What's in your marketing toolbox? Buying campaign management tools

Campaign management tools need to have certain features: audience segmentation and personalization, customer lifecycle management, and more.

Most of a company's visible marketing efforts are part of the realm of campaign management. Each new attempt at...

outreach, whether on the phone, by email or on social media, is part of a campaign to drive traffic and increase revenue, all while getting a better understanding of those customers to sell to them more effectively.

The problem with writing a tip sheet for marketing campaign management tools is twofold: scope and terminology. For the latter, campaign management often gets conflated with marketing automation to such an extent that experts don't agree on which is which anymore. As far as scope, the lack of a definition means that if it's about marketing, it's about campaigns, and therefore about campaign management.

Marketing campaign management comprises the tools that manage marketing materials in general and line them up with segments of a company's audience that have been defined elsewhere; marketing automation, by contrast, is for converting manual tasks into automated ones, including segmenting. While other definitions are available, it suits our purposes here.

A company needs campaign management tools for several reasons: maximizing its marketing dollar, testing ideas and products against one another, better communication with customers at different points in the customer lifecycle -- and always providing leads of the highest possible quality to sales.

So, where to start? As always, the buying decision should be less about what vendors have to offer and more about what you need. Ask these questions before you consider a provider: Do you intend to start small, perhaps focusing on a single communication channel such as email, or do you need a campaign management tool that can address multiple channels? Do you use outbound calling as part of your strategy?

Here are some of the common things you should look for in any campaign management product:

Direct integration with CRM, especially marketing automation and any communications apps you may use. Data has to come from somewhere. If it's not coming from the system you use to serve and track your customers, where should it come from? This is why you are less likely to find a robust campaign management system separate from marketing automation: Being closer to the source means less effort to cull the information you plan to work with.

Support for assigning customers to multiple, simultaneous groups. Fine control over how to divide your audience into categories is what makes campaign management software earn its bacon. Without it, you're designing single, broad campaigns instead of related, tailored ones, and manually choosing which parts of your audience will receive it.

Customization. Related to the above is the ability to segment your audiences appropriately so you can create personalized, custom messages to segments of your audience.

Workflow for the lifecycle of campaigns. Designing a marketing campaign, especially one with multiple branches reaching into multiple channels, requires real work -- this is why marketing professionals have jobs. Once you've got the high-level concepts figured out, there must be some way to make them real and functional from delivery to lead qualification.

Workflows require that you map out different lifecycles and activities for your audience. So, for example, you will contact a new customer in a certain way -- as well as new customers that become repeat buyers or repeat buyers who suddenly drop off. Your software needs to be able to analyze your audience and provide you with data to create these workflows easily.

Some automated analysis may be part of the workflow -- if the system sees a certain value of X, it automatically goes to step Y of the campaign -- but it's not a requirement. As different campaigns reach their later stages, the marketing team can just as easily make these decisions. Know what you've bought, so you know what to expect.

Custom landing pages and other portals. This is another no-brainer. An intricately crafted, multivariate, integrated campaign is not just about what you deliver to your prospects -- it's about how, when and where they come back to you. This is less important if you just want to drive raw traffic to a particular channel. But if you want to see more specific results, you have to create different boxes for that incoming traffic to land in, based on what brought it to you.

Custom output for use by sales and marketing. This is how you define the parameters of success, how you gather after-action data. The marketers who created the campaign want to know about how it performed -- open rates, click-through, what times and days were best received, and so on. Salespeople want to know about every individual who responded, what they're looking for, and how they prefer to be contacted. This end-of-campaign management is where each interested party gets what it's looking for and can safely ignore everything else.

Content libraries of all campaigns. This part may not be mission-critical, but it is awfully convenient. Having easily accessible and ready-to-use materials saves a lot of time and frustration, and prevents that cliché, reinventing the wheel. Preserve the history of your campaign efforts and learn from them.

All that having been said, one of the most important parts of campaign management isn't actually part of it: However you conduct your marketing activities, you are flying blind without business intelligence (BI) and analytics. Refining the message and targeting are generally not done via gut instinct; numbers are where it's at. Collecting and digesting all the data from your campaign activities is the job of BI software.

This is not to say that BI must interoperate directly with campaign software. It's great if they're integrated, but high-power analytics packages are all about digesting whatever data you feed them and spitting out the results you ask for. As long as you can get the marketing results in a form digestible by BI -- something as simple as a spreadsheet -- you can get useful output. That said, it is generally better to have fewer links in the chain, so campaign management that incorporates good BI is a smart choice in many cases.

Because BI is a smart choice, many of the best-regarded campaign management software products come from companies with a strong analytical pedigree: Infor, SAS, Aprimo (owned by Teradata), Unica (IBM), and Responsys (Oracle). These are by no means the only choices, and they're not necessarily the best for you, but all share a combination of technical know-how and cultural appreciation for data analysis.

Let's take a look at where these vendors and others shake out.

The most recent report on multichannel campaign management is the May 2014 Gartner Magic Quadrant; this report is most useful for larger organizations, but provides excellent insight overall. And note that the comments that follow are my interpretations of the study, not the official word from analysts. In particular, my definition of niche player is mine, not theirs.

Enterprise and midmarket. IBM has the best position in Gartner's ranking, with strength in execution. (Adobe actually outranks IBM in vision, but its focus on advertising agencies and publishers make it a niche player, albeit a powerful one.) SAS Institute is a strong second to IBM. Both offer powerful analytical software, but neither focuses on CRM; ease of use may also be an issue, though my personal experience with SAS is that these concerns are overstated. Still, if you want to get closer to the CRM bone, Oracle and Teradata are other good choices.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and startups. When the final decision about campaign management is made, Marketo and Salesforce.com are the vendors most likely to be at the table. For the past several years, both companies have been moving steadily upmarket but still offer good value for smaller businesses. Of the two, Marketo focuses more on marketing -- it's in the name -- but integration and organization need to be addressed. Many of the providers serving the SMB market, including these two, are trying to prove their place for midmarket companies and large enterprises. Others, including Pitney Bowes, SDL and Sitecore, seem committed to smaller companies.

Niche players. There are several vendors that, despite their ranking, should be considered for certain use cases. Gartner Group's reports skew toward large enterprise needs. For example, a company like Zeta Interactive is probably your best choice if your business is travel and hospitality, whether you've heard of it or not. The same goes for Adobe, though it has more resources and thus is better able to serve more industries.

Now you should have a fair sense of what's involved in marketing campaign management, and what to look for when selecting tools for it. Good luck in your search, and may all your campaigns be effective.

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