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Marketing Technology: off the shelf or custom development?

Research by Scott Brinker documents over 8000 off the shelf products in the marketing technology landscape.

That rapidly developing range of options is leaving senior management with more choice than they know what to do with.  Often that means they start about reinventing the wheel with custom developments but is that the smart choice?

Over that same time period I’ve lead software development teams to create bespoke marketing systems with products deployed in Europe, Africa and China.  I’ve also streamlined business processes, cut outlay and increased security.  All using off the shelf combinations that have enabled rapid scale and reduced training times for staff.

So which marketing technology solution is right for you?

The answer to that questions lays in traditional systems methodology.  Specifically in setting the scope and boundaries around both your marketing needs and technological capability.  Marketing specialists will naturally be drawn to mapping the customer lifecycle and recognise the unbounded and unclear patters of human behaviour that exist.  Technology teams, especially those with a development background simply cannot work with unknowns.  There must be a definitive consequence to an action.  And it is there that the beautiful mess of soft systems methodology attempting to define the what clashes with the desire of the hard system thinkers who are focused on the how.

Clients employ me specifically to think through scenarios for that reason.  People & pixels, the dance of psychology and technology.  Simple yet valuable marketing requirements can be impossible with sub-standard technology frameworks.

Take for example this eCommerce client who regularly took over £12,000 / month on their very old and outdated eCommerce platform.

Marketing had a very clear goal: Get more customers.

They knew people ordered the same product regularly and that a subscription service would increase the average lifetime value of each customer.  The technology couldn’t support it though.  Quite simply it didn’t have that feature and it wasn’t in the development timeline either.  So what is the best action?

Previously they ‘solved’ the problem with a customer spreadsheet and rang each customer when their next order was due.  This was taking around 2 days a week of admin time and often got put to the bottom of the pile if they were busy.  Added to that was the time taken to process regular orders, 3 members of staff a full day on a Monday just to process the admin on orders from the weekend alone.

Organisational costs then were not just the missed opportunity of customer retention but hours of admin per week that could have been better spent elsewhere.  Plus the older software was hardly known, one of those 8,000 tools that hadn’t made it big time.  So any action had to be taken by specialist (read: expensive) people.

The solution then wasn’t to build something bespoke but to replace the eCommerce platform with one that was wildly used, could protect customer data through increased security, support the marketing functions needed and was so well documented any member of staff could follow tutorials to learn how to do anything.

Resistance, as any change manager will know, is to be expected.  That’s why when embarking on a change of marketing technology a full systems analysis is the starting point.

Systems analysis of marketing technology solutions

This needs to structure the problem in a whole business way.  A marketing silo will define the problem in a customer journey way, finance silo will say no to capx (without seeing the reduction in admin costs saved or redeployed in the process), tech silo will get annoyed at being asked to build something that does X without being told exactly what X is and having clearly defined parameters around the possible variable of X and everything else in the system.

Define then the major symptoms you are having in the business and take the strategic goals together to form the start of the systems map.  From there you can explore along the customer journey, resource requirements, process engineering and finally arrive at a fully competent systems thinking view of the problem definition.

Now involve those within the system to map along the key variables and influences within the system.  Remember to include the human behaviour mess stuff too!  That can really help to narrow down tech specs later down the line.

From your map you can then identify critical points, points where admin get overwhelmed, things that create work, snags cause abandoned checkouts, lost customers, tech failures, fraud opportunities and all the other possible ways it can go wrong fast.

You’ll probably see areas where there are lots of problems together, or where significant risk to the business exists.  These are the areas to focus on first.

Now you have the start of a scope.

What is the problem as defined by the systems map?  What is the solution criteria according to your strategy?  And what are the success parameters of that part of the process?

Put another way, what happens now, what’s good about that, bad about that and what do you want it to do?

Only at this point can you start answering the question is there an off the shelf product for this?

Most marketing technology solutions have a specific function.  Email platform, CMS, CRM, Social media.  Some are lifecycle products taking you from acquisition through to management.  So your first question is do you want a specialist platform or a generalist one?  The systems analysis will tell you if the major challenges are in one areas of the marketing landscape or spread across multiple areas.

Next you’ll want to compare features and costs associated with options within that group.  Before a final decision is made the next question is how well does it integrate with other solutions in your marketing eco-system.

This eLearning client had endless support requests and no way to continue a relationship with customers.

The Goal: Sell the next level course.

Many learning platforms make this very simple.  They will connect to email automations to trigger an action when the course is complete.   The legacy system did not.  It also failed at being kept up to date, something that is a risk when using off the shelf products.

The solution was to upgrade the learning platform to another more well known and well supported system.  This allowed everything to fall into place for her and identify future development opportunities that left the whole business easier to run, easier to train support staff and less vulnerable to cyber risks.

Sometimes it is that simple, review and replace.  Increase the process flow and reduce the manual operations.  Scaling them becomes much simpler when you don’t have to increase costs by training new admin staff to deliver the increased demand.

Most off the shelf products do have the capacity to be run on internal servers, effectively white labelling the code under a corporate licence and mitigating the risk of third party security flaws.  You are also outsourcing the upkeep and development of that system.  That effectively gives you a whole team of people working on improving your offer in the background at no extra cost to you.

This morning I did a free 15 minute call with a client who had a few questions about buying a new bit of software.  There was very little she wanted that her existing kit couldn’t already do.  One snag that did exist could be easily solved with a free plugin for her WordPress site and that saved her an annual subscription of around £190.

Bespoke: The Marketing Advantage

Conversely a bespoke system requires skilled staff to keep it running, continued investment from you and the management of the ‘hit by a bus’ scenario that means the system doesn’t need rebuilding if the only person who knows how it works doesn’t show up for work.  That said in certain cases bespoke systems are the best choice.

Bespoke systems can become a marketing advantage of their own volition.  Amazon one click checkout is a prime (excuse the pun!) example.  No off the shelf solution was offering one click checkout and the systems mapping showed that was a crunch point for customers.  Creating that system gave Amazon a competitive advantage they would not have achieved using another eCommerce solution.

Software teams I have managed were focused on creating similar competitive advantages and have been very successful in doing so.  Even if your core system needs to be bespoke many of the larger platform allow API access as standard and with enterprise licences will allow more entwined solutions with custom systems.

Even when you are confident you’ll need a custom solution it’s often worth using some of the off the shelf kit as a rapid deployment of a beta version or minimum viable product test.  This gives you a solid scope for the development team and proof of concept before you embark on what will be a significant investment in personnel and finance.

A real world example would be setting up a market stall in the locality you’re targeting before going ahead an renting and fitting our retail premises.  Online the MVP options that off the shelf kit gives can have the same impact on market research and viability testing.

In summary there are marketing technology solutions for almost all scenarios and with 8,000 off the shelf products that creates an insane amount of integration possibilities.  That said there might well be places you want to gain a competitive advantage form that technology and in that case a custom development will be the only way to achieve the IP needed for that.