Finding Your Way Through the Marketing Automation Maze

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Marketing automation tools offer an efficient and effective way to select and segment customers, track contacts with those customers and measure the results of those contacts.

Managers often look to these tools when the demand for volume, speed, complexity and integration exceeds their current capability.

Shopping for marketing automation tools, however, can be difficult. Life has become very complicated for decision-makers seeking marketing automation or campaign management tools.

Potential purchasers must choose from a wide assortment of software applications, each with its own set of capabilities, technical architecture and pricing scenarios. Although such applications are designed to facilitate marketing efforts, the explosion in the number of choices, new players, emerging technologies and aggressive sales claims of "end-to-end fully integrated" solutions often creates confusion with the potential to complicate the very work they are intended to simplify.

In addition, managers trying to automate marketing processes often find themselves learning as much about their own organization and business processes as they do about marketing automation software. Implementation of an automated solution can expose weaknesses and anachronisms in existing infrastructure or highlight untapped talent and potential. The one consistent factor is that roles, practices, attitudes and insights will change along with the software and hardware.

Finding the right tool from the right vendor goes a long way toward smoothing the automation process. Because marketing automation vendors take pride in finding innovative solutions to technical and strategic problems, they can become -- under the best circumstances -- partners in helping clients achieve their business goals. That is why the first step to selecting a marketing automation tool is to define what those business goals are.

The steps to selecting a marketing automation tool reflect the importance of understanding the organization, its vision for the future and its current realities, as well as the tool:

Step 1: Define the need. The best way to begin selecting a vendor is to identify the business requirements that dictate the need for a marketing automation tool.

The business requirements may be organized in terms of the evaluation criteria questions listed below or dictated by an organization's current situation. Discussion with potential stakeholders across the enterprise ensures an accurate statement of needs to guide vendors and vendor selectors alike.

Here are the questions for determining business requirements and defining the need:

Marketing Issues

* Who will use the tool?

* What will campaign volume look like?

* What personalization is required?

* What data fields, reports, analysis will be used?

* What locations will we have?

Management Issues

* What budget constraints must we consider?

* How do we measure the success of the system?

Technical Issues

* What are our database requirements? Number of customers? Fields?

* How do we leverage our existing data warehouse? Systems? Software?

* What are our platform requirements? Are there server/browser preferences?

* What additional data marts, platforms, software, systems might be needed?

* What resources are available for setup? Implementation? Ongoing?

Step 2: Set priorities. Identify short-term and long-term priorities, then clearly state what is important and promotes good research and decisions. Despite claims of total solutions, most tools when implemented in a real-world business environment require some trade-offs. A clear sense of priorities fosters trade-offs that preserve an organization's goals.

Step 3: Weigh the alternatives. Purchasers are wise to consider advantages and disadvantages of building inhouse infrastructure, working through service bureaus, seeking strategic partnerships and signing leasing agreements.

In the end, the approach that best meets business requirements short term and long term will prove the best approach for a company.

Step 4: Identify specific vendors. Gathering information from vendor Web sites, industry literature, decision tool research providers and managers familiar with organizational needs and requirements can narrow the field to five or six vendors that meet the stated needs best. Potential buyers can then contact those vendors for additional information.

Step 5: Screen vendors by phone. Marketing automation materials can be very confusing. Sales literature for almost every tool makes claims of "integration," for example, but what does integration mean? In some instances, it refers to the ability of anyone with a workstation to access information or functionality with a simple point and click. In other instances, it refers to the process of producing an output file to be sent to another system where it must be re-formatted and read in a sometimes cumbersome and unreliable process, depending on the two systems. Talking to vendors helps clarify what a company offers and how that addresses the business needs.

Step 6: Visit vendors on-site. A well-planned on-site visit does not have to be a repetition of the sales literature. By sharing with selected vendors the clearly defined business needs requirements, priorities and key questions before the on-site visit, the time can be very productive for both vendor and purchaser. Include all stakeholders to increase the depth and breadth of the discussion.

Step 7: Check references. Businesses that purchased and implemented the solution you are considering are a valuable source of useful information about not only the vendor but also implementation. They may have insights on the issues -- such as resource requirements -- that are affected by automation even though they are beyond the scope of the vendor's commitment. Client references help clarify issues, define limitations, anticipate obstacles and identify strengths and weaknesses.

Step 8: Test the software hands-on. Only hands-on experience can give you a feel for ease, flexibility and functionality. A statistical analyst knows what to try in the response measurement or response modeling module; a campaign manager knows what to look for in terms of work flow. A variety of users should be encouraged to test, compare and provide feedback.

Step 9: Request proposals. As specific as marketers and technicians may be in defining needs, new issues often arise during the proposal stage. Pricing raises questions because every vendor has a unique pricing structure. Price comparisons may be most effective when all vendors under consideration give a specific price for the same proposal.

Step 10: Follow up with questions. Asking a vendor about something another vendor has offered -- such as drill-down OLAP reporting -- may bring surprising answers. Vendors pride themselves on keeping up with the latest changes and a customer's latest demands. They will prove flexible and resourceful in helping clients achieve a solution that meets expectations and helps meet business goals. Tie payment to performance. Although it is not always possible, try to negotiate a contract under which the vendor gets paid only when the system is fully functional and the vendor is responsible and accountable for getting it there. A shared understanding of what the completed project comprises helps ensure satisfaction for vendor and purchaser alike.

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