This sponsored post is produced by Microsoft.

Ask a CMO about their priorities these days and you’ll hear stuff like better targeting and analytics, an agile social strategy, reaching consumers across multiple screen and channels, mobile and digitally-enhanced customer experiences.

Underlying it all is data. You can’t be good at marketing these days without being good at data.

And that leads to the biting anxiety that even the most savvy and sophisticated marketing departments might not know enough – and their IT teams can’t act fast enough – to keep up with the pace of change. After all, they’re marketing professionals, not data geeks at some edgy startup.

So where can marketing departments get their data geek on? Well, an edgy startup might be a good place to start. And here are some reasons why that partnership might make a lot of sense.

Agility for hire. Startups present great opportunities for marketers looking for instant agility and low-impact ways to harness big trends without making big bets. Innovation can be difficult within large organizations, especially in an area like digital marketing that requires collaboration between marketing and IT groups at the highest levels. Engaging with startups allows enterprises to outsource rapid and risky innovation, piloting a bunch of initiatives and moving forward with the projects and partners that show the most promise.

Tactical advantage. The breakneck pace and pressure of digital marketing makes it tough for marketing business leaders to spend time and resources on an experimental initiative, even if it has transformative potential. By contrast, many of today’s most interesting tech startups are focused on delivering a single service, optimizing one key process, or solving one big problem. Bringing them into the fold gives brands the best of both worlds: a partner that views the brand’s tactical problem as a strategic imperative.

Culture clash. Working with an outside partner gives internal teams experience looking at problems through the eyes of an entrepreneur, as well as exposure to classes of solutions that could be tailored more specifically to the company’s internal processes or industry-specific needs.

There are plenty of cases of large companies that work closely enough with startup partners that the end result is a long-term business relationship or acquisition. For example, CoreMotives, a startup that developed an automated email-based targeting solution integrated with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, was acquired by SilverPop, a more established market leader in direct email, as a way to create a unified SaaS-based alternative to’s offerings.

Brands and startups: a speed dating guide.

Tech startups aren’t exactly a traditional part of the marketing vendor ecosystem, but there are a bunch of ways both sides can move quickly into relationships ranging from a “one night stand” to a committed partnership:

  • Open APIs: As brands integrate their internal data stores, some are publishing open APIs (application protocol interfaces) that allow external developers to build apps and visualization tools using non-sensitive data like store locations, product catalogs and visual assets.
  • Hack-a-thons: Hack-a-thons gather whole communities of developers and startups in fast-paced open competitions to create new apps using data and assets made available by brands, governments and other entities. These often result in prototypes for imaginative new products and services that might not have been discovered through normal innovation processes.
  • Innovation and business plan contests: The number of innovation and business plan contests has mushroomed in recent years as the entrepreneurial vision has captured the imagination of the world’s rising young generation. Sponsoring these events can bring brands into contact with promising young talent, new ideas and new firms looking for partners.
  • Accelerators and innovation labs: Silicon Valley and other global startup hubs are dotted with new Accelerators sponsored by big tech companies and, increasingly, consumer brands looking to tap into the energy of startup culture. Microsoft Ventures operates seven startup accelerators in Beijing, Bangalore, Berlin, London, Paris, Tel-Aviv and Seattle. These accelerators also serves as partnering hubs for marketing companies and branding agencies.
  • Equity and acquisition: For the truly committed, one way to secure the ideas and energy of a startup with clear strategic value is to take a stake.

The start of a dialogue. At Microsoft, we take an active role in promoting startups through programs like BizSpark and Microsoft Ventures. The breakthroughs that these companies are working on can affect many aspects of business. However, we feel the implications and benefits for marketing are especially intriguing, considering how strongly the interests of both sides converge around the issue of data.

Over the next Zack Weisfeld 2013year, we will be sharing stories about startups that marketers need to know: businesses whose ideas can help brands realize the potential of their data more quickly, as well as ones whose disruptions could create massive challenges for unwary incumbents. Please join us in this journey to the frontiers of innovation. We look forward to a great dialogue.

Tzahi (Zack) Weisfeld is Head of Microsoft Ventures Europe and Global Accelerators Program. Business Insider (May 2014) named Zack as one of the 10 top Most Influential Israelis in Tech Worldwide.

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