Sun Bear Strikes a Balance

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As anyone knows who's ever tried to repair a leaky faucet, doing it yourself is highly overrated. Even if you know what you're doing, it takes time you would rather spend elsewhere, and you often end up calling a professional to fix a bigger mess than the one you started with.


The same applies to marketing software. When evaluating systems, users often place great weight on the ability to do things without outside help. This usually reflects past difficulties with getting technical staff to make desired changes quickly and correctly. In the time it took to explain things to someone else, the user thinks, I could have done it myself. And it would have been cheaper, and I would have known it was right.


Reacting to customer demand, system developers pile ever more end-user capability into their products. Whether users really will use these features, or even whether they should try, is irrelevant: What matters is making the sale. So systems become increasingly flexible - often a euphemism for complicated - and even simple tasks come to require more skill than many users possess.


The irony, of course, is that few end users have the inclination, time or training to master these advanced capabilities. Let's face it, the most effective user interface has long been the telephone - as in, pick it up and tell someone else what to do. Yes, dependence on technology staff can be frustrating. But the more common solution today is to assign technical specialists to end-user departments.


Even when this isn't done formally, most groups quickly find themselves delegating complicated tasks to one or more power users rather than expecting all users to become equally skilled in functions they need just rarely. And when integration with external systems is needed or when errors could cause serious business damage, there is no choice but to rely on technology staff to ensure things are done right.


Some vendors avoid the trap of overcomplicating their software. In the consumer and small-business markets, companies like MySoftware (now Avanquest USA) long have provided limited flexibility in return for low cost, ease of use and minimal training requirements. Climbing slightly higher on the simplicity vs. flexibility curve, contact management software like ACT! and Goldmine lets end users do some configuration but relies on value-added retailers for serious customization.


Hosted software, constrained by the need to keep all clients running on the same basic platform, also tends toward simple, minimally customized implementations. But some hosted vendors, notably Salesforce.com, have sought to attract larger, more demanding clients by steadily extending their configuration options. For these products, a sufficiently competent user now can make the system do just about anything.


Sun Bear Marketing Automation Platform (Sun Bear Software, 781/229-5858, www.sunbearsoftware.com) takes a different path. Recognizing that most users will not perform complicated technical tasks, it has not tried to make these functions easily accessible. Nor, however, has it simply made such changes impossible or required custom programming to accomplish them.


Instead, Sun Bear designed its system so most technically challenging tasks require a technician but can be done without changing the underlying programs. This approach is not unique to Sun Bear, but Sun Bear may be the most advanced marketing system to apply such a strategy.


Sun Bear does offer a fairly comprehensive set of marketing capabilities, including a multi-table database, customer and transaction data import, address standardization, deduplication, complex selections, multi-step campaigns, an offer library, task management, automatic interaction history, response tracking, lead distribution, sales pipeline management, personalized e-mails, survey forms, reporting and analysis.


Most functions are adequate if not especially sophisticated. Campaign management, for example, provides basic query definition and allows multiple activities per campaign. These activities could be development tasks, such as gaining copy approval, or different contacts in a multi-step campaign. Activities also could be used as different segments or cells within the same campaign drop, though this is not their main purpose.


The process for each activity is defined in an XML document, which gives enough flexibility to do just about anything. So a random sample activity, which is not part of the standard system capabilities, could be created if the XML developer were clever enough. This is the sort of work done by technical staff, either at Sun Bear or elsewhere.


Once the new type of activity is created, it is available to end users without any particular technical skill. Because the activity process is defined in an XML document, no change is needed in the actual system programs.


Other processes can be similarly controlled through XML, such as complex record matching or advanced types of queries. Basic tasks such as setting up survey forms, defining personalized e-mails, making list selections, importing data and writing reports can be done by end users with only standard system functions.


Setting up or changing the structure of the marketing database requires both creating the actual tables in the SQL Server database - outside of Sun Bear - and defining those tables within the Sun Bear system. This is another job for a technician, not an end user. But once the database is defined, non-technical users can specify which data elements are available to which groups of users for selections and reports.


Whether Sun Bear's balance between technical and end-user functions will prove attractive remains to be seen. Since its launch in 2001, the system has attracted about a dozen users, all small to midsize business-to-business marketers. The software is offered either on a hosted basis, starting at $500 monthly for 10 users, or a conventional perpetual license starting at $35,000 plus 15 percent annual maintenance.


Implementation, including database design and development of customized XML, typically runs about one to four weeks and costs $5,000 to $50,000 depending on the details. Most clients depend on Sun Bear for ongoing technical assistance, though those with in-house technical resources could do the work themselves.


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