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The independent, vendor-free guide to choosing a marketing automation platform

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The independent, vendor-free guide to choosing a marketing automation platform


Article theme badge Connect2Don’t learn the hard way, learn from Graham Plant – he’s been involved in the selection of marketing automation platforms for a variety of organisations, including most recently at Effective Measure where he joined as CEO. His key piece of advice: figure out what your business needs before talking to any vendors.


Many companies are looking at their rapidly growing store of customer data and wondering how to make sense of it to improve customer experience and lift their marketing performance.

In most cases, the first thing they think need is technology. Specifically, marketing automation.

There is no denying that marketing automation offers businesses many potential benefits, including:

  • improved return on marketing investment,
  • lower cost of acquisition for new customers,
  • faster sales cycles,
  • increase of share of wallet,
  • improved sales forecasting, and
  • deeper insights into customers.


What business leader doesn’t want all these benefits?

But realising these benefits isn’t a matter of simply picking the ‘best’ marketing automation platform and plugging it in – it still requires skilled marketers in the driver’s seat and a clear understanding of business requirements.

Outlined below are my five key steps that will help you determine the ‘best fit’ marketing automation solution for your business.


Establish the vision

Before embarking on discussions with one of the many vendors capable of delivering your business a marketing automation solution it is important to invest time and effort into describing what your view of your business is post successful marketing automation implementation.

Sounds simple, right?

It should be, but many organisations have not been able to stand back from their day-to-day to describe their vision. Conversations become consumed by functions, reports and specific campaigns, and less about their marketing automated nirvana.

Defining the vision and, specifically, the desired outcomes you aim to achieve through the deployment of a marketing automation platform, and your business’ overarching strategy, sets the basis for vendor engagement and the selection of appropriate technology partners.


Understand your current state

Before you think about selecting new technology, a complete review should be conducted of the current technology and processes you have in place – and how many of these can be changed. If you are locked into a CRM (customer relationship management) platform that can’t be changed, you had best make sure the marketing automation platform you choose can integrate with it.

It is also very important to understand the size, scale and sophistication of marketing in your business, remembering it is not always the size of business that determines complexity. Understanding the breadth of channels used in marketing is also important.

Is direct mail your most important channel to market? Or is it telesales, email or social? The answer will have a significant bearing on which vendors you engage. Many vendors are digital-centric and struggle with traditional marketing channels.

Be clear on knowing the number and capability of your users – there’s no point in having a system designed for data analysts when you are mainly creatives. And there is also no point in having a solution that can’t handle all your users concurrently.

Key reports, functions and processes that are seen as ‘mission critical’ need to be known, along with any other ‘sacred cows’, so as not to lock yourself into a solution that won’t support any immovable requirements.

Data integration is a whole challenge unto its own and I won’t attempt to address that beast in this article. But, I will say that if you have disparate data sources that require integration to create a single view of customer – you may need more than a marketing automation platform. Clean, good quality and integrated customer data is a vital prerequisite for any successful marketing automation implementation.

Data is the fuel that will drive marketing automation. Never has the saying ‘garbage in – garbage out’ been more appropriate.

For this article, we’ll assume your customer data is awesome!


Define your requirements

When defining requirements, focus on outcomes. There is little point stating that you want a cost-effective, reliable and efficient solution – these are baseline attributes that any vendor should be delivering. The key activity in this process is determining outcomes such as desired actions, benefits, processes, insights and efficiencies across each and every part of the business impacted by the deployment of a new model.

It is of paramount importance that this phase focuses only on outcomes, and not functionality, potential vendors or is simply a statement of the current state to define the requirements. The key is to define the requirements unencumbered by current processes, systems, applications, personnel or perceived constraints.

Marketing automation as a strategy reaches far beyond the internal machinations of the business, as success will be dependent upon your customer engagement. Understanding and then clearly describing the business requirements is critically important, as are the needs of your customers – as your marketing automation platform is going to be engaging with them.

The major benefit of defining your requirements is having clearly defined outcomes for both the business and customers, which will guide all future decisions in the definition and selection of potential solutions.


Engaging prospective vendors

You are engaging vendors as industry experts to deliver you a solution. Don’t spoon-feed them. And don’t be so prescriptive that you take away their opportunity to be innovative. This process is not about documenting your business as it is today and retrofitting a system to match it.

So how to engage vendors? What about a request for proposal (RFP)?

To go to tender, or take the RFP route – only you can decide whether you are prepared to do this or not. The production of an RFP represents an aggregation of the defined requirements, outcomes and operational dependencies that you are seeking to achieve, or address, with the assistance of a technology partner.

Running a formal RFP or tender can be an arduous task if not organised or if you are not clear on your requirements. However, there are major benefits of this process that include:

  • creating a structured and consistent engagement approach for vendors,
  • receiving vendor questions to gain further insight into how they are evaluating the requirements, and
  • gaining further intelligence on vendor relationships and dependencies.


The major benefit of this process is being able to see all the proposed solutions for delivering on your requirements. If it is a well-constructed RFP, you will see well-constructed submissions that are focused on your objectives – not those of the vendor.

If you elect instead to engage vendors one by one, use your requirements framework to ensure the response is directed to your needs. Remember, the focus is on ‘best fit’ not ‘best of breed’.


Vendor evaluation and selection

Through this evaluation stage it is possible to gain a broader appreciation of the skills and knowledge of each vendor and, most importantly, their cultural fit. While capability is important, the ability to understand your business and work cooperatively with the team is equally, if not more, important.

If you don’t like the vendor during the sales process, I seriously doubt you will like them after the deal is done. Some simple tips on vendor evaluation include:

  • if the vendor isn’t prepared to invest time and energy into understanding your business, they don’t deserve your business, and
  • if all you get from the vendor is an off-the-shelf, canned response with your company name inserted into the blank fields – they don’t deserve your business.


The best way to assess an application is to develop scenarios that are being worked on today in your business and have the vendor explain how they will meet the requirements of each scenario. Ideally, you will see real demonstrations of your data in the application to see how the vendor would execute them.

Understanding how an application will handle scenarios in your business is an important process in the evaluation. Seeing the entire build process and ensuring there has been no customisation to meet your requirements is also key – you don’t want a totally customised application.

Whether you go for an on-premise, hosted or software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution is as much a technical consideration as it is a functional one. Needless to say, your requirements will largely determine which solution is right for your business.

Last, but by no means least, are the reference checks. No vendor will be stupid enough to put forward a reference that doesn’t speak glowingly about it or its products. The purpose of the reference is not to question feelings towards the vendor, but whether the situation of the reference site is comparable to your environment and if they use the functions you regard as critical.

Other areas to explore include: time to implement, level of training and support required, level of change required in their business, key issues, staff acceptance, improvements recognised and the vendor’s responsiveness.



Now I already know what the next question is: ‘Which marketing automation application would I choose?’

Well, it depends on a host of criteria that may be best suited for another article.

By way of background, I recently signed an agreement for marketing automation in the business I have just joined as CEO. The application is the right size for the business, fits inside our budget, has a track record of success, integrates with our CRM and other applications, and is well-supported.

A few final tips. Avoid vendors that:

  • respond to every question with ‘We can build that’,
  • present a solution comprising a mash-up of disparate pieces of technology that requires them to integrate and maintain, and
  • promise plenty yet have no track record of success or can’t provide strong references.


The tips included here are by no means comprehensive, as there are many other considerations. The full process and checklist can be as detailed as you like.

Just remember, your role is to define the outcomes you want – the vendor’s role is to show you how they can deliver them.

Choosing the ‘best fit’ marketing automation platform for your business supported by a vendor you can rely upon will transform your business and lift your marketing ROI. Get it wrong and, well… let’s not go there.


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Graham Plant

Graham is founder of Pearl Business Solutions, providing strategic and board advisory services that turn ideas into successful ventures. He works with start-ups launching new businesses, larger companies introducing new products or looking to open new markets, navigating businesses through the martech space or understanding the business value and applications of customer data.

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