Multiple peoples' hands shown planting seeds in dirt.
PHOTO: tjmwatson

Apparently, marketers have a love-hate relationship with their marketing technology (martech) stacks. Martech decision-makers struggle to keep pace with the rate of innovation and generate ROI from their investments, according to a 2018 martech report by Walker Sands (download required). 

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. According to the Gartner Marketing Technology Survey 2018 (fee required) released last fall, 71 percent of marketers say they have effective martech stacks. 

In the Trenches of Martech

What is it like in the trenches for marketing practitioners? It's not easy, they tell us. Keeping up with the pace of martech innovation and getting the most out of investments requires serious choices. Do you build or buy your martech stack? Do you go the homegrown route by hiring engineers? Who are the trusted vendors? 

Today marks the first of a two-part series catching up with marketing practitioners who have gotten the most of their marketing stacks — and not so much via the traditional route. We interviewed Maya Gumennik, head of marketing for SmarterTravel, a TripAdvisor company. 

Her team's martech stack is 95 percent homegrown. Not that her team doesn't keep an eye on the near-7,000 evolving marketing technologies. Nonetheless, in-house has been the martech route du jour for Gumennik's team. 

Related Article: Buy or Build a Marketing Cloud? What Practitioners Say

SmarterTravel: Quest for Search Nirvana

Headshot of Maya Gumennik
Maya Gumennik

Why nearly 100 percent homegrown? Naturally, in the travel industry, SmarterTravel relies on having a prominent place in the travel search party. They want to serve up the right message when travelers start searching for accommodations and transportation. SmarterTravel’s network of sites (Airfarewatchdog.com, Jetsetter.com, among others) provides travel deal alerts, insider travel photos, destination stories and travel news targeting travelers before, during and after trips.

The company integrates their tools with the major traffic platforms, including the heavy-hitting sources like Google, Facebook, Bing and Yahoo!, as well as with in-house developed email technology. According to Gumennik, the choice to build in-house stems from the scale and complexity of the travel vertical, which requires a fair deal of customization.  

Managing 1.2 Billion Keywords, 300 Million Ads

Gumennik’s search engine marketing team, for example, manages more than 1.2 billion keywords and more than 300 million ads. For SmarterTravel, paid search is a profit center, not a marketing expense, and the scale of the program warrants investment in engineers to build optimized tools. The overall team is composed of three engineers and eight analysts that handle everything from data analysis, A/B testing, spec writing, product build, quality assurance and iteration. “My team: think of us as an agency, an in-house agency, essentially, because we support every single one of the 10 SmarterTravel consumer brands,” Gumennik said. “We do everything for those brands as far as digital marketing and traffic acquisition goes.”

Their marketing mission is “large” and “complicated” due to the nature of the number of verticals in addition to the fact travel is a “very long-tail marketing situation.” “You really want to cover the world and all the parts of the travel journey as much as you can,” Gumennik said.

Related Article: How to Ride Search Waves and Find Niche Keywords for Your Brand

Illustration that shows how SmarterTravel's team that manages its marketing technology.
SmarterTravel's team that manages its marketing technology.

Why the Homegrown Martech Stack

So where does the desire to build its own martech stack fit in? It begins with the team’s analysts, who are constantly testing new customer segmentation and new features released by Google, Bing or Facebook. If they see success, they’ll go to the engineering team to build a spec. “The engineers intimately know the business, so we have very constructive, fruitful back-and-forth about the specs before any coding even happens,” Gumennik said, “which makes it so we use 100 percent of the final product.”  

She added that the team is lucky because it doesn’t have to work around a third-party martech vendor’s functionality. “Instead, we're saying our marketing efforts are still about the people leading those efforts,” Gumennik said, “and our technology is an extension and an automation of the thinking process and testing that the marketers are doing. So we're adapting our technology to the human, not the other way around.” 

Not Shutting Out Martech Vendors

This is not to say that SmarterTravel walls off communication with martech vendors; the company evaluates martech vendor pitches and implements pilots on a regular basis. But, Gumennik warned, there can be some “serious opportunity costs incurred when you're spending your time integrating with their platform even just to do a test, so we take the cost of the testing into our analysis.” In its first Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms (fee required) published last year at this time, Gartner researchers said spending on digital experience platforms (DXPs) will reach $18.4 billion in 2021.

Gumennik said that she’s “very proud” of the scale and efficiency her team and their homegrown marketing stack have been able to build. “But,” she added, “I'm not going to be complacent and say, ‘Oh, nothing else out there is going to be better’ — that’s why we always keep testing.’”

Related Article: Investigating the Cost, Integration and Other Realities of Digital Experience Platforms

Monetization Structure Is Everything

When asked for advice to organizations thinking about buying or building martech stacks, Gumennik said the first question to ask is, “What is the monetization potential of my marketing efforts?” She added, “If you can’t track the returns, or if the scale is not large enough, it doesn’t make sense to make the commitment to build internally. You're not going to be able to have a convincing business case for it."

Engineers and analysts are expensive, and training is expensive, she added. "Is your marketing profitable and is it big enough to justify the cost of going in-house?” Gumennik asked. “And that's actually a big factor. Because when you're dealing with outside tools or agencies, in many cases, you're talking about a fee structure based on percentage of spend.” 

Therefore, larger marketing organizations with big marketing programs need a “concrete threshold” of your potential ROI to recognize if hiring that team of engineers or analysts is better or worse than trying to get an off-the-shelf solution.