Marketing Automation Companies Have a Lot to Learn from Tech World

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businessman shows modern technologyAs you might know by now, I’ve adjusted a bit my career recently. My core experience is a techie in the online advertising world — and as of recently I’ve moved into an adjacent segment: digital marketing. It sounds like a drastic move, but to be honest, when you look closely, it’s actually the same thing, but from the other side of the fence (and to be honest at a much smaller scale).

The advertising world deals with ad views, impressions, clicks, conversions, visitor profiling… and the digital marketing world deals with the same: any digital marketer is constantly looking at conversions, page views, call-to-actions, landing pages, profiling visitors, lead nurturing (which is very similar to visitor scoring we’re applying in advertising) and so on.

In fact, back in the day when I was in Cognitive Match, the original idea of the business was exactly that: to take ownership of the whole sales funnel. (Sadly a few things went wrong somewhere at the top and we had to ahem pivot a bit…)

Point being, the move is not as radical as one might think, as the 2 areas in fact complement each other. (As such, if you want to be good at either advertising or digital marketing, as a techie — and not only! — you have to master both, I feel.)

Even so though, I had to start familiarizing myself with some of the concepts and tools used on this side of digital marketing. One aspect which comes up a lot your way, if you find yourself involved in online marketing, is marketing automation. Wikipedia has a whole page on what this means (see this article) so I won’t go into details here, however, it turns out a marketing automation system does (on a smaller scale) what we do in advertising: track user movement on site, figure out pages they looked at, emails (we sent) they reacted to, clicks and impressions on various pieces of content and so on. Based on all of these user actions you can set various triggers to kick in, so if someone is looking at a piece of content about XYZ for instance, you can email them more relevant links or content related to XYZ — this is just an example, but the list of possibilities is actually pretty big!

Marketers spent lots of times in front of these systems, configuring and looking at data. Cohorts of people are needed to maintain and implement them and to crunch the data coming out of them. However, they are the air the digital marketers breathe pretty much and without such systems you will be struggling.

As with every other market, there are a few players in this field, Salesforce (as it turns out they actually own 2 companies in this area doing pretty much the same thing: Pardot and ExactTarget), ActOn, Marketo, Hubspot and the list goes on. As you would expect from these companies, you cannot sign up for a free account and play with this a bit to figure it out — you have to pretty much surrender your email address (and checkbook ๐Ÿ™‚ ) to their sales team who then get in touch and start arranging demo’s and so on. That bit is fine, I understand the fact that these demo’s need to be tailored to what your immediate needs, as these systems can be quite complex so it’s best to focus discussions and demos on these immediate needs and then expand in further meetings on other features these system offer.

The bit that I have an issue with is setting up a developer account for these systems!

Here’s the thing: most of these companies offer some API / developer access, which allows one to enhance their platform. The idea here is (like in many other cases) that opening the doors wide to the developers community, you will encourage a whole app ecosystem to develop and grow, which would make your software offering even more attractive to prospective customers. This isn’t a novel idea, and by now, if you’re a techie you expect pretty much every company out there to allow you to create a dev account for free and allow you to play with their technology in a sandbox environment. (Note, that I mentioned “sandbox environment”, as I don’t expect these dev accounts to be real accounts, as in I don’t expect to gain access to the full system just by creating a development account!)

However, the reality is far from this! While all of these companies are boasting API’s and developer support, it turns out that it’s next to impossible to set up a developer account without being an actual customer. I’m not going to name here as they are all just as guilty as each other quite frankly, but this is the typical scenario you have to go through:

  1. you hear of a marketing automation tool — “you” being a techie in this field
  2. you go and check out their website, read general notes about their functionality and then spot their “tech corner”
  3. you go and visit the “tech corner” andย  read about their API’s hmmmm sounds interesting right?
  4. you then start thinking “oh, I can develop something which bridges this data with this data and gets me some enhanced data about the current visitor/lead”
  5. you then try to find the “sign up” button
  6. button not there
  7. you contact them via an over-complicated set of forms and questionnaires on site
  8. your message ends up somewhere in the unknown after you press “Submit”
  9. sometimes it all ends here and you never hear from them again; but if you’re lucky, go to step 10
  10. a while after that, you get an email from a customer representative at this company asking you whether your company has an account with this company, and if so, what is the account number or the who is the company responsible for this account and who is your account manager
  11. you reply saying that you don’t have an account, you are a techie looking at this technology and you’re interested in trying out to see if you can create an app to do xyz
  12. GOTO step 9

Ultimately, it seems that the bottom line is unless these companies can talk to someone in your company and attempt to generate a sale, as a techie you will not get access anywhere.

What is even worse is that this behaviour is actually backed by people within organizations who are actually using these technologies: “why would you need to write an app for the marketing automation system? if we need anything we just ask them and pay them to develop it!” is the standard answer I hear being exchanged around. From the marketing automation company you hear also this: “why would you be interested in writing an extension / app for a technology you don’t even use?”.

And the answer to the above is simply: “because I like the sound of your technology, I want to find out more and because I like writing apps!”. This is what us techies do all the time: we’re inquisitive natures, we like to look under the hood, poke around and improve.

If you look at the tech world, there have been many companies to launch a product and open right away the doors to the developers — this has then created a snowball effect: because developers had access to the technology and could play with it, they started improving and created an ecosystem of apps around it, which then triggered a wider adoption of the technology in the market, which lead to more developer attention, and that meant more apps, and that meant wider adoption…

The tech world as I said has numerous examples of this pattern: take Microsoft for instance, arguably the spread of MS-DOS was due to the fact that the PC’s became cheap and they were the de-facto platform for the IBM-based PC’s at the time. I’m sure this has a lot to answer for, however, one thing they also did was to provide good development tools — this lead to developers writing more apps which meant more people decided to use them. MySQL is probably another example — they came out when everyone was already getting comfortable with PostgreSQL, MS SQL Server, Oracle and so on. They open sourced the whole thing, worked on developing a dev community and nowadays they are the “M” in the LAMP stack.

I found interesting the fact that the digital marketing world takes the approach of “why would the marketing automation companies open their doors to developers because that won’t solve my problem” — and the reality is doing so won’t solve your immediate problems: you will still have to pay for custom development. However, it will in the long run! To get back to my example above: there were no nice GUI’s for administering MySQL initially, nowadays the web is full of them for every single OS out there! Once a need arises in a community open to developers, solutions will start appearing quickly. Also, on the other hand, there is the whole “build it and they shall come”; that means that there are things techies could build for you, and you didn’t even know you could do it, or want it or need it until its out there. It’s called progress ๐Ÿ˜‰

Overall, I find the marketing automation world a bit backwards — I hope they come out of these dark ages soon as there are a lot of things out there waiting to be built.