Thursday, October 18, 2007

Neolane Offers a New Marketing Automation Option

Neolane, a Paris-based marketing automation software vendor, formally announced its entry to the U.S. market last week. I’ve been tracking Neolane for some time but chose not to write about it until they established a U.S. presence. So now the story can be told.

Neolane is important because it’s a full-scale competitor to Unica and the marketing automation suites of SAS and Teradata, which have pretty much had the high-end market to themselves in recent years. (You might add SmartFocus and Alterian to the list, but they sell mostly to service providers rather than end-users.) The company originally specialized in email marketing but has since broadened to incorporate other channels. Its email heritage still shows in strong content management and personalization capabilities. These are supplemented by powerful collaborative workflow, project management and marketing planning. Like many European products, Neolane was designed from the ground up to support trans-national deployments with specialized features such as multiple languages and currencies. The company, founded in 2001, now has over 100 installed clients. These include many very large firms such as Carrefour, DHL International and Virgin Megastores.

In evaluating enterprise marketing systems, I look at the five sets of capabilities: planning/budgeting; project management; content management; execution, and analysis. (Neolane itself offers a different set of five capabilities, although they are pretty similar.) Let’s go through these in turn.

Neolane does quite well in the first three areas, which all draw on its robust workflow management engine. This engine is part of Neolane’s core technology, which allows tight connections with the rest of the system. By contrast, many Neolane competitors have added these three functions at least in part through acquisition. This often results in less-than-perfect integration among the suite components.

Execution is a huge area, so we’ll break it into pieces. Neolane’s roots in email result in a strong email capability, of course. The company also claims particular strength in mobile (phone) marketing, although it’s not clear this involves more than supporting SMS and MMS output formats. Segmentation and selection features are adequate but not overly impressive: when it comes to really complex queries, Neolane users may find themselves relying on hand-coded SQL statements or graphical flow charts that can quickly become unmanageable. Although most of today’s major campaign management systems have deployed special grid-based interfaces to handle selections with hundreds or thousands of cells, I didn’t see that in Neolane.

On the other hand, Neolane might argue that its content personalization features reduce the need for building so many segments in the first place. Personalization works the same across all media: users embed selection rules within templates for email, Web pages and other messages. This is a fairly standard approach, but Neolane offers a particularly broad set of formats. It also provides different ways to build the rules, ranging from a simple scripting language to a point-and-click query builder. Neolane’s flow charts allow an additional level of personalized treatment, supporting sophisticated multi-step programs complete with branching logic. That part of the system seems quite impressive.

Apart from personalization, Neolane doesn’t seem to offer execution features for channels such as Web sites, call centers and sales automation. Nor, so far as I can tell, does it offer real-time interaction management—that is, gathering information about customer behavior during an interaction and determining an appropriate response. This is still a fairly specialized area and one where the major marketing automation vendors are just now delivering real products, after talking about it for years. This still puts them ahead of Neolane.

Execution also includes creation and management of the marketing database itself. Like most of its competitors, Neolane generally connects to a customer database built by an external system. (The exceptions would be enterprise suites like Oracle/Siebel and SAP, which manage the databases themselves. Yet even they tend to extract operational data into separate structures for marketing purposes.) Neolane does provide administrative tools for users to define database columns and tables, so it’s fairly easy to add new data if there’s no place else to store it. This would usually apply to administrative components such as budgets and planning data or to marketing-generated information such as campaign codes.

Analytics is the final function. Neolane does provide standard reporting. But it relies on connections to third-party software including SPSS and KXEN for more advanced analysis and predictive modeling. This is a fairly common approach and nothing to particularly complain about, although you do need to look closely to ensure that the integration is suitably seamless.

Over all, Neolane does provide a broad set of marketing functions, although it may not be quite as strong as its major competitors in some areas of execution and analytics. Still, it’s a viable new choice in a market that has offered few alternatives in recent years. So for companies considering a new system, it’s definitely worth a look.

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