The Real Story on MarTech: Apply design thinking to select the right vendor
Prior to becoming a technology analyst, I worked as a UX specialist at a systems integration firm, designing and building first-gen corporate websites. In the early days we experimented a lot around how good design impacted the way people interacted with brands.
In the last fifteen years, my focus shifted from designing and building web experiences to helping enterprises select the right technology to support digital experiences in a multitude of channels.
However, the design-thinking that emerged in those early days — and has become the norm for modern UX — applies directly to how enterprises should evaluate possible technology solutions.
The right way: design thinking
Any discussion of buying martech right has to start with the idea that you are not looking for the “best” solution, but the best-fitting solution for your particular circumstances: your requirements, capabilities, resources, risk tolerance, and specific business objectives. Notions of “fit” become liberating, since you dispense with the impossible job of finding some universally ideal solution. “Fit” is also empowering, since it gives you a natural approach to vetting solutions.
That approach is design thinking, a methodology grounded in empathy, ideation, and testing. There’s a lot to say about this concept, but for our purposes, let’s just summarize it as:
- Hands-on and test-oriented
- Iterative and adaptive
At Real Story Group (RSG) we’ve found it the ideal methodology for selecting marketing technology, where real humans — your MarTech/Ops/Marketing/Digital/Compliance/Systems/Dev teams — are trying to create better experiences for other humans: your customers and prospects.
How to begin
It starts, of course, with establishing the business case for new or replacement technology. Clearly document the top six-to-eight business objectives for the new technology to guide your selection and implementation teams going forward. When you reach decision points, this becomes your principal touchstone. And as a practical matter this list also serves as your prioritized vendor evaluation criteria.
Then build an interdisciplinary selection team, with ample IT participation — just make sure it’s headed by a marketer or other business leader.
From there, you can start the actual selection work. Sometimes people ask, “how much time and effort should we put into this?” The answer is, it depends. If the solution you’re looking to select will become an anchor tenant in your MarTech stack, then you want to build a broad team and invest several months (or perhaps more) time into it. If it’s more of an experimental or “boutique” component in your stack, then you can invest less time and fewer resources.
Either way, you’ll want to follow some version of the steps in the chart below.
Filtering the solutions
Design thinking tells us to follow a five-step path of Empathize > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test. It turns out this works very well for selecting marketing technology, with perhaps a greater emphasis on testing throughout.
Following an adaptive process, you filter through a range of solutions via testing to find the right fit for your MarTech needs. But that begs the question: what exactly do you test?
Five stages of design thinking represented as steps for vetting a martech platform, with the number of prospective vendors in parentheses. Source: Real Story Group
Test via stories
Too often we see selection teams overly focused on features rather than use cases. Whatever you do, avoid “check box” requirement spreadsheets, where you ask the vendor: can you do this?…Can you do that? As a practical matter, vendors have seen all these questions and have figured out how to check all the boxes. A better approach focuses on
- How the solution works
- The impact on real humans (colleagues and customers)
Here, design thinking means centering your solicitation on user stories. These are real-life narratives that describe your information, your processes, your anticipated business results, and above all, the people — your prospects, customers, and employees interacting with the system. To the extent possible, narratives should reflect “to-be” journeys and as such become aspirational.
User stories become the backbone of a process centered in empathy, bounded by healthy skepticism, and open to ideation. As such, stories will:
- Reside at the center of your RFP/Tender;
- Provide relevant material for the demo phase; and
- Serve as test cases when you start vetting prospective vendors during a bake-off round and optional proof of concept (PoC) phase.
Recall that this is an adaptive process. Your stories don’t have to be perfect at first. You can improve them at each stage as you learn more.
Test early and often
The key to learning more is getting close to actual technology sooner rather than later, first by hosting demos of your stories, not generic vendor reference implementations.
How many vendors should you invite to demo? It depends. Initially, you’ll want to explore as wide a set of potential suppliers as possible, to give yourself the best odds of finding an optimal solution. This is a process of getting to a “long list” first, and but then you’ll want to filter to a “short list” (perhaps via proposals) to actually demo.
Then — for the love of god, people — always test any solution hands-on with real people, before inking any contract. Ideally you do this via a competitive bake-off. I’m dumbfounded to regularly see large enterprises license a solution without ever trying it themselves. That’s like watching a car salesperson drive a vehicle around the dealer’s lot and deciding you want to buy it!
Remember this is a test-based process, so you can always iterate. Still not convinced after a bake-off round? Listen to your instincts and continue with a more involved PoC if the stakes are high enough. Perform your diligence under your timeline, not the vendor’s.
More to Review
There’s a lot more to review here about trade-offs, decision styles, and vendor sleights of hand. For details and examples, check out my book, The Right Way to Select Technology (Rosenfeld Media). If you want the inside scoop on how MarTech vendors really work, investigate RSG’s hard-hitting evaluation research.
Real Story on MarTech is presented through a partnership with MarTech and Real Story Group, a vendor-agnostic research and advisory organization that helps organizations make purchasing decisions on marketing technology applications and digital workplace tools.
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