We've been hearing a lot lately about Marketing Automation and how businesses can provide better web experiences to their customers through its use. But what is Marketing Automation? A feature? A platform? We asked our panel this very question and received some very interesting responses.

The Question

What exactly is Marketing Automation -- a feature or platform?

The Responses

Tom Wentworth - Acquia

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Tom Wentworth is the chief marketing officer at Acquia, responsible for global marketing strategy and execution. He has spent most of his 18 year career in the web content management, most recently at Ektron where he served as chief marketing officer. Follow him on Twitter and read his Acquia blog on content management and digital marketing.

Here's how I think about a platform -- you work in a platform. A platform is designed for a specific business function like marketing, sales, HR, finance, etc. Platforms connect to other platforms, so integration is key.

The important part of the definition is that a platform is something you use every day, and plays a critical part in the success of your role. For example, the Acquia marketing team lives inside of Marketo, setting up programs, writing emails, scoring leads and analyzing results. Marketo is the first application we open in the morning and the last we close at the end of the day. It plays a pivotal role in making sure we're passing the best leads to sales at the right time, while nurturing our earlier stage prospects.

Marketo integrates with Salesforce.com, which holds all of our lead and customer data. And we've tied Marketo to our web content management system (Drupal, of course!) in order to collect leads from form submissions on the website. Marketo, and marketing automation platforms in general, are designed to work the way marketers think and work. Just like Salesforce is designed for Sales and Workday is designed for HR and Finance.

WCM vendors adding lightweight marketing automation features to existing products are doing so to "check the box", meaning they are able to answer an RFP response with "yes, we do that" without regard for the actual usefulness of the feature. WCM vendors will often claim that you'll "only use 20% of the product anyway", which underestimates the importance and sophistication of marketing. I believe that marketers are more comfortable with technology than ever before, and don't want to be locked into a set of features they can't grow with over time.

The main issue for feature-oriented approaches from WCM vendors is they miss the mark on the user experience. Marketers work differently than content managers, and require a user experience that's fit for purpose. Marketers think in terms of programs, campaigns, and results. Compare the user experience of a platform like Marketo or HubSpot to the WCM vendor offerings and the "platform vs. feature" difference is clear.

As a CMO, I see marketing automation as one of the most important investments a company can make to grow revenue. Don't fall into the trap of evaluating products using "feature checklists", instead make platform investments that give your company the greatest chance to innovate and succeed over the long term.

Jon Miller - Marketo

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Jon leads strategy and execution for all aspects of Marketo's thought leadership and content marketing programs. Before co-founding Marketo, Jon was Vice President of Product Marketing at Epiphany. He is the author of the comprehensive handbook, The Definitive Guide to Marketing Automation. In 2010, The CMO Institute named Jon a Top 10 CMO for companies with under US$ 250 million in revenue.

Without question, Marketing Automation is a platform.

Just take a look at what we offer at Marketo. First of all, every customer organization has an individual database that stores customer and prospect behavior and demographics. From contacting for the first time to maintaining customer loyalty, that data is securely stored on our platform's database. That data powers a workflow engine that lets marketers manage complex campaigns across online and offline channels. And we have an analytics engine that leverages a very large volume of data in a way that allows our customers to see deep analysis of which campaigns are working and which aren't.

Storing data, using it to build relationships, and taking a deep look at what's working and what isn't -- that's a platform, not a feature.

On top of that, our platform integrates its data with data from CRM, ERP, call center, and ecommerce applications. Only a platform can take data from email or social channels, analyze that data and integrate it into your sales team's CRM.

In short, an email blast service will let you email a bunch of your prospects, and you'll know who opened and who didn't, but it pretty much ends there. That's a feature. If you have email as an integrated channel into your larger system that is tied to social, tied to offline marketing, and tied to deep data analytics, you've left the realm of features and are thoroughly operating in a platform -- where you really should be anyway.

Ian Truscott - SDL

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Ian Truscott is an experienced and passionate advocate of customer engagement, web experience, content management, digital marketing and social media -- having spent over a decade working in the web content management software industry. Formerly an analyst with the Gilbane Group, Ian is now VP of Product Marketing for SDL's Content Management Technologies division and serves as a Director for the Content Management Professionals Association.

The business goal of engaging customers is not a platform for sure. Marketing Automation is a subset of the overall business practice and software tools that contribute to the goal of engagement -- that moment when someone buys your product, engages with your services or even downloads a whitepaper.

The platform for doing this is the data, the content that you serve, and the customer analytics you bring to bear to both provide a relevant experience to your prospective customer, as well as provide internal insight that informs internal processes such as the lead nurturing process.

We also need to recognize that post-sale customer service plays a role in the pre-sale funnel -- through customer recommendations and social sentiment. So where does marketing automation start and end? If you think of disciples such as marketing attribution, how do you know you had a successful social campaign, or how do you know what to do next time?

The software products that are implemented as part of this strategy all need features that key into this overall strategy of engagement by providing a relevant experience. So, maybe it's a feature that needs to be in every customer facing product, but it's a feature that needs to be connected with a holistic view and strategy.

Darren Guarnaccia - Sitecore

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Darren Guarnaccia is the Senior VP Product Marketing at Sitecore, a Web CMS software vendor headquartered in Denmark. He's spent the last 12 years working with Internet technologies, from his first project with Broadvision at a startup, to running large teams of consultants doing e-business integration, to working at a few different WCM vendors.

Today's marketing automation technology is really just lead management automation. It gives marketers the ability to launch lead generation campaigns at scale, specifically email campaigns. However, those technologies tend to be limited when it comes to connecting leads coming in from a corporate website, mobile app or social networking site since they can't directly control the user's experience.

At Sitecore, the center of the marketing world is the customer and not the campaign. We view the same type of technology as a way to automate customer engagement. It's less about just creating a lead and more about building a cohesive customer experience across all interaction points. As customers and prospects go from channel to channel, the marketer understands the path and behaviors and presents a more meaningful and engaging piece of content or call to action.

While today's marketing automation could be considered as a feature or platform, it's really more of an approach to create engagement at scale. Traditional lead management automation approaches can work well for a limited view of a customer, but is it quite disjointed from the customer's point of view. To that end, it can't stand alone anymore, as marketers can no longer view customers and prospects as members or lists. Marketers have come to know that a more personalized contextual aware engagement will increase sales and leads and start to build customers for life.