Choosing the first marketing automation platform for your B2B SME is a big decision. Make the right one with our field-tested insight into the critical factors for success.
Through our work with a wide range of clients we've encountered a number of different automation products and heard tales about many others.
What we've seen again and again is which conditions lead to success with marketing automation, and which ones lead to frustration or failure.
While no platform is perfect, it is possible to choose one that you will be successful with, if you consider the right things.
When choosing your marketing automation platform, consider these five factors above all else.
Ease of use
It may sound clichéd, but ease of use is one of, if not the most important things to consider.
Businesses that base their selection on other factors can end up paying big money for a system that internal team members cannot operate.
If you or your marketing team are unable to dive in and operate the platform you buy, you are extremely unlikely to be successful with it, even if day-to-day operation is outsourced.
Ease, of course, is a relative term - just don't lose sight of your internal resources and their capabilities when selecting your platform.
Don't let ego influence this decision - more than once we've heard the statement: 'We're an enterprise, so we need an enterprise solution.' The trouble is, enterprise solutions require larger teams, dedicated admin staff, and even in-house programming skills to operate. Not ideal when you're an SME with a limited marketing team and budget.
Ease of use is determined by many things. Don't choose a platform without getting up close and personal with it. Intuitive, attractive user interfaces are a good sign to look for, as are clean and logical reports and data screens.
Ideally, get vendors to demonstrate some relevant marketing scenarios to you, so that you can assess how easy they are to achieve in each tool you are considering.
TL/DR - The best system is the one that you and your team feel comfortable using. Enterprise solutions require enterprise resources.
Understanding how your chosen system matches your requirements is, of course, an important part of making the right choice.
But establishing what your requirements are for a system you have not yet used can be quite challenging, leaving the door open for confirmation bias to railroad your thinking.
An effective way to avoid mistakes here is to think in terms of non-functional requirements (NFRs).
If you are familiar with the Agile methodology, non-functional requirements can be thought of as similar to stories.
A non-functional requirement is a statement of something that you want to do, or an outcome you want to achieve, rather than a statement of exactly how it should be done.
Listing non-functional requirements that, you hope will be satisfied with the purchase of a new system, will aid your research and help you make an informed choice.
If you want to be really rigorous, perform a weighted analysis where each NFR is assigned one score for how important it is, and another based on how well it is met by the vendor in question. This way you can reach a quantitative conclusion, not a purely qualitative one.
TL/DR - The right functionality is key to success with a marketing automation platform. Thinking in terms of non-functional requirements (a.k.a. stories) rather than technical features can help overcome confirmation bias and prevent any mistakes.
Which systems will your marketing automation platform need to integrate with, and to what end?
Simply knowing that integration is possible is not enough to ensure a successful deployment.
Understanding how these integrations work, and the prerequisites on each side, is crucial for achieving a reliable single view of the customer, closed sales and marketing loop, and, ultimately, sales and marketing alignment.
If possible, speak to references who have integrated the same core systems as you will, to understand what the possibilities and pitfalls are.
Whatever happens, be prepared to allocate budget and resources to complete the integration process, as it is rarely a straight forward process.
Cost vs. Value
Cost is how much you pay for something. Value is how much it's worth to you.
At first glance, most marketing automation systems probably seem expensive.
Platform costs also typically increase as you add functionality and introduce more contact records into the database.
These costs are in addition to any other systems that also store data, such as a CRM, or perform similar functions, like separate Email Service Providers (ESPs). So it is important to include these in your cost considerations.
However, most marketing automation platforms bring together a wide range of marketing tools and integrate their use and analysis into a single system, saving you from paying for point solutions and spending time lifting and shifting data in order to report on results.
So, when choosing your marketing automation system, it's important to explore all aspects of the total and potential costs, and compare these with the value you will derive. This will enusre you go into the, potentially long, engagement with your eyes open and avoid any nasty surprises later on.
Work with each vendor to reach a clear understanding of the full cost of implementing your desired functionality.
Also find out how much it will cost if all your existing contact data is imported into the new system, and extrapolate that number to allow for the predicted growth over one or two years.
Note: While a single view of the customer (SVC) is most reliable, if each and every contact is kept in sync, you may be able to reduce the number of historical contacts going into your new system using filters, and therefore reduce costs somewhat.
TL/DR - Marketing automation costs money - how much depends on the vendor, the desired functionality, and the number of contacts added. All this is on top of any existing products that perform similar or complimentary roles.
Service and Support
In its 2016 Marketing Automation Trends survey, Ascend2 found that 52% of marketers surveyed cited a lack of an effective strategy as the main barrier to marketing automation success.
The complexity of systems and lack of staff skills were also highly ranked as barriers.
Since this is the first marketing automation platform you're buying, you're likely to need some help learning how to it operates and, potentially, will need a strategy for doing so. Understanding what education services and support are available to you should therefore be a priority.
The more enterprise-ready the platform, the more likely you are to need paid consultancy to tame their complexity and power. Simpler solutions may have functional limitations but this may be outweighed by the vendor's ability to train and support you.
Don’t be deterred
Marketing automation is an essential purchase for any SME that wants to reach its buyers digitally.
Yes, marketing automation costs serious money, and there will almost certainly be some compromises required to implement any system. But it will put you in control of your digital marketing and will be well worth the investment, both in time and money.
Understanding your requirements, setting your own expectations carefully, and making an informed decision will maximise your chance of success.