The Marketing Cloud wars—revisited

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Introduction by Kim Davis, Editor-in-Chief, The Hub

In March, 2014, The Hub's first editor, Omar Akhtar, took an in-depth look at the race between five legacy tech giants to develop the first truly integrated, cloud-based marketing suite. Omar caught lightning in a bottle. Widespread interest in the topic, and his unique perspective, made his piece the most widely read and shared feature The Hub has yet published. What's more, although Omar didn't officially anoint a winner in the race, his comments on the strengths of Adobe's offering pre-empted Forrester's designation of Adobe as leader of the marketing cloud pack some months later. 

Times change, of course, and most of the marketing cloud offerings discussed by Omar have been in a constant state of evolution. The overall dominance of four out of five vendors, at least, persists, but is increasingly under challenge—from competitors like SAP, Experian, Sitecore and Hubspot; by start-ups launching much more limited but also more affordable products aimed at the midmarket; and—very significantly—by a groundswell of support for open marketing stacks, custom-built from individual point solutions. 

But we're dealing with the big vendors, and they haven't been idle. Whether through in-house development or acquisition, they've sought to improve the proffers outlined by Omar, and address many of the weaknesses he identified. We asked contributing writer Jason Compton to take a fresh look at the marketing cloud landscape, and the results are here. 

You can be sure of one thing. A few months from now, the terrain will have changed again.

Marketers have put the pressure on marketing cloud vendors. They're demanding centralization, simplification, and access to powerful data and campaign execution solutions—all without significant involvement from corporate IT. The result? Marketing cloud vendors are enhancing the size, scale, and shape of their platforms.

The bigger cloud vendors are also responding to market pressure of a very different kind: demands from early-stage investors who want to cash in and move on from the countless recent experiments in social marketing, programmatic campaigns, and mobile outreach in recent years. 

“The market of hundreds of point solutions is dividing into the winners, who get acquired at a reasonable price, and the ones that aren't able to scale their offerings,” says Andrew C. Frank, VP Distinguished Analyst at Gartner.

As the number of addressable devices explodes, and customer data sources become ever-richer, marketing clouds will offer the ideal mission control for a host of marketing campaigns and customer interaction strategies that can barely be imagined today. “It's not just marketing automation anymore. Marketers want solutions that are more integrated, that leverage both external and internal data with sophisticated tools and data science,” says Rebecca Wettemann, VP, Research at Nucleus Research. “And the big vendors realize there's money to be made there.”

Last year The Hub examined the fates, fortunes, and growing pains of five major marketing cloud solutions. This year we return to the big five and see what has changed. Adobe finished 2014 in pole position, but the other four—IBM, HP, Oracle, and Salesforce—have all devoted tremendous amounts of money and time to finding a way to catch up and stay caught up. 

In 2014, we said there were at least four components that every digital marketing cloud should be offering:

1)  Multi-channel marketing automation for publishing and promoting content that helps marketers engage customers across several different channels, particularly mobile and social. It also needs automation for the intelligent algorithms that sequence how that engagement happens.

2)  Content management tools to create and manage the content and engagement tools that can be deployed across different channels.

3)  Social media tools for listening to and engaging with social media networks, tapping into consumer conversations, and responding with custom content, or social media advertising.

4)  Analytics to create profiles of consumers based on their online behavior, and evaluate which marketing campaigns are working and which aren't.

Each of the five major vendors now offers all the above tools, well-tested and integrated, and they're each seeking to build out more ambitious capabilities—notably predictive analytics and sophisticated customer journey mapping. See how they fared this year.


Adobe established a first-mover advantage with its 2009 purchase of the marketing and Web analytics platform Omniture, shortly thereafter introducing the world to the concept of an integrated marketing cloud. This put the company once known mostly for creative tools at the forefront of end-to-end, cutting-edge customer outreach. Today, Adobe Marketing Cloud comprises the following solutions: 

Analytics: Based on the former Omniture solution, now Adobe's big data analysis and segmentation tool.

Social: Adobe's social media tool, built on the back of its acquisition of Context Optional/Efficient Frontier in 2012. Social allows for listening across networks—including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and blogs—creating targeted ads, identifying influencers, and moderating discussions from a single hub.

Experience Manager: For creating owned properties such as websites, forums, and other digital assets.

Media Optimizer: For creating and optimizing advertising across different channels; strengthened by Adobe's 2015 acquisition of Tumri (also known as Ensemble) programmatic technology from Collective, helping marketers reach audiences with a wide range of creative content at scale.

Campaign: For planning and executing campaigns across all channels, as well as automating targeted promotions and offers to specific customer groups. It is Adobe's multi-channel marketing automation program, built on its acquisition of Neolane, the cross-channel marketing automation software and services platform.

Target: For testing and targeting content and experiences for specific groups.

Audience Manager: Added to the Adobe Marketing Cloud in 2015, Audience Manager makes it easier to develop consistent, unified customer identification across multiple touchpoints and experiences. This in turn allows companies to build deeper customer profiles, and reach lookalike audiences through social platforms and ad networks.

Primetime: Another newcomer to the full Adobe Marketing Cloud suite, Primetime delivers customer-relevant television experiences to any screen. Now that it's part of the full Adobe Marketing Cloud, expect an ever-growing range of options to bring customers and prospects into custom video experiences.

Adobe continues to earn analyst ratings at or near the top of the heap, including Gartner's highest marks for both completeness of vision and ability to execute in its December 2014 “Magic Quadrant for Digital Marketing Hubs.” The challenge of operating from a position of strength, as Adobe does, is that it must be defended. 

To that end, Adobe has stayed very active in the acquisition game, buying comScore's Digital Analytix technology in late 2015. This gave Adobe a growing range of deep-dive, big data manipulation and insight tools to offer customers, and a new way to get ahead of large marketing cloud competitors by acquiring a smaller competitor. “They're still in the acquisitions game and not ceding anything,” Gartner's Frank says. “You're going to continue to see them compete aggressively, make acquisitions, and deliver innovation well into 2016 and beyond.”

Enhancements to Adobe Experience Manager include a customer journey designer and tracker, and enhanced asset management. Adobe is making it easier than ever to design and deploy customized landing pages and campaign elements with a wider range of media—including interactive video. Adobe has also set its sights on the Internet of Things, or as it terms it, the “Internet of Experience,” with the goal of helping marketers better personalize experiences across wearable devices as well as smart screens found in public IoT devices like elevators and gas pumps.


Adobe's early gains in the marketing cloud space were based on the twin pillars of rich data insights and rich content design capabilities. The fact that so many creative shops already run Adobe makes the content ecosystem particularly compelling to anyone responsible for campaign execution. Adobe has maintained a consistent emphasis on integration between components of the marketing cloud, with analytics as the core. This makes it easier for marketing organizations to act in concert and work from a single version of the truth. With each year the links between components grow stronger.

Adobe has also been aggressive about addressing problems and increased complexity as its marketing cloud adds new features and components. The recent acquisition of Digital Analytix, as well as internal development work on identity management, are designed to avoid the confusion and lack of actionable insights when multiple marketing systems track the same customer with different, disconnected visitor IDs across multiple touchpoints and technologies.

Workflow and audience profiling remain the strong suits of the Adobe Marketing Cloud experience, and the solution remains firmly focused on the needs and concerns of marketing professionals.


As rich and deep as Adobe's marketing and creative capabilities have been, sales and service capabilities have lagged. Until recently, Adobe Marketing Cloud lacked a significant CRM connector or partnership. The tide started to shift with a recent Microsoft strategic partnership, which includes Dynamics CRM and Office 365, but isn't a game-changer for most customers or prospects. Nucleus Research's Wettemann was a critic of Adobe's limited CRM capabilities in 2014 and the partnership hasn't quieted her concerns. 

“It's more about exposing Microsoft's customers to the Adobe cloud,” she says. “It gives Microsoft better ability to compete against Salesforce. It doesn't do as much to put Adobe ahead.” It is also a premium solution at a premium price. “Adobe remains a fit for companies with sophisticated marketing needs that require best-of-breed solutions—and with the budget to support them,” notes “The Forrester Wave: Digital Experience Platforms, Q4 2015.”


The company that defined the sales cloud has been laboring to do the same for the marketing cloud since making a series of splashy acquisitions, beginning with ExactTarget in 2013. In addition to internal development, Salesforce Marketing Cloud was built on these key purchases:

  • Radian6: Social media listening and monitoring, acquired for $326 million in 2011.
  • Buddy Media: Social media content publishing and management, acquired for $745 million in 2012, a deal which included, the social media advertising platform (formerly Brighter Option), acquired by Buddy Media earlier in 2012.
  • ExactTarget: Marketing automation platform, acquired in 2013 for $2.5 billion, a deal which included Pardot, the marketing automation platform previously acquired by ExactTarget.

Salesforce's early strategy was to build out the best available cloud marketing capabilities and pair them with cutting-edge social listening and outreach solutions. More recent developments include the rollout of Salesforce Engage, which seeks to make it easier for sales and marketing to collaborate over content. “It has nothing to do with 'engagement,' it has everything to do with aligning sales and marketing,” says Paul Greenberg, managing principal at The 56 Group. 

Crucially, Salesforce says it has now fully integrated the capabilities of Radian6, Buddy Media, and ExactTarget into the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. The next stages will focus on enhanced execution, not least a new user interface, Lightning Experience, which includes a visual app builder with drag-and-drop capabilities. The goal is to put powerful predictive analytics into campaigns that can be designed with a swipe or mouse click. “We want marketers to take browsing behavior, affinities, and past purchase behavior, marry that with predictive intelligence, and drag that content block into an email,” says Gordon Evans, VP of product marketing at Salesforce. 

Other new developments include Predictive Decisions, an advanced intelligence tool, and Journey Builder, which seeks to tell a unified story about a customer's path through sales, marketing, and service channels. Active Audiences, Salesforce's new partner-driven programmatic play, aims to increase the accuracy and efficiency of advertising across over 100 digital ad networks and platforms. Salesforce has announced marketing development partner status with the major social networks, including Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, giving the platform deep hooks into emerging placement strategies.

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