Keeping Up With Technology TrendsWhat good is a road map when the street names and cities change every week? In the e-commerce world, change happens even faster. Every day there's a next "New Thing" or the business gets turned on its head.
As a result, clients face tremendous challenges in evaluating new technologies and marketing tactics, and their agencies find themselves in the nearly untenable position of recommending solutions that might be obsolete before they're even approved.
The good news is many agencies have felt compelled to broaden their expertise so they can help their clients in many of the areas that affect a successful e-commerce business: site platform, ad serving, Web site-tracking, profiling and segmentation, acquisition and retention e-mail, data warehousing and analytics.
Unfortunately, the technology changes so quickly that it's difficult for agencies to stay on top of it and advocate solutions that work well together. Today the phrase "seamless integration" may be the biggest contradiction in terms since "military intelligence."
The holy grail in this environment is to find one company that can handle everything. Sadly, it doesn't exist. Of the e-commerce functions listed above, some companies handle multiple tactics, but their line extensions beyond core capabilities don't necessarily represent the best-of-breed solution, particularly in the more specialized areas. Even if they integrate well, which is debatable, the cutting-edge technology likely can be found elsewhere.
So how does an agency help its clients choose the right partner set without its recommendation becoming obsolete even prior to approval? Here are guidelines that can make the job easier, if not enjoyable, and raise the credibility of the agency in the process.
• Learn about what's out there, and involve multiple members of your team.
The only way to understand the capabilities of new technology firms is to meet with them or attend conferences featuring tools that interest you.
Everyone can't make every presentation, so spread it around and ensure attendees report the highlights and that collateral material is available. With regard to conferences, you often can learn as much (or more) from other attendees as from the speakers, depending on the quality of the event. There is no substitute for insight obtained by peers who have experience with these companies -- and whether they loved or hated them, you'll get an undistilled account of their experiences.
• Expect to hear from companies you've never heard of before. Despite that lack of familiarity, agencies can't afford to ignore firms that aren't household names. In fact, they're obligated to keep the radar on to pick up new tech developments, because their clients will demand this.
Case in point: A few months back I introduced myself over the phone to a high-level manager at one of my prospective agency clients. She had difficulty understanding how the last part of my company's name was spelled. Eventually she got it, but hadn't heard of us and said she thought it was a stupid name.
If stupid-sounding names prevented Internet and technology companies from succeeding today, there wouldn't be any success stories. Most readers can probably think of a few strange agency monikers, but that's fodder for a different article.
Though a co-worker in another city had recommended us to her for our technology, she was annoyed at the name and decided to waste no time with me. About a month later I saw that one of her clients started their own review of e-mail service providers, effectively cutting the agency out of the billing for that program.
It's hard to believe that an agency top manager responsible for Internet marketing would behave this way, which leads us to the next suggestion.
• Don't lift a finger without top management commitment. On a strategic level, agency top management needs to have articulated a desire to offer certain of these e-commerce solutions to clients, or at least develop enough internal expertise to give clients an agency point of view.
Without such a commitment, don't be surprised when the resources of time, money and people aren't available when you need them. This integration effort is hard work, and one person can't hope to handle it all. There just aren't enough hours in the day.
• Encourage the participation of your information technology people. One strength of the IT department is that its staffers are uniquely qualified to evaluate rapidly changing technology.
Whereas certain agency account people might not have all the answers on the tech side, their colleagues in IT are in that business because they enjoy the stimulation of evaluating new systems and solutions. Though they are usually swamped by project work, your IT folks can offer "quality time" input into your process. Just keep in mind that they expect efficient communication from you, because their time is precious, too.
• Ensure the various systems are "open" and can work together. An open data system allows agencies and their clients to integrate data from that vendor into the mix of e-commerce tools already in deployment. Such systems have no expectations for the formatting of the data coming, for example, from Web-tracking or ad-serving software, that will be used in profiling or segmentation of registered users. A defined or exposed application programming interface gives your tech team access to the "guts" of the program software so you can integrate it with other tools.
Solutions based on Java and other industry-standard programming languages represent greater flexibility in achieving a best-of-breed tool set that works together. The opposite is true when an e-commerce tool has very restrictive expectations about the formatting of data -- which can lead to nightmarish integration problems and extended data conversion lead times.
• Test new solutions with the right client. Every agency managing director knows which clients are eager to try new things, or always pushing the agency to devise leading-edge solutions. Those are the clients you should seek out to test e-commerce tools. As long as there is a legitimate client need, and your client is willing, get agreement on objectives and initiate a pilot program to test the solution set.
Ideally, you would want to identify a client with whom a successful test would result in scalability, not only within their area of influence, but perhaps even across multiple brands, lines of business or divisions.
• Don't overcommit. In such a volatile environment, the last thing you want is an agreement with a partner that prohibits you from employing new technology that far surpasses existing capabilities.
In your contracts, you need to provide for the possibility that another vendor in this same space can deliver a more robust solution, and you'll have the right to use it. So beware of long-term agreements. And be sure to allow yourself the ability to utilize technologies that are similar but actually accomplish different things.
Potential vendors that are confident in the ability to evolve their solution over time are more likely to agree to this -- and that's a good sign. If they listen to their customers, they'll develop the functionality required or be out of business.
• Don't build it in-house unless absolutely necessary. One of the reasons why application service providers have grown so dramatically is that with changing technology, today's configuration might not meet tomorrow's needs. What a nightmare it would be to explain to your boss (or worse, the agency's CFO), that the brand new system it took eight months to implement is obsolete. That's a tremendous waste of people and time.
When you license software in the ASP model, you're sharing the cost of the hardware investment with that vendor's other customers. You are able to deploy the solution very rapidly, which often counts for something in today's competitive agency environment. Besides, when you finally land that huge client, you better have the scalability to meet their needs or they'll find another agency.
• Avoid significant dollar outlays until you establish a track record. People expect that the agency and client will require a test before committing to a technology solution. Make sure that the parameters for the test mirror what will actually happen at rollout. How many times have you run test programs that went great, only to hear from the vendor that a critical task isn't scalable for rollout, or may prove cost prohibitive?
Recently I had an agency prospect tell me a competitor was offering a test for one-quarter of the cost I submitted, and of course was emphasizing its tremendous price advantage. By the time this competitor fully scoped the test, their pricing increased to within $1,000 of my proposal, and the prospect dismissed them for not representing the price of their service in good faith.
• The bigger the commitment you make, the more attention you'll get. This is an apparent conflict with the previous guideline, but this is how the world works -- and it's even more true when it comes to e-commerce tools.
The only good thing about this is that for small companies with hot technology, you have the leverage of adding credibility to their solution simply by association. They yearn to add prestigious names to their client roster, and smart agencies can capitalize on that. You can trade capital such as press releases and partner exposure on your Web site for concessions in more important areas, such as price, support levels, or more customized solutions.
• Tie at least one person's performance and compensation to the task. While it's said that failure is an orphan but success has many fathers, the only way to ensure progress in the integration game is to assign someone with ownership of the process.
And at least a portion of their compensation needs to be tied to concrete, achievable goals. Let that person develop a plan for increasing the agency's knowledge in these areas. A good start would be to take inventory of the knowledge that current staff has to offer, whether from past employment or projects at other agencies/companies. You should also be able to identify specific client objectives or, at minimum, capabilities that are complimentary to your agency's current tool set.
Life isn't getting easier for agencies trying to support their clients' decisions when it comes to e-commerce tools. Change is happening faster than ever, and shows no signs of letting up. Following a few of these guidelines can help agencies improve their own solution set, then attract and retain some great clients along the way.
• Jim Mahoney is channel sales manager at e-mail solutions provider Responsys.com, Palo Alto, CA. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.