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The marketing automation market is booming. According to G2Crowd, there are more than 200 marketing automation vendors, and when comparing feature lists, they all look the same.

We’ve faced this challenge when helping clients choose the right marketing automation tool for them. Having used marketing automation platforms since 2011 for our own marketing programs, we’ve also faced this challenge ourselves.

Why is it so challenging to choose a marketing automation tool?

It seems that every major infrastructure decision is tough, but we’ve learned that marketing automation platforms have their own challenges:

  1.  All demos look amazing – this is a major issue. Marketo, HubSpot, and the rest are doing a great job in showing prospects the most advanced capabilities of their product, that show it in the best light possible. Things look a bit different when you start using it and see that while everything looks great in the demo, they aren’t as simple/comprehensive/well planned as expected.
  2.  All feature lists look the same – many of the marketing automation platforms offer the same feature set: email marketing, lead scoring, CRM sync, landing pages, etc. The main issue is that every platform has implemented these features in a different way, with different capabilities. While both HubSpot and Marketo offer a scoring mechanism, they aren’t comparable. Marketo offers a more robust scoring mechanism compared to HubSpot, but it might be more than what some clients need.
  3.  Anticipating your future needs – when you begin to work with marketing automation, it’s hard to imagine what your needs will be in 2 years’ time, but buying such a tool requires long term commitment. It’s not about the contractual requirements of marketing automation vendors, rather it’s about the time required to enjoy the benefits of marketing automation. In my previous post about the total cost of ownership of marketing automation, I’ve detailed all the processes and resources required to increase marketing automation ROI. These processes require time and effort. But you still need to make a decision now regarding which platform to use.

What should you ask yourself when buying a marketing automation platform?

So how can you untangle this situation? How can you make an informed decision about which tool to buy?

First you need to realize that there isn’t a good or bad marketing automation tool – only the one the fits your needs. That’s why you should first have a clear understanding of your specific needs before deciding which tool to buy.

Here are some key points to think about:

1. Are you looking for a solution for one channel, or are you looking for a marketing infrastructure?

Some tools are focused on email marketing (Eloqua is a good example), some on answering all your inbound needs (HubSpot anyone?), and some take a more holistic approach (Marketo is a good example). It is important to understand your goals – are you interested in setting up an inbound operation? Running generic email distributions? Creating an omnichannel experience? Each answer will take you on a different path to choose your tool.

  1. What’s your database size?

Most marketing automation platforms, especially B2B ones, are priced based on the amount of records in their database. Make sure that you estimate the amount of current leads in your database and the amount of future leads you’ll have in the next 12 months.

  1. How many personas are involved in your buying decision process?

Yes, it is all about the customer, and you need a customer centric approach in choosing a marketing automation tool as well. If you have multiple stakeholders in your clients’ buying decision process, you’ll need a robust and advanced scoring mechanism, lead flows, and reporting tools. That’s because each persona would require managing a different journey. Understanding this point could be a make or break, as many products support a more simplistic approach to scoring.

  1. Does your company have multiple product lines or business units?

As a rule of thumb, most inbound or email centric solutions are focused on single product scenarios. The more complex your organization is, the more you should consider enterprise grade platforms such as Marketo.

  1. What and how should your marketing automation platform integrate with other backend systems?

While most marketing automation tools have APIs, they vary in sophistication, robustness, and maturity. If you need to integrate your marketing automation platform with your SaaS product, a proprietary database, or a sophisticated ERP system, make sure that you choose a product that can integrate with these tools, and that has an active developers community.

  1. How important is CRM data for your marketing programs?

This is a subset of the previous point. There are some organizations wherein marketing is an island – marketing teams are running their own programs without sending leads to sales, or following up on their marketing performance based on pipeline. In these cases, CRM data is usually not crucial. However, if your marketing organization has pipeline responsibility (which we encourage you to have, as marketers that have pipeline responsibility usually have higher budgets as percentage of revenues), you need deep integration with your CRM. This is another one of those make or break features that are crucial for your decision making process.

OK, I get it, it’s a complex decision to make – how should I prepare for it? What are my next steps?

First understand that what works for one company won’t necessarily work for you, and the other way around. With that in mind it is clear that you should detail your most essential needs first:

  1.  What is your business goal?
  2.  What is your marketing goal?
  3.  How would you measure the impact of marketing automation on your organization?
  4.  Which systems should your marketing automation integrate with?
  5.  What kind of sales process should you support?

After you get started with the above, I recommend that you create 2-3 use cases that fit your organization – scenarios that you believe you’ll need the most, at least on day one. You can find some ideas here.

After you have that in mind, talk with the vendors, peers, and marketing service providers to learn about which products would suit you the most. See if you can get some hands-on training for some of the tools, and make sure that you’ve looked into the use cases that you care about the most. I also recommend to guide those you consult with, including the vendors, with regards your use cases and goals. This way you’ll make the most of every conversation.

I hope this blog post helped a bit in your vendor selection process. Feel free to reach out if you have any other questions.