Today's marketers have many needs ­ and software vendors are eager to meet them all, plus a few more the marketers may not even have known existed. While all this attention is better than being ignored, it does force marketers to try to make sense of their options. After looking at dozens of marketing-related systems, we have found they fall into seven reasonably distinct classes ­ each built around a particular capability. Here they are, in increasing order of complexity:

E-Mail Campaign Management

These are systems whose primary function is to broadcast e-mail messages and track response. Core capabilities include maintaining a permanent database of customer profiles, selecting records using characteristics in the profiles, maintaining an inventory of personalized text and HTML e-mail forms, embedding a unique promotion ID or Web page (URL) in the outbound e-mail, broadcasting the e-mails to selected records and providing response reports based on replies containing the promotion ID or hits against the specified Web page. Most systems can also capture additional information such as replies to surveys embedded in a response form.

Interactive Customer Support

These systems manage interactions with customers, primarily in response to e-mail inquiries. They are used mostly for customer and technical support and for lead processing as well. Their key feature is a structured database of replies to common questions. They use this to classify inbound messages based on key words or text analysis, identify an appropriate reply and send the reply automatically or forward it to a human agent for review. Like conventional call center systems, they also monitor performance statistics such as response time, successful resolutions and agent productivity. Most products in this group can maintain a permanent database of customer/prospect profiles and contact history, generate Web forms, capture data from them and run outbound e-mail campaigns.

Conventional Campaign Management

These are classic database marketing systems designed to identify file segments, generate direct mail or telemarketing lists, and report on response. Their key distinction is the ability to split a file into multiple, mutually exclusive segments in a single step ­ as opposed to executing many independent queries that select one segment each. Many products in this group also let users create multi-step campaigns which define a sequence of messages that are executed automatically over time. Most campaign management systems support sophisticated marketing programs with random sampling, test/control splits and methods for inferring promotion results when direct mechanisms such as response codes are not available. Selections are typically executed in batch processes.

Marketing Automation

This term has been applied to a very wide array of systems, but the heart of the category is business-to-business lead management. This involves three clusters of functions: support for budgeting, project management, approvals work flow, reporting and other administrative tasks; creation of Web-based marketing materials including e-mail and Web pages; and design and execution of multi-step campaigns to nurture immature leads and deliver ripe ones to the sales force. Of these functions, administration is the glue that holds the others together and is also the least likely to be found in any other type of system. So while administration is not the only function of a marketing automation system, it can be considered the main identifying feature.

Web Site Personalization

These systems create personalized Web sites which can present different contents based on a visitor's stated and inferred preferences. They provide tools to develop personalized Web pages and other content, link to external systems for data look up and order entry, maintain databases of available content, store and update visitor profiles, and hold rules to determine which content is sent to which visitors. Pages are generated in real time and may change in response to user actions. But these systems do not execute the multi-step contact sequences of conventional campaign managers or marketing automation software.

Collaborative Filtering

These systems return real-time estimates of the affinity between an individual and a set of options such as a list of books, banner ads or solutions to technical problems. Answers are based on how similar individuals have behaved in the past. The feature particular to these systems is the high degree of automation ­ they build and adjust their predictive models automatically as they observe customer behavior over time. This lets collaborative filtering systems work where there are too many options to manually define a rule to handle each one.

Interaction Management

These systems provide marketing input to real-time interactions, such as Web site visits or call center conversations. Their key feature is the ability to assess a specific situation and recommend a response that is optimal from a marketing perspective. This is usually done through sets of manually crafted business rules which can take into account business issues ­ such as the impact on long-term customer loyalty ­ that are not captured by looking at what similar customers have chosen in the past. Although the interaction management systems themselves cannot determine the long-term impact of a decision, manual rules allow marketers to execute strategies that reflect their own judgements.

Next month's column will look at how these categories relate to each other and the larger corporate information architecture. Future columns will examine each category in more depth.

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