Is there a right way to buy marketing technology? (Short answer: Yes!)

In twenty years as an industry analyst evaluating martech vendor platforms, I’ve witnessed hundreds of enterprises try to make good technology purchase decisions. All too often they get it wrong.

You can’t blame those decision-makers. Marketers in particular face intense time pressures and can’t readily find good templates for doing this right.  Stress around making a poor choice sometimes leads to ill-advised short-cuts or paralyzing over-analysis.

The wrong way

 Here’s a short list of some of the wrong approaches we see regularly from our perch at Real Story Group:

  • Love at first sight – Marketing leader sees a demo and believes it will solve all their problems. These sorts of relationships almost never last.
  • It worked for Cousin Vinnie – Some other firms in your industry licensed Vendor X, so you should too. This ignores potentially decisive differentiators between your organizations.
  • Pick the winning horse – rely on some static analyst industry quadrant that doesn’t actually match up against your needs and likely sucks up to analyst-friendly (read: large) vendors
  • Re-use grandpa’s dungarees – you already have some tech lying around that seems like it’ll work, so you just deploy it – at the risk of great discomfort for the actual user
  • Somebody else’s problem – Marketing or IT abdicates the decision to the other department or to a highly-conflicted consultancy. This almost always leads to grief.
  • Embrace the multi-tabbed spreadsheet – Just list, rank and weigh all your feature requirements against vendor proposals to find the correct answer. Except in the real-world, this math never adds up.

The right way: Design thinking

Any discussion of buying martech right has to start with the idea that you are not looking for the “best” solution, but the best-fitting solution for your particular circumstances: your requirements, capabilities, resources, risk tolerance and specific business objectives. Notions of fit can be liberating since you dispense with the impossible job of finding some universally ideal solution. “Fit” is also empowering, since it gives you a natural approach to vetting solutions.

That approach is design thinking, a methodology grounded in empathy, ideation and testing. There’s a lot to say about this concept, but for our purposes, let’s just summarize it as:

  • Human-centered
  • Story-based
  • Collaborative
  • Iterative
  • Hands-on and test-oriented

At RSG we’ve found it the ideal methodology for selecting marketing technology, where real humans (your MarTech/Ops/Marketing/Digital/Compliance teams) are trying to create better experiences for other humans.

How to begin

It starts, of course, with establishing the business case for new or replacement technology. Clearly document the top six-to-eight business objectives for the new technology to guide your selection and implementation teams going forward. When you reach decision points, this becomes your principal touchstone. Then build an interdisciplinary selection team – just make sure it’s headed by a marketer or some other business leader.

From there, you can start the actual work. Sometimes people ask, how much time and effort should we put into this? The answer is, “it depends.” If the solution you’re looking to select will become an anchor tenant in your martech stack, then you want to build a broad team and invest several months (or perhaps more) time into it. If it’s more of an experimental or “glue” component in your stack, then you can invest less time and resources.

Either way, you’ll want to follow some version of these five steps.

Filtering the solutions

Using this approach, you filter through a range of solutions to find the right fit for your martech needs.  

Five stages of design thinking represented as steps for vetting martech, with the number of prospective vendors in parentheses.  Source: Real Story Group

Too often we see selection teams overly focused on features rather than use cases.  Whatever you do, avoid “checkbox” requirements sheets, where you ask the vendor: “can you do this; can you do that?” As a practical matter, vendors have seen all these questions and have figured out how to check all the boxes.

Instead, consider centering your solicitation on user stories. These are short, real-life narratives that describe your information, your processes, your anticipated business results, and above all, the people – your prospects, customers, and employees interacting with the system. To the extent possible, narratives should reflect “to-be” journeys and as such become aspirational.  

User stories become the backbone of a process centered in empathy.  They will…

  • Reside at the center of any RFP
  • Provide relevant material for the demo phase
  • Serve as test cases when you start vetting prospective vendors during a bake-off and optional proof of concept (PoC) round

Your stories don’t have to be perfect at first. You can improve them at each stage of the process as you learn more.

The key to learning more is getting close to actual technology sooner rather than later, first by hosting demos of your stories, not generic vendor reference implementations. How many vendors should you invite to demo? It depends. Initially, you’ll want to explore as wide a set of potential suppliers as possible, to give yourself the best odds of finding an optimal solution. This is a process of getting to a “long list” first, and but then you’ll want to filter to a “short list” (perhaps via proposals) to actually demo.

Then – for the love of god, people – always test any solution hands-on with real people (ideally in a competitive bake-off) before inking any contract.  I’m dumbfounded to regularly see large enterprises license a solution without ever trying it themselves. That’s like watching a car salesperson drive a vehicle around the dealer’s lot and deciding you want to buy it!

Remember this is a test-based process, so you can always iterate.  Still not convinced after a bake-off round? Listen to your instincts and continue with a more involved PoC if the stakes are high enough. Perform your diligence under your timeline, not the vendor’s.

More to review

There’s a lot more to review here about trade-offs, decision styles, and vendor sleights of hand.  For details and examples, please attend my half-day workshop at MarTech West April 15.  In addition to answering your toughest questions about martech vendors and how to vet them, all attendees will receive a free copy of my book The Right Way to Select Technology.

More about the MarTech Conference

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Tony Byrne is founder of Real Story Group, a technology analyst firm. RSG evaluates martech and CX technologies to assist enterprise tech stack owners. To maintain its strict independence, RSG only works with enterprise technology buyers and never advises vendors.

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