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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