In theory, marketing in 2016 should be a breeze, as companies have access to an unprecedented amount of data about customers, both current and future. But using the data to improve the customer experience requires the right tools. Enter marketing cloud software vendors, which offer solutions that promise marketers a more comprehensive way to reach customers. And yet, companies of all sizes are finding that choosing and using a marketing cloud platform is not a trivial matter, and obtaining and successfully implementing the right one could mean the difference between marketing success and marketing mediocrity.
The term "marketing cloud" means different things to different people. "We refer to them as a marketing platform or a marketing suite," says Kashyap Kompella, research director at Real Story Group, a provider of vendor evaluations. "All of them aspire to be SaaS at some point, but right now, they're not there yet, so it's a work in progress. It's best to think of them as a marketing platform rather than a marketing cloud."
Regardless of what it's called, analysts say that the use of online marketing tools is a trend that's here to stay. "So from a mom-and-pop marketer to an enterprise marketer at a Fortune 100 company, pretty much anything you're going to do in marketing today, you can do online without any on-premises or installed technology," says Andrew Moravick, senior research associate of marketing effectiveness and strategy at Aberdeen Group, a research organization that provides business insights. In fact, experts say it would be difficult to buy a marketing platform that isn't cloud-based.
In a marketing cloud, each piece (email and social, etc.) of marketing tech talks to the other pieces and exchanges data, according to Moravick. "It's an entity of integrated marketing solutions and technologies that work together in a kind of seemingly intangible system hosted online," he says.
Salesforce--a company that is almost synonymous with SaaS--says that titanic shifts in the tech landscape have created a demand for marketing cloud products. The power and scalability of the cloud, social media, mobile, personalization, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have made the marketing cloud necessary for today's businesses, according to Meghann York, director of product marketing at Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
"These five shifts merged the physical and digital worlds together, which increases the need for a cloud-based digital marketing hub that brings together these new opportunities for marketers," she says.
Suite Versus Standalone
Using a marketing cloud solution doesn't necessarily entail buying a marketing suite such as Salesforce or Oracle. In fact, an all-in-one enterprise platform might not make sense for smaller companies. Moravick says they may only need an email marketing provider or a few targeted solutions that would help their direct marketing efforts.
Size might not be the only barrier for organizations looking to get into marketing cloud products, as regulations may preclude companies in industries such as healthcare or banking from using these services, according to Kompella. Cost can be a large factor as well, since marketing cloud platforms "don't come cheap-they're pretty expensive," he adds.
Caveats aside, analysts say the move toward the marketing cloud is inexorable. "Unless there are very specific regulations, you probably think enterprises are defaulting toward the cloud or SaaS or HubSpot," Kompella says.
Shifting from traditional marketing tools to a marketing cloud platform can backfire for companies that don't have two things in abundance: good data and quality content. Kompella says correctly leveraging marketing cloud technology requires good data and the ability to "leverage this data in the ways you intend to." Having lots of good data isn't very helpful, if it's in different silos that can't be tied together.
It's difficult for even large enterprise customers to comb through their data to gain a comprehensive view of their prospects and customers. "If I want a 360-degree view--or at least a coherent view of the customer or the target or prospect that you're trying to reach--that's a hugely difficult task," says Kompella.
So a significant disadvantage of not having quality, accessible data to use is rendering a purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars into "just using it like MailChimp," Kompella says.
A lack of content is another reason that a marketing cloud platform may be viewed as a bad investment for a company, especially for small to midsized companies. "A lot of the power or value of this all comes from being able to divide your audiences into different segments," Kompella says. "So having appropriate content for each of these segments becomes very complex."
Small companies can experience the same benefits from a marketing cloud platform as large enterprises can, according to Kevin Akeroyd, general manager and SVP of Oracle Marketing Cloud. Cloud platforms such as Oracle are democratizing, or good for everyone, as even the smallest company receives the same benefits as an enterprise customer.
"Regardless of what type of business I'm in, the benefits of a cloud-based software delivery model really translate to all companies of all shapes, of all sizes, of all flavors, and it democratizes things," Akeroyd states. "The small company can get access to the exact same software that the large enterprise can."
Akeroyd says that there are three reasons firms should use marketing cloud software. The first is that it's very capital un-intensive, because companies don't need to invest in servers or other hardware.
"Benefit number two is speed," Akeroyd says. "By adopting cloud-based technologies, I can adapt very, very quickly. I can change, get sophisticated, and get more and more complex very, very easily, because I'm taking advantage of the cloud-based software." Cloud vendors also update their platform often, sometimes monthly, so customers (large and small) get the benefits of "rapid innovation," according to Akeroyd.
The last benefit is cloud-based software's interoperability with other systems. Akeroyd says it's easier for marketing cloud users to "talk" to other cloud vendors for services such as data cleansing, online presentations, and events.