Move Past the Hype: Tips for Selecting A Marketing Automation Platform

This article was originally published on on March 7, 2018.

How do you determine which marketing automation platform is right for your business?

The answer has become increasingly complicated as more vendors are promising AI and machine learning capabilities, dynamic content, and direct integrations with analytics tools, SSPs and DSPs, and social media advertising. The number of platforms available continues to expand – In 2017, Gartner ranked 22 different products in its Magic Quadrant assessment of Multichannel Campaign Management tools. The terminology market research companies use to define (and assess) automation tools doesn’t make it any easier to narrow down to the core capabilities you need, either. Vendors with marketing automation capabilities appear in the Forrester and Gartner reviews of Real-Time Interaction Management platforms,  Digital Marketing Hubs, and Enterprise Marketing Software Suites. Vendor websites aren’t always the easiest to navigate either, especially when you’re searching for specific features.

When searching for the right platform, you may end up bombarded with a lot of information that you don’t want – or need.  After completing a marketing automation vendor evaluation for a client, I put together the following recommendations for assessing prospective vendors. These are meant to be used as a starting point in creating a set of requirements; additionally, they can serve to guide your development of an RFP.

1. Consider the size of your customer database

The number of contacts you have is where you should start. If you only have 10,000 contacts in your database, even a popular platform like Salesforce or Marketo might be too advanced. Similarly, while Mailchimp offers plans for upwards of a million contacts, a full-stack enterprise level tool such as Adobe or Emarsys will offer you more sophisticated capabilities and enable you to build a more complex customer profile.

2. Consider who will be using the platform, and how they will work with others

Who on your team will be using the platform? If you’re a B2B company, and you need to have a high level of coordination between your marketing and sales team, a platform which includes a CRM – such as Salesforce, HubSpot, or Marketo can help you tighten your sales and marketing cycle. For example, your sales team may want to contact potential customers after they engage with a particular email campaign or landing page. In a system with a CRM, you can create a workflow that directly notifies your sales team after a customer engagement.

However, if you’re a B2C company with a large digital marketing team, and you need to coordinate personalized promotions across web, email, and digital ads, a platform built specifically for digital campaign creation and customer profile management such as Adobe, Emarsys, or SAP will be a stronger fit.

3. Determine your priorities – What does your marketing automation platform need to do?

Marketing automation tools range from packages which focus specifically on email engagement to full scale enterprise level marketing suites that allow you collect data from first-party, second-party and third-party data sources and develop personalized messages that can appear on any number of platforms—from your own website, to email, to social, to third party ads. Start by outlining the specific marketing features and integrations that you need your platform to have. This might include:

– Email marketing

– A/b and multivariate testing

– Campaign sequencing and triggers

– Optimization and personalization

– Dynamic content

– Social media, SSP, and e-commerce integrations

– Retargeting

– SMS marketing

– Landing pages

If you find that you’re using an automation tool to engage mainly across email and social, a tool built specifically for B2B organizations, such as Marketo or Hubspot, might be better for you than a tool with more advanced capabilities, such as the Adobe Marketing Cloud or IBM Watson Campaign Automation.

4. What are the existing platforms you have in place, and how does the automation tool integrate with them?

Before selecting an automation tool, it is important to consider if that vendor integrates easily with your existing CMS, CRM, data management, and analytics tools. Some platforms offer pre-built integrations with WordPress, Google Analytics, and the Salesforce Sales Cloud, making it easier to create campaigns based on website behavior, user demographics, or where they are in the sales funnel. Others require custom development work to integrate data from other platforms.

5. What level of reporting is available within the platform?

What dashboards are available within the platform that can help you monitor your campaign performance? Is it easy to distinguish between one version of a multivariate campaign and another? Can you create reports based on age, demographics, and geography? Are you able to identify the number, percentage, and total spend of customers who make a purchase, as well as what they buy, after opening a campaign?

While for many platforms, the digital marketing features have proliferated, reports have still lagged behind.

6. Does the AI hype match the delivery?

In the past few years, a variety of vendors including Salesforce, Mailchimp, IBM, and Adobe have come out with AI-driven features that deliver predictions and recommendations based on your customer data. However, customers of Salesforce’s Einstein as well as IBM’s Watson have reported that these features are still immature.

7. How long will it take your team set up and learn the platform? What kind of customer support do they offer?

Often, it is not as much the technology as the ease of use which makes a marketing automation platform work. It doesn’t matter if the platform has a zillion features – if your team can’t figure out how to use it, or it’s too difficult to integrate with your existing platforms, then it won’t be a success.

We recommend that you consider online reviews, and ask vendors for references with regard to usability and onboarding. Some questions you might want to ask them could include:

– What custom work will need to be done to integrate the automation platform with the other systems we have in place, such as our analytics platform, our CMS, and our CRM?

– What kind of user training can you provide? Will it need to be purchased separately from the platform?

– During what hours and on which channels is customer service available? How long does it typically take to resolve customer questions and issues?

– Do you provide a dedicated person or an assigned team to provide customer service support?

Arming yourself with knowledge of how your people will need to use a marketing automation system in advance of your search will make it easier to narrow down to a platform which is right for your business. You should prioritize ease of use, adaption time, customer support, who will need to use it, and your existing use cases over “nice-to-have” features.

Lastly, when you ask for a response to an RFP, I recommend that with regard to specific features, you should ask vendors to respond “how” they provide them – as opposed to whether they offer them at all. Vendors will always say “yes” to a requested feature. Asking how they provide the feature provides you with insight into whether or not the platform will function as you want and expect it to.

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