Evaluating Marketing Automation vendors

Lately, I’ve seen several ongoing LinkedIn threads in various groups on evaluating or suggesting marketing automation (MA) vendors. The first thing that comes to mind when I see the dozens of short posts that go something like:

“I highly recommend [fill in vendor name here]. They’ve been great!”

is “what a waste of time.” I mean, what value really can you get from simple, blanket statements like that with no backing? But after seeing other, more thoughtful responses, I went back to what I did and my company went through when we decided we needed to move from just an email vendor to a full-fledged MA system. And I am not seeing much of this in the responses and comments being posted.

Image courtesy of qwickstep.com

Part of the LinkedIn problem likely is the question. Often, it is simple – something like “what marketing automation system do you like and why?” And this leads to quick, simple answers. However, if you are actually looking to purchase such a system, you need to ask much more.

The keys to a successful choice and implementation of a marketing automation system include:

Evaluate your specific needs and what you want to accomplish

At the time, we had a very good email vendor. But we struggled with doing list pulls from our database, uploading the lists and maintaining opt-out information. Then, we had to work with our web team to create landing pages. They were a great team but had too much on their shoulders and often we faced delays that hindered our marketing efforts. Our ability to move quickly was compromised.  As marketing managers, we had to use multiple systems and processes in order to develop and implement an integrated, multi-phase campaign.  So, although we were satisfied with our email vendor, we were not satisfied with the processes we had to go through in order to implement more advanced marketing campaigns. We wanted to move to the next level.

We knew some of our needs but then spent time researching where we could go above and beyond our needs. If you are going to undertake a change like this, you should see where else you can take it and maximize the move. You will have disruption when this happens and you want to get the most out of it you can. So we asked analysts and vendors but most importantly, we studied other firms – what are they doing? What are best practices? What emerging trends and technologies should be consider?  Then we brainstormed. We knew our immediate needs. To them, we added “where we want to go” scenarios. From there, we had a really good understanding of what we wanted.

Figure out what capabilities you (and your team) have

I’ve found that many of the MA systems have similar features and functions. When we did our evaluation, a key point was the abilities of our marketing managers. Most came from a Marketing Communications background and, though very computer literate, were not engineers or HTML experts. They needed easy-to-use systems so they could quickly set up campaigns. That meant an interface to the database that was Excel-like; a WYSISYG editor for landing page creation; an intuitive process for setting up multi-phase campaigns; and the ability to easily monitor and analyze progress of campaigns. Usability can be critical to success. With what systems do you need to integrate The obvious one for most is your CRM system. However, you also have to think about your email database and possibly your content management system for landing pages.  Sometimes there also may be the need to connect with billing, shipping or other systems. You need to identify this in advance and then see what the vendor can do to help.

Price and timeline

OK, this is a given. Price is critical. But also remember to think about the timeline for implementation, especially if you need to do any custom integration work.

Support

As was often pointed out in the LinkedIn posts, customer support is either a source for competitive advantage – or a badge of dishonor. And here, user case studies and comments from your colleagues do prove helpful.

There are other things to consider but I think these can help you get started. My biggest concern after seeing all of the comments on LinkedIn was that people were just moving to a new platform for the sake of doing so. Thought and planning are needed before you make such an investment.

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