Monday, November 12, 2007

BridgeTrack Integrates Some Online Channels

What do “Nude Pics of Pam Anderson” and “Real-Time Analytics, Reporting and Optimization Across All Media Channels” have in common?

1. Both headlines are sure to draw the interest of certain readers.
2. People who click on either are likely to be disappointed.

Truth be told, I’ve never clicked on a Pam Anderson headline, so I can only assume it would disappoint. But I found the second headline irresistible. It was attached to a press release about the 5.0 release of Sapient’s BridgeTrack marketing software.

Maybe next time I’ll try Pam instead. BridgeTrack seems pretty good at what it does, but is nowhere near what the headline suggests.

First the good news: BridgeTrack integrates email, ad serving, offer pages, and keyword bidding (via an OEM agreement with Omniture) through a single campaign interface. All channels draw on a common content store, prospect identifiers, and data warehouse to allow integrated cross-channel programs. Results from each channel are posted and available for analysis in real time.

That’s much more convenient than working with separate systems for each function, and is the real point of BridgeTrack. I haven’t taken a close look at the specific capabilities within each channel but they seem reasonably complete.

But it’s still far from “optimization across all media channels”.

Let’s start with “all media channels”. Ever hear of a little thing called “television”? Most people would include it in a list of all media channels. But the best that BridgeTrack can offer for TV or any other off-line channel is a media buying module that manages the purchasing workflow and stores basic planning information. Even in the digital world, BridgeTrack does little to address organic search optimization, Web analytics, mobile phones, or the exploding realm of social networks. In general, I prefer to evaluate software based on what it does rather than what it doesn’t do. But if BridgeTrack is going to promise me all channels, I think it’s legitimate to complain when they don’t deliver.

What about “optimization”? Same story, I’m afraid. BridgeTrack does automatically optimize ad delivery by comparing results for different advertisements (on user-defined measures such as conversion rates) and automatically selecting the most successful. The keyword bidding system is also automated, but that’s really Omniture.

Otherwise, all optimization is manual. For example, the press release says the BridgeTrack campaign manager “reallocates marketing dollars across channels that generate the most incremental return-on-spend.” But all it really does is present reports. Users have to interpret them and make appropriate changes in marketing programs. Similarly, email and offer page optimization means watching the results of user-defined rules and adjusting the rules manually. Rather than claiming that BridgeTrack “does” optimization, it might be accurate to say it “enables” it through integrated real time reports and unified campaign management. Given how hard it is to assemble information and coordinate campaigns without a tool like BridgeTrack, that’s actually quite enough.

Even within its chosen channels, BridgeTrack lacks automated predictive modeling and advanced analytics in general. (The ad server does offer some cool heat maps of placement performance.) This has direct consequences, since it means the system must rely heavily on user-defined rules to select appropriate customer treatments. Unfortunately, rule management is quite limited: users don’t even get statistics on how often different rules are fired or how they perform. The problem is compounded because rules can exist at many different levels, including within content, in content templates, and in campaign flows. Understanding interactions across different levels can be difficult, yet BridgeTrack provides little assistance. The central content store helps a bit, since rules embedded in a particular piece of content are shared automatically when the content is shared. BridgeTrack managers recognize this issue and hope to improve its rule management in the future.

In fact, despite the press release, BridgeTrack managers have a fairly realistic view of the product’s actual scope. This shows in recent agreements with Unica and Omniture to integrate with their respective marketing automation and Web analytics products. Users of the combined set of products would have many of the the planning, off-line marketing, project management and analytical tools that BridgeTrack itself does not provide.

(Actually, based on the July 2007 press release describing the BridgeTrack integration, Omniture positions itself as “online business optimization software” that provides “one standard view across all marketing initiatives”. That’s a bold set of claims. I’m skeptical but will wait to examine them some other day.)

BridgeTrack is a hosted solution. Pricing is designed to be comparable with the point solutions it replaces and therefore is calculated differently for specific activities: message volume for ad serving and email, cost per click for search bid management, and traffic levels for landing page hosting. The campaign manager and reporting systems support all the different channels. These are not usually sold independently but could be purchased for a monthly fee. Customer data integration, which combines BridgeTrack-generated data with information from external sources for reporting and customer treatments, is charged as a professional services project.

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