Thursday, November 05, 2015

Iterable Offers Mid-Size B2C Marketers Powerful Campaigns in Outbound Channels

As William Shakespeare never wrote, some systems are born with data, some achieve data, and some have data thrust upon them. What the Bard would have meant is that some systems are designed around a marketing database, some add a database later in their development, and some attach to external data. The difference matters because marketers are increasingly required to pick a collection of components that somehow work together to deliver integrated customer experiences. This means that marketers must first determine whether they're looking for a system to provide their primary marketing database (since you only need one of those), and then figure out which products fall into the right category.

Whether you need a system with its own database ultimately depends on whether you have an adequate database in place. Obviously the key word in that sentence is "adequate".  How that's defined depends on the situation: key variables include the number and types of data you need available, how quickly new data must be processed, whether source data is already coded with a common customer ID, and how you want other systems to access the data.

As I wrote last week, there are a handful of Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) that do nothing but build a database. Many more systems build a database as part of a larger package that also includes an operational function such as predictive modeling or campaign management. This offers an immediate benefit but it complicates the system choice since you have to judge both the database and the operational features. It’s also trickier in a more subtle way because some systems build a great database but don’t make it fully available to other products. That’s spelled s-i-l-o.

These musings are prompted by my attempt to come to assess Iterable, a product I generally like but find as slippery as one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines. Iterable definitely builds its own database, using the JSON API and Elasticsearch data store to manage pretty much any kind of data you might throw at it. This can happen in real time (yay!) or via batch file imports. The system even provides its own Javascript tag to post directly from Web pages and emails. It organizes the information into customer profiles that can include both static attributes and events such as transactions.  That’s pretty much what you want in your marketing database. Elasticsearch lets the system scale very nicely, returning queries on 100 million+ profiles in seconds. Yay again!

On the other hand, Iterable doesn’t let other systems query the data directly. Users can do analytics and build segments using Iterable’s own tools or export selected elements to other systems in a file.  They can also push data to other systems through integration with the Segment data hub.  So while Segment might be the core database supporting other marketing systems, Iterable will not.  Nor does Iterable do much in the way of identity association: new data must be coded with a customer ID to add it to a profile. This is a pretty common approach so it's not something to hold against Iterable in particular.  Just be aware that if you need to solve the association problem, you’ll have to look outside of Iterable for the answer.  Fortunately, there are plenty of other specialized systems to do this.

Perhaps Iterable provides so many operational functions that there's no need for other systems to access its data?  The answer depends on exactly what functions you need.  Iterable provides a flexible segmentation tool that can build static lists and can update dynamic lists in real time as new data is posted. This can be combined with exceptionally powerful multi-step workflows, including rarely-seen features such as converging paths (two nodes can point to the same destination) and parallel streams (the same customer can follow two paths out of the same node). It also supports more common, but still important, functions including filters, splits, a/b tests, waiting periods, API calls to external systems, and sending email, SMS, and push messages. One notably missing feature is predictive modeling to drive personalized messages, but Iterable recently set up an integration with BoomTrain to do this. Iterable still doesn’t offer Web site personalization although it might be able to support that indirectly through BoomTrain, Web hooks, or Segment.

Iterable includes content creation tools for its messaging channels – again, that's email, SMS, and push.  This means users must rely on third party software to create forms and landing pages.  Nearly all B2B marketing automation systems do have form and page builders, but Iterable is targeted primarily at mid-tier B2C marketers, who are less likely to expect them.  Iterable’s B2C focus is further clarified by its prebuilt integration with Magento for ecommerce and with Mixpanel and Google Analytics for mobile and Web analytics. The system also provides a preference center to capture customer permissions to receive messages in different channels – a feature that is essential in B2C, although certainly helpful in B2B as well.

So where does this leave us? Iterable is more powerful than a basic email system but not quite as rich as full-blown marketing automation, let alone an integrated marketing suite or cloud. Page tags, JSON feeds, and Webhooks make it especially good at collecting information, although it will need help with identity association to make full use of this data.  It builds powerful outbound campaigns in email, SMS, and mobile apps.  Ultimately, this makes it a good choice for mid-size B2C marketers who want to orchestrate outbound messages  but are less concerned about Web pages or other inbound channels. Marketers could also use Iterable as the outbound component of a more comprehensive solution with Segment or something similar at the core.

Iterable was founded in 2013 and first released its product about a year ago. It currently has more than 30 clients paying an average around $3,000 per month. List prices start much lower and some clients are much larger.

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