Tuesday, December 29, 2009

LoopFuse Offers No-Frills Demand Generation

Summary: LoopFuse offers attractive but limited demand generation functions at an easy-to-swallow price.

It’s been nearly a year since I took my first close look at the LoopFuse OneView demand generation system. I didn't write about them because the vendor was planning some major improvements and it made more sense to publish a review after these in place. We reconnected in December and the product is now ready for its close up.

The resulting picture is much prettier than before because the main changes in LoopFuse have been improvements in the user interface. It is now an attractive system with wizards to drive major functions and extensive in-line help messages to clarify next steps. The help functions are built with Helpstream customer support technology, which also provides a knowledge base and online community.

The process to set up multi-step campaigns (which the vendor calls “lead flows”) is now quite straightforward. Users first create the lead flow and link it to recipient and suppression lists that will determine who enters the flow. They then define the flow itself by following prompts to add nodes for activities, conditional decisions, waiting periods and retrial periods. (A retrial resembled a waiting period except that the system keeps retesting the previous condition. For example, the retrial node might check every hour to see whether someone has responded to a previous email. Come to think of it, it would probably make more sense to build the retesting into the conditional node itself.)

Esthetics aside, however, the actual capabilities of the lead flows are still somewhat limited. The only direct action available in an activity node is to send an email; all other options involve updates to the CRM system such as adding a lead, changing data, or assigning an activity. This leaves out other tasks that I consider basic, such as updating data within the LoopFuse database, removing the lead from the flow, or adding the lead to a list. (In the case of data changes, the omission is intentional: Loopfuse argues that such changes should be made in the CRM system and replicated into Loopfuse).

The conditional nodes make up some of the deficit. For example, failure to meet the node condition can remove the lead from the flow. (An activity to remove leads from a different flow will be available around next April.) The conditional nodes can check for several specific conditions, such as email responses, Web page visits, CRM lead status, data values and lead scores. These probably serve most purposes, but some users may be frustrated by the inability to combine several conditions within a single node or to specify more than two branches as outcomes.

Leads enter LoopFuse lead flows when they join the associated recipient list. Lists can include leads with specified data values on the lead record, that originate from a particular Web site or form, or that visited a particular Web page. Several conditions can be combined and lists can be static or regularly updated. But lists can't be selected based on lead scores, email response or activity levels. Again, processes that depended on these would need to incorporate them through conditional nodes in the lead flows.

Lead scores themselves can be based on data values in the lead record, email response or Web pages visited. However, the system cannot base scores on activity patterns such as "three Web site visits in the past week". The system stores one score per lead. Scores are recalculated every hour, which does not support immediate reaction to score-changing events.

LoopFuse provides a graphic email designer that can generate both text and HTML versions. Emails can be personalized with data from the lead record, including the assigned salesperson if available. But data from account or opportunity tables is not available, even though it’s imported from CRM. Nor does LoopFuse support any type of A/B testing, either in the email definition or its lead flows. Each email is tied directly to just one email “campaign”, although the email campaigns themselves can be reused in multiple lead flows.

Unlike most demand generation vendors, LoopFuse does not host landing pages or Web forms for its clients. Instead, the vendor provides a wizard that reads existing, externally hosted forms and generates modified versions that will post data into the LoopFuse database. Another wizard helps users to generate HTML forms from scratch. Either way, the new forms must be copied into pages hosted outside of LoopFuse.

LoopFuse will also provide tags that can be placed on other pages on a client’s Web site to track and report on Web page visits. It lets it generate some page-oriented Web analytics reports similar to Google Analytics.

Reporting is another area that LoopFuse has significantly strengthened in the past year. In addition to Web analytics, it provides detailed reports on Web site visitors, including reports that link anonymous visitors to their company through their IP address. The system also tracks lead movement through sales funnel based on a combination of its own data and information imported from CRM. Other reports show results from email campaigns and lead capture forms.

LoopFuse also gives salespeople a report showing recent activities by their assigned leads, allowing them to drill into each lead for details. A “company dashboard” report lets both sales people and marketers see all visitors from a particular company, again based on IP address. The report shows both known and anonymous visitors and lets users connect directly with external databases including Hoovers, Jigsaw and Zoominfo to look up additional information. LoopFuse can also alert salespeople by email when high-priority accounts perform specified activities captured in the system.

LoopFuse does a particularly good job with CRM integration. Because its sales process depends heavily on free trials, the company has developed a self-service wizard that guides users through the process of connecting to Salesforce.com, including an automated check for whether LoopFuse has been granted access permissions in the client’s Salesforce.com installation. (Apparently this is a very common omission.) Users have field-by-field control over how data conflicts between the systems are resolved. In addition to Salesforce.com, the vendor has a standard integration for SugarCRM.

Pricing in LoopFuse is based on email and Web page volume, with no limit on the number of names in the system database. This is unusual but not unique: Pardot and LeadLife take a similar approach. (See my recent list of demand generation vendors for an overview of competitive pricing.) Rates are quite aggressive: $750 per month for 50,000 emails and page views combined, or $1,250 per month for a much more generous 250,000 total.

LoopFuse was founded in 2007 although it was largely in stealth mode through early 2009. The company currently has more than 50 paid clients.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Spredfast Offers Systematic Management for Social Media Campaigns

Summary: Social Agency’s Spredfast helps marketers schedule social media campaigns the same way they schedule paid advertising. Cool.

It seems like common courtesy to listen to an existing conversation before jumping in with a comment. If social media worked the same way, companies would first buy a monitoring system to track what’s being said, followed by tools to respond to comments made by others. Only later would they initiate conversations and, eventually, provide tools to help their friends spread the word.

Silly me. I should have known that marketers talk first and listen later.

I’m not talking about personal style, although the decibel level at any marketing conference speaks for itself. But a recent eMarketer article B2B Marketers to Increase Social Spend cited two surveys that showed this is also a matter of policy.

Specifically, a study from Visible Technologies and SiriusDecisions found the most common use for social media was to “generate awareness” (25%), while another study in B2B Magazine found the top use for social networks was “thought leadership” (60%). True listening ranked fifth in the Visible Technologies/SiriusDecision survey (“monitor and respond” at 14%), and third in the B2B Magazine survey (“customer feedback” at 46%).

On reflection, this makes sense. Marketers are primarily interested in getting out their messages. Perhaps this is an old habit that will change in a customer-driven world. But I suspect that marketing results will always be driven by activity, and results are ultimately what matter. So I’ve now revised my expected sequence of social media activities to start with broadcast, only then followed by monitor, respond, initiate individual conversations and empower advocates.

Armed with this insight, I was much less surprised when Kenneth Cho of social marketing agency Social Agency told me that his new social media campaign tool Spredfast had been purchased immediately after release by major companies including AOL, IBM, HP, Cisco and Porter Novelli. Although I’ve seen plenty of “listening platforms” like Radian6, Alterian Techrigy and Scout Labs, I hadn't previously seen a system aimed primarily at managing outbound social messages. (Now that I'm looking, though, I find that ObjectiveMarketer seems to offer something similar.)

Of course, the listening platforms can also post social media messages, as can the social media features now found in many marketing automation systems. What distinguishes Spredfast is that marketers can schedule their posts through the life of a social media campaign, rather than simply replying or initiating conversations on demand. Spredfast supports on-demand posting too.

Another key feature is that Spredfast supports multiple “voices” of actual or constructed individuals, each having accounts in multiple channels (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.). The campaign calendar lays out of scheduled events by all voices over time, and is color-coded to show whether a particular event has already been delivered, is ready to go, or still needs approved content. This looks strikingly similar to the media plan for a flight of broadcast ads and serves very much the same purpose.

Users can drill into an event to add the content itself including bit.ly links that allow the system to track the click-through. One particularly nice feature is that when users assign the same content to multiple events, the system will automatically create different bit.ly links for each event. This makes it easy to track results for each event independently.

Spredfast's developers also recognized that large companies will have many different people working on different aspects of a project. Users can be assigned rights to specific campaigns, voices and events, with precise control over who can view, edit and approve content. Pricing is based on the number of campaigns, not users, so large organizations can incorporate as many people as needed.

As the bit.ly tags suggest, Spredfast also pays substantial attention to measurement. It provides three major summary metrics:

- activity (how much content the system is publishing),
- reach (the number of views, friends, followers, subscribers, etc.), and
- engagement (numbers of comments, retweets, likes, etc.).

Top-level reports summarize these by campaign and let users drill down to see detailed statistics by channel and voice and, ultimately, the actual content such as comments or reviews.

The system archives content and responses so they remain available even after they are dropped from the social media platforms that originally carried them. In addition to cumulative statistics, Spredfast displays daily statistics for the past seven days, giving a sense of trends.

Perhaps wisely, Spredfast's developers drew the line at reporting the raw numbers for its metrics. Users who want more elaborate scoring, perhaps applying different weights to different kinds of activities, can export the raw data and calculate outside the system. Similarly, Spredfast makes no attempt at relating social media programs to business results such as leads or revenue.

The system does provide what Cho called a “minimalist” listening platform, which can automatically search across public listening tools (Google, Google Blog Search, Social Mention, Twitter, Boardreader, Bing) for key words, and present any results so users can review and republish or reply to them. It also provides an RSS reader for feeds selected by the user, as well as a site indexer that can show the frequency of different terms in user-specified blogs as a word cloud. This helps users tailor their posts to encourage coverage.

Spredfast began its public beta in mid-November. The system is a vendor-hosted service. It is available in a free version with limited functionality; a $50 per month standard version with one campaign, no collaboration and no metrics after the first month; and $250 per month enterprise version supporting all features for up to three campaigns.