In the year since this column began, the marketing software industry has continued to evolve. The most prominent trend has been an expansion of functionality as vendors attempt to offer a complete marketing solution in a single product. This expansion is sometimes accomplished through in-house development, but more often by alliance or outright acquisition. The stock market's willingness to purchase equity in unprofitable new companies has given many software vendors a currency to make such acquisitions.

The expanded product offerings fall into two fairly distinct groups. The first combines data extraction, analysis and campaign management – that is, all the batch processes used in a conventional database marketing system. Not surprisingly, this approach is favored by vendors with roots in one of those areas. Despite these vendors' origins in batch processing, the overwhelming importance of the Internet has led them to include real-time or at least near-real-time e-mail and Web marketing as well.

The second group of integrated marketing products comes from vendors of operational contact systems, such as sales force automation, order processing and customer support. Unlike the first group, these vendors have always built real-time systems. They tended to add real-time marketing analysis and segmentation that run directly against the operational database rather than creating batch extracts into a separate analytical data mart. Not so long ago, any experienced database marketer or data warehouse developer would have rejected this approach as laughably inadequate for two reasons: it doesn't consolidate customer data across all touchpoints, and operational data structures are unsuited for serious analysis. Today the first objection has less power, since many operational products are now at least theoretically capable of handling all touchpoints in a single system. The second objection remains fundamentally valid, although the vendors might counter with an approach that uses a separate mart purely for planning and analysis, but not as the main store for customer data.

Integrated suites involve a Faustian trade of easy deployment for vendor lock-in, which makes them a distinctly mixed blessing, but that's a topic for another day. In the context of these columns, what's noteworthy is that both groups of suites include systems not traditionally purchased by marketers (which was this series' definition of a "marketing system"). Specifically, the batch-oriented suites include data extraction tools traditionally run by IT and sophisticated analysis tools traditionally run by statisticians. The operational-oriented suites are, of course, built on systems run by operational staff.

It is possible to interpret the broad scope of these systems as evidence that marketing is taking a central role in today's organizations, presumably as a result of increased corporate focus on customer management. Does anyone believe marketing can or should be responsible for data extraction or order processing? Realistically, the expansion of these systems reflects the closer integration of marketing with other corporate functions, but not marketers' control over those functions. In other words, the integrated marketing suites will not be purchased solely by marketers. Some marketers may mourn this loss of autonomy, and it could signal trouble for vendors whose products have traditionally been purchased by marketers acting autonomously. However, tighter integration is probably a net benefit to the corporation and its customers.

In addition to integrated suites, the past year has seen a rapid maturing of technologies needed for real-time interaction management. These include the interaction managers themselves, as well as supporting systems for transaction scanning, content management, recommendations, Web site analysis and optimization. Today these are still delivered primarily by standalone products, although they are rapidly being incorporated into product suites. At present this happens mostly through alliances, although acquisitions will probably become more common. The past year also has seen forward-thinking vendors and industry observers develop a fairly clear understanding of the requirements and components of the interaction management process. In particular, the importance of automated optimization and reporting has become apparent as people realize that manually defined rules and analyses cannot manage the extreme volumes and fast reaction times implied by real-time, enterprise-wide interactions. As this shared understanding continues to percolate through the industry, better products and more knowledgeable buyers will follow.

Whatever the details of these future developments, the framework presented in this series should provide a useful context for understanding it all. Basic distinctions of real-time versus batch, operational versus analytical and reactive versus strategic response will remain relevant; the interaction manager will still occupy a key position connecting front-office systems with marketing strategy. Like a snapshot of a growing child, these columns have presented a detailed but static look at a changing subject. We can now watch it grow over time.

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