Choosing a Management System

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I was recently in the office of a building contractor to discuss home renovations. On the way out, he proudly walked us through his production department, where four huge white boards track every job his company has under way.


I considered mentioning that he could do the same thing with a computer system, at higher cost and less efficiently. But good contractors are hard to find, so I let the moment pass.


Visit any corporate marketing department and you likely will find a similar set of white boards, or the functional equivalent in scattered spreadsheets and word processing files. Like my contractor's system, this works when there are few projects and each follows a similar course. But as scale and complexity rise, a manual system grows unwieldy and an integrated, computer-based solution works better.


General-purpose project management software has long been available, but most marketers find it too hard to use and too narrow in focus.


The software is too hard because it includes sophisticated project management capabilities, like critical path analysis and resource loading, that are overkill for most marketing applications. It is too narrow because conventional project management is only task tracking, while marketing projects add dimensions such as business plans, promotion materials, collaborative discussions and result evaluation.


Given these needs, it makes sense to build special software to manage marketing projects. Such systems are one of the few growth areas in marketing systems.


Conventional campaign management systems from Siebel, Unica, Protagona (now DoubleClick) and Kana have added extensive program management functions while Aprimo and Matrix Technologies have tightly integrated campaign management and program management from the start. Specialist vendors including Marketing Pilot, Marketing Central, Kickfire and Notora offer marketing program management without the customer selection functions that mark a campaign manager.


These specialist products are sometimes called "marketing process managers" or "marketing resource managers." Whatever the label, they share three main functions: task management, document management and personal portals.


• Task management works in connection with projects, which may be conventional marketing campaigns or simply the project of creating a piece of collateral. Some systems link projects to detailed business plans, which in turn may be associated with product lines, media channels, corporate strategies or business goals. This facilitates analysis of spending and results by category.


Projects are usually assigned to teams, which often include individuals and vendors outside the company. One key benefit of these systems is the ability to share project-related communications across different organizations' internal systems.


Tasks themselves have attributes such as due date, budget, responsible team member and status. Some systems add sophisticated project management functions such as dependence of one task on another, automated rescheduling if due dates are not met and tracking the capacity and use of staff and other resources. But, as already noted, these functions are usually left out for simplicity. Similarly, some products can integrate tightly with other corporate systems for posting of actual costs or access to external data, but most leave this out as well.


What's never left out is the ability to identify overdue tasks and alert responsible individuals. Related notification functions often alert users to new tasks and to items submitted for approval. The systems also display project and task dates on various schedules and calendars. And they all let users set up templates to allow easy reuse of standard project plans.


• Document management may encompass project materials such as memos and promotion materials such as ad layouts. In both cases, the marketing management system simplifies access and controls changes. Access is typically through hierarchical sets of folders that bring together all documents of a project. These may be supplemented by search functions based on standard attributes, key words, text indexing or visual characteristics. Security is critical and is typically based on a combination of team membership, role-related rules and user status.


Change management also draws on security but extends to document check-in/check-out (ensuring only one person at a time can make changes), tracking which user makes each change, requiring approvals before deployment and retaining earlier versions. Some systems provide markup tools that let users share comments or proposed changes before changes are made.


• Personal portals let each user view only the information relevant to his or her needs. Nearly all marketing management systems are accessible through a Web browser, which simplifies access from multiple locations and by users outside the organization. Users can see a personal task list, alerts about overdue tasks, items awaiting approval, selected reports and other information about their projects. Managers can see additional views, such as tasks or actions relating to a particular subordinate or department. Most systems give individual users some control over the appearance of their personal portal.


Despite the shared set of core functions, marketing management systems differ significantly. One difference is product delivery: Kickfire is an application service provider, meaning the software runs on the vendor's own server, while Marketing Pilot and Notara are purchased and run by the buyer. Marketing Central offers both options.


Each system has its strengths. Marketing Pilot provides extensive marketing planning and result tracking. Marketing Central has a special version for ad agencies. Kickfire stresses collaboration through consolidated project e-mail, Web conferencing and synchronization with Palm Pilot and other personal digital assistants. Notara can manage sales and use of licensed products. Close comparison would reveal more subtle differences.


Choosing a marketing management system requires careful evaluation of your needs as well as the available systems. The best solution may not be a specialist product, but similar functions built into a campaign manager, or a combination of generic project management, document management, collaboration or portal software. Or maybe you'd like a nice new white board?


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