noticing. Hurley said that Mautic has accrued 9,000 users since its first stable release in January 2015, but apparently few of them were active that evening.

Despite my positive impression, I have mixed feelings about Mautic.  I love the idea of open source marketing automation and think its time may finally have come. I generally liked the product, which combines simplicity with considerable power under the hood. The bugginess worries me a little but I assume it will be straightened out over time – and know that commercial products have bugs too.

My problem is two-fold. I missed the richness of commercial marketing automation products – even though I can’t identify a particular missing feature missing that Mautic needed to be effective. The glaring omissions such as CRM, ecommerce, and social are provided through integrations. But, even though I know that, the basic nature of Mautic leaves me uncomfortable.

The other issue is more concrete. I think new marketing automation users will need more hand holding than Mautic or Allyde can afford to provide or that the community will offer for free. The product should definitely help service vendors by reducing costs for their clients, assuming the service vendors decide it’s powerful enough for their purposes.  But I worry that unassisted small business users won’t know what to do with Mautic and won’t take the time to figure it out.  Remember that screening out uncommitted users is exactly why firms like Infusionsoft charge a substantial implementation fee – although the economics of Mautic are different because Allyed will invest almost nothing in acquiring or supporting new customers.

Then again, there are an awful lot of small businesses out there. Even a small fraction could be enough to support Mautic until it adds the features needed to serve a broader audience. So while I won’t necessarily recommend Mautic to many of my own friends and clients, I’m glad to have it as an option and will root for its success.

2 comments:

pm2662 said...

David,
I tested this recently; hit and miss. You;re right- lack of features- bugs. But good to see more options for smaller businesses.

Paul Mosenson
www.nusparkmarketing.com

Ramez Rafla said...

While David attempts to provide an unbiased view, arguments like 'missed the richness of commercial marketing automation products' are inherently weak. If you are looking for a CRM, get a CRM. Mautic never claimed to be one. The fact that commercial vendors include one, doesn't mean savvy users want it (or don't already have one, like we do).

Overall, we find it an exceptionally well-designed product. Simple and straight to the point. We have no time to waste on 'richness' -- we need functionality.