Never before in eCommerce has an investment in digital infrastructure been more durable. In truth, there was a time when software was much more disposable than it is today. Does anyone else remember when Google products wore the “Beta” moniker for 10 years at a time?
As with many things in life, the durability of software has positive — and unforeseen negative — effects on how you operate your eCommerce business. For enterprise businesses the three-year platform replacement cycle is mostly a thing of the past! That’s a wonderful thing for operations teams who suffer the distraction of the constant rotation of business-critical systems. It also has a hidden downside: the software choices you make today have long-lasting effects on your business. And there is no platform choice that is as critical as your demand generation platform: your marketing stack.
In the 2020’s you’re getting married to your marketing stack. Ask yourself — Is this the company, the brand, the team, the technology, that I want to be beholden to for the next decade and beyond? Because odds are, it’s “til death do us part”!
Utopia or Dysfunctional Family?
Some marketing platforms would have you believe that the B2B relationship between platform and brand is a 1970s sitcom like The Brady Bunch. It’s a blended family, to be sure, with a “yours, mine, and ours” — a family of products that are under one house, brought together through acquisition. But in reality, it’s more like the 1990s Married with Children. Dysfunctional, a lack of maturity, looming identity crises, and plenty of misery to go around.
Hence the upheaval in the marketing software we’re seeing right now - the tools must change in order to serve the modern customer. In 2019, Campaign Monitor announced the acquisition of Sailthru. This year, Bronto announced their end of lifecycle with a definitive plan to end platform and customer support in May of 2022. Even more recently, Optimizely announced their acquisition of Zaius. Blended families and dysfunctional families.
And that’s just the internal platform growth struggle. Your customer doesn’t care what your “stack” is, they do care how you speak with them. So, understanding the rapidly-evolving relationship between brand and customer is absolutely essential. Customer relationships drive satisfaction, repeat business, and something we call conscious commerce — your brand’s respect for the personhood of the customer, and not just the transaction that brought you together. If customer relationships are so important to your business, it’s important to consider what makes a good relationship - what makes a real relationship. You may have heard it said - it’s not B2C, it’s not DTC, it’s not even B2B. It’s P2P - person to person. If we’re talking about real relationships, perhaps we should look at what makes for a good relationship in life, not just business.
Good communication means communicating back-and-forth. In other words, discourse. This requires an exchange of information. This doesn’t mean just talking at your customers. This could mean responding to information your customers have provided you, and it might mean introducing them to new concepts or things you want to introduce to them.
It also means providing that communication back via the right channel. Good communication isn’t just about what you say, or how you say it - it’s about when you say it, where you say it, and the method of communication. This is why your toolset for communication to your customers is so important.
The best marketers consider more than just price and box-checking features — they evaluate the holistic impact their "vendor" will have on their business and customers. It's not just software, it's a relationship.
The other key part of good relationships can sometimes be even more challenging - recognizing they change. And let’s be honest. Change can be difficult. Change can be unexpected. Change can be taxing. And in a business change means new tools and software. It means capital investment.
If you’re using Bronto right now, the investment you made in that relationship just left you high and dry. This is business-altering. This is brand-altering. This relationship impacts the bottom line.
As you think about researching and making a decision on your marketing tech stack, you need to consider what kind of relationship you’re looking for. It’s kind of like dating. It’s not all about money and toys. You need supportive. You need honest. You need a business life partner.
If you want a marketing automation relationship that is healthy and long term, your partner needs three distinct characteristics: Stability, Vision, and Integrity.
If you’re gonna put a ring on it, you need to know your partner has got what it takes to go the distance. You need to pay attention to indicators that scream “we’re here to stay” and not “we’re flaming out”. This includes looking at their install base and their headcount growth.
Install Base: Who and how many?
Ecommerce has grown at a consistent rate of 14-15% since 2012. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ecommerce space saw a tremendous surge of growth, growing by 44%. Many marketing platforms say they’re geared for ecommerce brands, but it’s important to probe these claims. How sizable is their penetration into the ecommerce market? Is it growing or shrinking?
If it’s a small subset of their total customer base, their insights will be limited. Think about how this plays out in an account management discussion. You are going to want to know the tools and strategies empowered by your platform are based on scenarios you’ll face in your industry. Similarly, wouldn’t it be helpful for you to benchmark against your peers when answering the question “What does good look like for a brand like me”? Platforms that are built for ecommerce will design the user experience for actual ecommerce use cases and will provide access to benchmarks and insights for core business metrics like average order value, orders per customer, and more.
It doesn’t have to stop at ecommerce, either. Ask about their vertical specialization - which brands in your industry that they work with. From a competitive standpoint, if the top five beauty brands are all using the same technology, it’s at least worth you evaluating that technology before making your decision.
Headcount Growth: Expanding or consolidating?
With this explosive ecom growth in the past year, you would also hope and expect that the vendors you evaluate in this space should have also demonstrated growth in their employee headcount. This is a key sign their technology is being adopted - their teams will need to have scaled up in order to sell, market to, onboard, and service an ever growing customer base. As you look to evaluate the company that’s right for your brand, headcount growth should be a key indicator to a growing and thriving brand. Yet, many brands who work in the email and customer data space are not seeing this demonstrated growth. During your evaluation phase it could be as simple as asking your contact, but can easily be addressed through a bit of sleuthing on LinkedIn or Zoominfo.
In life, vision might look like career goals, having children, or activism. In marketing automation, product roadmap and global expansion will tell you what kind of future your prospective marketing partner envisions for you. How well will you be able to serve your customers in the future? Will you be able to connect with all of your markets? Will you be able to serve more customers? Will you be able to communicate effectively?
Investment in the Product Roadmap: Is the technology keeping pace with your customer?
A well-trained sales team is able to easily paint an apples to apples comparison between any two technology companies, so you’ll have to look a step beyond the typical feature comparison. What sales is not able to do is restate the facts of past feature promises fulfilled - ie their say/do ratio. The key indicator of future product feature growth is last year’s investment.
Research product keynote announcements and see if they followed through. What new features did the company actually launch that will help you continue to drive your business forward? Do they have a public facing roadmap? Do they have a dedicated section of their website to feature releases and innovation? The last 12 months should be a good indicator of the future 12 months and beyond.
Global Expansion: Are they expanding beyond?
We’re talking about expansion in the truest sense. Ecommerce is moving at a global pace. Some brands are focused on expanding their reach to offer more regions in the world access to their products; other brands are already established. With this in mind, a good growth indicator is an ever expanding global footprint. Is their technology being adopted in other countries? If so, that company has a high growth trajectory. For a global brand, there should be no need to have multiple technologies to service different parts of the world. You’re actually at a disadvantage if your tech stack differs between regions. The result is often fragmented data, misaligned performance measurement, and restricted collaboration between global teams.
How can you expect to mobilize a team to execute on your vision and deliver results when there’s no single source of truth? A simple way to avoid this outcome when evaluating new platforms is to ask for a breakout of customers by region or employees by region. This question can be particularly illuminating when assessing a vendor’s ability to support your account in-region and long term. Do they have a dedicated success team with support hours in your time zone? Do they have enough of a foothold in the market that they can advise best practices that make sense for your brand?
When entering a relationship, the last thing you want is for your potential partner to represent themselves as something they’re not. You also want to know what kind of people are influencing and investing in them. Do they have good support networks of friends or family? When you pick your marketing platforms, go-to-market strategy will reveal the character of the company you’re considering. Are they overselling and overdiscounting, or being straightforward about their pricing? Do they have supportive partner ecosystems that are augmenting and validating their software?
The Sales Process
As you start to engage with a provider, check your feelings about the process. Does it seem high pressure? What’s the key selling message - is it about longevity, business growth, stronger customer experiences, feature development? Or are they overly relying on discounts? Every business has a bottom line that they are trying to operate against. It’s true that discounting frequently happens in the technology space. However, a red flag is high-impact discount selling. Technology brands can become overly reliant on discounting for one of three key reasons. If you’re suddenly being sold to through heavy discounting, you may want to take a deeper look at why this might be the case.
Three key factors to think about:
Are they relying on discounting to offset a lack of business growth? A company with a strong technology offering should be confident in their product—so much so that they’re not willing to discount (or if they do, at least discount very carefully). The product should stand alone.
Are they incentivising you with a discount but simultaneously looking to commit you to a lengthy multi-year contract that will help reinforce their bottom line for the future years?
Are they overselling on services? Sometimes these are positioned as an ‘upside,’ that you’ll have a team who will help you do things—and that’s why they ask you to pay a separate fee. But really, if you need a team to do some of these things, are those items truly an upsell or are they hiding a product deficiency? If you’re dependent on a third-party team to get your campaigns out the door, that can sometimes add unnecessary friction, preventing you from connecting with your customers in real time.
These could be signs of a lack of confidence in their product offering, or worse, a lack of confidence in the overall business. Length contracts are often used to sure up future cash flow for the operational purposes of the business. When engaging with a vendor who is selling through heavy discounting, it’s important to dig further into the why. Too much discounting is an alarm bell.
A technology brand that is well positioned to support your business needs today while also having a positive trajectory of growth should have a robust ecosystem surrounding them. Take advanced partnerships as a vote of confidence in the technology brand. If other leaders in the ecommerce space are actively partnering, building integrations into, and marketing with the platform, this means they’re investing in it. They’re not only validating that technology, but suggesting it to their customers—the ultimate vote of confidence.
To take this a step further, ask other technology brands what they think of the product you're considering.
A brand's peers can give you a helpful opinion on the technology, the team, and their results. If you already have established, trusted relationship with other vendors, why not take advantage of their opinion?
When you’re evaluating a tool, technology pairing could be the difference between success and failure. Make the calls.
"You Complete Me"
Instead of just waiting for your customers to succumb to channel shift, and become so sophisticated and dispersed you have to “reach” to their level, now is the time to invest in a relationship with a marketing automation provider who will be able to grow with you and your customers. By finding a partner who has vision, stability, and integrity, you’ll set yourself up for a long term relationship that will provide your customers with everything they need as your relationship with them continues to mature. Someday in the distant future, you and your partner will be able to reminisce about your success and - with all the confidence in the world - say “together, we did it right”.