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B2B marketing automation platforms: Making the right choice

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Whether you’re purchasing a new marketing automation system or replacing an existing one, the decision should not rest with the marketing team alone. True, the marketing team should drive the process and likely be the ultimate decision-makers, but there are many key stakeholders who need to be involved. Here are some tips to help you take the right course of action.

Getting started

Simply put, marketing automation software makes marketers’ lives easier. It saves time and it’s essential to help tie marketing processes to revenue (which is the only thing your executive leadership team cares about). It also helps you get the most out of your CRM and fosters a better collaborative relationship between the sales and marketing teams. But, believe it or not, some executives might not be completely sold on the idea of purchasing an expensive system and might not understand the ROI.

If marketing automation is new to your company, you may need to make a case to your VPs or CEO. It’s important to show them how you’ll be able to quantify your results. Data is essential and you’ll need to show them how the impact of revenue will outweigh the initial investment and costs. Marketo, one of the leading marketing automation platforms, has a free e-book that offers a step-by-step guide for creating a business case.

Which vendor should I select?

Before you start vetting vendors, it’s important to set explicit goals for your marketing automation needs. Some of the more common goals are: increasing lead generation and inbound marketing efficiency; nurturing existing leads and contacts; creating email campaigns with dynamic content; offering better designed campaigns that align with brand standards; improving reporting and analytics companywide; and/or implementing a lead scoring program.

G2, a peer-to-peer technology review site, allows you to compare marketing automation vendors. Setting your goals first will help you select the platform that best meets your needs.

Some systems are more powerful and complex than others. They might be too complex for your current needs, but it’s also important to think about the future. Can the system easily scale to your long-term goals?

Keep in mind that, functionally, all marketing automation systems operate in a similar way. They all offer tools to create emails, landing pages and forms. Don’t get fooled or taken in by the bells and whistles of a particular platform.

Chances are, another system has something similar, but it’s called something different. The basic functions of a platform are important, but it’s how you use them that’s going to matter most in the end.

Forrester has a selection of comprehensive reports that can also aid in selecting vendors.

Who should be involved in the decision-making process?

As mentioned, the marketing team will likely be the driving force behind this process, but it’s of utmost importance to involve people from any and all departments that will be affected by a marketing automation implementation.

Loop in your IT team. They’ll have to help with setting up CNAMEs, DKIMs and a dedicated IP, if you purchase one. Connect with your design team. Will they need to assist with the creation of email or landing page templates? Perhaps, most importantly, have an in-depth conversation with your B2B sales team. Share with them your goals and expectations, then ask them for a wish list of features they’d like to see.

The vetting process

How long it takes to properly vet a new vendor depends upon your company’s goals and timeline, but the general rule of thumb is: the sooner you start vetting, the better. If you’re replacing an existing platform, don’t forget to take into consideration if and when access to the current platform will be terminated.

When reaching out to vendors, be as transparent as possible with your wants and needs. They’ll want to show you demo after demo and connect you with various members on their team. There’s a time and place for all of that, but it’s helpful if you give them an idea of your purchasing timeline. 

Select three to five vendors based on your goals and set up initial consultation meetings with each. It’s likely that after the first meeting you’ll be able to eliminate one or more. If you do, then send them a polite email letting them know they’re not the right fit. It’s a lot easier than ignoring them and having them hound you all the time.

Continue to have conversations with vendors, looping in your key stakeholders along the way. This will give your team time to ask specific questions and they’ll appreciate that you’re including them in the decision-making process.

It’s OK to ask tough questions. Every sales rep believes their products and services are the best, but some just aren’t suitable for your company. If you have doubts, keep asking questions. Give them specific use cases so their answers will resonate better. Ask them to connect you with a client who uses their product and whose business model or industry matches yours.

The vendors are going for the “Wow!” factor in their demos. However, it’s OK to politely say you don’t like a feature or to ask for more clarification. In fact, giving them an honest opinion about one or more of their features will often lead to more productive conversations. 

If you are replacing an existing system, think about what you do and don’t like about it. Be candid and share those thoughts with the sales reps.

Submit a detailed questionnaire

When you’ve narrowed your choices down to only two or three vendors, it’s time to send them a detailed questionnaire they’ll need to fill out. A simple Excel file works well for this. Create several tabs such as: Features & Functionality, Cost, Support, CRM Integration, Scalability and Company Attributes. List as many questions as you can think of within each tab and be as specific as possible.

The reason for asking the vendor to complete this last instead of first is because many reps will overload you with information at the beginning. If you’re taking six to eight months to vet, then  you’ll be inundated with supporting documents, phone calls and demos.

It’s hard to keep track of everything. A final wrapup gathers all your essential questions together and, frankly, offers the vendor an opportunity to shine. A new system might seem shiny and exciting, but a poorly completed questionnaire with vague answers speaks volumes.

Submitted questionnaires will also offer you an opportunity to compare vendors’ answers side by side.

Final discussion

When you’ve received your completed questionnaires, it’s time to gather all the key stakeholders again. Go through each answer and have a discussion. Keep track of any follow-up questions you’ll need to ask the vendor. You could also create a decision matrix and give each answer a score. Smartsheet offers several templates for weighted and unweighted decision matrices.

Decision

Once all internal discussions have been completed and all questions have been answered, it’s time to make a purchase decision. In some cases, the answer will be crystal clear. In other cases, it might be a toss-up between two vendors.

If you’re stuck, go back and reread their answers. Ask yourself: “If cost were not a factor, which one would I select?” It’s important you trust your instincts and make the recommendation you’re most comfortable with, even if the powers that be overrule it.

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Jared Stearns is the Director of Demand Generation at SmartBrief. He’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly of vetting and implementing marketing automation software. Email him at jared.stearns@futurenet.com.