Most marketing technologies these days have multiple applications. Two separate systems may provide completely complementary capabilities for one marketing organization, while being entirely redundant for another.
This is just one reason why thoroughly researching your marketing tech investments is so important. While there never seems to be enough time to perform an adequate vetting process these days, any time spent qualifying the best solutions and vendors will save you and your colleagues time, effort and budget down the road. And with 2016 only a quarter away, it’s time to start your search.
So, how should we marketers navigate a continually expanding sea of 2000+ MarTech solutions?
It helps to have a map…or at least rough sketch of landmarks to guide the way. Understanding what your organization needs before you assess trending industry tools and specific vendor capabilities is critical.
You should understand your company’s objectives, adjacent departmental needs, your current tech stack and its inadequacies, as well as budget parameters before researching specific vendors. Creating a marketing tech blueprint is the best way to figure all this stuff out (learn more about MarTech blueprints here).
Now on to vendor research.
What are the best information sources and what should you expect from each?
In my experience, jumping right into product demos is often a bad idea. Instead, I find it’s very helpful to first get a high-level view of the vendor landscape before diving headlong into individual solutions.
The following is a loose process you can use to guide your own buyer’s journey, but it’s by no means a hard-set industry “best practice.” You’ll want to combine various information sources in a way that provides you with a well-rounded view to make educated decisions and profitable tech investments.
That journey will vary between organizations and individuals. Each of the following vendor information sources provides unique benefits:
1. Review research firm and analyst reports
Gartner Magic Quadrants and Forrester Waves (IDC has very helpful reports as well, but typically isn’t quite as focused on MarTech). Most of these reports aren’t free, but they're very useful if you have access.
Each firm provides objective perspectives (for the most part) on various providers in a given technology space. Over recent years, Forrester has placed a bit more focus on marketing technology research than Gartner or IDC, but the Magic Quadrants are definitely helpful when it comes to evaluating several MarTech categories.
Analyst reports give specific information regarding strengths and weaknesses of marketing tech platforms. They also explain which types of organizations (e.g., enterprise or SMB) will benefit most from a given solution. However, there’s no way to fully grasp how each solution will work for your org, and thus you should carry on to additional sources.
2. Attend local vendor user groups or meet-ups
Just about every marketing automation vendor – from Infusionsoft and Hubspot to Marketo and Oracle Eloqua – has regular local meetups and/or user group events. These are great for networking, but even better for getting the real, customer-perspective info you need to ensure you're selecting the right marketing tools for your business.
The key to helpful information – don’t let the meeting agenda dictate what you’re there to achieve. Go with the intention of discovering how other marketers are using various systems and tools. First, try to find the marketers that share common processes and requirements. A good way to quickly identify these folks is around length of sales cycle; the nine-month buyer’s journey marketer is a different breed from the ecommerce marketer.
Once you’ve found somewhat similar marketing peers, here are some important questions to ask:
- What tools and systems do they use?
- What are their typical problems/roadblocks?
- What do they do (tech or otherwise) to tackle specific issues and customer needs?
- What do they like about their current technologies?
- What do they not like…and why?
- What tips do they have for getting more out of their investments? (this is often overlooked but can be very insightful)
Keep in mind – marketers these days love to show off their marketing tech stacks. We all like to seem more sophisticated than we really are. So don’t feel bad about interrogating people to get the info you need.
But keep in mind, most of us are too buried in work to understand all the ins and outs of our tech investments, so you need to support all the opinions you receive with other expert sources, such as…
3. Take it from industry influencers
The blogs of various marketing influencers are an irreplaceable source of quality information. While influencer opinions aren't usually as comprehensive as research report findings, they often provide useful, objective perspectives (with some subjective color) on various MarTech solutions — and they’re free. The influencer blogs that stand out as some of the most helpful are David Raab’s Customer Experience Matrix blog and Scott Brinker’s ChiefMartec.com.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach out to influencers with questions either; I always annoy guys like Matt Heinz of Heinz Marketing, Craig Rosenberg of TOPO and Justin Gray of LeadMD with specific questions about certain marketing tools and/or strategies. And their insights often go well beyond what I would obtain from a research firm report or the particular vendor's content.
4. Talk with your current marketing partners
The marketing tech vendors you currently work with likely have their own opinions about complementary solution providers. These will certainly be biased, as they’re the result of first- and second-hand experiences with regard to customer support, integration capabilities, ease of use, etc.
But such subjectivity is a definitely good thing. Your vendors will be able to recommend new technologies with which they work in alignment, have established integrations, and possibly even plans for future evolution. Your current partners suggestions are always worth taking into serious consideration.
Of course, it’s smart to consider whether or not your current partner is trying to sell you a competitive solution. If so, their opinion should carry slightly less weight.
5. Evaluate vendor websites and content
Once you’ve gathered opinions of third parties, you can focus on vendor-provided information. Although organizations all take a slightly different approach with their content strategy, you should be able to gather helpful tips from each solution you're evaluating. Some marketing blogs focus purely on thought leadership, while others are used predominantly as thinly veiled sales collateral. The same applies to whitepapers and ebooks. These differences don’t matter as much as the pieces of information you pull from the content as a whole.
Here are just a few questions you can use to compare vendors to one another while reviewing their content:
- Do they understand the industry?
- Is the company's solution(s) clearly defined?
- Does it seem, at first glance, to meet your needs?
- Are there any obvious shortcomings based on your objectives?
- Do they provide a credible customer list?
Also, be sure to consider whether or not the content provided by the vendor is consistent with the information you obtained from previous sources.
6. Watch or schedule product demos
After all the research is in, the next step is evaluating recorded and live demos. There's no better way to determine organizational fit than to see marketing software in action.
For example, a particular marketing automation platform might be noted by a research firm as the best solution in SMB category, but that doesn’t mean it has the specific tools that your team’s marketing operations requires.
Every company is different when it comes to processes, people customers, industry, company size, marketing strategies, etc. The return on tech investment will therefore also be different for each organization. As mentioned before, the ability to fit with your current systems (both third-party and in-house solutions) is crucial.
Before your scheduled demo, be sure to prepare a list of questions specific to both your goals and current environment. Some items to consider asking are:
- Canthe software integrate with the proprietary campaign management system you already have in place?
- Will this new lead generation tool inject data into your marketing automation platform?
- How much time will your internal IT team need to invest to implement the new solution?
- What level of customer support is provided with your purchase?
Often these types of questions will be unexpected. You can learn a lot from unscripted responses – so I encourage you to an arsenal of queries ready to go.
When evaluating the ease of connecting systems and data, a good follow-up question to ask is: “Okay, could you please walk me through the integration setup process right now?” If they can’t do it, it’s likely not that easy; if they can, then you may have identifed an important differentiator.
The research journey toward your next marketing tech investment should always be customized to your specific needs. It makes sense to start with objective third-party sources and then seek out more subjective opinions.
Just be sure to consult enough sources and ask the right questions so you can fully understand the capabilities of each tool you’re reviewing. And don't walk away until you know how each solution will complement your current systems and address your unique needs.