Marketing Clouds: Beyond the buzz

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16765712413_79b7e5db5b_kFor tech-savvy marketers, the cloud is awash in promise, possibility, and some confusion

If the phrase “marketing cloud” strikes confusion into your heart, you’re not alone. “It’s sort of like the blind man and the elephant,” says Rebecca Wettemann, vice president at Boston-based Nucleus Research. “The marketing cloud seems a lot different depending upon which piece you’re touching at the moment.”

While the definition of the marketing cloud remains in flux, a few elements do hold constant. Generally, a marketing cloud is thought of as cross-channel platform for marketing automation that encompasses a wide range of digital marketing activities and analysis, and increasingly, off-line ones as well.

Most larger vendors – including Adobe, IBM, HP, Oracle and Salesforce – are looking to build clouds that include capabilities in marketing automation, but also social listening, social marketing, community building, and content management. They’ve endeavored to do this mostly by combining their own technologies with a rash of acquisitions over the past 24 months, some of which are more fully integrated than others, or partnerships, like the one IBM signed with Facebook last week. That partnership will combine Facebook’s audience targeting capabilities with IBM’s analytics tools to “deliver more compelling messages on Facebook and other mediums,” according to IBM. The partnership even promises to extend the targeting capabilities to offline commerce, providing customers “with compelling experiences that bridge the physical and virtual divide,” according to Deepak Advani, General Manager, IBM Commerce.

“Everything we’ve done in the past ten years in digital marketing has made things more and more complicated,” says Stefan Tornquist, the New York-based vice president of U.S. research at Econsultancy. “Now, with the cloud, people are finally, desperately, trying to make it simple.”

Not every marketing organization is equally prepared to move to a marketing cloud. Companies with extremely large and strong IT departments are often resistant, because IT is reluctant to outsource so much of their responsibility, and to embrace innovation that wasn’t developed in-house. Other big companies, says Tornquist, are still trying to figure out how to get value out of all the business intelligence data warehousing they built five years ago. “The more legacy technology you have, the more complicated your journey,” says Tornquist. Still other organizations would rather not be so reliant on a single vendor.

But for teams that are more committed to innovation, and can either manage or jettison legacy technology investments, the marketing cloud offers a bevy of opportunities. Among them: improved automation, better collaboration, access to innovation, and increasingly clever ways to engage with customers.

First off, says Tornquist, the mere process of adopting a cloud marketing strategy can have a salubrious effect on many organizations. Moving marketing into the cloud, even piecemeal, often requires a fair amount of back-and-forth between various departments, including marketing, IT, and finance. The upshot: By the time it’s all over, everyone’s on the same page about what is needed from and by marketing, and how that will be best achieved.

Companies that do move to a marketing cloud should find that it’s much easier for multiple people, and teams, to work on big programs and campaigns together. That collaboration can be a huge advantage, says Tornquist, even if the feature sets of a cloud solution and those of the company’s previous point solutions don’t exactly match.

For companies that haven’t already made much of a foray into marketing automation, a marketing cloud can be a huge timesaver. Programs and campaigns can be better automated and integrated across channels. There’s also the potential for a lot less rework, and less time spent on administration, says Wettemann.

Importantly, Wettemann says, the cloud also offers sophisticated marketers the potential to be cleverer in the way they engage with customers. Rather than waiting for customers to interact with a brand directly, marketers can use cloud-based social listening to understand what customers and prospects are saying about the brand online. That information can then be used to develop new campaigns, target the recently discovered influencers, and interact with them through other channels. It can also be used to develop social campaigns, at scale, that can help companies reach new prospects through Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social channels.

Wettemann is also a big fan of the flexibility – the buzzword is ‘agility’ – that marketing clouds can offer, and the ability to take advantage of upgrades that are released about three times a year rather than once every two years. Moreover, these are upgrades a marketer might actually want. Rather than shutting everything down while marketing and IT tests, fixes, and retrains staff, upgrades in the cloud are mostly a matter of exposing new features, usually with very little disruption. “If you did this on-premise you’d have to go to IT, figure out how many hours you’d need for the upgrade, which campaigns you might have running, what customizations may break, and how much downtime you need,” Wettemann says. “In the cloud, it’s much easier to take advantage of a rapid upgrade cycle.”

The marketing cloud, like other clouds, can also be a great solution for companies that are somewhat seasonal or have sudden inflows of data followed by relative calm. In the cloud, a marketing team can run at full speed for the months or weeks that it needs to, much more flexibly and cost-effectively than if it were using on-premise applications.

Where the work still lies to be done? Tornquist is clear. It’s in being able “to automate and pollinate marketing programs across channels. That’s already one of the key priorities in any cloud system, and it’s going to have to continue to be.”

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