One way you know that a technology is poised for takeoff is when your boss tells you to buy it but can’t explain why.

Marketing automation systems have now reached that stage in their lifecycle. This is great news for vendors and consultants but poses a challenge to workers assigned to select a system. With limited guidance from above, they must make a choice that can bring great benefit to their organization or bring great harm - and there are no do-overs.

One key to successful selection is understanding the systems themselves. Marketing automation systems can be broadly defined as tools to help marketers do their jobs. A more concrete description might be defined as systems to manage nonoperational contacts with customers and prospects. This distinguishes marketing automation from customer relationship management, which is primarily concerned with operational contacts.

Still more specifically, marketing automation systems typically provide marketing planning and budgeting; a database with customer and prospects profiles, promotions sent and responses; campaign management, including media buying, list selection and message delivery; and reporting including campaign measurement, customer analysis and revenue projections. Systems for business marketers add features to support salespeople, including lead scoring and integration with sales automation or CRM systems.

Systems that meet the general definition of marketing automation have been available for at least two decades. The current set of products can be divided into four categories based on their target users.


Microbusiness.
These are very small businesses, typically with fewer than 20 employees and less than $5 million in revenue. Marketing automation at these firms is driven by the fact that all marketing is done by one person, whether it’s the owner, sales director or a full-time marketer. That person will not want to switch between separate systems to do different tasks, so systems for this market strive to include the broadest possible functionality. This also reduces the number of systems the company needs and the amount of cross-system integration, which are both important because small firms have very limited technology staff and budgets.
In fact, microbusiness marketing automation products from companies including Infusionsoft and OfficeAutoPilot even provide built-in CRM. These vendors provide intensive user support, including both technical assistance and marketing advice. This also addresses the reality of their clients’ limited internal resources, helping to ensure clients actually benefit from the product (and renew their subscriptions).

Small to midsized business. This covers the broad swath of companies from $5 million to $500 million in revenue. Although the group could certainly be subdivided, companies of all sizes within this range have remarkably similar needs and for the most part purchase the same systems: Pardot, Genius.com, Marketo, Manticore, Eloqua and a dozen or so smaller competitors. These companies have small marketing departments that are separate from sales and run a broad range of programs.
Thus, key features of these products include support for multiple channels (such as email, Web seminar, landing pages, search marketing, social media, trade shows); Web behavior tracking (at the visitor level, which differs from conventional, page-oriented Web analytics);and sales integration (such as lead scoring and sales automation synchronization). Vendors serving this category have applied a spectrum of business strategies, ranging from self-service sales and deployment (keeping down costs and speeding up implementation) to extensive personal selling and support (requiring higher fees but offering assistance throughout the process) to reliance on third-party agencies and consultants (to provide marketing advice and change management). Although the self-service vendors tend to have smaller clients and the high-touch vendors sell to larger companies, the majority compete vigorously and successfully across the size spectrum.

Enterprise business marketers.
This covers firms that sell to other businesses and have more than $500 million in revenue. These companies use all the techniques of their smaller brethren but apply them across multiple product lines in multiple countries. This adds a layer of complexity that requires more formal planning and budgeting as well as precise control over the rights assigned to each user. These systems are still closely tied to sales automation data, but they also support custom data tables originating within the marketing system itself or tied to other sources. This segment is served by vendors from the upper end of the midsized market (Eloqua, Marketo) and others from consumer marketing (Aprimo, Neolane, Unica). Buyers in this segment have complex deployment needs that almost always require assistance from third-party consultants, system integrators or marketing services agencies.

Enterprise consumer marketers.
This is the core market for the previous generation of marketing automation systems, from Unica, Aprimo, Alterian, Teradata and SAS. Clients are concentrated in the traditional database marketing industries of financial services, retail, travel and communications. They demand sophisticated segmentation and marketing administration, such as planning, budgeting, project management, content management. (By the way, if you’re playing buzzword bingo, the combination of marketing execution and marketing administration is what’s now called “integrated marketing management.”)
These systems run on the company’s primary marketing database. This is almost always a custom data model that’s much more complicated than the designs baked into business marketing systems and much less reliant on sales automation data. Even more than enterprise business systems, the consumer products rely on third-party integrators, consultants or marketing services agencies to help with database development and system deployment.

Most people tasked with selecting a marketing automation system will know which of these categories best describes their company. The features of vendors serving each category can seem indistinguishable to a nonexpert, but that doesn’t mean any vendor in your category will serve your firm equally well. You’ll eventually need to understand how they differ, but first you have to figure out what you need or you could get distracted by differences that don’t matter in your situation.

In other words, understanding your needs is the second key to successful selection.

As with any selection project, the place to start is by defining your business goals and then developing a list of capabilities needed to meet those goals. For marketing automation, those goals will probably be defined in terms of the types of marketing programs you want to do. These might be based on program objective (for example, acquisition, nurturing or retention), on channel (such as email, search marketing, TV, social media, etc.), on marketing operations (like lower execution cost, higher staff productivity, better visibility) or some combination of the three.

Once you identify the programs that marketing automation is expected to support, you can define your requirements by listing the tasks for each step of each program and specifying the system features, business processes and staff skills necessary to execute them.

It’s important to include process and staff skills in this analysis, because often those will be larger obstacles than system capabilities. After identifying your process and staffing needs, you can compare them to existing resources to identify gaps. This will indicate the scope of change needed to deploy marketing automation and clarify the time frame and external assistance you might need for success. These should be captured in your project plan. If substantial external assistance looks important, your potential vendors’ ability to provide it will weigh heavily in your vendor evaluation. In fact, those abilities may be more important than feature differences.

Your list of marketing programs will also be used to estimate the value expected from marketing automation. Doing this properly requires a financial model that lets you calculate the profit impact of changes in the number of new customers through acquisition programs, customer value through nurture programs, customer longevity through retention programs and marketing costs. Although you won’t have exact information, enough benchmark data is available to build realistic expectations.

But let’s face it, the list of target programs often won’t exist. And even if it does, it won’t cover the full range of uses the system will see over its lifetime. Marketing today is too dynamic to predict tomorrow’s programs with any certainty. You don’t want to get stuck with a system that won’t grow with you.

This ambiguity adds other considerations to your vendor selection. These include:

  • scope of features and ease of learning, to make it easy to do things you don’t currently anticipate;
  • marketing services and technical support, to help you move quickly when you take a new direction;
  • technical flexibility, to incorporate new data sources and to integrate with external systems; and
  • vendor resources to ensure the system will grow as the industry evolves.

Evaluating vendors along those lines is harder than checking for features. But it’s not impossible. Talk to references, look at the product roadmap, interview the professional services staff and partners, review training materials and documentation, see what management presents as thought leadership, query your own social networks and get your in-house technical and marketing specialists involved.
The effort you put into your selection will depend in part on the size of your investment. It’s hard to justify spending $50,000 in time or consulting fees on a system that costs $30,000 per year. But bear in mind that the real stakes are much higher than the software fee. They include the time that all your users will spend with the system, the marketing expenses that they’ll manage through it, and the revenue that those expenses will generate.
These can be changed substantially by making a wise or poor choice. So take your time and research carefully. A new marketing automation system is a tremendous opportunity. It would be a pity to waste it.

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