Marketing automation, depicted as a funnelVentureBeat inadvertently stirred up a storm of controversy when we published a guest post about marketing automation.

The guest post, by Justin Gray of LeadMD, looked innocuous enough at first. To our editors, it at first seemed like a straightforward list of the pros and cons of several different marketing automation solutions: Eloqua, Genius, Marketo, Pardot and Silverpop.

Unfortunately, when we published the post we neglected to mention one important fact: Gray’s company, LeadMD, is a reseller of one of those services, Marketo.

We should have disclosed that. Once alerted to the fact, we promptly added that disclosure to the article. We also rushed to correct a number of factual errors that Marketo’s competitors pointed out in the article, and we’ve invited those competitors to post followup articles of their own. One of them, Eloqua, accepted, and we published its post, “What’s next for marketing automation?” But it didn’t stop the stream of critical comments or emails, which eventually wore my patience thin.

The controversy pointed out one important thing, however: We need to know more about marketing automation. And there’s clearly a lot of interest in this topic.

So we invited Joe Chernov, vice president of content marketing at Eloqua, to join us in a Q&A. Joe has been criticizing our handling of the post firmly (yet politely) via e-mail for several days, so rather than pull any punches we decided to take our discussion into the public forum. I had questions for Joe about marketing automation, and he also had questions for me about VentureBeat’s handling of the story. Both exchanges appear below.

We’re also looking forward to continuing to report on marketing automation more carefully in the future, and we’d be especially interested to interview real users of the technology to get past the marketing claims. Got stories? Let us know.

Dylan Tweney, VentureBeat: Marketing automation sounds like another name for lead generation and customer relationship management. What’s the difference?

Photo of Joe Chernov, EloquaJoe Chernov, Eloqua: For the most part, marketing automation requires a customer relationship management system. Sometimes when someone who has never heard of the category before asks me what marketing automation is, I’ll tell them, “Think of your CRM system. Now think of your CRM system with a marketing engine build on top.”

Marketing automation combines technology, typically hosted, with business processes that score leads based on fixed criteria like title and size of company, as well as dynamic criteria, such as which web pages the person viewed, whether the individual attended a webinar or clicked through to an offer. Ultimately this information allows the marketer to better target messages and promotions to individuals based on their stated and implied interests. That process is generally called “lead nurturing,” which is a popular buzzword in the industry.

VentureBeat: I’ve already got Why would I need to add yet another service?

Chernov: Congrats! So do most of our clients. In fact, we tell prospects: If you don’t have a CRM system, you probably aren’t the right fit for marketing automation.

But to answer your question, you need another service because the goal of marketing automation is to get the ‘right’ leads in the hands of sales at the ‘right’ time. In many ways it’s an efficiency story: marketing automation is based on the concept of “nurturing” leads with relevant content until the individual appears ready to buy, and then routing that prospect to a sales rep at the optimal point in the buying process.

Most marketing automation systems, and not just Eloqua’s product, are integrated deeply into the top CRM systems. It’s a your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter relationship.

VentureBeat: How complicated are these services to implement?

Chernov: We are talking about a fairly significant shift in thinking for most companies. What job titles are given which score? What is more consistent with purchase behavior, a whitepaper download or webinar attendance? What conversion rate do we need if we are to make our numbers given the number of names in our database? These are unfamiliar, if not foreign, questions for many marketers. As a result, the “complications” are less on the technology side and more on the business process side.

We offer an educational program that promises to get new clients up and running in a few days. Other companies in the space have similar programs. Although it’s a rough and tumble category sometimes, I believe we all want to see this space continue to grow, so most vendors invest in training and education — both at the start and throughout the relationship.

VentureBeat: What’s the best way for a company to evaluate competing MA services that they’re considering?

Chernov: Ha. Now we are getting a little closer to the fault I found with your article!

There are a number of trustworthy people and companies in this category. A specialty analyst firm called SiriusDecisions really understands the marketing operations role (the function we often sell into), and they produce reliable research. As does Forrester Research. An independent named David Raab produced a behemoth report that breaks down pretty much every vendor and them some. I have personally found his writing to be reliable.

However there are a number of boutique shops who resell or service a subset of marketing automation vendors but claim to speak for the industry. That model can be confusing to a potential buyer.

Ultimately, I’d say this: You are going to have a relationship with your marketing automation vendor. It’s not ‘just’ a technology purchase. Do you trust them? My father said, “Trust your instinct. That’s why you have it.”

VentureBeat: What does an entry-level MA solution cost?

Chernov: There’s a product for every price point. I don’t want to speak for other vendors, but if you are a dentist’s office and want to be found online and do some lightweight nurturing of potential patients, well there’s a solution out there for a couple hundred bucks a month. If you are a multinational Fortune 500, well you can spend in the tens of thousands monthly. For a business with a small marketing department and sales team on a CRM system, figure the starting point is $1,500 or so per month.

Chernov: Now I’ve got some questions for you. What was your understanding of marketing automation prior to this “situation” and how has it changed?

VentureBeat: I knew very little about marketing automation and VentureBeat hadn’t covered it much, if at all. This was our introduction to the field.

Chernov: Had you known initially that the author of the article was a reseller for only one of the vendors reviewed, what would you have done differently?

VentureBeat: For starters, we would have disclosed that fact right away. As it happened, one of our editors did know this fact but didn’t add it to the author’s bio, which was a mistake.

Apart from that, I would have examined the story more closely for potential bias, and tried to educate myself more about the marketing automation space, so that I could make a more careful edit. That’s easy to say in hindsight, but generally we try to be alert to these things. Sometimes the generally fast pace of the news overwhelms our editing processes though.

Chernov: In our exchanges, you seemed committed to leaving the article up, but ‘making good’ with those who felt slighted by offering them an opportunity to contribute an article. What was the benefit to your solution?

VentureBeat: Unpublishing a story is never a good solution, in my opinion, because it leaves a vacuum that can only be filled by Google cache searches and the like. It makes it look like you have something to hide. Anyway, as a publisher of news, we can’t really hide something we’ve taken pains to publish. So making corrections allows us to try and make the original article better.

Offering counterpoints from other contributors helps widen the discussion and give our readers a more balanced view. Rather than try to quash the argument, I want to foster a debate, ideally right here on our site.

Chernov: Historically, news organizations that review consumer products have processes in place to remove all perceived bias. Reviewers, for example, need to return products to the manufacturer after testing. Do you feel there is a different standard when reviewing business-to-business products, like marketing automation in this case?

VentureBeat: We have those guidelines as well, and when we review products we take the same pains to avoid bias, and to disclose it where it’s unavoidable. However, this article wasn’t intended to be a review of these products: It’s an op-ed piece from a contributor who has some experience working in the field. We viewed it as an introduction to a market that we hadn’t covered much and weren’t expert in ourselves.

Chernov: Moving forward, will you ask contributors if they have a material connection to any of the subjects in the story?

VentureBeat: Absolutely. We’ve already added that to our contributor guidelines.

Chernov: You said that I criticized firmly but politely. As the executive editor for one of the technology industry’s most influential news sites, what would be the ideal reaction you would hope to receive from a vendor who perceives some injustice at the hands of a major publication?

VentureBeat: Firm but polite insistence that I was wrong. And rational persistence.

Like anyone, I’m busy and I’m likely to respond briefly (and perhaps irritably) to criticism of my amazing news team’s work. But if your argument has merit, it’s in my interest to hear it. More importantly, our readers need to hear it. That’s why we welcome comments, pro and con. And when necessary, we run followup stories.

Chernov: Is VentureBeat ever going to respond to one of my emails again after this ordeal?

VentureBeat: I’ve already created a special “Joe Chernov” filter in Gmail. I won’t say what folder it puts your mail into.

Funnel image credit: Gossamar. Photo of Joe Chernov courtesy Eloqua.



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