March 24, 2010

Special Report: 8 Criteria for Choosing a Lead Scoring/Marketing Automation Vendor

SUMMARY: If you’ve decided your team is ready to adopt lead scoring or marketing automation, then the next big decision is choosing a vendor. While there are many great programs to choose from, you must find one that best fits your needs.

In part two of our lead scoring Special Report, Emily W. Salus, Sr. Marketing Manager, CollabNet, highlights eight key criteria to consider when evaluating vendors. Along the way, she provides a handy list of questions to ask yourself -- and the vendors -- to lock in to the best match for your organization.
By Emily W. Salus

In the first part of this special report, I offered advice for knowing whether your organization is ready for lead scoring -- and how to justify the investment to your executive leadership.

But once you've determined the need for a lead scoring and/or marketing automation solution, how do you pick one that will work for your organization?

Here are eight key criteria, outside of cost, to consider when evaluating vendor options:

#1. Systems Integration

What other solutions are you using that must be integrated with a marketing automation system? Most likely, this will involve your CRM, but possibly also your web analytics solution or other systems that touch your leads.

You'll need to find out if the integrations are available out of the box, or if custom programming will be needed to make the systems work together. Any costs associated with integration will have to be added to your total cost of ownership.

Ask the vendor:
o Do the integrations I need come out of the box, or will they require special programming?
o What skill set is needed to do the integration? Is it plug-and-play or does it require technical skills?
o How long does integration typically take?
o Are there any additional costs for integration services if I need them?

#2. Implementation Times

Assessing how long it will take to implement the new system will be important as you migrate from your current processes to the new tool. If training is required to start using the marketing automation solution, how long will that training take?

Some solution providers include implementation and set-up in their fees; for others it’s an additional expense. In many cases, turning on the solution, or turning it on and then syncing it with your CRM, can take just a few hours.

From there, implementing your scoring programs and managing campaigns is dependent upon your team and how fast you can develop a strategy, design emails and launch programs.

Realistically, to implement lead scoring you will need time to decide with your team:
o What different activities or lead characteristics will be scored
o What the scores for those activities are

This process can take a matter of hours or weeks, depending on your situation. If you have a complex sales cycle, many assets and a large database, establishing a scoring methodology will most likely take longer than if you have a shorter sales cycle, fewer assets and fewer leads (or fewer types of leads).

How long it takes to launch full-featured marketing automation will also be determined by:
o How quickly you can devise campaign plans and programs
o How quickly you can create the needed assets (images, assets, emails, etc.)

Before you implement the lead scoring/marketing automation solution, determine your first objective: If you need to start with sorting your leads and lead scoring, you will plan implementation differently than if you need to start nurturing campaigns.

If you can start these different projects in an order that makes sense for you, you'll reap the early rewards from your most urgent projects and gain the momentum to move forward with the other parts.

Ask yourself:
o Will you implement the new system in stages or all at once?
o What does implementation look like?
o How will it affect your current processes?

Ask the vendor:
o Do you have best practices for implementation?
o Do you offer quick-start guides or training?

#3. Downtime

Marketing automation solutions are hosted. You'll want to know how often scheduled upgrades are made and how long they take, and what backup exists in the event of unplanned outages.

Ask yourself:
o What are my business requirements for uptime?

Ask the vendor:
o How much planned outage time is there per quarter?
o What are the guaranteed uptimes?
o What happens if you exceed the outage period for a quarter?

#4. Your Team

Whether your organization is small or large, you will likely have a team working on lead scoring, email template creation, campaign planning and design, and analysis and measurement. You'll need a solution that accommodates your team and can grow as needed.

If your team is global, does the solution support distributed users? If parts of your team are working on different sections of a campaign, or on separate campaigns, it might be important to limit individuals’ access to certain projects or areas. If your organization is structured this way, ensure that you have control of permissions at the granularity you require.

Ask yourself:
o Do I need to limit permissions for specific teams or team members?

Ask the vendor:
o What levels of permission are available?
o Can I change those permissions as needed?

#5. Ease of Use

Just looking at a demonstration or a trial of a solution, can you guess where things will be located and how to implement new campaigns?

If at first glance the solution is confusing, you'll need to consider how it will appear to other team members and any executives who expect a demonstration.

If the solution is intuitive, your team will be able to experiment more readily and be more innovative. Remember that you'll be using the solution regularly -- if it’s a chore to use or difficult to understand, you may be reluctant to change your current processes.

- Conducting a pilot test

Not all vendors offer pilots, and whether a pilot is free or paid will vary. Some vendors offer a free trial. However, a company that wants your business typically will accommodate your needs.

When I set up a lead scoring/marketing automation solution at my company, we received RFP responses from three vendors, and then piloted two. The pilots were offered free, were easy to run, and made it easy to make a final vendor selection.

To pilot a marketing automation solution, pick a small selection of your database as a trial, pick a message you need to send to them, and see if you can set it up for yourself. (In a pilot or trial program, you want to be sure that you don’t cause irreversible changes to your lead database, but you also want to test any integrations that will be part of your production requirements.)

You'll most likely want to use a campaign that involves at least two emails, so you can test an automated message cycle that sends follow-up emails based on trigger options. If the solution has the ability to do an A/B test, you might consider including one in your pilot, or in a subsequent test within your pilot.

Sending an email to a select group requires a number of steps:

Step #1. Create the email
o Format
o Content
o HTML/text versions
o Test the email

Step #2. Select the audience via
o Report in your CRM
o Segmentation via the marketing automation solution
o A combination of the two

Step #3. Build the campaign
o Sending an email
o Sending a second email based on the response (or lack of response) to the first email

Step #4. Schedule the campaign

Step #5. Analyze the results

If you can do this with a small sampling, then you'll have a good idea of how the solution will work as your usage gets more complex.

#6. Education and Staffing

How much training will your team need before they can use the solution? Whether your team is in one location or several, they will all need some training. The amount of training available during your pilot (if you have one) and during implementation will be key to deciding which solution suits you.

Training may be available on-site at your company, on-demand via web conferencing or through conferences and formal courses. Training could be free or paid. Find out the investment you'll need to make in time, money and personnel, and include it in your total cost of ownership.

Administration of the solution is another factor. Will you need a designated administrator? If so, how much technical knowledge will the administrator need?

If you don't need an administrator, will you have one or more primary users who can bring the team together to remain organized? If you'll have a primary user, that person can also serve as a resource for the rest of your team.

Once the vendor delivers initial training and start-up information, will learning to use the solution in a more sophisticated way be straightforward, or will further training be needed? You need to understand how much your team will need to learn in a formal setting and how much can be self-taught through on-demand resources or simple experience.

Ask yourself:
o Does someone on the team have the required skills to be the administrator or primary user, or can they learn?
o Is using the system intuitive?
o How adept is my team at learning new systems?

Ask the vendor:
o How much administration is needed?
o What is the typical training time for an administrator or general user?
o Is further training needed beyond a start-up period?
o How is training delivered?
o Is training included in the cost or additional?

#7. Support and Best Practices

When selecting a vendor, it is critical to know in advance:
o What support is available
o At what cost
o At what response time

First, if best practices, a user community, or other self-serve resources are available, these may give you the support you need in most cases. Beyond those resources, you also need to ascertain whether customer support is included or requires a separate contract, and what response time you can expect for mission-critical cases and for less urgent issues.

Ask the vendor:
o What are the support offerings?
o Are they included or is there an additional support contract? At what cost?
o What best practices are available?
o Is there a user group or community?

#8. Reporting

You're going to need to show measurable results. The most important questions you can answer using marketing automation data are the ones that will help you make good strategic decisions going forward.

Among these are:
o Which campaigns are most successful and what metrics are needed to demonstrate that?
o Are there different success metrics for demand generation and nurturing?
o Which lead sources are driving the most traffic? The most opportunities?
o Which frequency of emails is most effective for your audience?
o How many leads do you have at each stage of your marketing sales funnel?
o How fast are your leads moving through your funnel?

A solution that provides data to answer those questions goes a long way towards justifying itself. It's important to remember the difference between data and analysis. The numbers won't help you until you understand what their implications are.

Ask yourself:
o What are the critical metrics the marketing and sales teams need to meet business goals?
o Can this solution get the data to measure these metrics?
o Do reports already exist in the solution that I can use to measure these metrics?

Ask the vendor:
o Are there reporting templates?
o Can I customize them to my needs?
o Can I create my own ad hoc reports?
o How easy or difficult are they to generate?
o Are there reporting best practices or examples from other customers?

While there may be additional questions you need to answer when selecting a lead scoring and marketing automation vendor, making sure you’ve at least considered the above issues should get you well on your way.

Useful links related to this article

Part 1 of this Special Report: When to Adopt Lead Scoring, and How to Justify the Investment

Investing in Marketing Automation: The Benefits of Pilot Testing

CollabNet Inc.

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