Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Net-Results Simplifies Demand Generation for Small Business

Summary: Net-Results is simpler to use than comparable demand generation systems because it applies the same features to many tasks. The system is aimed at small business but offers an interesting design lesson for everyone.

When Net-Results’ showed me their marketing automation system, the demonstration ended so quickly that I wondered what was missing. But on reflection I realized that Net-Results offers a full set of demand generation functions. The demonstration was short because the system uses only a few features to deliver them. In an industry where every competitor is striving for grater ease of use, stand-out simplicity is an impressive achievement.

The key to Net-Results’ approach is to build everything around segments. Email campaigns are targeted at segments; Web visitors are classified into segments; behavior alerts are triggered by segments; lead scores are assigned to segments; leads are sent to the sales system based on segments; reports are run against segments. This simplifies the system in two ways: marketers have fewer features to learn, and they can reuse their work across many functions.

Let’s run through the standard demand generation process to see how this works in practice. This process has five functions: send emails to prospects; capture responses on landing pages; score leads; send qualified leads to sales; and nurture non-qualified leads with multi-step campaigns.

Prospects enter Net-Results from external Web forms (more about that later), file imports, manual data entry, or Salesforce.com synchronization. They’re assigned to campaigns by defining entry conditions for campaign steps, which the system calls “actions”. These conditions are not themselves segments but can be copied from existing segment definitions or built with the standard segment-creation interface.

Campaigns can have multiple actions, each with its own entry conditions. Actions can be arranged hierarchically with several "children" attached to the same "parent". Each lead is assigned to the first "child" action whose entry conditions it meets. This allows leads to follow different paths within the same campaign.

The approach imposes some limits, since different branches cannot be reunited. But it will meet the needs for most marketers. Net-Results plans to remove the limits by allowing actions to send leads directly to other actions, within or across campaigns.

Users can also specify a waiting period between actions, and whether to send alerts when a lead qualifies for an action. The actions themselves can send an email, adjust a lead score, or send the lead to Salesforce.com. Since entry conditions can also accept leads into nurture campaigns, the Net-Results actions by themselves account for four of the five core demand generation functions.

The fifth core function, capturing Web response, is Net-Results’ main deviation from standard demand generation techniques. Nearly all demand generation systems let marketers create and deploy landing pages outside of the company Web site. Net-Results does not. Rather, it copies data captured on existing Web forms and posts it to the Net-Results database. This requires users to add a bit of Javascript to company Web pages.

Loading data from existing Web forms requires mapping the original form fields into the Net-Results databases. Net-Results makes this as simple as possible by reading field names on the existing form and suggesting Net-Results fields that are likely to match. Such mapping may sound a scary to serious technophobes, but it’s less work than building a form from scratch.

Net-Results argues that its approach avoids the “vendor lock-in” that comes from using forms hosted by the demand generation vendor. I guess that’s true, but doubt it’s important to most marketers. On the other hand, the Net-Results approach means marketers cannot create new forms without help from whoever runs the company Web site. This strikes me as a significant drawback, which other demand generation systems are expressly designed to avoid.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Net-Results add a form builder fairly soon, although they didn’t say they were planning to. The system already has an email authoring tool, which includes a graphical editor and works from user-defined templates. Extending this to build Web forms should be pretty simple.

The Javascript tracking code also allows Net-Results to capture the behavior of Web visitors. This is another standard feature for demand generation systems. Here’s where segments reappear, since Web behavior can be used in segment definitions and system reports are run against segments.

Running reports against segments may not sound too exciting, but it greatly simplifies marketing analysis. Practical applications include reports to salespeople about their own accounts and reports on campaign results. Each report can run and emailed to specified users on a user-specified schedule. Reports include graphs as well as tabular data. The system's main reports all relate to Web behavior: visitors, traffic source, search terms, and pages viewed.

The Web visitor report is particularly impressive: it's almost a separate application, similar to the tools that other demand generation vendors use to give salespeople a view of Web activity. Users start with a list of visitors (within a segment, of course) showing key information including source, name, email address, telephone, company, most recent visit date, pages viewed, and visit duration. They can then select a lead and drill into the details of current and previous visits. They can also take actions including sending the lead to Salesforce.com and issuing an alert. Marketers could easily extend direct access to salespeople, since system security could restrict the salesperson to her own leads. An incremental user costs just $25 per month.

Net-Results can also issue automatic alerts, again based on entrance into a segment. Alerts can be directed to one or more email addresses and are summarized in a periodic report.

So what about building the segments themselves? There’s no truly easy way to define complex selections, but Net-Results does a reasonable job of balancing simplicity with power. Segments can have general attributes including security (specifying which user groups can access the segment), automatic exclusion of known Internet Service Providers (so reports can only show visitors from identifiable companies), automatic inclusion of only known contacts (to report only on previously-identified individuals), and parsing of “get” variables from the incoming Web address (to capture information passed within the URL). Treating these selections as attributes reduces the complexity of the segmentation statement itself.

Users build the segmentation statements by selecting data categories (visit activities, contact attributes, campaigns, lists, Web forms, traffic source) and then choosing attributes relevant to each category. For example, attributes for Web visits include pages visited and duration, while attributes for contacts include name, company and job title. Many vendors use a similar approach, which I consider the best method for helping non-technical users to create complex segmentations.

Users can group multiple criteria into blocks. All conditions within a block must be met for a lead to qualify; a lead must qualify for at least one block to qualify for the segment. (In more technical terms: the system uses "and" conditions within each block, and "or" conditions between blocks.) Although some subtle queries can’t be created with this approach, it should meet the vast majority of marketers’ needs. Few demand generation systems offer more power, and many offer less.

Once a segment is defined, users can view the records it selects to check that it works as intended. They can then save the segment and assign it to alerts or reports.

Is Net-Results really simpler than other demand generation systems? To some extent it depends on your definition. Net-Results supports many marketing functions with relatively few features. This is one type of simplicity. But different features tailored to different functions could, at least in theory, make other systems more efficient at each task. This is another kind of simplicity. In practice, I felt that Net-Results’ shared features were just as efficient as specialized features used in other systems. So, yes, I ultimately think Net-Results will be simpler for most users.

Net-Results’ drive for simplicity is based on its target market of small businesses. Many of its clients have just one marketer on staff. These people don’t have the time or resources to use a complicated system, and may not need the refinements, such as rule-driven dynamic content within emails, that Net-Results doesn't provide.

Pricing is also aimed at small businesses. [Note: the following is revised price information provided by the vendor as of December 2009.] Fees are based on a combination of page views, email volume, support hours and length of commitment. A client with 60,000 page views, 20,000 emails, and 5 hours of support would pay about $700 per month on a month-to-month basis and just over $600 for an annual agreement. Half of those numbers (30,000, 10,000, 2 hours) would run $400/$350 based on agreement length. The company reports its average billing per client is around $500 per month. No contract is required and Net-Results offers a 14 day free trial.

The Net-Results system was launched in April 2009 and the vendor says it now has “hundreds” of clients. Some have converted from a simpler predecessor product that was launched in 2006.

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