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The myth of the Marketing Cloud

Over the past four years the term Marketing Cloud has been adopted by enterprise software companies –primarily Adobe, Salesforce.com and Oracle - as a catchall term for a wide selection of marketing technology point solutions they acquired over time. But what does it mean to have or use a Marketing Cloud, is it really more than a product marketing sleight-of-hand, and does it really answer the tough challenges marketers face in todays complex landscape?

The origins of the Marketing Cloud

At the outset it is important to remember that digital marketing and advertising technology has been driven primarily by entrepreneurs, start-ups and venture capital over the past 20 years, not by enterprise software companies.¹ As categories of marketing technology grow and mature, the good companies are acquired by large enterprise players and integrated into their businesses, with a few smaller point solutions relegated to relatively minor roles in the marketplace.

Some acquirers, like IBM and HP, have largely allowed their acquisitions to continuing running as autonomous products, creating an ever-longer product list for their sales teams and a confusing, complex proposition for clients who want to buy multi-functional solutions. Others, most notably Google, solve the integration of their acquisitions by comprehensively rebuilding the acquired products on the Google stack to make things more scalable and more seamlessly integrated with their existing platforms (think DoubleClick, AdMeld, InviteMedia to name but a few). This is clearly an expensive route but leads to the most robust and efficient long-term solution.

So how is the approach of Salesforce, Adobe and Oracle different and why are they claiming to have created something new – a “Marketing Cloud” – through the acquisitions they have made?² When Salesforce first started using the term in 2012 it was most likely a logical product extension of their existing “Sales Cloud” and “Service Cloud” offerings. When Adobe also adopted the term later that same year, it seemed like a logical counter-weight to their subscription-based “Creative Cloud” business. But by the time Oracle adopted the term in late 2013 to package the set of marketing technology products they had acquired (and were still to acquire), the term had taken on an altogether more generic meaning, and they probably couldn’t call it anything else lest it was inferred that they didn’t have a competitive offering in this space.

Vagueness and meaning

Today, the term “Marketing Cloud” has mostly come to stand for an integrated set of marketing technologies that cover multiple marketing functions delivered to clients via the cloud. However, both the level of integration³ and the completeness of offering vary massively from vendor to vendor. As a result, even vendors who simply acquired a number of disparate marketing technology point solutions and have not integrated them at all are claiming to have a “Marketing Cloud”. And, as evidenced by a recent VentureBeat analysis on the topic, it seems that the requirement to cover multiple marketing functions is not even a requirement any longer, with self-contained marketing automation tools, content management systems and data & tag management platforms all being considered future “Marketing Cloud” contenders.

Acceleration believes that if the term “Marketing Cloud” is to have any significance and meaning it should be defined in more rigorous terms (let’s try to avoid another “Big Data”). Applying an inclusive standard, a true “Marketing Cloud” has to cover a wide range of (if not necessarily all) marketing functions – from acquisition, to content and experience management, to analytics and reporting, to customer data management and marketing automation – and these products need to be integrated both from a data and a workflow perspective to create operational efficiencies and differentiated marketing use cases. Applying a more rigorous standard, we believe a true Marketing Cloud should have a customer-centric architecture that enables brands to use customer data, analysis and insight as the driver for all content and experience management, marketing automation, social engagement and paid media optimisation in an integrated and efficient way. In other words, a true Marketing Cloud should support and optimise the entire customer journey, not just parts of it.

In other words, a true Marketing Cloud should support and optimise the entire customer journey, not just parts of it.

By these standards, we believe Adobe today to be the leading Marketing Cloud provider as they have a wide set of tools and are furthest along (although it is still early days in many ways) in terms of fully integrating their customer data, marketing automation, and content and experience management solutions into a cohesive and differentiated whole. The Salesforce products are well integrated (and Salesforce’s open data architecture and platform extensibility is very compelling) but they lack the completeness of offering (especially in the area of content and experience management). Oracle, in turn, has acquired very good stand-alone products (Eloqua, Responsys, BlueKai, Datalogix etc) but we have seen no evidence to date of these being integrated at either the data or the workflow level.

Unlike Adobe, Salesforce and Oracle, Google has made no attempts to define themselves as a Marketing Cloud despite having a very impressive array of products for the buying, selling and measurement of media. Could Bid Manager, DCM and Google Analytics Premium together be seen as a Marketing Cloud? What about the pending addition of Google’s (currently beta) data management platform Audience Center to create a wider Enterprise Analytics offering? Despite this very compelling toolset, we would maintain that without a marketing automation tool, and a content and experience management platform we do not believe Google by itself should be seen as a Marketing Cloud contender. In addition, and this is more fundamental than most people appreciate,

Google is not an enterprise software company. It does not customise its software for individual clients and it is not organised to provide the levels of high-touch professional services and consulting that clients expect as part of adopting enterprise software. This means there will always be a tension between large clients’ insistence to customise software to suit them optimally, and Google’s desire to build the single best, most efficient and most scalable global platforms.

Is it real? Is it useful?

The key questions flowing from this discussion are, firstly, whether clients are adopting Marketing Cloud solutions and, secondly, whether a Marketing Cloud is the correct answer to clients’ requirements long-term.

On the first question, we have seen very few cases where clients have adopted the full Marketing Cloud solution set from a single vendor. That is partly due to the fact that most brands adopted marketing technology point solutions independently from each other over many years (as that was all that was available) and have become invested in, and comfortable with, those tools. They believe (often correctly) that the best-of-breed point solutions have served them well and they cannot yet see a compelling reason to migrate. The most sophisticated clients have invested a lot of time and money in developing their marketing technology architectures and integration strategies and are beginning to feel confident that they can manage their own proprietary “Marketing Cloud” solutions. In addition, due to the dynamic nature of marketing technology and the ongoing innovation coming from strong point solution start-ups, many clients feel cautious of putting all their eggs in one basket and being locked-in to a single vendor’s strategy and roadmap.

But it is very early days for the Marketing Cloud. If one extends the current product trajectories of vendors like Adobe, Salesforce and Oracle over the next 3-5 years, we are confident that the Marketing Cloud proposition will become so compelling, both in terms of operational efficiency and marketing excellence, that clients will find it increasingly hard to justify an approach that ignores Marketing Clouds altogether and focuses purely on self-integrated point solutions. Instead, Acceleration believes that the dominant marketing technology strategy will become a hybrid architecture, i.e. a combination of Marketing Cloud solutions and specific point solutions.

The hybrid architecture model is further supported by the fact that, increasingly, marketing technology has to be integrated with clients’ enterprise software systems (enterprise data warehouses, ERP, CRM, retail POS, IoT etc) both from a data and workflow perspective. Integration is, therefore, an inevitable requirement for sophisticated, scaled enterprise software management.

The criteria for deciding which components to buy from a Marketing Cloud vendor and which point solutions to select will depend on several factors, most importantly the brand’s customer engagement strategy, and the company’s operating model. Thus, for brands that partner with media agencies for the management of their paid media investments, it might never make sense to procure paid media management (ad serving, bid management and paid search management) tools from their Marketing Cloud vendor. The focus in such a case should rather be on how the customer data and insights generated by the Marketing Cloud platform can be shared with, and integrated into, the agencies paid media management systems for better targeting and campaign optimisation.

Conclusion

Despite the elusive and changing meaning of the term “Marketing Cloud”, we do believe it is a positive development in the evolution of marketing technology, both in terms of real product development and in terms of an awareness of systems- and data-based thinking when it comes to adopting and architecting marketing technology. Some level of integration is inevitable in such a complex and dynamic area of software development, but the current levels of complexity are simply too onerous for most brands to negotiate. The more Marketing Clouds evolve from myth to reality, the more brands will be able to realise their goal of truly adaptive data-driven brand engagement and communication.

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