Build or buy a marketing stack? It isn’t a simple question

A flurry of recent articles have suggested that the debate about building versus buying a marketing stack is dead, and should be buried. “Why are we still talking about open versus closed marketing platforms?” asked Darr Gerscovitch, an Ensighten VP. “Are closed platforms selling marketers short” inquired Ensighten GM for EMEA, Ian Woolley, in a blog for Exchange Wire. Travis Wright of MediaThinkLabs was a booster for self-built marketing clouds at a forum conducted by CMS Wire (part one here; part two here).

This way of thinking isn’t necessarily wrong. Indeed it may not be wrong at all. But it does appear to be seeking premature closure on the debate.

Now Ensighten, of course, is an open marketing platform, actively encouraging the creation of custom marketing solutions through integration of best-of-breed solutions from any vendor. In other words, it has a dog in the race. Which, again, doesn’t mean it’s wrong about this. But these comments from the Ensighten blog are a little over-reaching:

“On one side of the debate, you have a small, but powerful group of large incumbents arguing that their single-vendor platform is the answer. On the opposite side sits everyone else, arguing that an open platform that lets you build your own marketing cloud is the future.”

First up, this isn’t something to be decided by a show of hands. Consider these comments in the CMS Wire forum from Scott Vaughan of Integrate (recently featured in The Hub’s Five Minutes series): 

“‘There’s so much innovative new tech coming out that you can build pieces of it. But if you try to build that entire cloud or all the systems, just the integrations will suck your staff. And you want your staff focused on being creative, revenue and creating value and innovating on top of it.’ Vaughan said having one large marketing cloud and building around works because there are ‘so many good third-party tools, technologies and platforms you can use. That doesn’t mean you have to buy everything but if you buy the core of it then you can build around it and customize it to your environment.'”

So first, it’s not an all-or-nothing decision–although it would certainly seem counter-productive to buy into an integrated marketing suite and then taking it to pieces. And second, think what you’re getting into if you decide to start from scratch. Recently I spoke with Christine Nurnberger, a CMO who is passionate about innovative technologies (let’s face it, not every CMO fits that description). She describes herself as “‘nimble’ in the evaluation of new tools, keeping testing ‘very contained and very measurable.’ She might run a pilot, for example, against a very small test group–something like the top fifty prospects.”

Auditioning an independent product to underpin a key marketing function is not a trivial task. It can be time-consuming, staff-consuming, and costly. Picking best-of-breed solutions for every function–from lead nurturing, to customer experience management, from content creation to social listening, from mobile campaign optimization to CRM–and then making those solutions work together, is a daunting prospect. In fact, get a consultant or two on the phone right away.

No wonder businesses (which can afford the choice) are tempted to cut some corners when it comes to complexity. An Adobe or Oracle investment might limit flexibility in the medium- to long-term, but they can relieve significant short-term headaches. As Isaac Wyatt of New Relic told CMS Wire: “When buying your vertical cloud stack with one vendor like an Adobe you unlock some efficiency when all the different technologies play well together.” There can be ongoing overheads in managing and trouble-shooting custom-built suites.

But back to the “all-or-nothing” shibboleth. Speak to a senior marketer like Bennett Porter of Survey Monkey, and you’ll discover that a lively interest in the potential of best-of-breed tools doesn’t mean that marketing operations don’t rely on a tried and tested solution like Salesforce. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every business using Salesforce is therefore using Salesforce Marketing Cloud. But it’s at least not obvious that it’s off the table as a reasonable option.

Of course there’s a groundswell of support for independent martech tools. After all, independent vendors must outnumber the big guys something like 300 to one (relying on Scott Brinker’s estimate of players in the game). Buy you know what Yogi Berra said.

And if you don’t: “It’s not over until it’s over.”

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