Software Review: SmartPath MMS Takes Middle Route

One of the few software categories to show substantial growth in the past few years has been marketing administration, or what is sometimes more grandly called marketing resource management.

These systems are premised on the now-common observation that most marketing departments lack good software to help manage their operations. Such systems reduce costs, increase execution speed and let marketers manage more complicated and varied projects. The appeal in an era of tight budgets is self-evident.

What’s less clear is which components should be included. The core is obviously project management, because most of what marketers do is organized around distinct, if repetitive, projects: direct mail campaigns, trade shows, advertising flights, in-store promotions and the rest.

Projects involve tasks, which have deadlines, responsible individuals, resources, documents and budgets. So features to manage these items are a given. But what else should the system have: the customer database, reporting, analysis and list generation? Web site management, dealer communication and lead distribution? Promotion fulfillment, material inventories, file distribution, purchasing and vendor management?

The natural answer for software vendors is “All of the above.” After all, feature inflation is as close as you can find to a universal law of software evolution. A product with more features will rank higher in competitive comparisons, appeal to more users and replace multiple single-function systems, thereby easing integration problems, squeezing out potential competitors and justifying a higher price. So it’s hard to say no.

But marketing administration system vendors find their natural expansionist tendencies inhibited by the simple fact that most of the territory they covet is already occupied. Large marketing departments already have specialized systems for many of the ancillary functions listed above.

Some of these systems, like a marketing database, may be much larger and more complicated than any project management software. Marketers, unlike some IT managers, will not enthusiastically rip out such systems and accept functional shortcomings in a replacement simply to enjoy the elegance of a single, pre-integrated solution.

Even within the realm of project management, large enterprises already have corporate-level user directories, messaging systems, document management systems and financial systems that perform parts of the required tasks. Can the marketing administration system try to replace these, or must it integrate with them?

Vendors have adopted different strategies. Some focus on a single application, such as performance analysis (Veridiem) or content distribution (Marketing Central, elateral). Others combine complete marketing operations and administration (Aprimo, Unica). Many take a middle route, offering a complete set of project management and related capabilities but excluding operations and analysis.

SmartPath MMS (SmartPath Inc., 888/820-9360, falls into this middle category. The system provides a central repository for marketing information, organized around major components including projects, products, documents, workers and budgets. This supports core applications including program planning, project management, scheduling, collaboration, vendor tracking, content management and distribution, and expense tracking.

These applications are knit together with a powerful business process manager that lets users create detailed workflows for specific activities. These workflows, created using Microsoft Visio flow-charting software, can incorporate functions and data elements from all components of the system.

Though the workflows deliver one type of power to marketers and other non-technical users, what sets SmartPath apart is the flexibility it gives to technical users during implementation. All processes and data components are defined in XML, making it easy for programmers to modify them. This means nearly anything can be customized, including data elements, screen layouts, business rules and connections with external systems.

Though SmartPath’s out-of-the-box capabilities are impressively sophisticated, this sort of customization remains essential for global marketing operations, which demand that their administrative systems work in very specific ways.

This technology lets SmartPath integrate as needed with existing corporate systems for user management, security, e-mail, content management, financial reporting and marketing operations. In the huge enterprises that are SmartPath’s major customers, such as pharmaceutical and consumer goods companies, trying to replace rather than integrate with such systems is not an option.

SmartPath reports that a large implementation, involving hundreds of users worldwide with fully customized data models and business processes, typically takes a relatively brief six months.

SmartPath does have limits. It does not try to provide operational marketing capabilities, such as sending e-mail to customers, though it can notify users of project events by e-mail and distribute marketing files to vendors. Nor does it provide much marketing analysis beyond reporting on internal metrics such as project cycle time and expenses.

All most users ask is that the system import program performance summaries from operational marketing systems and present them in dashboard-type reports.

This combination of circumscribed scope plus easy integration makes SmartPath an attractive partner for software vendors seeking to add marketing administration to their products. SmartPath recently announced such an alliance with E.piphany, which provides operational sales and marketing systems.

The resulting module, which closely shares elements such as marketing treatments and promotion lists, provides planning, program management, production, resource management, reporting and administration. It required adding about 2,000 lines of XML, a small quantity given the amount of customization involved.

SmartPath can be accessed through the Windows Explorer browser. It does not require loading any workstation software except when using Visio to build process flows. The vendor provides a graphical user interface to let non-technical users modify the XML objects, though this is used mostly for simpler tasks such as adding a data field.

Extensive customization typically is done by programmers changing the XML directly. SmartPath runs on Windows, Unix and Linux servers and the SQL Server, Oracle and DB2 relational databases.

Pricing of the system is based on the type of server, modules purchased and number of users. Most implementations cost $150,000 to $400,000 for software, with further charges for customization services. The system was introduced in 1998 and has more than 30 current installations.

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