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Cloud-based marketing tools need integration to work

When companies don't integrate their cloud-based marketing tools, customer data can easily become out-of-date and out-of-sync among various systems.

As marketers use cloud-based marketing tools to cultivate prospects and connect with existing customers, they are finding SaaS to be a double-edged sword.

Today's software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based marketing applications enable more powerful, automated campaigns among channels, better prospect profiling and faster reporting. But those benefits can diminish when companies use disconnected marketing applications. That's why many companies choose a single vendor's platform and a pre-integrated ecosystem.

But when a single vendor cannot provide all the functionality you need, you may opt for a best-of-breed approach that requires integration to gain the benefits of marketing automation. Even companies that choose so-called "end-to-end platforms" are not immune: In today's growing and complex marketing ecosystem, just about every company needs to integrate at least some marketing applications in the cloud, including companies that opt for a platform approach.

Requirement: Integration

Once your company has acquired two or more diverse marketing applications, you may find yourself with disconnected apps that don't communicate with one another. Manual attempts to export and import data or to run one-off SQL database queries can be error-prone, slow and require specialized resources. Each of these processes can lead to customer and prospect records that are out-of-date and out-of-sync across various systems. And the entire enterprise can lose visibility into what's happening in marketing and sales.

So as you consider using multiple applications, you should also consider this: Using multiple cloud-based marketing tools requires that you think more about data integration.

From chaos to calm

At inventory monitoring and order management software firm Megaventory, for example, myriad applications put operations in a tailspin. "We had no process at all and no way of handling each case in a specific, effective way. Leads were lost as they were not followed up [on], leads were mistakenly contacted multiple times and there was general chaos," said CMO Dimitris Athanasiadis, describing life before integrating CRM, email marketing, support and affiliate management systems with cloud-based integration vendor Zapier.

Now that its systems are integrated, the company is losing fewer leads, growing properly segmented mailing lists, and giving employees more time for tasks that require critical thought. Indeed, for many companies, cloud integration "enables sales-driven marketing automation, in which changes in the CRM record triggers the lead to go into an automated lead nurturing campaign," said Adrian Mott, sales and marketing vice president of data integration platform firm Bedrock Data.

Enabling best of breed capabilities -- and results

Instead of limiting yourself to a single vendor's marketing solution, integration enables you to gain best-in-class functionality from multiple vendors. The same was true in 1995, but with today's proliferation of options, it's more likely that you will need to integrate different technologies.

Don't solely base all trust on what the integration promises to do.

For Kevin LaManna, principal at SocialRaise, integration helped to bring multiple best-of-breed marketing applications together as one. "Some of the features of a CRM (such as event management or email marketing) aren't top-notch. We look at other best-of-breed services, so the overall solution is the best it can be," LaManna said. Brandon Dudley's marketing team at bus charter service BusBank connected SaaS-based marketing automation, email marketing, event management and survey services using Zapier's and Bedrock Data's integrations to ensure that sales, marketing and support are all working from the same information. This has saved Dudley's team 20 hours per week in running reports and exports, while adding capabilities to personalize emails with new data sources.

Many choices

SaaS and integration vendors offer a variety of choices as you decide how to integrate your cloud-based marketing tools so that you can enable a continuous omnichannel experience, a single view of the customer, and consistent reporting across all systems.

  • All-in-one marketing suites. As I interviewed marketers for this article, several described how they integrated separate email, event and marketing applications, all capabilities that come out of the box in the marketing automation platforms (MAPs). Obviously, if you can find a MAP that meets your needs at a reasonable price, you can avoid integrations between core marketing functions, although you will need to integrate with a CRM system. Many of the MAPs ship with out-of-the-box CRM connectors.
  • Platform app exchanges. Several CRM and MAP platform vendors provide online marketplaces where their partners sell pre-integrated applications that extend capabilities of the platform and ensure synchronization across systems.
  • Cloud-based integration (CBI). Third-party services enable business users to configure prebuilt integrations from one application to another, using simple If-This-Then-That (IFTTT) logic and field mapping. These services are relatively low cost and easy to use and typically provide minimal one-way integration between apps. For example, an integration might enable you to write a new record in your email platform whenever someone registers for an event in your event management system, but you might not be able to update records. That said, some vendors have added new capabilities that enable users to create integrations based on preexisting application programming interface (APIs). Some CBIs are beginning to look more like independent integration exchanges.
  • Integration platform as a service (iPaaS). These offerings expand on CBI with more advanced capabilities that research firm Gartner believes are ideal for enterprises, such as data transformation, data mapping, API management, integration flow management, administration and monitoring and more. iPaaS also enables more complex bidirectional integrations that will sync multiple objects within an application. Vendors provide varying degrees of prebuilt integrations out of the box.
  • Other integration options. Other integration options are also available, including tag management, which can collect visitor data from digital clients (browsers), fine-tune, and distribute it to different marketing systems. And you (or your system integrator) can always build custom integrations. But they are often brittle and difficult to maintain, says Chris Purpura, vice president of digital enterprise strategy at Mulesoft. Decision-making software such as predictive analytics and business intelligence systems include integration as well.

Where to start

As Corey Craig, customer experience design and innovation lead at Dell stated at the MarTech Conference, "Let the experience drive technology decisions." Craig started by manually mapping out the customer experience as a starting point for its technology and integration work. Purpura advised companies to "start with the assumption that all customer interactions going forward are digital, then take an inventory of the channels, rationalize the products you're using against those channels and then think about how you will manage the flow of information."

SocialRaise's LaManna advised marketers to "First, really understanding the requirement on what actually needs to happen. Second, don't solely base all trust on what the integration promises to do. Instead, get your hands dirty and play around with the integration. "If it's open source, then dive on into the code," BusBank's Dudley said. "I would look at all the options available and make sure that they have enough integrations for your platforms. If only one or two pieces can integrate, it might not be worth spending time or money. If you can sync up with a couple of systems, you've likely found the winner."

Especially as integrations become more complicated, centralization can be helpful. BedrockData's Mott advised, "Think about your business data from a centralized and normalized perspective -- like an operations professional would, rather than as a bunch of fragmented apps that you are stitching together, because as your organization scales, people will want to integrate with a lot more."

Vendor promises notwithstanding, most marketers will need to build their own marketing stacks in the cloud for the foreseeable future. And today's assortment of cloud-based integration tools will help you stitch together a solid stack that enables accurate, consistent, and up-to-date customer and prospect data across applications, so you can deliver both a seamless customer/prospect experience and greater visibility into marketing and sales operations.

Next Steps

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This was last published in July 2015

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