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Percolate: Systems Thinking is Go

“The world is governed by systems, grids,” Noah Brier told me as I chatted with him at Transition this week.

Brier is co-founder and CEO of software marketing vendor Percolate, and its annual Transition conference, staged at New York’s Lincoln Center, featured a parade of big-name speakers from outside the usual marketing technology guard-rails. That’s why I wanted to ask Brier if a deliberate decision had been made to push Transition beyond the predictable product-update/corporate roadmap boundaries.

“We used to have two events,” he conceded, one thematic and one more product-driven, but they’d been brought together. Why? Because marketers, he said, need to know about much more than just marketing. “Urbanization,” he said, “is going to affect how you sell things to people.” 

He was referring to a live-wire presentation we’d just witnessed by the always impressive Janette Sadik-Khan, former NYC Transportation Commissioner and chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, about changing the way city systems work by, for example, introducing bike lane and bike share programs, creating new open spaces (the Times Square Plaza), and “following the pedestrian” to see how people actually use streets. 

We’d also watched science journalist Charles C. Mann discuss alternative future systems of human survival (not all with happy endings), and star blogger Tim Urban (Wait But Why) sketch an alarming future in which AI not only powers but designs, creates and controls information systems, and essentially does our inventing for us.

The thread connecting these themes, as Brier explained, was not marketing—far from it—but “systems thinking,” an approach to problem solving which Percolate has increasingly sought to place at the center of its marketing software offerings. I say “increasingly” because in July 2015 Percolate was on my personal radar primarily as a social media management solution, although even then I knew it was more than that: “It does provide lauded social media management capabilities, but within the overall structure of a global enterprise marketing platform, which betrays its origins. Social is just one of Percolate’s four main offerings. Global brand management, enterprise marketing management, and content management are the others.”

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to problem-solving which seeks to understand how the various elements of a system interact and operate together. More than just breaking down silos between business functions, it looks for the connections between each moving part of a business process—marketing, for example. Systems within systems: marketing as part of the business, the business as part of a commercial environment, and so on. Although its roots are diffuse, systems thinking has an obvious affinity with engineering.

Marketers are compelled to systems thinking, Brier told the audience, because of the exponentially increasing complexity of the marketing space. Product introductions, disposable income, available marketing channels, companies going global in just few years—these are just a few areas in which we’ve seen “exponential, fundamental changes.” Marketing budgets, of course, have generally remained flat or declined. (Interestingly, Brier downplays the extent to which consumers have suddenly taken control of the their journey to purchase: “Customer service is not the new marketing”.)

A series of challenges arise from this complexity:

  • The need for global coordination of marketing and other efforts
  • A soaring need for content
  • The lack of basic visibility into campaigns and outcomes (“how this whole thing is working”).

Clearly, part of the answer to complexity is—in a word—technology. But it’s not the whole answer. In fact, Brier made a pointed—and pertinent—criticism of current marketing technology as focused on “the last mile,” on distribution and delivery, while 90 percent of a marketer’s time is spent on planning and creativity.

Systems thinking, Brier argued, can help with the 90 percent; and he offered a simple schema, Map, Systematize, and Measure. Map the complexity of hierarchies and teams within brands; systematize templates for action (in effect, create playbooks); and apply social, content and operational metrics.

What do customers make of the Percolate approach? Joseph Puthussery, VP of Marketing at Cisco, was eloquent on the fit for his brand. “We’ve traditionally been an event, trade show, face-to-face kind of organization,” he told the audience. An organization which came to realize that customers are actually engaged with the product long before Cisco meets them. In this environment, Puthussery said, “you need a native digital mind-set.” You also need a fully integrated tech stack, real-time data, and agility in response. 

Puthussery envisages his stack as a data layer; above that, a layer of orchestrated marketing channels; above that, content with personalization and testing; and at the top, a level of analytics, including predictive analytics (and above that, the “holy grail of attribution”). Percolate sits centrally, as “the system of record for content,” distributed in an orchestrated way across the channels.

Johnson Controls, the global building and power efficiency brand, also locates Percolate centrally in its stack, with content rippling out to web CMS, email marketing, social media, and employee intranet (the social media team, said communications specialist Lindsay Patzlsberger, were the early adopters), and integration with Salesforce CRM. 

In a sense, the systems thinking approach sounds simple, and savvy brands are likely doing—or trying to do—a  mix of those things already. But it effectively set a broad context for Percolate’s product roadmap. The content calendar already extends beyond social to a range of channels. Workflows will become more flexible through the ability to create hierarchies within teams. A long-form UI recognizes the requirement to manage long-form text (blogs, LinkedIn posts, white papers) in the same dashboard as updates and tweets. The DAM, already searchable (unlike many marketing management dashboards, Percolate has a built-in asset library), will offer users suggestions for relevant assets at the right time.

The product enhancements are mostly rolling out in the first half of next year; although a new Percolate mobile app is already available, and a completely redesigned analytics platform launched this week.

So you thought data science was the discipline marketers of the future needed to master? How about systems engineering?

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