Friday, January 25, 2008

Alterian Branches Out

It was Alterian's turn this week in my continuing tour of marketing automation vendors. As I’ve mentioned before, Alterian has pursued a relatively quiet strategy of working through partners—largely marketing services providers (MSPs)—instead of trying to sell their software directly to corporate marketing departments. This makes great sense because their proprietary database engine, which uses very powerful columnar indexes, is a tough sell to corporate IT groups who prefer more traditional technology. Service agencies are more willing to discard such technology to gain the operating cost and performance advantages that Alterian can provide. This strategy has been a major success: the company, which is publicly held, has been growing revenue at better than 30% per year and now claims more than 70 partners with more than 400 clients among them. These include 10 of the top 12 MSPs in the U.S. and 12 of the top 15 in the U.K.

Of course, this success poses its own challenge: how do you continue to grow when you’ve sold to nearly all of your largest target customers? One answer is you sell more to those customers, which means expanding the scope of the product. In Alterian’s situation, it also probably means getting the MSPs to use it for more of their own customers.

Alterian has indeed been expanding product scope. Over the past two years it has moved from being primarily a data analysis and campaign management tool to competing as a full-scope enterprise marketing system. Specifically, it added high volume email generation through its May 2006 acquisition of Dynamics Direct, and added marketing resource management through the acquisition of Nvigorate in September of that year. It says those products are now fully integrated with its core system, working directly with the Alterian database engine. The company also purchased contact optimization technology in April 2007, and has since integrated that as well.

The combination of marketing resource management (planning, project management and content management) with campaign execution is pretty much the definition of an enterprise marketing system, so Alterian can legitimately present itself as part of that market.

The pressure that marketing automation vendors feel to expand in this manner is pretty much irresistible, as I’ve written many times before. In Alterian’s case it is a bit riskier than usual because the added capabilities don’t particularly benefit from the power of its database engine. (Or at least I don’t see many benefits: Alterian may disagree.) This means having a broader set of features actually dilutes the company’s unique competitive advantage. But apparently that is a price they are willing to pay for growth. In any case, Alterian suffers no particular disadvantage in offering these services—how well it does them is largely unrelated to its database.

Alterian’s other avenue for expansion is to add new partners outside of its traditional base. The company is moving in that direction too, looking particularly at advertising agencies and systems integrators. These are two quite different groups. Ad agencies are a lot like marketing services providers in their focus on cost, although (with some exceptions) they have fewer technical resources in-house. Alterian is addressing this by providing hosting services when the agencies ask for them. System integrators, on the other hand, are primarily technology companies. The attraction of Alterian for them is they can reduce the technology cost of the solutions they deliver to their clients, thereby either reducing the total cost or allowing them to bill more for other, more profitable services. But systems integrators, like in-house IT departments, are not always terribly price-conscious and are very concerned about the number of technologies they must support. It will be interesting to see how many systems integrators find Alterian appealing.

Mapped against my five major marketing automation capabilities of planning, project management, content management, execution and analytics, Alterian provides fairly complete coverage. In addition to the acquisitions already mentioned, it has expanded its reporting and analytics, which were already respectable and benefit greatly from its database engine. It still relies on alliances (with SPSS and KXEN) for predictive modeling and other advanced analysis, but that’s pretty common even among the enterprise marketing heavyweights. Similarly, it relies on integration with Omniture for Web analytics. Alterian can embed Omniture tags in outbound emails and landing pages, which lets Omniture report on email response at both campaign and individual levels.

Alterian also lacks real-time interaction management, in the sense of providing recommendations to a call center agent or Web site during a conversation with a customer. This is a hot growth area among enterprise marketing vendors, so it may be something the company needs to address. It does have some real-time or at least near-real-time capabilities, which it uses to drive email responses, RSS, and mobile phone messages. It may leverage these to move into this area over time.

If there’s one major issue with Alterian today, it’s that the product still relies on a traditional client/server architecture. Until recently, Web access often appeared on company wish lists, but wasn’t actually important because marketing automation systems were primarily used by a small number of specialists. If anything, remote access was more important to Alterian than other vendors because its partners needed to give their own clients ways to use the system. Alterian met this requirement by offering browser access through a Citrix connection. (Citrix allows a user to work on a machine in a different location; so, essentially, the agency’s clients would log into a machine that was physically part of the MSP’s in-house network.)

What changes all this is the addition of marketing resource management. Now, the software must serve large numbers of in-house users for budgeting, content management, project updates, and reporting. To meet this need, true Web access is required. The ystems that Alterian acquired for email (Dynamics Direct) and marketing resource management (Nvigorate) already have this capability, as might be expected. But Alterian’s core technology still relies on traditional installed client software. The company is working to Web-enable its entire suite, a project that will take a year or two. This involves not only changing the interfaces, but revising the internal structures to provide a modern services-based approach.

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