person doing handstand in hallway covered in grafitti
PHOTO: Tucker Good

The rate of expansion in the marketing technology sector over the last decade is nothing short of breathtaking. Never in the history of software have we witnessed a category grow so relentlessly. Consider the growth of Scott Brinker’s Martech supergraphic, which lept from 150 entries to near 7,000 over the span of seven years. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 73 percent! If only my investment accounts would do so well.

martech history

Back in the Day, When Content Was King

In the midst of this expansion, or possibly because of it, we also witnessed the rise of the monolithic marketing stack, which hit its peak in 2016. As someone who helped shape that market, I believe it was in part a reaction of marketing teams feeling frustrated at being unable to execute their programs across a sea of disparate tools in a coordinated fashion. At the time, it was believed the problem lied in orchestrating content delivery across various channels to improve the customer experience. 

You see, content was king, and was thought to drive the customer experience. I’ve said as much myself, calling content the currency of modern marketing, and the coin with which we purchase attention. It was true then, but it’s a lot less true today for one very important reason: customers are drowning in content and most of it of questionable value. What I call “cotton candy” content, all sugar and air, with little substance. 

When you have too much of anything, its perceived value gets lowered to the point of commodity, and no longer has substantial buying power. In this case, content has lost its power to purchase customer’s attention, because there’s just too much of it, and too much of it is generic and fluffy.

Related Article: In Defense of Content Marketing

Now Context Is Queen

The way out of this, of course, is to better focus our content to specific customers and their needs. Many people like to call this personalization, but I prefer to focus on the outcome we need to seek, which is to increase the relevance of what we say and deliver it in a way customers are open to and will like.  

The shift I believe we are now seeing is a shift away from putting content at the center of what we do, and instead, putting data at the center. Why data? Because customer data, when properly organized and centralized, gives us insight into the customer's context. If content is king, then context is queen, and we know which piece has the real power on the chessboard. Once we realign and put customer data at the center of everything we do, we can start to think about what is the next right thing each and every specific customer should receive, given their current context, and answer where they should receive it, and when.

Related Article: Use Context to Offer Unique Customer Experiences

A Data Foundation for Differentiated Customer Experiences 

Several recent research pieces echo this point. Digital Clarity Group published a report titled “Digital Experience Platforms: Buyer Trends, Preferences, and Strategies.” In the course of their survey work and research, the authors were surprised to find data, not content, was at the heart of customer experience projects. As the report states: “Focus on customer data for differentiated customer experiences, and as a crucial starting point for implementing technologies such as predictive analytics, contextual profiles, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.” The figure below demonstrates this concept.

customer data

Related Article: Customer Data Platforms: The Truth Behind the Hype

Monolithic Stacks Give Way to Federated Approaches

A second point the report makes is the slow breakup of enterprise marketing suites. According to the report, most brands don’t want or trust a single homogenous marketing technology stack. I think we’ll see a slow shift back away from all in one suites, replaced with smart data hubs and dumb spokes. Ben Bloom at Gartner recently published a report (subscription required) detailing out how he sees this playing out in the form of customer data platforms.

Our current state is a natural evolution after years of market consolidation and overselling of capabilities in these mega martech platform offerings. The reality is these vendors could never hope to keep up with the constant innovation going on in marketing technology (conversational AI and blockchain anyone?), even if they could have integrated their acquired technologies fast enough. They couldn’t, and they are still trying to to this day.

The market has shifted to favor lighter tools that can be rapidly assembled, in a more decoupled way, to achieve rapid time to value and agility. This is one of the greatest advantages of customer data platforms. Brands can share customer data across any experience delivery or campaign execution platform of their choice, while still centralizing customer data and orchestrated experiences across the entire landscape of technology. 

An even broader shift appears to be moving towards more uncoupled approaches, even at the cloud infrastructure level. According to Grant Miller, writing in TechCrunch, we’re seeing a new generation of SaaS vendors that are cloud agnostic. Businesses are rethinking their platforms around Kubernetes-driven, cloud-native architectures. What it comes down to is brands are demanding flexibility and choice, and you just can’t get that in a monolithic stack.

Related Article: DX Platform Users Debate Suite or Best-of-Breed

Get Ready for an Interesting Ride

Market forces are shifting. Customer data has become the star of the show in customer experience programs and marketing stacks. Content — while still important — now plays a secondary role to context, which is fueled by data. This will only increase over time with more pervasive use of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

A tectonic shift is also underway, away from homogenous stacks, to more flexible and agile best of breed assemblies. The need for flexibility will continue to pervade the enterprise, influencing decisions like where things get deployed, and into which cloud. Like any pendulum, we’re at the top of the centralization swing, and it’s time to go back the other direction towards decentralized, federated approaches. This will be an interesting ride.