Tools to help run marketing operations range from generic project management and collaboration software to specialized systems for marketing planning, administration, execution and reporting. Complexity, cost and implementation time generally climb as systems become more powerful. Users in midsized marketing departments – 10 to 100 people – need some specialized features, but not a high-end system designed for huge multinationals.
Marketing Operations Center (MarketingCentral, 770/449-7920, www.marketingcentral.com) targets these midsized groups. Its main strengths are collaboration and project management, with impressive capabilities for review of creative materials. Planning, file management, execution and budgeting are less powerful.
The vendor intends to expand planning and budgeting in 2005 to boost the system’s value to senior marketing management.
Like the smaller organizations it aims to serve, MarketingCentral gives higher priority to flexibility than structure. It expects marketers to organize most of their work around projects, but allows calendars and message boards that exist separately. Content libraries can be independent of a project or not. Working outside of projects simplifies sharing of information across projects and user groups.
Of course, many elements are inevitably project-specific. These include basic project attributes, component reviews, schedules, discussions, budgets and results. There can be multiple reviews, schedules and discussions per project, allowing these to be as specific as necessary.
The component review functions are the most advanced. MarketingCentral developed proprietary technology that converts Adobe Acrobat .pdf files to a format that is displayed over the Web without loading an Adobe reader or any other software.
Along with viewing the files, users can attach comments to specific locations on the images. These are displayed as small icons, similar to physical sticky notes. Other users open the icons to read the comments and append comments of their own. Users also can create action items related to the review, see a log of who else has reviewed an item, post new versions, archive previous versions, issue e-mail or pager alerts of changes, send requests for approvals and grant approvals of their own. At least in this area, MarketingCentral’s features are fully competitive with more expensive products.
Task management also will meet most users’ needs. Users can create lists of tasks by typing them directly, loading them from an Excel spreadsheet or using a previously built template. Templates can include dependencies and time intervals between tasks, letting the system calculate due dates for an entire schedule given the date for a single task at the beginning, end or middle of a project.
Users can assign tasks to individuals, allocate other resources, estimate work hours required, enter actual time, record task completion and track changes in due dates over time. They can display task lists in tabular or calendar formats. What’s missing are advanced project management features such as critical path analysis and resource leveling. Some of these were in earlier versions of MarketingCentral, but removed for simplicity because users didn’t need them.
Other project-related components are still more basic. The system supports threaded discussions, including abilities to notify team members of new entries, to delete or archive old entries and to attach files. Budgets are created at the project rather than task levels. Users can enter actual expenses manually, but the system does integrate with external financial software.
Expected and actual results are also entered manually. Though users can complete standardized job initiation forms through the system, it lacks other purchasing or execution functions.
MarketingCentral’s sister product for ad agencies, AgencyCentral, provides some prebuilt integration with Strata media buying software and the Advantage agency management system.
A report builder lets users create straightforward reports on selected projects and tasks. Users can customize these by selecting the data elements to display, sort and group by. Users can see their own tasks in a portal-type interface that also shows items awaiting approval, new information and user-selected shortcuts, projects and libraries.
Message boards are maintained with simple tools that let non-technical users post messages, format text and link to images. The system can issue alerts when new messages appear. Calendars can be displayed in list or calendar formats and let users drill down to see event details. A custom interface makes it easy for users to set up Webex online meetings.
File management, often a key feature in marketing management systems, is quite limited. Users can create hierarchical sets of document folders, called libraries. These may be assigned to a project or exist independently. Basic security, organized by work group, defines rights to upload, view, download and modify documents for each library.
The system also provides search functions and reports on document use. But advanced features for digital asset management – such as highly granular security, expiration dates, version control or automated reformatting – are not included. This is another conscious choice: MarketingCentral is not targeted at users who need to manage large volumes of advertising materials. Nor has it built the high-volume Web connections needed to move large numbers of massive digital asset files. Such connections would be needed because MarketingCentral is a hosted system, meaning all client data reside at the vendor.
The hosted approach is central to MarketingCentral’s business strategy, since it lets clients implement the system quickly and with little initial cost or technical effort. No software is installed on user workstations, so the system can run easily on MacIntosh or Linux as well as Windows PCs.
The vendor says a new client, including private Web address, tailored log-in page, user-selected colors and fonts and custom configuration of 1,500 options, can be set up in 15 minutes.
Pricing is considerably lower than many marketing management products, starting at $300 monthly for 10 users, or $30 per user. This drops to $1,000 monthly for 50 users. Charges are based on “active” users, not the total number of people with access to the system.
MarketingCentral was launched in 1999. The company has more than 150 clients and 6,300 users.