Selecting a Marketing Automation System Requires Looking Beyond Features

Currently considering or actively evaluating a marketing automation system to improve your B2B lead generation and lead nurturing process? If so, look beyond the feature comparison charts to make sure you understand solution providers’ customer service orientation, online training/help resources, process for rolling out new features/versions / bug fixes, and whether or not you’ve been impressed with their ability to develop YOU as a prospective customer through automated means, both obvious (e.g., new email offer 3 days after you download a whitepaper from their site) and less obvious (e.g., that call from your Sales contact to see if you would like to talk to some customer references after you visited the “Testimonials” page on their web site yesterday). You’ll find that multiple marketing automation vendors provide the key features you need but, after the contract is signed, your satisfaction with the vendor and business results will largely be determined by the four factors above.

Over the last 10+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead evaluation, selection and implementation of a wide range of marketing automation software systems to address a range of business requirements including:

  • Defining and implementing a core CRM for both Sales and Marketing use
  • Evaluating email service providers as part of a cost/benefit analysis for continued investment in an in-house system vs. outsourcing some or all functionality to a 3rd party vendor
  • Adding a marketing demand generation system, and integrating with, to improve lead scoring, automate core lead nurture campaigns and improve information sales reps have about prospect interest
  • Selecting a learning management (LMS/LCMS) system for internal sales training (initially), customer training and prospect education/lead nurture.

Much has been written about the core best practices for selecting a marketing automation system, particular the importance of On B2B Marketing - Email Marketing Automationmatching business needs to system features and committing the resources necessary to see success. As you dig into system requirements and vendor capabilities, however, you’re likely to find that the key features you truly need are common across systems from multiple vendors. In fact, any “we’re the only system that does X” claims by a given vendor are likely to be short-lived – there’s such an arms race among leading CRM, email marketing, demand generation, etc. vendors that any meaningful feature advantage is likely to be temporary at best.

So, what do you look for in a marketing automation vendor that can help narrow your choice between several viable options? Here are several key “features” I’ve found to have a major impact on both usability and business results.

Customer Support

Automating marketing programs is an ongoing process of testing and refinement – you’re never “done” with marketing automation, and I’m 100% certain you will need help from the vendor along the way. Even with a support contract that looks the same on paper, two different vendors may deliver entirely different customer support experiences:

  1. Vendor 1’s personnel are able to quickly understand your need and either identify a workable solution or honestly confirm that what you want to do is not possible (or will be enabled in a future version of the product).
  2. Vendor 2’s personnel seemingly look to provide a response, any response, as quickly as possible so they can close out the support request.

You want your marketing automation solution provider to respond to support requests like Vendor 1. To see if they do, find and talk with other clients of the solution provider, and not necessarily those given as references. Does the company respond to support requests in a timely manner with useful information that solves the issue? Are their support staff well-trained, understanding both system functionality (and limitations) as well as the business results you’re trying to achieve?

Online Help & Marketing Automation Training

You don’t want to have to contact Customer Support for every little question. A good marketing automation vendor doesn’t want you to do that either, so they invest in both a useful online help system and online training materials covering different aspects of system set-up/usage and more general marketing automation best practices. Before deciding on a vendor, make sure the people on your team who will be responsible for using the system to deliver the intended business results have an opportunity to run through several online training modules, use the internal help system, etc. Also ask existing customers about how useful they’ve found the online help system and available online training. If you don’t get ringing endorsements from both your team and existing customers, keep looking.

Process for Rolling-Out New Features & Bug Fixes

This is a critical area few marketing automation system users think about up front, particularly if they’ve either had no experience with these types of systems and just expect things to “work”, or they’ve only had experience with industry leaders like, Eloqua, etc. where new feature/functionality roll-outs are typically very smooth. However, all it takes is one botched new feature roll-out resulting in a corrupted database, broken lead scoring, failed automated processes or other nasty issue to drive this one home. When the solution provider updates the core system, adds new features, implements bug fixes, etc., the process should be smooth and transparent for customers. Is this the case? Does the solution provider do a good job communicating about upcoming changes, and quickly address any unintended problems that arise from these roll-outs? Have customers ever found that a key feature/function of their automated programs “breaks” due to a system change they were never made aware of and, if so, how did the solution provider respond?¬† This is obviously another great area to discuss with the vendors’ existing customers but, in today’s social media age, you’ll get a great perspective on how different vendors handle these issues by taking a look at customer support forums and searching for vendor mentions on Twitter. No company handles every roll-out perfectly, but you want to see a history of clear communication and fast action when problems arise.

Are You Impressed by How the Vendor Develops YOU as a Prospect?

I saved this one for last because it can be a bit “big brother”-ish – whether you realize it or not, every marketing automation vendor is watching, recording and tying-together every move you make as you visit their web site, download their content, receive automated or personalized emails from them and more. Once you start using these systems, you realize just how much information is available to marketers using these systems as they craft automated programs to develop prospects. It’s a LOT. All this technology and information should deliver a near seamless experience to you, as the prospective buyer, that leaves you feeling “Wow, they really get it. They’re persistent in a helpful way – I always feel like I’m learning something new and valuable from each interaction – and definitely not just pushing a product/solution I don’t really need.” Are the dogs eating their own dog food? Are they using their own systems to effectively build the relationship with you? If not, you have to question whether they really understand what marketing automation is all about.

Why B2B Social Networks MAY Deliver the Most Effective Ad Targeting

I’m fascinated by targeted online banner advertising…mostly because today’s ad networks aren’t anywhere close to delivering excellent targeting for B2B lead generation. So when a great example that really works comes along, as I experienced this morning on LinkedIn with the following ad from Omniture’s, it’s worth calling out.

LinkedIn knows me in a way that few other ad networks or sites can know me. LinkedIn:

  • has my online resume, rich with marketing-related keywords and several VP, Marketing roles,
  • knows which LinkedIn groups I belong to, most of which are marketing-related,
  • is aware of my connections to hundreds of other people, many of whom are marketing executives and marketing thought leaders themselves,
  • knows which of these connections I frequently interact with through the LinkedIn platform,
  • and knows all the standard things like what I click on and when across the site.

When I visited my LinkedIn home page this morning and saw the ad above, it didn’t feel like an ad to me. And that’s EXACTLY the user experience we want for banner ads that generate high quality B2B sales leads or, in this case, direct conversions.

So, what did I do? Signed up for the e-newsletter, of course! Looked interesting, content seems very relevant to me, simple sign-up so why not? We’ll see if the newsletter delivers the goods but, when I saw the banner, it just seemed like a natural thing to sign up.

The data LinkedIn has about me facilitated that ideal alignment between online context, user need and advertiser message/offer where the whole feeling of “this is advertising” washes away as the user simply perceives ad as a solution to their needs. When ad platforms and publishers can nail this, B2B lead generation will stop being intrusive and will become a natural outgrowth of Internet usage.

Beautiful vision, huh? Too bad it doesn’t work that way in practice. The main reason I’m so fascinated by this area is that the existing technology for ad targeting struggles mightily to deliver relevant ads based on very simple, and often misleading, data points. Many/most of us prefer to keep our work and personal lives reasonably separate, something that ad targeting systems are generally terrible at today. If I use my work laptop at home in the morning to research a family medical issue, do I really want to see banner ads for prescription medications related to that medical issue when I’m at work? No, and certainly not if I end up using my laptop for a presentation later in the day that requires visiting various web sites where these targeted ads will be served. Yes, I know I can visit various sites to turn off this ad targeting but, realistically, who’s going to do this?

In order to accurately target business people with truly relevant banner advertising, the ad platform has to understand when people are in “work mode” as well as details about their professional lives (industry, company size, role, etc.). These are details people naturally provide to a business social network site like LinkedIn, but which are exceedingly difficult to glean from the history of searches, clicks, etc. that most ad networks use.

LinkedIn and other business social networks have to combine this data with excellent ad serving technology, of course. If they do, and consistently deliver that ads-which-feel-like-solutions experience, then I know where I”ll be spending an important chunk of my B2B sales lead generation budget…

4 Scary Facts to Shake Up Your B2B Online Marketing Strategy

Like a good B2B online marketing challenge? I hope so, because the massive contraction in the count and type of business buyers over the past year promises a highly competitive future for B2B marketing online.

Last month, while doing a deep dive into the online behavior of U.S. business buyers using comScore Plan Metrix, I found came across four scary facts for any B2B marketer that hasn’t been keeping a close eye on target audience trends:

  1. The total number of U.S. Internet users involved in the business buying process shrank 25% over the past year (January, 2010 versus January 2010).
  2. The decline was greatest among those that make up the highest quality leads for B2B online marketing campaigns – the count of those who approve business purchases shrank 34% over the same period.
  3. The decline in business buyers was nearly 7x greater than the decline in total U.S. employed Internet users over the same period.
  4. These findings are independent of company size – the count of business buyers at small (<100 employees) and mid- to large-sized companies fell by virtually the same percentage

On B2B Marketing - Online Business Buyers Decline

(…This is the point where veteran B2B marketers start getting that slightly queasy feeling in the pits of their stomachs, a sensation that comes with the dawning realization that something very big has happened…)

First reaction…that 5% year-over-year drop in quality B2B sales leads doesn’t look so bad any more, right? Maybe your team and agency are doing a much better job than you initially thought? While these facts can certainly help put last year’s online B2B marketing campaign performance in the proper context, that’s only part of the story.

The more important point here is what these  facts suggest for the future. Most B2B marketers have seen smaller average (initial) purchase sizes and longer sales cycles during the current recession Рthose are a given as companies reduce budgets, become more interested in test programs than long-term commitments, and scrutinize important purchases more carefully. Although an improving economic environment will loosen-up budgets to some extent, recession-driven changes to the business buying process will be with us for years to come. Here are some specific changes and implications for your B2B online marketing strategy over the next few years.

Smaller pool of top quality sales leads with purchasing authority

Over the last year, more than one-third of your potential high quality B2B sales leads disappeared from the market, and they’re not coming back anytime soon. While this obviously varied somewhat by industry, companies consolidated purchasing authority to control costs during the protracted downturn and there’s no sign (yet) that this consolidation is slowing. A huge growth opportunity requiring fast action is the only thing powerful enough to force decentralization of purchasing authority. Slow but steady economic growth won’t do it.

Implication: B2B lead quality is critical, and boosting lead volumes without a close eye on quality will only generate false hope and wasted effort. Find, and invest in, true business purchase decision makers.

More competition in the B2B online “market”

Economic signals, and what I’ve been hearing from B2B marketers at a number of conferences, suggest that the worst of the recession may be over, business buying interest is picking up and marketing budgets are starting to grow (or, at least, have stopped shrinking). This is when it starts to get ugly as more marketing dollars chase a much smaller pool of prospects.

Implication: Get ready for higher costs per (quality) lead from B2B search marketing, social media and, eventually, online display advertising. If high quality creative and landing page optimization didn’t seem that important in the past, now is the time to focus on these areas to drive the highest volume of the right traffic to your key landing pages and maximize conversions.

Don’t expect (unadjusted) continuous improvement

For B2B online marketing today, the market is taking two steps back regardless of whether or not you’re taking one, two or three steps forward. If you haven’t been keeping a close eye on size and activity of your target buyer audience over the past year, it’s very likely that both you and your leadership team are somewhat frustrated by an apparent inability to make consistent, incremental improvements in quality lead volume and cost per lead. Gains are simply going to be more difficult to see.

Implication: To get a reliable handle on online B2B marketing campaign performance in this environment, you need some way to adjust results to reflect the underlying online population and opportunity. Companies with larger target audiences (and larger budgets) can use comScore Plan Metrix or Nielsen NetRatings to adjust campaign performance by changes in the underlying online target population. Alternatively, you can use competitive benchmarking (e.g., create an index of competitor web sites) or talk with others in your industry to get a sense of the trends they’re seeing. Regardless, driving improvement in B2B online marketing campaigns requires looking at more than just the month-over-month change in your internal metrics.

Increased importance of retention marketing

Web site traffic is great. Quality leads are even better. But how well do your marketing programs both attract and consistently maintain the interest of your target audience? In this environment, the last thing you want is to have a higher cost per lead AND pay multiple times to keep that lead engaged.

Implication: We’re about to see the golden age of B2B demand generation systems in companies which make it a priority to understand how to truly combine demand gen system capabilities with valuable content to support relationships with prospects and existing customers. The technology is just a starting point, though. It’s about the relationship.

What do you think? Given the four facts above, how do you see your B2B online marketing strategy – or that of your clients – evolving today and over the next several years?