Digital marketers are charged with the ever-evolving task of assessing tools that will fill the needs of their organization. The complexities of these evaluations can vary greatly between brands, as the people responsible for evaluations might have to sift through a cornucopia of ad technologies that promise solutions. Advertising technologies are generally presented in one of two ways: a holistic or all-in-one solution or a niche or specialized set of tools that are sold as the best or the least expensive. As the state of digital marketing fluctuates, so too will the hundreds of digital marketing vendors.
These advertising technologies will often bring another layer of complication, as many branch off into tangential verticals with new or enhanced functionality. Brands will find that search companies are now offering social capabilities, rich media companies are offering traditional ad serving, and tag management companies are offering attribution. What makes things even more confusing for brands is that almost every pitch sounds the same no matter what is being sold. The most common might be, "We offer proprietary technology to enhance your digital campaign's performance" or "We offer a single platform to manage and optimize all of your digital initiatives."
To see these pitches in action, look no further than this year's ad:tech San Francisco. As I walked the conference floor, I heard the same homogeneous pitches no matter if I was talking to an ad network, social media tool, or a search vendor. As these taglines were prolifically used, they tended to lose their potency when a hundred other companies were saying the same thing. When this happens, it can make it very difficult to find a potential partner with all the confusing noise. A few vendors were actually able to separate themselves from their peers and effectively demonstrate what they did.
So, how can a brand sift through all the noise?
Ask for specifics, don't assume
Too often, assumptions are made about items related to service costs, data timeliness, ad replication delays, reporting, and accessibility that a brand may have grown accustom to from a previous partner. Those assumptions may lead to a rude awakening, as no two systems are alike. Ask specific questions like, "How long is reporting delayed?" or "What is really meant by real time?" so that both parties are on the same page on expectations. Other times, advertisers will be surprised to learn that one piece of functionality is being farmed out to another vendor when the expectation was that it was all being done in-house. These questions will have varied importance depending on the advertiser, but they should be discussed formally.
Avoid a dog and pony show
Having a good, longstanding relationship with a partner is a terrific asset, but that relationship shouldn't jeopardize a brand's regular product evaluations. Too often, I have heard from evaluators that they will go through their evaluations process with the preconceived notion that they will choose a specific partner. This means that the potential vendors will run through a "dog and pony show" and never give them a real chance at winning business. This might be done for a variety of reasons and oftentimes with the best of intentions that include:
- A perception of difficulty onboarding, training, and/or implementing code
- The fear they will not get the same kind of support (longstanding relationship)
- Potential contract pricing and terms
- They aren't a "household name"
- Too time consuming
All of these reasons are certainly valid concerns, but they are not valid reasons to undermine product evaluations. Market conditions are consistently changing with new startups and longstanding companies releasing new and improved functionality every day. Brands invest good money to evaluate partners that will keep them competitive; brands owe it to themselves to take product evaluations seriously and keep an open mind.
As Peter Drucker states, "Because it is its purpose to create a customer, any business enterprise has two -- and only these two -- basic functions: marketing and innovation."
Feature promises and enhancements
Current and potential partners will sometimes talk about new and enhanced functionality that will be coming out soon. As they wait, brands must make the financial choice between paying for what the vendors offer today versus what they promise tomorrow. Often times, sales reps can be over anxious to disclose what their company is working on and, in some cases, it never comes to fruition. It is important to be cautious when relying on future promises, especially when these promises are mission critical elements for your clients. In these cases, make sure to get those enhancement promises in writing and a timeline for expected development; otherwise, it may be awhile before that product is released. Alternatively, consider working with a different vendor that allows for contractual flexibility so that once the desired functionality is built, a shift can be made to the vendor of choice.
Write your own RFP
When putting together an RFP, brands will oftentimes turn to existing partners or potential vendors to consult with. Getting a few good elements from a trusted vendor is a great starting point, as it will craft questions that will help uncover shortcomings in competitor products. The downside to this is that the vendor will also come up with questions that will position its products in the best light and overlook its own shortcomings. If the brand chooses to reach out to partners and potential vendors for advice, do not solely rely on this information. Read into why partners are making the recommendations they are so that the evaluator can be better informed.
The RFP should give each vendor a chance to showcase itself in a fair manner so the evaluator can uncover the good, the bad, and the surprising. Writing an RFP to favor a particular vendor will simply end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and a waste of effort.
Actively participate in product demonstration
Once a brand has gotten to the demonstration phase of the evaluation process, that brand should have a good idea of what it needs, wants, and can live without. At this point, a brand moves into one of the most important aspects of product evaluation -- the aspect where it will see how a product works in real life (assuming the product has a live demo environment). In this phase, the evaluators are looking over all the RFP responses and figuring out if the user interface matches their expectations. It is important to note that some vendors will demonstrate their tools in an error-proof "demo environment" that may not match actual scenarios, so it is important to determine this through active participation.
Being an active participate isn't simply asking the questions I mentioned above; it is about understanding the intricacies and day-to-day usability of the product in question. Too often, brands are sold on a menu to features and benefits but pay little attention to the usability of what they are buying. A buyer might find that product XYZ might technically have all the tools it wants, but in reality, those tools may require "power users" or special services from a technical support team. All too often, brands will feel their expectations were not met because there was a disconnect between what a brand assumed a vendor had and what the vendor actually provided. Unfortunately, there is no fool-proof method to eliminate this disconnect, but one can greatly mitigate this risk through an active participation in the product demonstration.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"Human Resources concept: choosing the perfect candidate" image via Shutterstock.