Thursday, April 27, 2017

Infusionsoft Announces Freemium Marketing Automation to Expand Its User Base

Infusionsoft has always presented combined methodical management of its own business with evangelical cheerleading for its small business clients. The contrast was even greater than usual at the company’s annual ICON conference in Phoenix this week. For Infusionsoft managers, the big news was a new product called Propel, which delivers prepackaged programs for business owners who don’t want to get involved in the details of marketing. For attendees, who were a largely partners and power users, the most exciting announcements were improvements to the current product such as a vastly better Web form builder. Propel will let Infusionsoft serve business owners who find the current product too complicated or expensive. Pretty much by definition, those people weren’t at ICON. So while Infusionsoft managers and some far-sighted partners were almost giddy about the growth that Propel could create for their businesses, the larger audience was more interested in ICON’s usual training sessions and inspirational hoopla.

Propel addresses a fundamental problem that has limited the growth of all small business sales and marketing systems: the vast majority of small business owners don’t have the time, money, skills, or interest to use them well.  Vendors have addressed this either by reducing the required effort through easier-to-use interfaces, content templates, and prebuilt campaigns, or by providing services that do the work on business owners’ behalf.  Infusionsoft has done both and also used a relatively expensive mandatory start-up package ($999 or higher) to screen out buyers who aren't serious about using the system. This has worked well for Infusionsoft – the company has grown steadily, although it no longer releases client counts as it positions itself for an as-yet-unscheduled Initial Public Offering. But it also limits the market to the most aggressive small business owners.

Infusionsoft sees Propel as a third way to serve less-ambitious businesses: not just by making the product simpler to use, but by removing some tasks altogether. For example, prebuilt campaign templates typically require users to create or customize the actual content, and often require them to set up campaign flows following cookbook-style directions. Propel will include default content tailored to a particular industry or product. It will automatically scrape a client’s Web site to find a logo and brand colors and apply them. When customization is unavoidable, Propel will let campaign designers build wizards that ask users key questions. The system will then automatically adjust the campaign by inserting relevant information or changing the campaign flow. The goal is campaigns that can be set up in a few minutes with no training and deliver immediately visible benefits. Infusionsoft hopes these will entice business owners who don’t want to commit from the start to a long-term marketing plan.

The success of this approach is far from certain.  Business owners must still take some initial steps that could be daunting. Infusionsoft managers are acutely aware of the issues and doing everything they can to remove start-up barriers. This includes making it easy to import existing email addresses from phone contact lists, personal email accounts, spreadsheets, accounting systems, or elsewhere. More radically for Infusionsoft, there will be a free version of the system and no start-up fee. This will clearly attract a new set of less-committed users. Delivering enough value for these to stick with the system will be difficult. So will making the system so easy to use that customer support costs are close to zero. It could be hard for Infusionsoft’s entrepreneur-loving staff to limit the help they give to new clients.

Infusionsoft also announced two other major changes during the conference. The simpler one was “partner first”, which translates to relying more on partners to train new clients and provide on-going support.  This will let Infusionsoft support more customers without expanding its internal staff and help to attract more partners.  Propel supports "partner first" by letting partners build their own packaged campaigns and sell them directly to their own clients or in a marketplace to all Infusionsoft clients. Although “partner first” would make sense even without Propel, leveraging partners is a key way for Infusionsoft to grow quickly while keeping costs down and margins high. The company said the proportion of new clients trained by partners has already moved from 20% to over 80%.

The second change was technical: Infusionsoft has built a new data structure and services oriented architecture that can more easily synchronize data with other systems, especially in real time. The slogan for this is “from all-in-one to one platform”. (Infusionsoft loves its slogans.)  Infusionsoft has always been clear that it won’t build a truly complete set of functions: for example, it limits its ecommerce to a relatively simple shopping cart and doesn’t provide its own Web content manager. So the real change is that the underlying data model now includes data expected from external systems. This will simplify integration with new systems and make the imported data easily available for Infusionsoft campaigns and reporting. The goal is for Infusionsoft to be the “one place” that users look for all their data, making life simpler for users and, of course, ensuring that Infusionsoft has a central role their business operations. The new platform also supports Propel by exposing more functions to build into packaged campaigns and adds some partner-friendly features such as unified access to all instances belonging to a partner’s clients.

Infusionsoft staff made scattered references to using artificial intelligence inside Propel to make recommendations and implement some changes automatically. That would be the ultimate in work reduction.  But they didn’t talk about AI in any detail, perhaps because it’s still in early stages and perhaps because it could scare some users and partners. Or both.

Current customers will have some access to Propel in May or June, and new customers will be placed on the new platform starting mid-summer. Existing customers will be migrated to the new platform in stages through the end of 2018.

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