The Strategic Use of Use-Cases

Often, use-cases are reserved for the requirements gathering phase of a marketing technology project.  The strategy has already been developed; the platform selected, bought, and paid for; the design and branding wheels in motion; and then a technical project manager starts talking about what happens when a visitor arrives on the web portal and clicks the next button.  It’s discrete, as if the visitor just appeared there magically — it’s self-contained, as if the interaction didn’t take place in the context of a broader marketing campaign — and it might just be too late in the process to avoid costly rework and/or a less than elegant implementation of the vision.

You might even have complex diagrams and detailed text outlining some special content for returning visitors posted on the site…

In my experience, the importance of use-cases and the supporting involvement of a technical specialist is under-represented in the strategy and planning phases of a project because other concepts are more dominant.  Strategy and planning is largely the providence of marketing personas, research and survey results, focus groups, engagement maps, customer journeys, and, if a technology platform is involved, a long list of features required.  Ironically, while these materials can be quite a bit more detailed and polished than a simple use-case, that’s one of the reasons things can fall through the cracks.

I’m the first person to admit that questions like this might not be as exciting as white-boarding a blue-sky customer journey, but they can be equally important…

For example, one of your target personas might be a returning customer, and your engagement map probably notes they are going to receive a personalized email prompting them to visit the campaign portal.  There could be complex diagrams detailing the chain of interactions, and detailed text outlining some special content for returning visitors posted on the site, but what you probably won’t have is something that leads to a plain language description of how the different systems you are using — CRM, CMS, MA or even BI — are supporting a coherent journey and the associated result metrics.  That description starts with a use-case, especially in the capable hands of a technical project manager, that reads something as simple as this:

  • An existing customer received a personalized email and is driven to a portal with custom messaging

A marketing strategist might find that redundant to a (poor draft) of a marketing persona plus an engagement map, but a technical project manager will immediately begin asking questions such as the following:

  • What is the source of the customer record? The organization’s CRM or a separate list?
  • What content in the email is personalized?  Is the content personalized based on the individual customer’s record or simply the fact that they are a customer?
  • What content on the web portal is personalized, and is it specific to the customer themselves?  What is the source of that customization, the CRM or something stored in an eCommerce Application?
  • Is there a persistent user account?  Should we try to recognize returning customers if they arrive on the site directly outside of the email?  If so, how so?
  • If the user is prompted to take an action, who receives the transaction and acts on it?

I’m the first person to admit that questions like this might not be as exciting as white-boarding a blue-sky customer journey, but they can be equally important to determining whether or not the strategy envisioned can be accomplished with your existing technology and staff.  They can also help ensure an elegant end-user experience, and that actions taken by customers will be acted upon and real ROI will be generated.  Generally speaking, the strategic use of use-cases can help you get ahead of the curve in the following ways:

  1. Exploring a broader range of ideas.  Journeys, engagement maps, etc. are usually complicated, detailed documents, often passed through the hands of a strategist, content creator, and designer.  Use-cases are simple text, easy to create, and can help expand the scope of the strategic ground covered by the ideation sessions.
  2. Ensuring that the “how” of a project is discussed along with the “what” and the “why.”  The goal here is not to limit your ideation process or reduce the scope of your marketing technology dreams, but rather to enforce a holistic approach that includes all relevant aspects of an implementation, and increase awareness of any ideas that might require changes to your infrastructure.
  3. Engage and expand a broader team from the beginning.  The complexity of modern marketing technology projects requires a wider, more diverse mix of skills than ever before, and while we don’t want to burn through hours unnecessarily, we do want to ensure ownership is shared by all members involved, and time spent in the planning phases usually results in less time during implementation.
  4. Focus on action instead of reaction.  This item is primarily in reference to the ubiquitous user requirement lists that generally govern platform selection.  These requirements tend to be developed in a very passive voice that fails to capture both the action being performed and its relative importance.  Use-cases can help change that dynamic by focusing on the output and potentially highlighting unmet needs.
  5. Identify testing needs sooner rather than later.  Use-cases are a great start towards user acceptance testing, and understanding the behaviors expected early in the process will help your technical team members develop thorough quality assurance cases and improve the overall delivery.

Ultimately, use-cases are a very engaging way to brainstorm and develop complex ideas.  Simply put, their simplicity tends to be their strength:  They are easy to create, evolve, update, re-imagine and reinvent.  They don’t require fancy presentation or large teams to support, they are easy for both technical and non-technical users to understand, and while they focus on “what” happens, they help illuminate the “how” in an integrated fashion that produces real results.

If you give them a try early and often, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the results.  They can also help with a technical RFP process, a topic we will revisit in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, happy use-case creating.


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How Much MarTech do you Really Need?

At times, marketing technology can seem like an untended garden.  The number of solutions, platforms, services, cloud installations, etc. just keeps growing.  In reality, organic growth doesn’t begin to capture the geometric pace we’ve been experiencing.  Year after year, the number keeps expanding at a dizzying rate, from approximately 150 in 2011 up to over 3,500 in 2016 (check out the infographic complete with logos here*).  Forget actually taking a test drive with each one, simply keeping track of all of the brand names is a full time job.

Imagine comparison shopping for your next set of wheels among more than ten times as many models from an ever expanding number of brands…

To put this number in perspective (and continue with the mixed metaphor), consider that there were approximately 260 new car models available in the United States in 2016.  Imagine comparison shopping for your next set of wheels among more than ten times as many models from an ever expanding number of brands, and you’ll have some sense of what its like to pick a marketing technology platform.  How can you possibly figure out which solution is best for your organization and your unique goals?

If you see the proverbial glass as half-empty, you might say that you simply can’t.  After controlling for a few factors like cloud or local, technology platform and support skills required, cost and contract type, it’s like throwing darts at a very big board.  As we’ve discussed, some of these platforms do the same thing in almost exactly the same way, or close enough that only an expert could tell the difference.  To the more casual observer, the biggest differences might be largely cosmetic or driven by personal opinion.

Do you need a platform that sends email and integrates with Facebook advertising?

At the same time, it’s reasonable to ask why there would be so many choices if they’re all the same anyway.  Therefore, an optimist might see platform selection as unique opportunity to pick the perfect one.   If only there were a GPS equivalent to help navigate a confusing landscape, and — while I’m not aware of any specific Google Maps for CMS selection — there are a number of things you can do to make sure you’re considering the right options:

  1. Start with the strategy.  Your goals and objectives should be your top priority before getting down to specifics, and it’s always helpful to consider a few use cases.  If you know you’re going to be hauling lumber, you’re going to check out pick up trucks instead of roadsters.   With that in mind, do you need a platform that sends email and integrates with Facebook advertising?  Do you need it to support your website and plug into your ecommerce, or do you need an ecommerce and CMS solution all-in-one?  Or, are you just looking at a specialized case like display advertising?  What about cool new tools like predictive intelligence and AI?
  2. Consider where the platform fits in your broader enterprise marketing technology stack.  With more combinations and more cross over between products than ever before, most enterprise solutions can cover more than one of your bases — for example, a web content management system that offers marketing automation tools, or a marketing automation platform that offers customer relationship management features.  The specific choices an organization makes are going to vary considerably based on cost — the more solutions you choose, the greater the complexity especially if you have more than one system of record — and context.  You might have a CMS that includes a full automation suite, but still go with Salesforce Marketing Cloud because you’re already using their Service Desk, thereby reducing the need to replicate user contact data.
  3. Consider the total cost of ownership, not just initial licensing and upgrades.  The importance of looking at the entire picture shouldn’t be underestimated; there are often hidden platform costs when you consider the expense of implementation, customization, support resources and ongoing maintenance.  These costs can be in straight dollars, salary expenses, or even time and materials, especially if your platforms are built on different technology architectures and require discreet teams for ongoing development.

Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, I can’t stress the importance of the strategy and defining your broader platform needs enough.  The strategy is going to drive where you are going and help make sure each tool serves a discreet purpose wherever possible, and the broader platform needs will help you better manage your cost and complexity.

Can you use the same platform for more than one need?

Fortunately or unfortunately, the enterprise marketing technology stack — from data warehouse to CRM all the way up to BI — is here to stay despite the continued cross over and ongoing convergence.  While we are likely to see some ongoing consolidation, it’s unlikely that your CMS is going to sprout a fully fledged Service Desk next week.

In the meantime, a key question for marketing strategists and technologists is becoming how many separate solutions do you need to address all of your objectives?  Or, to put it another way can you use the same platform for more than one need?

As that’s a topic unto itself, we’ll tackle that in an upcoming post:  Now that you’ve got a strategy, what next?

* Special thanks to Scott Brinker for posting these numbers in handy infographic format over at  You can read the source material for this post here.

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Is Trendy the new Traditional?

At the end of every year, we’re treated to a seemingly endless stream of articles, surveys, research papers, podcasts, etc. identifying the big marketing and technology trends for the coming year.  You might say it’s become a tradition to participate in this prediction market; one that’s further compounded by the start of the Consumer Electronics Show in January where companies and techies gather to show off semi-viable products that might be years away from market (I’m talking about you flexible cell-phone screens).

More than a few of these predictions have been made before, sometimes many times…

Of course, 2016 was no different, and the consensus seems to be that we’re poised to experience mainstream Artificial Intelligence, a personal assistant powering the connected home, complete with fridges that restock themselves — with sponsored products of course.  On perhaps a more pedestrian note, we’re also expected to see the continuous rise of video as the preferred marketing medium, ideally played on the large touch screen in your new self-driving car.

If you follow the market closely, however, you’ll note that some of these predictions have been made before, sometimes many times.  Artificial Intelligence is relatively new as a hot topic in marketing, but even mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post identified it as the hottest new tech trend back in March of 2014, noting Google’s search results and Facebook’s social graphs as key areas to expect an impact.  Likewise, the so-called “internet of things” (ie the connected home) has been promising to disrupt everything for at least the same period, if not longer.  And, video, well, it’s been a trend since before YouTube.

Where should cutting edge marketers invest their precious marketing dollars in a rapidly evolving and constantly expanding landscape?

This isn’t to suggest that amazing things haven’t developed during this period; or that these predictions aren’t valuable in their own right.  It’s always a good idea to keep your eyes on the road ahead in both the marketing and technology worlds.  At the same time, we should exercise the proper caution before funneling our budgetary dollars after the next new thing.  Many of these trends never come to fruition, or, when they do, they take a radically different form than originally imagined.

Consider wearables:  They’ve been a perennial hot topic since long before Apple launched its first watch in 2015, yet the truly market dominating sales like we’ve seen with phones and tablets have yet to materialize for any manufacturer.  As a result, they represent a potentially valuable niche, especially if you’re in fitness or healthcare services, but not something every company needs to invest in right now.

Users are beginning to congregate around their preferred communication mediums and applications while explicitly avoiding others…

The real question then becomes:  Where should cutting edge marketers invest their precious dollars in a rapidly evolving and constantly expanding landscape?  In my opinion, the answer is to continue utilizing a traditional research driven approach.  Core principles still matter regardless of the medium, and the fundamentals of identifying your target audiences and ROI objectives are even more important than ever in navigating an increasingly fractured media universe.

If the trends are any indication, fractured is probably the best way to describe it, especially when not every demographic is embracing every trend and users are beginning to congregate around their preferred communication mediums and applications while explicitly avoiding others.  For example, video and it’s hottest broadcast platforms such as Periscope and Instagram are very popular among younger, more urban demographics, but experienced consumers are likely getting their content from other sources.  Generation X and older tend to be on Facebook or YouTube, where the type and length of the message is likely to be very different.

With that in mind, I would suggest returning to a few key principles before you spend a single, hard-earned marketing dollar:

  1. Clearly identify your target audiences and the story you want to tell before worrying about the methods and mediums.  Good storytelling techniques are universal and timeless; they should remain the foundation of your campaigns, and can be adapted to meet the needs of current trends.  In others words, don’t let the medium dictate the message.
  2. Do your homework before planning your spend.  Know where your consumers are, how they are consuming media, and even when they are most receptive.  Also, remember that consumers themselves are feeling pressure from the fractured media landscape as they determine where to spend their limited attention and leisure time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Big data is susceptible to mis-interpretation, and even the best research can return false-positive results.  Therefore, it’s always a good idea to set aside a portion of your spend to try something different.  If you’re a company that prides itself on being on the bleeding edge, go ahead and build that app even if the audience isn’t as large as your social presence.  Things change fast, and its good to be prepared.
  4. Report on your results with extreme prejudice.  If there is one truism among the trends, it’s that things change faster than ever and audiences move quickly from platform to platform.  You need to carefully measure, analyze, and re-imagine your results to keep up.  Instagram isn’t even a decade old and it’s upending video marketing as we speak.  Twitter just crossed the ten year milestone and has already changed political marketing forever.

To paraphrase Ferris Bueller:  It’s true that marketing moves very fast, and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it, but that doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t remain skeptical of a new trend becoming tradition overnight.

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Ending the Year Thankful for LinkedIn and Modern Tech

At the risk of dating myself a bit, my stepdaughter was on the couch earlier this month doing some school work while her mom and I were whipping up dinner in the kitchen.  She didn’t seem to think anything was particularly special about the ability to earn college credit from a chaise, wirelessly connecting to the home and ultimately her school network via a thin and light Macbook Air running on lithium-ion power.  This is the brave new world she grew up in, and technological wizardry doesn’t even warrant much mention any longer.

I compared that to my own adventures a generation prior:  Multiple trips to the library, possible citations scribbled on dozens of index cards…

It turns out that she was working on a dreaded Research Paper, and she proceeded to remark how difficult that kind of assignment can be.  Personally, I hadn’t thought about Research Papers since college myself — I believe my last one was 37 or so pages on Bruce Springsteen for a seminar on the United States since 1945; he single-handedly saved the world from disco, can he show us how to save ourselves? — and, after casting my mind back to my own experiences with the genre, I was inclined to agree that they were perhaps a unique form of scholastic torture.

Then it occurred to me that my generation couldn’t produce such a paper laid out on the couch, using only a notebook computer.  I asked her if she’d gone to the library, to which she replied that was no longer necessary, the school has an online resource center you can search from anywhere.  I asked her if she needed to do footnotes with page numbers, but, no, they only need to include a link.  I asked her how she organized her references, and she appeared to have no idea what I was talking about.  You just needed to copy and paste, all in one magic, infinitely editable Word document.

By any measurable standard it was several orders of magnitude more difficult, but isn’t that the way of the modern world?

I compared that to my own adventures a generation prior:  Multiple trips to the library, possible citations scribbled on dozens of index cards whether they would be used or not, an outline or else you had no idea what you needed to use, and all this before we even sat down at a typewriter.  Compared to our parents, we were the lucky ones because the typewriter was electric and had corrective tape built in!  In college, we were thankful to ditch the typewriter for a computer, but the preamble remained the same, or perhaps worse as the NYU library was across Washington Square Park on a cold winter’s night.

In any event, it was absolutely nothing like the process my stepdaughter followed, and by any measurable standard it was several orders of magnitude more difficult, but isn’t that the way of the modern world?  For all the incessant media coverage of the potential pitfalls — cyber bullying, fake news, an AI apocalypse,  or a President-elect addicted to Twitter, to name a few — the simple truth is that technology has greatly improved the great majority of our lives, and I don’t think we really want to unwind the clock.

In my opinion, technology — including social platforms like LinkedIn — has been incredibly freeing for the human spirit and imagination…

Personally, I have no interest in manually balancing a checkbook, frequently getting lost and consulting paper maps or asking for directions, getting stuck on the side of the road and waiting for someone to help, being limited to a few network channels, interpreting the scribbles that passed for handwriting on a written letter, or even keeping track of everything like phone numbers and addresses, photographs and recipes, on endless pieces of paper with no back up.

In my opinion, technology — including social platforms like LinkedIn — has been incredibly freeing for the human spirit and imagination — if only because we spend less of our precious and limited time on this Earth doing the mundane while simultaneously having access to much more of just about everything than ever before.  This includes the ability to connect with people and maintain relationships we would have simply lost in an earlier era.

We should ask ourselves what function does most technology, or at least most widely used consumer technology, actually perform?  What need does it fill?

Is there a downside?  Of course, that is always the way of human affairs, no sooner was the printing press invented than someone started complaining about the masses having access to too much information.  If there’s one constant in human nature, it’s a fear of change, but, much as things have changed since the Reagan-era of my youth, we should ask ourselves what function does most technology, or at least most widely used consumer technology, actually perform?  What need does it fill?

I would argue that it enhances and improves the constants of human nature, the things we’ve always valued and will continue to value far into the future:

  1. Communication and access to information.  We’ve been described as storytelling animals, and we now have access to more stories and a greater ability to share our stories than ever before, not to mention the ease of contacting help in an emergency.
  2. Friends, family, and other relations.  Social media has made our networks larger, more diverse, and more stable than ever before.  While we might not spend as much time on each individual relationship, we now have access to more varied people and more points of view.
  3. More time to think, hope and dream.  Not only is it far easier and less time consuming to organize your life, chances are your life will be longer thanks to things like improved car safety systems.

In short, as we end the year, let’s take a moment to celebrate LinkedIn and other technologies that were unheard of a generation ago, and acknowledge the incredibly positive impact on most of our lives.  I assure you that there will be plenty of time in 2017 to worry about what all this has to do with marketing trends and how to stand out in a fractured media landscape.


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All I Want for Christmas is a Fully Functioning CRM

Every marketer knows the dream: Let’s imagine we work in the hospitality industry for a moment, and we excite a potential customer with a Facebook ad for a weekend getaway.  The ad was displayed to an entirely new lead based on similarities to an existing customer’s profile; metrics you predicted using sophisticated analytics software. She clicks on the ad, and books her stay at your hotel. You send her the initial thank you and the follow up the next day with a promise of special offers if she downloads your app.

By this point I’m sure many marketers and marketing technologists think I’ve veered too far off into fantasy land…

As we’re dreaming, let’s assume she downloads the app the first time and there’s no reason to send the automated follow ups (text message option included) you’ve planned for the customer journey. Instead, she opens the app and completes a brief survey about her interests – she likes the gym, but isn’t a fan of spas, she’s a foodie, especially if the dishes are internationally inspired and the ingredients are locally sourced. You also ask a couple of questions about what kind of trip they prefer – spontaneous fun or every detail planned? She answers spontaneous fun.

You might even be right, but how’s that going to help achieve your marketing dreams?

After the survey, you prompt her to take a virtual tour of the facility, specifically how easy it is to check in. You also asked her planned arrival time and anyone else traveling with her. She’s going to be staying with her husband, and you prompt her to share the app with him to help plan their itinerary. Of course, he accepts as well and both are now set up for a successful stay…

…by this point I’m sure many marketers and marketing technologists think I’ve veered too far off into fantasy land. You’re busy thinking of your own infrastructure where reservations are in a different system than app users, and neither system knows anything about what’s being served at the restaurant. And you might think it’s like that for everyone else because the last time you called customer service at the cable company even they had to look up your record in multiple systems, resulting in time wasted and aggravation endured.

The best news for marketers heading into 2017 is the sheer number of platforms and services that can get you started down the path to marketing technology perfection…

You might even be right, but how’s that going to help achieve your marketing dreams this holiday season? To borrow the old phrase, the simple truth is that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and everyone needs to get started somewhere, making the really important question: How can you take the first step without having all of the pieces in place?

The best news heading into 2017 is the sheer number of platforms and services that can get you started down the path to marketing technology perfection.  The specific solution for your organization is going to vary based on what platforms you have available and where your data resides, but, as I mentioned in a previous post, a lot of these systems are converging on several key features.  The chances are very good that you have access to options to advance your marketing starting immediately.  The important thing is adhering to the right principles and having the right long term plan to align yourself with the ideal solution for your organization’s needs.

As you plan for the new year and beyond, here are a few tips to help jumpstart your success:

  • Measure and repeat — even if the numbers aren’t entirely complete. This should go without saying, but there often remains any number of reasons why we can’t precisely, perfectly measure the ROI of a specific campaign, and we end up running place instead of moving ahead. In my opinion, the answer is to measure everything you possibly can this time around and make improvements next time. Once you start presenting more detailed metrics, you will likely start to see your colleagues providing the information you need to improve the accuracy of the calculations.
  • Embrace the journey philosophy — even if your initial attempts are short and sweet. In today’s competitive marketplace, we can’t rely on consumers making a decision after a single brand experience, and we need to make sure we have the tools in place to re-engage. Therefore, all campaigns should include both a re-targeting component and multiple request more information forms tied to an automated email series however brief. This will help ensure you maximize your initial demand generation spend by encourage repeated engagement and also provide additional measurements to improve future campaigns.
  • Implement A/B testing — even if you’re already convinced of the ideal approach. This is another area where we can get into the habit of testing our assumptions, increasing our usage of the powerful new tools available, and generate more measurements. It’s also helpful to demonstrate to leadership the full capabilities of your marketing infrastructure and how data-driven you are making your initiatives.
  • Plan for continuous improvement – even if its incremental and the light hasn’t appeared at the end of the tunnel, the sugar plums not yet dancing in your head. In my opinion, this is the area where a lot of us get sidetracked. It’s easy to wait on technology perfection, but the truth is that we are missing out on opportunities to advance our techniques, infrastructure, and results. Instead, I feel we should push ourselves ahead a little further each time. It’s certainly going to taste sweeter than falling behind.

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Have we Reached a Marketing Technology Singularity?

In the technology world, a “singularity” is the point where self-improving programs achieve runaway growth in computing power, signalling the end of the human era, and when the number of calculations per second is so high virtually anything is computable at any time.  Of course, we’re some distance away from reaching that pinnacle with tech in general, but it seems like marketing technology gets closer every day on two key fronts.

We beam gigabytes through the open air instantaneously, and think nothing of it…

First, the computer power to crunch marketing campaigns has essentially become limitless.  Today’s (primarily) cloud-based applications and storage support even the largest, most demanding companies in the world by storing billions upon billions of records, querying, updating, and simulating activity in real time at a point that was inconceivable 20 years ago.  There are those of us who remember watching in awe as a ZIP drive wrote almost 100 megs of data to a portable disk (very slowly, I might add).  Today, we beam gigabytes through the open air instantaneously, and think nothing of it.  There might be a few specialized areas I’m not aware of, but I highly doubt that most marketers overly worry about whether or not infrastructure can support their needs; or, if they do, it’s because of volume spikes and other events that can be planned around with some forward thinking.

Sitecore’s CEO, Michael Seifert, announced a major new initiative to support cloud-based delivery and integrate an enterprise e-commerce storefront…

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we appear to be reaching a point where marketing technology is converging on certain key capabilities regardless of the platform.  This is apparent at both the technology provider and implementation level, and it is leading to some interesting crossovers.  For example,  the primary focus at the Sitecore Conference in New Orleans in September wasn’t managing content.  Despite being a leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management systems (WCM) and powering thousands of enterprise class sites around the world, robust content capabilities were barely referenced by the company, the speakers, or the partners.  Instead, the event was all about “contextual intelligence” and “cross-channel delivery,” otherwise known as personalized omni-channel marketing automation, AKA the customer journeys we hear so much about.

These two themes were repeated shortly thereafter at the Dreamforce Conference in San Francisco (also in September), but before jumping to the West Coast, I should note that e-commerce and the cloud are hot topics as well, certainly part of the convergence.  Sitecore’s CEO, Michael Seifert, announced a major new initiative to support cloud-based subscriptions and  integrate an enterprise e-commerce storefront with the contextual intelligence and other tools.  He described it as the world’s first fully integrated .NET solution for WCM, Online Marketing, and e-Commerce.  Of course, their competition would beg to differ and, sure enough, if you visit, you’ll see them pushing their “all-in-one” package, describing their solution as “the only fully integrated ASP.NET CMS, E-commerce, and Online Marketing platform that allows you to create cutting-edge websites and optimize your digital customers’ experiences fully across multiple channels.”

Of course, Sitecore and Salesforce aren’t the only ones.  Microsoft and Oracle have similar solutions, as does IBM and a new competitor out of Canada, Marapost…

Back to Dreamforce:  Salesforce has always been a leader in the cloud, but, in recent years, they’ve talked a lot less about their CRM and a lot more about their 1-to-1 journey and analytics capabilities, now with new AI software, and, while they don’t technically have a CMS, there is some cross over in capabilities with the ability to support landing pages and microsites through both Marketing Cloud and Pardot.

Meaning, we’re seeing traditionally disparate software platforms with completely different histories and original intended usages agree on a few key items.  First, marketing systems need to support diverse delivery mechanisms — content on the web, mobile, text message, email, social media marketing, display advertising, etc, all from the same spot.  Second, this content needs to be personalized based on whatever data is available.  Third, this content needs to be tracked in all its versions.  Fourth, the cloud is where the action is on the implementation side (or at least providers like the constant subscription revenue).

 More intense competition from larger, more diverse suppliers coupled with a smaller number of systems required to support your initiatives.

Of course, Sitecore and Salesforce aren’t the only ones.  Microsoft and Oracle have similar solutions, as does Adobe, IBM and a new competitor out of Canada, Maropost.  There continue to be differences in each platform and their approach with strengths and weaknesses based on their respective histories, but the pattern seems to be clear:  We’re converging on features based on personalized, omni-channel delivery powered by automation and machine learning, and it won’t be long before one or all of these platforms is making a pitch as the one system to rule them all (assuming they haven’t gotten there already).

Generally speaking, this should be an exciting development for marketers:  More intense competition from larger, more diverse suppliers coupled with a smaller number of systems required to support your increasingly complex initiatives.  For many of us struggling with system overload (is that in our CRM or data warehouse or on the website?), it sounds like a dream come true, but potential problems could arise.

If one tool will rule them all, you need to make sure you are purchasing the ideal solution from the start…

First, it means that the selection of any individual system is going to be even more important than ever as it’ll do more than ever.  If one tool will rule them all, you need to make sure you are purchasing the ideal solution from the start, and it’s going to be very hard to change once you’ve sunk thousands if not millions into a platform.  It’s also going to be potentially expensive to support several systems at once.  I doubt many of us are going to spend tens of thousands on the Marketing Cloud after investing in a Sitecore website if the personalized marketing tools are roughly equivalent.

Second, it means you could experience more restrictions and limitations.  Yes, it might be easier to avoid integrating systems, but you’ll lose some of the unique tailoring and customization we currently enjoy.  Continuing the example above, there might be some feature in platform A that is better than platform B, but between the increased cost and complexity there will be little value in the investment.

Where do we go from here?

I would recommend taking a more long-term, thoughtful, and dare-I-say-cautious approach starting immediately.  Instead of sending out an RFP for a WCM, consider how it might be used as a marketing automation or personalized engagement tool as well, and don’t be afraid to think beyond the immediate needs.  We should also start evaluating systems that weren’t really competitors just a few years ago, like shopping a sports car against an SUV, and looking at our software spend as a single investment across several functional needs — perhaps you can go open source on your WCM and save money if you are lining up with Salesforce for your CRM and online marketing.  This should help us make more informed decisions, and give everyone a better sense of how these tools are being used by leading edge companies.

In my next post, I’ll delve into the dream of a fully functioning, fully integrated CRM in All I Want for Christmas is a Fully Functioning CRM and how we can work backward to achieve short and long term goals, but I believe it will serve the entire industry well if all of us start thinking more holistically before the new year even begins.

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Customer Journey or Engagement Pyramid?

It’s no secret that customer journeys are all the rage in the world of marketing technology.   Go to any trade show or listen to any sales pitch, and just about every company will inform you that they’re experts at implementing journeys.  There will be other companies happy to sell you software that supports an undoubtedly critical aspect of the journey.  Others will inform you of the imminent need for data scientists to understand all the information being captured.

The entire industry seems obsessed with them.  Therefore, it seems like it might be a good time to ask if a “journey” is really the right metaphor for how customers interact with brands.

When a person undertakes a journey, he or she plans the trip based on the destination they desire and the places they want to see along the way…

In some instances it makes perfect sense.  Merriam-Webster defines a journey as an “act or instance of traveling from one place to another,” and marketers are using the approach to better understand how prospective customers become actual customers and ultimately advocates, steps that can proceed from one to the next like moving from one location to another, or — forgive the mixed metaphor — following links in a chain.

In other instances, however, it can seem rather prescriptive for a series of interactions that isn’t actually directed by the customer themselves.  Normally, when a person undertakes a journey, he or she plans the trip based on a destination they desire and the places they want to see along the way.

In the case of a customer journey, the company is making the plans and leading them along, while the “explorer” might not even be aware that they’ve taken the first step or have any idea where they’re going.  He or she just ran a few search terms to learn a bit about a topic of mild interest, and now they find themselves in a corporate video game they never intended to play (to use yet another metaphor).

Journey diagrams so ridiculously detailed that the result was more impressionist painting of spaghetti thrown against the wall…

Are we at risk of over prescribing a potential prospects behavior and trying to fit the complex world of brand interactions that blend emotional and rational responses into neat and tidy boxes?

It’s a difficult question to answer, but I would make two points.  First, anyone that’s been in marketing for more than a New York minute can probably remember a fad that proved to be more inside baseball than anything else — Web 2.0, for instance?

Second, most of us have probably seen a few journey diagrams so ridiculously detailed that the result was more impressionist painting of spaghetti thrown against the wall than any actual marketing plan, maybe we even said to ourselves that there is no way anyone was ever going to finish this thing regardless of where they began.

Of course, I’m not trying to minimize the inherent value in organizing where a prospect or customer stands in relationship to a brand.  I’m only trying to suggest that, like many things in marketing, we need to be careful to question our own assumptions.  Returning to the comparison with Web 2.0, that phase didn’t turn out exactly as we planned in the early 2000’s, but many of the principles still apply in what ultimately became social media marketing and crowd sourcing.

In my opinion, it’s time to revisit the concept in conjunction with customer journeys

The question then becomes:  Can we better describe it without losing any analytical value?

In this very article, I’ve used the metaphor of both a chain and a video game, and both of them can apply to some extent (gamification being very apt if you are using sophisticated lead scoring), but perhaps the ideal metaphor is to pick up something that has been more prominent in social activism, namely the Engagement Pyramid.  It’s been used in marketing at times, specifically by Forrester Research and Charlene Li in describing social media activity, but to my knowledge has never really gained much traction in consumer marketing.

In my opinion, it’s time to revisit the concept in conjunction with customer journeys.  I believe there is a framework where journey terminology is used specifically to describe actions that follow prescribed steps like an automated marketing campaign, while the pyramid concept provides a more holistic approach to organizing your prospects and customers from general demand generation in broadcast or display media, to actively researching (retargeting ads for example), hot prospect (repeat website visits), customer and advocate (exact steps to be determined by organizational need, of course).

This approach appears to provide a number of advantages that we can expound upon in good time, but I feel they generally fall into the following two-part framework:

  1. Journey’s are inherently made shorter, more precise, and potentially more goal oriented, especially if we assume that an individual journey is explicitly designed to move a prospect up a step on the pyramid.  It also allows to envision multiple journeys on each level, as we will automatically expect that the levels comprise a range of behaviors with a similar audience profile.
  2. Engagement Pyramid levels inherently illustrate the variation in the actual people that occupy each level, preventing marketers from viewing individual customers and prospects as overly defined personas and enabling us to visualize a broader range of behavior.  This can be further fleshed out if we consider each level as a kind of spectrum and expect that unique individuals will exhibit unique behaviors and prefer to be engaged in unique ways.

What do you think?  Given the ongoing excitement around customer journey’s, I’m sure we will be returning to this topic in the coming days.  In the meantime, there are two other articles in progress before the end of the year, All I Want for Christmas is a Fully Functioning CRM and Have we Arrived at the Marketing Technology Singularity? 


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Google vs Google: Do you Need Best Practices for Your Best Practices?

Everybody loves best practices.  If you’ve ever worked for a marketing agency, you’ve received plenty of RFPs stating the need for best practices for everything ranging from search engine optimization to user experience to graphical design to source code.  If you’ve worked on the client side, you’ve probably written about the need for these same best practices in your own RFPs, and no doubt your supervisor or Board of Directors is clamoring for a next generation website and/or digital marketing campaign with plenty of best practices baked right in.

Marketing is undergoing a huge paradigm shift to become more scientific, rational, and analytic…

Taken to a logical extreme, one might think that building a personalized website, launching innovative display advertising, or nurturing leads with next generation machine learning was akin to baking a holiday pie:  Perfectly measure the ingredients for the crust, add the right amount of sugar for the filling, sprinkle a few extra seasonings in equally precise quantities, bake in a properly heated oven, and the end result is the ideal lead generation engine.

Of course, the real world doesn’t work quite like that.  Marketing is undergoing a huge paradigm shift to become more scientific, rational, and analytic, but there’s still a lot of art, creativity, and judgement required to develop the best campaigns.  The question remains:  where does that leave us with best practices?

We might start by asking if industry leaders like Google have anything to say on the matter.  Fortunately or unfortunately, they are providing easy answers.  In fact, if you check out Google’s two largest properties, the main search site and YouTube, you see two totally different approaches:

Google Home Page (December 5, 2016)

YouTube Home Page (December 5, 2016)


Of course, the reason for the differences should be obvious to anyone familiar with their respective business strategies.  Google Search makes money when a user clicks on a search ad, therefore the search box is just about the only relevant item on the page.  YouTube makes most of its money from ads embedded in video streams, therefore the page is devoted to a variety of video content with thumbnails to entice clicks.

Your strategic approach, creative, and content is going to be very different if you’re selling Coke or launching a new wearable.

I would suggest that both are adhering best practices in their respective spaces, but that best practices for UX and content presentation are wildly different depending on the nature of the site.  Or, put another way, there is no best way to design a website, but there are some strategies that can address certain desired outcomes.  The adherence and usage of best practices can also depend on what aspect of the project you are considering.  For example, on a website redesign project:

  1. Underlying code:  Almost exclusively driven by best-practices for marketing technology initiatives.  While I don’t want to suggest that there is no art in the coding process, it’s usually reserved for a much higher level (think developing Google’s new Assistant) than websites or marketing automation.  Therefore, your development teams and partners should stick to proven principles and follow published standards.
  2. Implementation and customization:  Highly driven by best practices, but also subject to how a particular application will be used and the skill level of the user.  For example, there are usually many ways to achieve the same goal in a modern Content Management System.  The precise way that is best for your organization can only be determined based on how you see a feature evolving in the future and who in your organization will support it.  Best practices should be considered in the planning stages to identify the ideal solution for your unique needs.
  3. UX + Design:  Partially driven by best practices.  There are some established standards around screen sizes, interface methodologies such as the hamburger menu, and user expectations, but ultimately this is the project phase were the “art” aspect starts becoming more important, as do the specific business goals.  The most important thing is to create something that works for you and achieves your goals.  As your goals are going to be unique to your organization, there is only so much you can learn from everyone else.

Other aspects of your digital transformation are going to align along a similar spectrum.  When it comes to display advertising, for example, your initial ad selection and placement is going to be highly influenced by whether you’re following a demand generation strategy or going straight to capturing leads.  It’s also going to be critical to consider how you integrate retargeting.  There are going to be best practices around the types of ads available, the best performing sizes and placements, and no shortage of research on where to market, but ultimately your strategic approach, creative, and content is going to be very different if you’re selling Coke or launching a new wearable.

Best practices are and will continue to be a critical part of any engagement strategy, they aren’t a substitute for judgement, taste, and…

Of course, you can also use A/B or multivariate testing to experiment with different approaches, and identify the best performing strategies based on real world results; the possibilities are exciting and practically limitless.  We truly are embarking on a brave new era in marketing with a tighter combination of both art and science, but — as in all revolutions in human behavior — it’s important to make sure we don’t lose sight of where we’ve been and how we got here.

The machines aren’t going to do our work for us anymore than someone else is going to write the perfect practices for our businesses.  We can learn from others, and the best practices that result will continue to be a critical part of any engagement strategy, but they shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for judgement, taste, and a well-formed strategy in the first place.

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Salesforce Einstein vs The Real Deal

The AI craze is officially upon us with the majority of marketing and consumer technology providers promoting some form of advanced machine learning, and some of the leading minds in business and academia like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning of an imminent computer revolution right out of James Cameron’s Terminator film-series, or perhaps more topically after the season finale last night and my post last week, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa’s Joy’s Westworld.

One of the latest entries in the rapidly evolving space is Salesforce’s Einstein, an AI that the leading CRM and cloud solution provider claims is “built into the core” of the Salesforce platform.  Einstein promises to be your own personal data scientist and assist with discovering insights, predicting outcomes, determining next best steps, and automating tasks.  The language used to describe Einstein is very human, a far cry from the antiseptic modeling language of earlier incarnations of similar software, and he even has a cute little graphic representation.  Is the revolution already upon us?

Computers are barely scratching the surface of a small portion of human talent…

As usual in the marketing world, one needs to separate fact from fiction, and the truth lies somewhere in between.  It’s a fact that big data, ridiculously fast processing power, and increasingly sophisticated algorithms are completely changing our perception of what computers are capable of, and that some of the latest and greatest software and devices can seem intelligent at times.  It’s also a fact that this new technology has real benefits for marketers as they seek to engage in truly personalized interactions with their visitors.

Thanks to solutions like Einstein, the same types of technologies that power a brief exchange with Siri that resembles a real conversation or Google’s predictions about where you’re headed on a road trip, can be applied to your marketing campaigns.  This offers your organization the benefit of ever more sophisticated and targeted models to uncover new relations among your customers and prospects, and the ability to improve engagement by personalizing interactions in real time.

These are truly amazing developments in the marketing world, and they will change the way we plan campaigns, segment customers, and measure ROI, but, getting back to the original topic, is any of this truly intelligence in the human sense of the term?  Or, more dramatically, do we need to be worried about the future of the human race if we set Einstein loose on our target audiences?

For example, a Presidential election forecasting model that…well, there’s part of the problem in a nutshell…

That’s a far more difficult question to answer, partially because intelligence itself is very difficult to define, and there are a lot of behaviors — memory, creativity, intuition, reasoning, etc. — that are usually blended together when we’re talking about the general subject of human intelligence.  No offense to Mr. Musk, Mr. Hawking, Mr. Cameron, or Mr. Salesforce,  but I believe computers are barely scratching the surface of an exceedingly small portion of human talent, and that a lot of what we are seeing with the AI craze is anthropomorphic language over-selling a certain type of data-driven analysis.

At its most extreme, I think it is fair to say that current technology is capable of (very) limited forms of what we would traditionally call deductive and inductive reasoning, though even that is a stretch given that the algorithms that actually draw conclusions from the data are written in advance by human programmers.  In the deductive case, the appropriate algorithm and associated databases are designed to draw conclusions based on multiple premises.  For example, I often go to my mother’s house on the weekend, therefore if I am traveling on the road I usually take to her house and it is a Saturday afternoon, Google assumes that’s my destination; Google might even give me the time to her house in advance every Saturday morning.

The inductive case is a bit more complicated.  A  large amount of premises that are either true or mostly true are turned into specific predictions.  This is usually done with the assistance of a living and breathing data scientist, where the computer crunches the numbers and the human reviews the output.  For example, a Presidential election forecasting model that…well, there’s part of the problem in a nutshell.  Models are nice and neat; the real world is a lot more messy and difficult to capture in terms of the discreet data points that feed both artificial intelligence approaches.  While a certain marking persona has the propensity to be a new customer, that doesn’t mean that an actual person will be one.

It’s dealing with this very messiness via the human capacity for intuition and ingenuity that has yet to be replicated by a machine, and — in my opinion — remains an essential part of true marketing intelligence, but before we return to the marketing world let’s consider the real Albert Einstein, usually known as one of the most brilliant minds to ever walk the Earth.  How does his Salesforce-branded AI mascot stack up?

While a certain marking persona has the propensity to be a new customer, that doesn’t mean that an actual person will be one…

I think most scientific historians would acknowledge that Einstein’s greatest gift was the ability to make incredible intuitive leaps, to combine completely unconnected data in entirely new ways that ultimately invalidate (some of) the old assumptions and data. In Special Relativity, it was assuming that the ether didn’t exist at all and there was no privileged frame of reference.  In General Relativity, otherwise known as gravity, it was the idea that acceleration and gravity are the same.

Furthermore, the key insights often came from simple thought experiments.  For General Relativity, Einstein imagined an individual in outer space in a windowless elevator, if the elevator was being pulled upward at the same acceleration as Earth’s gravity exerts downward, the individual would have no means to determine if he or she was accelerating or in a gravitational field.  He also imagined that if you were to jump from a very high building along with some office supplies, everything would fall down at the same rate and — for a while at least — it would seem that you weren’t subject to the effects of gravity and that you were in free fall in outer space, therefore acceleration can also cancel gravity’s effects.

This kind of insight and imagination — or dare we call it storytelling — isn’t subject to reason or modeling until after a living, breathing Einstein makes the mental leap.  In Einstein’s case, these leaps lead to assumptions that lead to some of the most powerful ideas in human history.

Identifying and engaging customers without us worrying about the fate of the world…

In short, this isn’t the kind of conclusion Salesforce’s Einstein is going to make anytime soon.  While the revolution will likely be televised, it’s still several generational leaps of technology in the future.  In the meantime, we can safely enjoy the benefits of big data and machine learning as they make our personal and professional lives easier.

In other words, let Google keep helping us avoid traffic, and the new Salesforce Einstein identifying and engaging customers without us worrying about the fate of the world.  Let’s also be sure to remember that marketing is both art and science; machines can help round out the science, but humans are needed to develop truly engaging stories and exercise creative judgment on how best to connect with other humans.  This is true for marketing topics large and small; we can discuss further over my next post, Google vs Google:  Do You Need Best Practices for Your Best Practices?

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HBO’s Westworld and Your QA

Fans of HBO’s newest hit series Westworld might love it for the suspense and intrigue, but technology and marketing geeks can also appreciate the emphasis on quality assurance at the sci-fi theme park.  In the world imagined by co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, QA is a department that shares equal power with the development teams in Behavior.

Elevate the role of quality assurance staff…

It’s an interesting take on the oft-repeated notion that quality can’t be inspected into the end of a project, sometimes known as the “shift left philosophy.”  Real-life companies can take a lesson from the show by considering organizational structures that elevate the role of quality assurance staff and view them as equal partners with developers and other implementation teams.

This partnership approach will help in two critical ways.  First, it will highlight quality needs from the first to the last stages of every project.  This simple structural change should not be underestimated — simply ensuring that there is adequate time in a project plan for proper testing will be a big help for some organizations struggling with quality.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, projects will benefit from a broader diversity of skills.

QA professionals can offer a different perspective than project managers, developers, designers, etc.  This helps improve the overall results by broadening the resources available and integrating fresh ideas early in the project lifecycle.  It will also help ensure that the specifications and other early-stage assets are fully in line with the user requirements and the overall goals of the project.

Following the proper testing scripts might not prevent a robo-apocalypse…

Of course, Westworld also indicates a few potential pitfalls for either not listening to your QA team or bypassing testing protocols entirely.  In the early episodes. the initial impetus for the story was the premature deployment of the enhancement that allowed the hosts to experience “reveries.”  Anthony Hopkin’s Dr. Ford character inserted a few lines of code immediately prior to release and the full regression testing wasn’t performed.  While most of us are managing websites, apps, or marketing campaigns instead of  potentially murderous robots, the lesson should still resonate:  Nothing should be deployed without following all applicable testing protocols, and even small, seemingly innocuous changes to code can have negative repercussions.

While following the proper testing scripts might not prevent a robo-apocalypse, it can certainly improve the experience of your customers.

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