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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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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