Monday, May 19, 2014

The hunt for modern marketing automation

Is “marketing automation” a nicer term than “email marketing?” I’m not sure. But one thing I am sure of is that every modern startup is doing it, and if you’re not, you’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity to help customers learn more about your products and services.
The problem for startups like our own is that most marketing automation systems — Marketo, Hubspot, Eloqua, Pardot, etc., — are expensive, feel dated, and have complicated UIs. Cost is relative, but most enterprise startups have only a few hundred to a few thousand users for for them, perhaps, the $2000+ per month on marketing automation is justifiable. But at Bitnami, where our user base is many times that size, the costs of traditional marketing automation vendors go up astronomically. The established marketing automation vendors have been in business for a while, some for as long as twelve years, and their platforms are showing it. Many are over-featured and built on a previous generation of technology. With all those features comes unnecessary complication — many screens, many fields, many rules and hidden costs.

Perhaps the most frustrating part about shopping for marketing automation system is the old-school way of evaluating the choices. In short, you can’t really evaluate them. These vendors follow a traditional enterprise software model that sells you on promises — “ease of use,” “flexibility,” “great support” — that may or may not be true. Even those few that do allow for evals don't really allow you to try everything in real-world production situations.

Fortunately, there are a slew of new startups who are disrupting the market. Two in particular caught our eye: and Vero. Spoiler alert: we selected Vero because their UI was a bit better for the marketing side of the house their pricing model better fit our business, but both were really a breath of fresh air. It's not completely fair to compare and Vero with other marketing automation systems — and in fact neither company uses the term "marketing automation" on their website — but for our needs and Vero had the 80% of the features/functions of a marketing automation system at a quarter of the cost.


Some background. Bitnami was founded in 2011 and went through YC in winter 2013. With over a million apps deployed per month and tens of thousands of new users registering every month, we needed a better way to communicate with customers, personalize emails based on triggered events, A/B test our messaging, and measure results. Specifically, our goal is to make our customers successful with the applications they're using. For example, we want to make sure people who deploy WordPress or Magento have the information they need to get up and running, personalize and customize the application, and be productive quickly. We required a system that was flexible and powerful enough to support all the many use cases.

After looking at the traditional vendors, we turned our attention to Vero and We liked many of the things we saw in each platform:
  • They’re both startups who understand and appreciate the needs of startups and agile organizations
  • They focus primarily on email (which we would argue is 80% or more of the value of a marketing automation tool)
  • The products are getting updated and improved weekly, continuously increasing the amount of value we get
  • They allow for deep integration and triggering custom events through a modern REST API
  • Slick UIs and are built with modern standards 
  • Fast, reliable support for cases when we run into issues or want to be sure how the tool works
  • Transparent, straightforward pricing — you can try before you buy
The level of customization and personalization is important for us because we offer customers nearly 100 applications and developer stacks to choose from in multiple formats (native installers, VMs, and several cloud options like AWS and Azure). We wanted to be able to trigger and personalize emails based on actions users take — or don’t take. Multiply that by running A/B tests on every campaign and newsletter, and it can become a mess quickly. Lastly, we wanted something that our marketing folks could use. Every marketing automation vendor will say they can do all the stuff mentioned above, but it’s harder than it looks.

The first problem we came across with multiple vendors were the APIs that would allow us to export data to the marketing automation tool. Some lacked an API. In the cases where an API was available, they often were incomplete, only allowing access to part of the functionality, or were based on SOAP and convoluted to use.

Refreshingly, both Vero and featured a RESTful API and ready-to-use libraries for many languages, which allowed us to get sending information and events to work from scratch in hours.
Another concern we had is with proper handling of users who change their email addresses. People often sign in using their private addresses to try our offerings, but then want to use this account for business reasons and switch emails. For some of the solutions we have evaluated, the primary identifier was the email address which made this use case very hard to handle properly. For Vero and this worked fine and we would never run into any issues.

In some of the traditional automation tools we evaluated, small workarounds were required on our side to make things work, and even then, were less than optimal. We asked the companies if the updates could be made on their side, but their engineering roadmap wouldn't allow for it, and we didn't want to pay for professional services for features we felt should already be included in the product. However, Vero and were much more responsive and appreciated the feedback. We have also found their support to be much more responsive than other vendors – in terms of response time as well as how helpful the response was for what we needed.

Although both applications are currently geared around email, with a little elbow grease you can build a best of breed marketing automation solution with their technology partners including, Zapier, and KISSmetrics.

The winner

The two products were neck and neck, but ultimately we chose Vero because of the UI and also because the way the emails are prepared in their product suited our needs better. From the CEO on down, they eat their own dog food and use their product in very similar ways to how we use it. That makes a big difference because they see the problems and opportunities first hand. They’ve been incredibly receptive to our feedback. Bugs we reported were fixed in 24-hours or less, new features were sometimes added within days of us suggesting them.

They are a startup, and it often feels like it — pro and con. On the one hand, it’s great working with people who “speak the same language” and understand the pressure and agility a software company needs, but on the other, the product can feel rough at times. We have run into a number of issues and downtime. While those were addressed transparently and fairly quickly in most cases, downtime or long delays in sending emails can have a material effect on our campaigns and is definitely disappointing. We are hopeful that those issues will go away over time as the company becomes more established.

All that said, if you’re in the market for a modern marketing automation email marketing service that works the way you work and that you can afford, we’d wholeheartedly recommend you check out the latest crop of tools.