Sunday, April 05, 2009

True Influence Opens a Window into Future Demand Generation

People develop new products because they feel they can offer something existing products do not. In the early stages of an industry, the new products are often similar because several people have independently spotted the same opportunity and built something to tap it. As the industry matures, second-generation products are designed to improve on the original products, either by adding new capabilities or by delivering the same capabilities faster, easier or cheaper. This leads to more variety as vendors experiment with different approaches to a now-defined problem. In a third stage, variety diminishes as widely successful approaches become templates for standard configurations.

Demand generation systems are in that second stage. This means new products reflect the lessons each vendor has drawn from the industry’s history to date.

True Influence illustrates this nicely. CEO and co-founder Brian Giese had extensive experience in business sales and marketing and with existing demand generation systems when he began developing True Influence two years ago. So it’s possible to see True Influence, which was released at the end of last year, as his well-educated guess at what future demand generation systems will look like.

Giese’s conclusion was that marketers’ overwhelming need is simplicity. In fact, he said he has actually removed features from the system because customers weren’t using them. But he also decided that marketers want Webinar integration, digital asset management, APIs to capture data from external Web forms, and a dedicated IP address for email. These are not yet standard features on most demand generation products. But if Giese is right, they will be.

Like all demand generation systems, True Influence can import lists, send emails, create Web forms and surveys, score leads, set up multi-step campaigns, and integrate with CRM systems. Capabilities in these areas tend to be adequate but minimal. For example:

- emails and Web forms can be personalized with lead data, but don’t incorporate rule-selected content blocks.

- the list selection interface uses a form that lets users apply values to a list of all data elements. This is simple but doesn’t easily support complex conditions. Nor does True Influence support random splits for tests.

- Answers to Web surveys are limited to list box or radio button formats.

- The system allows an unlimited number of survey questions, but it will overwrite previous replies if a question is answered more than once.

- The lead record allows only four user-defined fields.

- Lead scores can be based on just a few attributes and activities: industry, job title, company size, location, lead source, email status, activity indicator, most recent activity date, and visits to specific Web pages. Giese said that other elements could be exposed but clients haven’t requested them.

On the brighter side:

- The system API lets users easily adopt externally-built and -hosted Web forms to post into the True Influence database. This saves clients the trouble of replacing existing Web forms when they deploy the system. Clients can also build and host their forms within True Influence if they prefer.

- The base price includes a separate IP address. This protects the client if any other True Influence customers run afoul of the anti-spam police. Most other vendors charge extra for a dedicated IP address if they make it available at all.

- The system includes a resource library for both internal assets (templates, emails, Web forms, etc.) and downloadable collateral such as white papers and brochures. This might replace a separate digital asset management system for clients who don't need approval workflows or fine-grained user rights management. The system does support some version control.

Campaign management reflects a particularly interesting set of design choices. Users define campaigns by building a flow chart with icons for steps and delays. Most simplicity-oriented systems avoid flow charts, so I was surprised to see them in True Influence. The system does simplify the diagrams a bit by embedding the decision rules within the lines that link the icons instead of creating separate decision icons. I was also surprised to find that each icon can have its own schedule – another feature typically reserved for advanced systems.

Giese assured me that his clients like the flow charts and successfully use them for "very complex" campaigns. But we didn't discuss the meaning of "very complex" and I suspect my definition is more demanding than his.

More in line with what I’d expect from this system, decision rules are limited to a few essential functions (opened email, clicked link, registered for Webinar, joined Webinar, submitted Web form, completed step, action completed, action failed). Campaign actions are also constrained: for example, the system can send emails but has no particular support for other media such as direct mail or call centers.

Campaigns can also add a lead to a list (which might in turn trigger another campaign), update the lead score, convert a prospect to a lead and send it to the CRM system, send an email alert to a salesperson or sales manager, and publish a landing page or Web form. Treating lead scoring, conversion to a CRM lead and publication of Web pages as campaign functions, rather than executing these outside of individual campaigns, is typical of simplicity-oriented demand generation systems. So is moving leads among campaigns by adding them to lists rather than assigning them directly.

Wait steps can either delay the campaign for a specified period (e.g., wait seven days for a reply), or be keyed to a specific date (e.g., send a reminder three days before a Webinar). This is more flexible than some other products. However, event-based triggers are limited to submission of a Web form. Otherwise, users can achieve near-real-time triggers by scheduling a campaign step to check for specified conditions at regular intervals defined in hours or minutes.

Webinar support includes prebuilt campaigns with registration and confirmation forms; emails for invitations, reminders and thank-you messagess; and salesperson alerts. These are all part of one campaign flow. More important, the vendor has prebuilt integration with Webinar vendor DimDim (a pretty interesting product in its own right). This lets True Influence capture actual attendance and automatically load it into the contact history. Less extensive integration is also available with GoToWebinar.

True Influence has existing integrations with and SugarCRM. These provide bi-directional synchronization at five minute intervals. The system can exchange data with other CRM systems through batch updates as needed.

Campaign reporting in True Influence includes campaign activities (emails sent and received, page visits, etc.) and lets users drill down to the list of individuals in each campaign. Users can also view the profile, list memberships and activity details for an individual. The system provides its own Web analytics, based on page tags.

Pricing of True Influence is also designed for on simplicity. Fees are based on the number of “actionable” names in the client database, which basically means valid email addresses. This accommodates the large volume of bad data often imported from mailing lists. There are no separate charges for deployment, training, individual modules, extra seats or dedicated IP addresses. Prices are being revised at this writing but are generally intended to be competitive in the middle tier of the demand generation market.

True Influence was released in late 2008 and currently has about fifteen clients.

No comments: