How do you determine which marketing automation platform is right for your business?

The answer has become increasingly complicated because more vendors are promising artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities, dynamic content and direct integrations with analytics tools, supply-side platforms (SSP) and demand-side platforms (DSP) and social media advertising.

The number of platforms available continues to expand: In 2017, Gartner ranked 22 different products in its Magic Quadrant assessment of multichannel campaign management tools. The assortment of terms market research companies use to define (and assess) automation tools doesn’t make it any easier to narrow down to the core capabilities you need. 

Vendors with marketing automation capabilities appear in Forrester Research and Gartner reviews of real-time interaction management platforms, digital marketing hubs and enterprise marketing software suites. Vendor websites aren’t always the easiest to navigate either, especially when you’re searching for specific features.

When searching for the right platform, you may end up bombarded with a lot of information you don’t want — or need. After completing a marketing automation vendor evaluation for a client, I put together the following recommendations for assessing prospective vendors. These are meant to be used as a starting point in creating a set of requirements. They can also serve to guide your development of a request for proposals (RFP).

1. Database Size

First, consider the size of your customer database.

The number of contacts you have is where you should start. If you only have 10,000 contacts in your database, even a popular platform like Salesforce or Marketo might be too advanced. Similarly, while Mailchimp offers plans for upwards of a million contacts, a full-stack enterprise level tool such as Adobe or Emarsys will offer you more sophisticated capabilities and enable you to build a more complex customer profile.

2. Likely Users

It’s very important to think about the employees who will be using the platform, and how they will work with others.

If you’re a B2B company, and you need to have a high level of coordination between your marketing and sales teams, a platform that includes a customer relationship management (CRM) system such as Salesforce, HubSpot or Marketo can help you tighten your sales and marketing cycle. For example, your sales team may want to contact potential customers who engage with a particular email campaign or landing page. With a CRM system, you can create a workflow that directly notifies your sales team after a customer engagement.

However, if you’re a B2C company with a large digital marketing team, and you need to coordinate personalized promotions across web, email and digital ads, a platform built specifically for digital campaign creation and customer profile management such as Adobe, Emarsys or SAP will be a stronger fit.

Related Article: Diving Headlong Into Marketing Automation? Slow Down

3. What You Need to Accomplish

The next step is to identify your priorities and decide what you need a marketing automation platform to do.

Marketing automation tools range from packages that focus specifically on email engagement to full-scale enterprise-level marketing suites that allow you collect data from first-party, second-party and third-party data sources and develop personalized messages that can appear on any number of platforms — from your own website to email messages, social networks and third-party ads. Start by outlining the specific marketing features and integrations that you need your platform to have. That list might include the following:

  • Email marketing.
  • A/B and multivariate testing.
  • Campaign sequencing and triggers.
  • Optimization and personalization.
  • Dynamic content.
  • Social media, SSP and ecommerce integrations.
  • Retargeting.
  • Text message marketing.
  • Landing pages.

If you find that you’re using an automation tool to engage mainly across the email and social channels, a tool built specifically for B2B organizations, such as Marketo or Hubspot, might be better for you than a tool with more advanced capabilities, such as the Adobe Marketing Cloud or IBM Watson Campaign Automation.

Related Article: Step Up Your Marketing Automation Game

Learning Opportunities

4. Ease of Integration

Now you need to think about whether the automation tool will integrate easily with your existing systems, such as your content management system (CMS), your CRM system and your data management and analytics tools. Some platforms offer prebuilt integrations with WordPress, Google Analytics and the Salesforce Sales Cloud, making it easier to create campaigns based on users’ website behavior and demographic characteristics, or where they are in the sales funnel. Others require custom development work to integrate data from other platforms.

5. Reporting Features

Today’s marketing automation platforms offer an ever-expanding array of digital marketing features, but often their reporting capabilities still lag behind. Therefore, it is important to determine what level of reporting is available within the platforms you’re thinking of purchasing.

What dashboards are available within the platform that can help you monitor your campaign performance? Is it easy to distinguish between one version of a multivariate campaign and another? Can you create reports based on age, demographics and geography? Are you able to identify the number, percentage and spending totals of customers who make purchases, as well as what they buy, after opening a campaign?

6. Artificial Intelligence Capabilities

Another important point to consider is whether a platform’s AI capabilities live up to the vendor hype.

In the past few years, a variety of vendors, including Salesforce, Mailchimp, IBM and Adobe, have come out with AI-driven features that that are designed to deliver predictions and recommendations based on your customer data. However, users of Salesforce’s Einstein as well as IBM’s Watson have reported that these features are still immature.

7. Setup, Usability and Support

Before buying anything, you should determine how much effort it will take to set up and use the platform. You also need to find out what kind of customer support the vendor offers.

Often, ease of use trumps advanced technological capabilities when it comes to determining whether a marketing automation platform will work for your company. It doesn’t matter if the platform has a zillion features — if your team can’t figure out how to use it, or has difficulty integrating it with existing platforms, then it won’t be a success.

To get an idea of how easy or difficult a system is to set up and use, you should read online reviews and ask the vendor for references. And be sure to ask the vendor these questions:

  • What custom work will need to be done to integrate the automation platform with our existing systems, such as our analytics platform, our CMS and our CRM system?
  • What kind of user training can you provide? Will it need to be purchased separately?
  • During what hours and on which channels is customer service available? How long does it typically take to answer questions and solve problems?
  • Do you have a dedicated employee or an assigned team to provide customer support?

Don’t Take ‘Yes’ for an Answer

Arming yourself with knowledge of how your people will need to use a marketing automation system in advance of your search will make it easier to narrow your choices down to a platform that is right for your business. You should prioritize ease of use, adaption time, customer support, who will need to use it, and your existing use cases over “nice to have” features.

Here’s one last piece of advice: When you ask for a response to an RFP, you should ask vendors to describe how they provide certain features — as opposed to just asking whether they offer them at all. Vendors will always say yes to a requested feature. Asking how they provide the feature provides you with insight into whether or not the platform will function as you want and expect it to.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.