Hacks, Stacks and Apps—The New Tools of Technology Marketing: Interview with Scott Brinker

Interviewer: Today I’m very pleased to welcome Scott Brinker. Scott is the President and CTO of Ion Interactive. While I usually interview CMOs Scott is an exception to that rule for a few good reasons. Number one, Ion Interactive is a marketing apps platform that generates leads and revenue via digital marketing, so it is squarely in the marketing technology space. But, perhaps more importantly, Scott is the godfather of marketing technology, that’s my phrase; and well known as the author of the Chief Marketing Technologists Blog at chiefmartec.com. Scott understands the marketing technology landscape better than anyone, and has been writing and talking about this topic for the last eight years. Welcome Scott.

Brinker: Thank you Glenn, great to be here.

Interviewer: Now, when you and I talked earlier we talked about a very interesting topic, the evolution of the marketing technology space, particularly as it relates to platforms. And as you and I discussed, a lot of companies are coming out talking about their marketing Cloud, and so I’d like to hear from you about what is this platform, and who are the players, and how is this meaningful for the marketer?

Brinker: Sure, so it’s certainly a fascinating space. As you know there’s just well over a thousand marketing technology vendors, but not all marketing technology vendors are equal. There’s several very large players right? We know them by name, Adobe, Marketo, Oracle, Salesforce, IBM and many others, but what’s been going on in that space is a lot of these large companies they originally came in saying, okay what we will try and do is role up into a single suite everything that a marketer needs and they can just buy our one solution, our marketing Cloud and they’ll be done.

Interviewer: Right.

Brinker: Well, the challenge with that has been is the marketing landscape is not stable. It’s continuing to change. There’s continuing to be all these new innovations and it’s just got into a pace and a scale where it’s almost impossible for anyone company to have everything perfectly under its umbrella. Theoretically if they did it would last for about two days and then something new would come up.

Interviewer: Right, right.

Brinker: So, what’s been interesting here is we’ve started to see these major players shift their strategy to instead of saying, okay well this is everything just sort of in a closed system, they’re converting these suites to be more what I would call an open platform where sure they include a lot of core capabilities themselves, but they also make it feasible for marketers to more easily plug in other specialized point solutions in that landscape of a thousand some other marketing technology vendors.

Interviewer: Right and that’s really critical to your point if you can’t keep up with the changes you have to enable others to plug in.

Brinker: Exactly, and you know if you look through the history of software platforms, these foundational systems that allow other products to plug in on top of them, when they’re done right they become some of the most successful software in history. I mean, this is what made windows so big back in the day. If you look now on mobile and the competition between Apple and Android, these aren’t just about the capabilities of those core systems. It’s about their ecosystems of who has more applications being built on top of that underlying platform.

Interviewer: Right, and to be a platform you have to be a leader already so that you have that desire for 3rd parties to plug in because you have a large installed base.

Brinker: Yeah, I mean this is an emerging space now, so you certainly have a lot of people competing to win those 3rd party supports. What’s interesting is there is definitely more than one kind of player out there, so you’ve got those major platforms that we already mentioned and they’re trying to be the backbone of marketing. But at the same time, you’re starting to see other companies creating what I would call middleware for marketing, things like tag management systems, and Cloud connectors, and even some of these customer data platforms that are not the major brands that we have known at the scale of like and Adobe or an Oracle or a Salesforce, but because they are making it easier to almost act like the switchboard between many different applications working together I think they’re in the race too for enabling this platform capability within marketing.

Interviewer: Interesting, and that’s because they play a central role between different applications?

Brinker: So they typically do two things. First, they help connect different applications together, sort of like that switchboard of the data, but what’s interesting is many of them use that as a starting point where once they become the switchboard of all this data that puts them in an incredible position to be able to add value on top of that by saying, okay well you know, like take Atlantis Engines which is a predictive analytics company, but their technology in many ways is middleware. It connects all the other marketing systems you have and pulls all that data together, but then on top of that is using that overarching view of all the data to start to garner predictive analytical insights in who your best customers are, or your best prospects, what’s the right stage they’re at and so on.

Interviewer: Right. So let’s talk about how does a marketer look at this, and how does a marketer start to decide – let’s say I have multiple players in my marketing technology stack today, several of whom are going for the platform sale, how do I step back and decide? Do I choose a platform or do I go best of breed?

Brinker: You know that is a great question, and I don’t think there’s a short answer to that. Somebody just used a phrase today I haven’t heard before. They called it a Frankenstack, which apparently according to Urban Dictionary it got started when you’d have like those bands that the guitarist wouldn’t just have all of their amp stuff from one vendor, they’d this bizarre mix. And so, you’d look on stage and there would be all these different brands of amps and speakers and all this stuff.

Interviewer: Right.

Brinker: People referred to that as a Frankenstack. And I think that is a perfect label for this sort of marketing, this heterogeneous marketing environment. People do have software for many different vendors, and I think from a marketer’s view this isn’t about technology at the end of the day right? It’s about what are we trying to achieve as far as our capabilities in our organization.

Interviewer: Right, exactly.

Brinker: And I think the place to start is to really get clarity around what’s the core data. What is this core view of the customer that we want to have and pick a system that’s going to be your system of record for that? And other things that you build on top of that, whether you’re getting from the same provider or your mixing and matching your best of breed from other providers, I think a lot of that depends on well what are the capabilities you want from each, what sort of capabilities do you have, either with your inhouse talent or through folks like you guys to be able to technically pull multiple pieces together.

Interviewer: Right and most people have a wide variety of customer data found in different systems today and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon, so I do think that the vendors that help pull that all together have a real advantage in the eyes of the marketer.

Brinker: Yes and you know, I’ve heard it said that – you know marketers ideally in theory we’re looking for that 360 view of the customer, and it’s sometimes said well today we have a 10 degree view or 20 degree view. You know, being a pragmatic sort of person I think this quest for the 360 degree view of the customer it’s really hard to get there.

Interviewer: Oh yeah.

Brinker: So much is continuing to change, but if we can go from like a 20 degree view of the customer to like a 60 degree or a 90 degree, or 120 degree, actually that would be phenomenal. So taking these pragmatic steps one at a time to get better coordinated without this chaotic quest for perfection in your marketing stack it feels like the more reasonable way to approach it to me.

Interviewer: Well Scott, here’s another dilemma. I may have a single view of the customer if I really worked hard to make that happen, but I don’t have a single view of the prospects, because the prospect isn’t yet a customer and they’re not in my customer related data systems, and yet I need to understand that prospect and market to them to turn them into a customer. So, even if I’m shooting for a single view I don’t think that’s really possible.

Brinker: You’re absolutely right. The higher you’re up in the funnel you have a greater variance there is in where these touch points are coming from and how much visibility you have. And yeah, even different kinds of software that give you those signals. It’s very different when you’re getting signals from people who are interacting on your website versus if you’re getting signals off of social media, versus if you’re getting signals from say doing some sort of display advertising campaign that’s targeting people even further out.

Interviewer: Good, so Scott talk to us a little bit about marketing apps from the thought leadership and definitional stage, because I think it’s a relatively new space and I want to give you a chance to describe the value of marketing apps.

Brinker: Sure, yeah in a nutshell it’s basically about moving from passive content. Marketing, the far majority of what we are hitting our prospects with is passive content, it’s things they have to read, blog posts and white papers, and ebooks, or they have to sit and listen to an entire webinar. And that’s fine. There’s a role for that passive content, but as the amount of passive content out there has just exploded there’s a limit to how many ebooks one person can actually read in a week before they want to just pull their hair out. And so what we’re recognizing as the state of web technology is advancing, people are getting more used to having these interactive utilities on their smartphones. Marketing apps is really about creating that sort of utility, these interactive experiences on the web. So, for example is someone is interested in a business intelligence system, instead of just going to a site, fill out a form, download a large white paper have to sit through that for two hours and wake myself up several times through it; instead they can come to this interactive assessment tool that says okay well where is your organization at in data driven decision making. And I can start to go through an interactive series of questions being able to measure, okay how are we approaching these sorts of scenarios, and how well do we do with this kind of decision making. And I get to the end, and this might be a sure thing. It might be a half dozen questions, it might be 10, whatever; I get to the end and this marketing app actually shows me okay well how do I stack up against my peers. It shows me; okay based on this profile where you’re at this is logically some of the next steps you should think about. It’s a way to sort of just engage people in this more interactive learning.

Interviewer: Right.

Brinker: And you can do all sorts of things like that. An assessment tool is one, but you can have quizzes. You can have contests. You can have calculators, configurators, any sort of thing that’s going to be interactive and provide some utility or two-way interaction.

Interviewer: So, not only is it a way to break through this massive amount of content that is now available since everyone wants to be a content marketer, but it makes that content not only more engaging but more meaningful to the marketer; and helps them determine whether or not they really are qualified actually. It could be a qualification tool.

Brinker: It is actually. Right, you’re exactly right. There is this incredible serendipity that on the front end to your prospect yeah you’re able to be more engaging, you’re able to provide some actual usefulness in the marketing that you’re providing them. But, you’re absolutely right, on the back end the marketer now, instead of just seeing well somebody downloaded a paper, that’s about all I know. I get this stream of interaction depending on the kind of marketing app they’ve been interacting with, could provide a lot of insight to who that prospect is and what resonates with them.

Interviewer: Um hm, very interesting. So, going back to the platform discussion for a moment you’re right, there are a lot of platform players, but none of them seem to actually cover the entire stack. In other words, while they might try to cover most of the needs of a marketer I haven’t seen anyone that is complete. And to your point earlier that’s almost a fool’s game, because it’s changing so rapidly. Are there any winners that you see emerging in the platform space right now?

Brinker: So, I think there are certainly the major brands in the space. Even if they aren’t complete they do have very rich solutions. And for organizations for almost any real size, they’ve certainly adopted at least one, if not multiple of the systems from those large providers. So don’t see any of those major providers shaking out at this point. I think they’re competing very robustly. The truth is this marketing technology space is still fairly young. You know, it’s only really been in the past year or two that we’ve started to see this momentum accelerate. I know the folk at Sirius said something like marketing automation as a piece is maybe only achieve something like 16% penetration.

Interviewer: Right, I’ve heard even lower rates than that, but yeah.

Brinker: Yeah, I mean, regardless of whether it’s 16 or 10 or 20, order of magnitude it’s pretty clear there is a lot of opportunity for these marketing technology systems for the next 5 to 10 years. So, I think it’s going to take that growth period to go through before we ever really get to a place where there’s true pressure to shake out.

Interviewer: Well, I want to go back to something you said earlier and it has to do with really solving a business or marketing problem first. One of the things that we encounter is that because so many software solutions have low barriers to entry to the user, they might be a premium model or they might be $19 a month, that it’s really easy for a large marketing organization to start grabbing different pieces of software and using them. And there is a plus to that, which is you can experiment. You can figure out what works. But, the down side we see is that that’s really what it is is a series of experiments, as opposed to part of an integrated plan based on what the organization is trying to accomplish. And I think the platform players have an opportunity to play that role as a more meaningful, not just a technology solution, but set of technologies that enable the marketer to do this much more wisely.

Brinker: Sure, I think you need both. There’s a difference here between operations and innovation, and a lot of these core marketing systems right? I mean you might experiment with a marketing automation system quickly, but to really adopt it, that’s not going to be something that happens overnight, that’s a pretty big deal.

Interviewer: Right.

Brinker: Same thing with a CRM or what not. There’s these core things that people need to, yeah, evaluate very carefully for how are we going to build our core infrastructure. But, I think on the other side of that is yeah, once you get beyond the core infrastructure and you start to look at all of these more little innovative point solutions then I think that’s a place where, yeah, it’s okay to have people doing that sort of experimentation, trying these different things. Some will work for them, some won’t. After they’ve found some that, hey this really seems to work well with us; it works well with how we like to engage with our audience, it’s giving us the results we want; then they need to think about more carefully how would we really plug this piece into our infrastructure. But, I think if you’re trying to handle all marketing technology with the same governance view, it just sort of creates restrictions on how you’re going to adopt stuff that I don’t know if you need.

Interviewer: So that’s a really good point, and maybe it has to do with the centrality of that application. So, to your example of using marketing automation, and it is not easy to experiment with a marketing automation system; swap out a new one if you don’t like the first one. But, there might be many other places in the marketing technology stack where it’s more feasible to do some experimentation, so that’s a really good point.

Brinker: Right and those things can move from one side to the other.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Brinker: Well, for instance, I don’t know let’s say you’re experimenting with a tool you’re using for managing your content marketing. You might have a couple different tools to experiment with and you don’t maybe spend a lot of time integrating them into your infrastructure yet because you’re just trying to find well what tools work for us; what are we productive with; what’s inspiring; what works well with our work flow. But, then once you find one that really does have those properties, then it probably is worth it to say okay well we don’t want to just be treating this as a little innovation project on the side now, we do want to start to think about okay, how do we really connect all the data we’re getting from this back into our core infrastructure.

Interviewer: Right, yes I do think data integration becomes the central area of focus to make all these systems work together well. You’ve pointed that out a couple of time. So, one last thing for you Scott, tell us a little bit about where you see the next one or two years in terms of this marketing platform or marketing Cloud and how you envision it evolving.

Brinker: So, I think it’s just going to be an incredible growth period for these marketing platforms. I think one of the shifts that we’ve seen is as these platforms have tried to not just become more open, but actually proactively recruit and promote their ISV community, you know these 3rd party developers of all these other marketing apps, I think that trend is going to accelerate and it’s going to be a – it’s a great time for marketers because right now if we look back over the last couple of years if you wanted to plug multiple pieces of marketing software together the burden was increasingly on you to figure out how to make that happen, or whichever consultancy or what not your were working with on that. I’m not going to say it’s going to be 100% plug-n-play in the next couple years, but I think as these platforms really try to get better at facilitating 3rd party integrations it will reduce the cost of saying, oh well now I want this social media monitoring tool here to plug in here; I want this testing and optimization tool to plug in over here; this marketing apps tool, I want that to plug in to this thing; that that will get incrementally easier, and that’s going to be a good thing for everyone.

Interviewer: Well that’s good news. I like to leave a discussion on good news. So Scott, this has been really very interesting and insightful, especially given your perspective in the industry and I really appreciate you spending some time with us.

Brinker: Thank you Glenn, pleasure to chat with you.

Interviewer: Alright talk to you soon.