Friday, May 30, 2014

Business Marketing Association Conference: Marketers Should Make Customers the Hero

I may have to start attending only conferences on the West Coast, since the trip home from closer locations doesn't take enough time for me to write up a summary. I’m drafting this on the way back from the excellent Business Marketing Association conference in Chicago and the pilot has just announced we’re starting our descent to Philadelphia.

[cut to montage of airplane landing, dog greeting owner, light clicking on in home office] 

Still, I’ve had enough time to ponder what I heard. Three speakers who really made an impression on me: Story Wars author Jonah Sachs, who described using the “hero story” to sell your brand; Tim Riesterer of Corporate Visions, who stressed telling visual stories with a whiteboard; and Brent Adamson of CEB, who showed how “challenger marketing” convinces buyers they have problem that only the seller can solve. (I actually missed most of Adamson’s presentation but heard him a few weeks ago at the Content2Conversion show in New York, so I’ll assume he covered pretty much the same ground.)

One thing these three had in common is that each speaker used his own technique within the presentation: Sachs described making the customer a hero with the brand as mentor, suggesting this would make marketers into heros with him as a mentor; Riesterer used a flip chart diagram to convince marketers that they should train their sales people to use flip chart presentations; Adamson argued that current marketing methods don’t work and should be replaced with methods that convince customers their current approaches won’t work. My inner literary critic appreciates the symmetry.

Pondering a bit more deeply, I see that all three presentations also shared the same basic approach: define a problem, show a solution, and offer to help the audience get there. Of course, many presentations offer a problem and a solution, and there were several at the conference by equally successful speakers including Gary Vaynerchuk (Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook) and Jay Baer (Youtility). But those felt like a more expository mode, describing solutions but not really offering to help marketers make the transition. This is true even though I’m perfectly aware those speakers are also selling consulting services.

Maybe it’s just a matter of style, but I think there's a deeper difference.  The speakers who impressed me set out a fairly clear path to achieving the goals they described, rather than just making observations and recommendations. It’s the difference between telling someone there’s gold in the hills and teaching them how to mine for it.

I guess the key lesson in this has more to do with my own presentations, which tend to be more about presenting information than offering a structured solution. I’ve always sensed that was a problem, even though I usually include a list of next steps. There needs to be something more coherent: a vision of how this knowledge solves a larger problem, perhaps. It’s something for me to work on and hopefully improve before my presentation at the MarTech conference in Boston in August (early bird pricing ends June 7).  Be sure to attend if you want to see what I come up with or just contrast my performance with many others who will no doubt do it better.

Anyway, back the BMA conference.  It was very well produced and fast-paced, with a refreshing (for me) focus on broader marketing issues rather than just marketing technology.  Much of the program was case studies and panel discussions, which don't always provide specific take-aways but do offer inspiration and insight into how other people achieve their successes.  Since B2B marketers so often feel under-appreciated, it's a great chance to compare notes and commiserate with their peers.

(If you're wondering about the picture accompanying this post, it's 1920's band leader Ted Lewis, whose catchphrase "Is everybody happy?" makes him the godfather of the customer experience survey.  Sadly, his co-workers were a bunch of clowns.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Oh Shiny! Cool Marketing Technology I'd Evaluate in Detail if I Didn't Keep Getting Distrac...Oh Shiny!

I’ve seen more interesting systems recently than I have time to review in depth. Here are some quick sketches of products you may want to explore in more detail.

4-Tell offers low-cost, easily-installed product recommendations for online retailers. The story here is a combination of accessibility and sophisticated features. By accessibility, I mean just about any company can use them: there’s no installation fee, implementation takes a few hours of work (spread over a week or two), there are prebuilt connectors for common shopping carts, pricing starts at $75 per month, there’s a money-back guarantee of 10x ROI, and the actual modeling is fully automatic. By sophisticated, I means that recommendations are based on individual and group behaviors, can aim at upsell, cross sell, top sellers, or personal history; and can be modified based on user-specified rules for exclusions, promoted items, filters such as gender or region, or particular categories. This degree of control is usually reserved for advanced interaction management systems. Recommendations can appear on Web pages, mobile devices, display ads, or emails (where recommendations are updated by calls to the central server each time the email is opened). The system uploads the client’s catalog and transactions daily to reset its models. 4-Tell was launched about four years ago and currently has 200 clients serving 2 billion recommendation s per month. Its clients are mostly small retailers with $1 million to $5 million annual revenue, although the average size is growing.

Captora, which last week announced $22 million in new funding, helps companies capture more leads from social, paid search, and organic search marketing. To do this, it analyzes search terms and content on the client’s and competitors’ Web sites, identifies opportunities for new promotions, and then (almost) automatically creates landing pages tailored to each search term. The pages are linked to marketing automation forms that capture the resulting leads. That sounds pretty simple but the system tracks potentially hundreds of items, uncovering strengths and weaknesses of specific competitors and concepts and drilling into the performance down to the level of individual pieces of content. The system makes this manageable by providing automated alerts, recommendations, and a/b testing. The result is many more campaigns than marketers can create manually, taking advantage of opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed.  Better still, these campaigns reach prospects when they are just starting their online research. Pilot clients showed results including 20% increase in lead volume, 200% improvement in conversion rates, and 50% reduction in cost per lead. The company was founded in 2012 with a public launch in September 2013.  It now has signed more than 30 paying clients. Pricing begins around $10,000 per month for small business clients and is set to meet client goals for lead cost and volume.

Persado offers a sort of multi-variate testing on steroids, using semantic and statistical algorithms to auto-generate and test thousands of alternative marketing messages across Web pages, apps, email, text, social, search and display advertising. I haven’t had a briefing, so I only know what’s on their Web site, but the concept makes perfect sense. The key of course is generating coherent language, although you might argue that the standard set by some human marketers is pretty low. The company has a handful of case studies that show impressive improvements and Bain Capital Ventures was intrigued enough to invest $15 million in 2013. I’m intrigued enough to write this paragraph and send them an email requesting a briefing.

Integrate isn’t quite so sexy as these other systems but it does provide some helpful plumbing. Specifically, it connects Web advertisers with Web publishers for processes including negotiating media buys, storing and distributing advertising materials, checking for click and pixel fraud, and delivering leads the publishers have captured. The lead delivery process is a particular selling point, since Integrate not only consolidates the data into a single feed but also validates postal addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers before the records are imported to the client’s marketing automation or CRM system. Integrate also provides a campaign performance dashboard that shows how each publisher is performing. The company is four years old, has about 2,500 clients, and has 3,500 media partners in its network.

BlueConic just came to my attention the other day and I was excited because it creates a central customer database and delivers coordinated customer treatments across channels: in other words, it’s a Customer Data Platform. Then I found notes in my files from a briefing with them two years ago, which was a bit deflating (not so new) but also gratifying (I'm on top of things).  I even mentioned them briefly in a blog post in late 2012. In any case, they’re still an interesting product that in February received $3 million in new funding and moved their headquarters from The Netherlands to Boston, the better to attack the U.S. market. The company was founded in 2010 and has more than 70 customers. Its basic approach hasn’t changed since I spoke with them: it inserts Javascript tags to listen for interactions on Web pages, mobile sites, apps, or emails; updates a central customer profile with each interaction; and returns customer treatments to display. What takes this beyond standard real-time interaction management is that BlueConic automatically classifies customers by persona, interests, buying phase, lead status, and engagement level, and uses these categories to help select treatments and report on results. That’s a helpful framework which marketers might otherwise need to invent for themselves. The system also applies continuous, automated optimization to select the best treatments, merges profiles across channels, and can provide a simulated view of an individual customer journey to help marketers plan out their treatment rules.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Latest Marketing Technology Acquisitions Bypass Marketing Automation Vendors

On May 6, AOL and Google announced their respective acquisitions of attribution vendors Convertro  and Adometry. Since then, Acxiom purchased online/offline identity matching vendor LiveRamp and SAP bought behavioral targeting vendor SeeWhy, tag management vendor Tealium announced connectors to several email platforms, and the Phillies lost nine of 14 baseball games.

That last item is just included to see if you’re paying attention. But the others share at least two important connections: one for what they are, and another for what they’re not.

The positive connection is that all of these are about integrating customer data. Convertro and Adometry both import individual-level contacts across online and offline channels and use these with other data to estimate to incremental impact of each marketing message. (See my 2013 post on Adometry for details.)  Although the attribution vendors' primary focus is helping to measure and improve the results of digital advertising, the data they assemble incorporates all types of interactions and can ultimately support other types of analysis and execution. LiveRamp, a partner of both Convertro and Adometry, connects individual identities across different media such as email and Web sites. SeeWhy supports retargeting across ad networks, email messages, and during Web site visits, again relying on its ability to assemble a unified profile. Tealium, whose tags often capture data for those other solutions, is leveraging its position at the headwaters of the data stream by building its own persistent profiles and treatment rules.

These announcements all illustrate the increasingly central role that data is playing in marketing technology. But we’re not talking about just any type of customer data here: in each case, we’re talking about data related to display advertising, and about connecting that to data from a company’s direct customer interactions. The continued integration of those two worlds – which have been almost totally separate – is a tremendously important trend that will be driving marketing technology over the next several years.

It’s also worth noting that Convertro, Adometry, and SeeWhy all perform sophisticated statistical analysis while doing data assembly as an auxiliary function.  The obvious implication is that advanced analytics will become increasingly important, which is certainly correct. Less obviously, the data assembly could be performed in other systems without Convertro, Adometry or SeeWhy losing their primary value. Indeed, given the redundancy of having each system build its own central customer database and of each vendor investing in those essential-but-peripheral capabilities, both users and vendors would benefit from having separate systems that specialize in building the customer database and share the result with these other products. Yes, we’re talking here about Customer Data Platforms.

This brings us to what all these systems are not. The particular not-ness that I have in mind is not being a marketing automation system. After years of big marketing automation acquisitions, these transactions show industry giants investing in a different type of marketing technology. In this context, it’s relevant that SAP recently decided to resell Adobe’s marketing cloud rather invest in its own solution. I’m not ready to say that the great marketing automation boom is over or that marketing automation is approaching commodity status. But I do think that industry attention is shifting more to central analytics and decisioning in one direction and to advanced execution systems in the other. As stand-alone products in each of those areas become more sophisticated, marketing automation systems, which straddle both, may take a less central role in marketers' technology planning.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Makes a Good Marketing Platform? Rules for Platformality

That Scott Brinker is such a devil.

Last month he goaded me into coming up with a framework for relating marketing technology to business strategy, which I'll present at the MarTech conference in August .  Today he wrote blog post about the latest entrants into the marketing platform derby, Abobe and IBM, which prompted a comment from me since I’ve been thinking about the need to define the features of a good platform system. Scott naturally shot back with some concrete suggestions, which has in turn led me to publish some additional thoughts and to begin considering a more detailed exploration of the topic. Now I’m going to feel guilty if I don’t cover the topic more fully – even though there are other, easier topics that I had meant to write about first.


Here are my thoughts on this, folks. Lots of vendors have now taken to describing their systems as platforms – Oracle, Salesforce, IBM, Adobe, Marketo, Act-On, HubSpot, InfusionSoft and even CallidusCloud.  The only real requirements seems to be some sort of a marketplace – all loosely modeled on’s AppExchange, which in turn I see as inspired on Apple’s App Store. But, to my mind, a real marketing platform needs more than just an app store and a published API. In particular, it needs API features that support the fundamental goal of a platform-based architecture, which is to allow third party apps to supplement the core functions of the underlying central platform.

This means something specific.  The role of the platform is to manage a central customer database so that all the apps work from a common core of information.  To do this, the APIs must allow access to that database in terms of reading, writing, and integrating customer data. The central platform facilitates coordination of customer treatments across channels, but things like predictive models and decision rules can be provided by third party apps so long as the results are stored in the database and embedded in recommendations that are accessible to other apps. Ironically, this means a platform doesn’t necessarily have to provide an API to expose other capabilities such as sending messages or building campaign flows, even though these are core functions of a marketing system.

On the other hand, the data management features need to be robust, for example in terms of providing access to full details of customer history and, indeed, in storing detailed history in the first place. Some of the systems that call themselves platforms place severe limits in those areas.  Similarly, the platform should allow easy access to large sets of customer records, not just to one record at a time. Again, this isn’t always available.

A meaningful description of platform requirements – which I’ve decided should be called “platformality” – would almost surely begin with a definition of use cases, from which the actual API requirements would flow. The requirements themselves need to be defined in specific enough terms that someone could actually judge them objectively; just saying “update customer records” is much too vague. There would also be other, non-functional requirements such as the API being published and perhaps extensible, “discoverability” of partners (Scott’s suggestion), an open and objective partner qualification process, and so on.

I’m guessing that vendors who have already spent time integrating with and other established platforms have a very clear picture of what’s required to make a platform truly useful. Therefore I’d really want their input into the list of platformality requirements. Having that list would be in their interest, and even more in the interest of marketing system buyers who are asked to assess whether the various vendor platforms can really fill the role that a platform is supposed to play. Sadly, there’s no one in the industry with a strong enough vested interest to justify funding such a project. People like Scott and myself can push things along out of public-mindedness and sheer intellectual curiousity, but we all have day jobs that keep us more than busy.

Hence my initial instinct, proposed in comments on Scott’s blog, that we find a way to crowdsource creation of the platformality requirement list – drawing on the collective wisdom of app developers and users who have already felt the pain of trying to build apps on platforms that not fully suited to the task. I still think that’s the best approach although the details of how to make it happen are far from clear. Some sort of self-generating wiki might work.  Or a group effort at a conference might be more efficient and perhaps more fun as well.  Hackathon, anyone?

I’m wide open to suggestions and, better still, offers of concrete assistance. If the future of the industry is really marketing platforms, it’s worth some collective effort to provide a clear definition of a what a good platform looks like.

Addendum: on reflection, the way I would usually tackle a project like this is to interview all the platform vendors to find out what platform features are currently in their systems and then build a list that combines the results and adds whatever I think is needed but missing.  It's a big project but manageable.  Not something I have time for but perfect for a smart and somewhat technical summer intern if anybody has one they don't know what to do with.  Maybe we could present the results at MarTech; I would certainly be happy to publish them in this blog.  If anybody wants to volunteer, let me know.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

B2B Content2Conversion Conference: Let's Get Strategic

I spent two productive days this week at Demand Gen Report’s B2B Content2Conversion Conference  in New York. As some who spends more time creating content than pondering it, I appreciated the opportunity to put content generation in a more broader perspective.

Sessions at the conference were consistently excellent, which isn’t the case at every show. Here some of the key points that stuck with me:

- Take control of the conversation. Brent Adamson of the CEB presented the Challenger Sales and Marketing models, which have been around for a few years now but still impress me. The gist of the model is that marketers and sales people need to disrupt the normal purchase process by convincing buyers that they’re doing something wrong, it’s costing them money, and the seller’s product can fix it. Without that disruption, buyers will view competitive products as commodities. This notion of disruption is what separates the Challenger approach from conventional solution selling. It gives a strategic focus to your content planning, and readers of this blog know I’m a sucker for strategic focus.

- Measure wisely. Jim Lenskold of the Lenskold Group offered a detailed framework for ensuring that content marketing measurements tie to actual business objectives. The critical point is those objectives vary in different situations, so marketers need to be very purposeful in deciding which measure apply in each situation. In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s a lot of work. But this is one of those “eat your vegetables” situations where there’s not much value in taking shortcuts.  I'm a big fan of other people eating their vegetables.

- Buying processes differ with market maturity. Matt Papertsian of SiriusDecisions refined the now-cliched notion of buyers taking control of the purchase process, pointing out that it really depends on how well they understand what they’re buying. Buyers are in control in an established market, where they can easily assess the alternatives. But when sellers are offering something new, they can – in fact, must – educate buyers about why they need what the seller is selling. This elevates the role of sales people and means they should be engaged earlier in the buying process. It also echoes the Challenger Sales process while suggesting that the Challenger approach will work better in some circumstances than others. Naturally, content should be adjusted to the type of buying process as well.

Other sessions offered practical advice and case histories on how to succeed with marketing content. They were all good, too, but I’m a big picture kind of person. I look forward to applying these concepts at Raab Associates over the coming year.

Incidentally, Demand Gen Report will be moving the conference from New York to Scottsdale, AZ for its next session, which will be February 16-19, 2015. Definitely worth the trip.