Are the Marketing Clouds Rolling Away?

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Public domain image from pixabay.com
Public domain image from pixabay.com

Since at least 2009, when Adobe acquired Omniture and began to build a digital marketing hub around it, debates about the future of marketing technology have focused relentlessly on the CMO's dilemma: Invest in a big, unified marketing suite, or compose a marketing stack from best-of-breed point solutions. No longer.

With the top marketing cloud vendors pushing an open architecture message, making multiple acquisitions, and allowing independent solutions to be built natively on their platforms, the distinction between all-inclusive suites and customized stacks has never looked so hazy.

Are the clouds dispersing? Not in any simple sense. The big marketing clouds aren't about to vanish. If anything, Adobe, Oracle and Salesforce have broadened their central cloud offerings to include various combinations of marketing, sales, service, data or analytics, eCommerce and app clouds. But at the same time, it's become increasingly clear that these complex, interrelated platforms are really collections of tools—more or less well integrated—and not monolithic, walled garden solutions. 

In other words, they look more and more like customized stacks under big name awnings.

But, as ever, it's more complicated than that. The big hubs have always been built on acquisitions; but their diversity has been boosted by:

  • Integrating with third party apps
  • Permitting third party apps to be built natively on the big cloud platforms, and
  • Opening their architecture (most say; Adobe declined to comment for this article).

Inviting Partners to the Dance

Back in the summer, Chris Lynch, Head of Product Marketing at Oracle Marketing Cloud, told me: “We're devout about an open platform strategy," he said. "The existence of a marketing cloud need not be at the expense of other best-of-breed solutions." In a conversation last week, Steve Krause, OMC's Head of Product, doubled down.

“We're not here to punish customers for buying other products,” he said. “You don't have to listen to words, he added. “You can look at actions.” The Oracle Cloud Marketplace offers hundreds of apps from partners to integrate with the Marketing Cloud alone, all verified and secure. “Our acquisitions can plug into the marketing cloud,” he said, “but it's open; others can plug into it too.”

In fact, said Krause, “among the most common integrations we have are with our so-called competitors. Oracle Eloqua [marketing automation] is very well connected into Salesforce.com. Also the Oracle Sales Cloud, which also connects with other CRM systems.”

The cloud vendor's role, according to Krause, is: “Be the platform. Be the center of gravity. There needs to be one foreman on the job site.” Oracle's task is to make marketing tech stacks work. Krause hears CMOs say, “I'm running all these systems, which made sense to buy at the time, but the totality has gotten out of hand.” Contractual practicalities mean that CMOs can't make everything “go away” and start from scratch. “It's extremely common for us to come in and rationalize what's already there.”

There are differences between the larger marketing hub vendors when it comes to openness and diversity, but the differences are subtle. Salesforce places a greater emphasis on the completeness of its platform, although it has created an eco-system where it claims partners can thrive and CMOs have a choice. That was the message I got from Eric Stahl, Salesforce's SVP Product Marketing.

“It's important for marketing hubs to have partners and an eco-system,” he told me, “so that if a specific organization needs a function not provided by the platform there is a likely a partner who can provide said functionality.” Nevertheless, the goal for Salesforce is clearly to provide—as far as possible—a complete CRM, of which the marketing cloud forms just one part. “The real value,” said Stahl, “doesn't come from just the integration of best-of-breed point solutions. It comes from integrations across the vendor's entire platform and eco-system.”

While Oracle and Salesforce have expanded their marketing cloud offerings through strategic acquisitions, SAP Hybris is pairing in-house development with an open architecture. Marcus Ruebsam is SVP and Global Head of Solution Management: “We are not really thinking of acquiring assets to cover business areas. There has to be a bigger vision for this. Although if there are assets out there which are a complete fit, we would be interested.”

The bigger vision, for Ruebsam, revolves around architecture and data. He describes the brand's core approach as a “data integration play.” It's important, he said, “to keep data consistent. We don't want to have fragments—piecemeal data.” Some of the competition “looks like a bunch of offerings, not working together in an integrated way.” But if SAP Hybris is betting on its own architecture, it's still allowing developers—and customers—to create the miniature, process-based apps they call “microservices” on that platform.

Ruebsam even contemplates integrations with Salesforce or Oracle solutions: “Potentially, yes. There's nothing against this. YaaS [the Hybris-as-a-Service platform] is open enough for this. It's not a priority for us, but we're not restricting—that's not our strategy.”

Sitting on a Cloud

Eric Marotta, Head of Product Marketing at CloudCraze, brought an important perspective to all this. “I love your supposition about a bespoke cloud solution,” he told me.

CloudCraze is an eCommerce platform built natively on Salesforce. The brand is independent of Salesforce, and doesn't require its customers to be Salesforce customers. CloudCraze benefits from Salesforce's architecture: “We view them as our AWS,” Marotta told me. The advantage for a Salesforce customer in the market for eCommerce is that the connection to CloudCraze can happen “instantaneously.” It's an example of combining the benefits of a foundational cloud architecture—“one system of record; one view of the customer (order history, browsing behavior),” said Marotta—with the ready availability of a point solution; in this case an eCommerce platform.

“The market is changing faster than software can keep up with,” said Marotta. Being able to turn on and off various cloud-based solutions gives brands greater flexibility. As for CloudCraze, Marotta said, “our platform is open and componentized. You can switch off our data store and plug in a different one.”

“I definitely think we are seeing some changes of approach in this space,” said James Norwood, VP Strategy and CMO at Episerver. Episerver offers a suite of marketing, content management and eCommerce tools it calls the "Experience Cloud"—but it isn't a comprehensive platform, and doesn't claim to be. The impression you can get from the big tech eco-systems, he said, is that it's “my way or the highway. The really big vendors are claiming to be more open, but there's a reason [their solutions can] cost seven figures.”

Sitting in the midmarket, Episerver, like SAP Hybris, steers away from straightforward acquisitions. "We rewrite, we don't just integrate," said Norwood. At the same time, the brand claims a "world class API," allowing connections to multiple independent solutions.

The midmarket, Norwood observed, is "savvy and sophisticated" but can't necessarily afford big box marketing suites. "They have the challenges of an enterprise, but often the budget of an SMB." Episerver leads, he said, with commerce, content, campaigns and personalization, "but we don't try to do everything." Indeed, Norwood feels that a tool for everything can be "overwhelming." Episerver, then, "plays it both ways"—core and proprietary systems of record, plus an open architecture. "I won't say it's not a challenge," Norwood admitted.

Stormy Weather?

Some onlookers, as one might expect, are skeptical of these strategies to combine the best of both worlds. One executive, declining to me identified, told me: "Major marketing cloud vendors that have eco-systems don't cultivate them to support the CMO; they do it with self-interest in mind. You'll notice that competitive tools are not made readily available in mega-vendor app stores."

Seeking the views of someone without a dog in the race, I turned to Emily Sue Tomac, an analyst for the business software review platform TrustRadius. She observed that the big marketing suite solutions are "designed around the assumption that marketers will be overwhelmed by the number of martech options, and the effort of working with multiple martech vendors." Research, however, doesn't bear out the claim that integrating independent best-of-breed solutions is an insuperable challenge."

Indeed, Tomac noted that: "(M)arketers using marketing clouds revealed that they still need to integrate some additional tools from other vendors, diminishing the appeal of an all-in-one solution that's not truly all in one. Up until recently, marketing cloud vendors' competitive positioning has been around avoiding the need to integrate with third-party tools. So neither they nor their customers have really focused on getting better at this, whereas the best-of-breed vendors and users have been focused on this for a while." 

Campaign Monitor, the email marketing platform, has robustly argued the case for portfolios of simple tools, seamlessly working together. I asked SVP of Marketing Operations and Demand Gen Andrea Wildt about the viability of pairing big clouds with point solutions. "Most major marketing cloud vendors have developed an open API and ecosystem of select third party apps," she agreed, "But when you bankroll a major marketing cloud that has a suite of functionality, it's incredibly difficult to justify purchasing point solutions on top of your technology and services bill." 

In addition to subscription costs, she pointed to the likely need to hire specialized technical staff to run the machine (something I discussed recently here). "Any COO will question why an expensive marketing cloud that has dedicated staff to run it needs additional point solutions," she said.

Waleed Ayoub, Chief Product Officer at Rubikloud, a retail intelligence start-up, views open platforms as a requirement, not an option, but noted: "(t)he complexity driven by the complete lack of harmony across technology stacks and the myriad data sources...While having an open platform goes a long way in addressing a CMO's need, currently, robust API layers are rarely at the suite-level, but inconsistently scattered across various point solutions." What's more, "while vendor acquisitions have certainly accelerated, it would be naive to take integration for granted. Major marketing cloud vendors offering suite solutions have quite a long way to go in order to integrate their own stacks. 

For Ayoub, the distinction between marketing suites and open marketing stacks isn't going away any time soon, thanks to the business need for flexibility—as well as the growth of vertically-aligned technology start-ups like Rubikloud itself.

War is Over 

Whatever the shortcomings of the big vendors when it comes to integrating acquisitions or truly opening their arms to competitive products, the dispersal of the soup-to-nuts marketing suite proffer is in the air right now. I heard the theme repeated by Oracle Marketing Cloud and Marketo executives at a Sirius Decisions panel just last week. Matt Zilli of Marketo described the importance of a "set of core capabilities provided by one vendor," with point solutions added as required. Stephen Streich said that Oracle Marketing Cloud is now more interested in competing on "service, scope and community, not feature and function." Third parties and partners, he said, always have a part to play.

I asked CloudCraze's Marotta to look at the future. “The notion that an enterprise will be an Oracle or an SAP enterprise is being diminished," he said, "but there's still a core of marketing cloud that people are investing in. As complexity is increasing, there may be more contractual relationships on the periphery. The core of a system may be Salesforce, but you might bolt on five other vendors at equivalent cost.”

A vision, in other words, of a best-of-breed stack with a system of record at the core. If that's how it plays out, marketing clouds versus customized stacks may turn out to have been a phoney war.


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