Monday, June 2, 2014

What Comes First: The Plan or the Platform?

This is a guest post by TrustRadius member, Eric Lehnen. Eric joined TrustRadius last November and wrote a review of Act-On software.  Eric is also the co-author of a new book Shout in the Right Direction.

Before selecting a marketing automation, CRM, or social media management platform, it is really important to establish a clear plan about how you will use it.

Having a plan in place before selecting a platform will speed up your implementation process and return on investment (ROI). It will also help you refine the capabilities you actually need in a tool.

Within a given software category, platforms often perform similarly. CRM tools like Salesforce.com or Highrise manage leads and customers, while social media management platforms such as Sprinklr and Hootsuite enable constituent engagement via social channels. There are, of course, material nuances. Vendors will emphasize their strengths, but you need to understand what’s important to you and then assess how well vendors support those requirements. 

For example, when I selected Act-On as our Marketing Automation software, it felt like it was the best choice for my organization. Act-On was competitively priced and they assured me that their functionality would meet our needs. For the most part, it did. Post-implementation, however, there was one critical area that fell short. 

My goal was to push webinar registrations from WebEx into Salesforce.com as activity history and then use Salesforce workflows to trigger follow-up by sales reps. While the building blocks were there, the effort required to link the webinars simply overshadowed the benefits. As a result, it was not a reliable solution. After stumping their support team a few times, I gave up. Act-On has since updated some of its functionality to address these problems.

So what’s the moral of this story? I didn’t have a clear plan of how to use the platform before I purchased it and only evaluated its high-level functionality. I did not evaluate the software’s support of specific use cases that were critical to me, such as:

  • How can I push webinar registrations automatically in the Activity History of Salesforce.com?
  • How can I make all contact website visits/downloads/email opens and clicks actionable in Salesforce.com?
  • How can I escalate contacts in Salesforce.com based on Act-On data?

My point isn’t to convince you that vendors are out to mislead you. They want to their solution to be the best fit for your needs. Instead, you must be very clear about your specific needs to find that best fit solution. 

For starters, you should press vendors for facts and demonstrations of specific use cases. Never accept hollow assurances, such as, "Yes, we support integration with XYZ platform.” It sounds weird, but to get a straight answer, you will need to ask about the negatives: “What doesn’t the integration with XYZ support?” or, “What do other customers do in this situation?”

User review sites like TrustRadius will assist you in identifying and vetting the pros and cons of a solution and developing better questions to ask of vendors. It also provides you a mechanism to connect with other users for off-line conversations. TrustRadius also provides a great high-level overview of all marketing automation platforms here. Had I known this before choosing Act-On, I could have developed better questions and saved a lot of time from the site’s authentic user reviews.

All of this should lead you to design a plan that mirrors your vision with the software you wish to choose. No, this isn’t a requirements list. The problem with requirement lists (not that they aren’t helpful) is that they are sometimes counter-productive. For example, if you ask the vendor if they support a specific integration, it only allows the vendor to answer “yes” or “no.” That isn’t helpful. If you rephrased with a page-long question, you will get a better answer. If you are a small/medium business, a massive requirements list can work against you.

The other problem with requirements lists is that the vendor will answer the requirements list. Now, you are probably thinking, “Well, duh!” When the vendor answers all the questions, it is completely biased. You cannot completely rely on a requirements list. Instead, you need a plan. 

The funny thing is building a plan is actually quite simple. 

My co-author and I wrote Shout in the Right Direction together. We interviewed many big businesses, such as the Mayo Clinic and Comcast, along with small businesses, such as Davis Law office and Laser Classroom. We found a common theme that simplicity is king. Besides talking about numerous digital marketing tools and developing creative ideas, we also talk about creating a plan sized correctly for your needs.

So what does all this mean?

  • Write out your vision with who, what, when, where, how, and why (literally!)
  • Define workflows
  • Talk with your team to create scenarios when sales/marketing will "hand off" contacts
  • Read reviews and connect to peers on TrustRadius
  • Ask vendors how they perform important tasks and ask them to demonstrate
  • Ask vendors about their weaknesses

Did this blog help you? Find out more about Shout in the Right Direction and check it out on Amazon.

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