‘Eyes Wide Open’ Approach to Evaluating New Marketing Technologies
Continuing the series on assessing various marketing technologies, Brian Rickert’s present post discusses some processes teams can follow for easier understanding of their software requirements and the tools available for the same
In my first post, I had given a simple framework for marketers that factored in their various needs at a glimpse and helped them identify the various missing pieces in their strategies and how they can fit in. In this follow-up blog, I’m sharing a step-by-step evaluation process on how to decide on technologies and vendors.
Working in different roles within Operations and IT over the past 15 years, I have seen a wide variety of processes and techniques for evaluating new technology requests. They have run the gamut from shockingly loose, to painstakingly over-engineered.
Over the past couple of years, I have refined a standard process that any company can use to evaluate a new vendor. It is what I call an ‘Eyes Wide Open’ approach to evaluating and introducing new technology into your business.
The objective is very simple:
- Accelerate the time from request to decision
- Set expectations and ensure transparency across the organization
- Remove non-value add steps and roadblocks
- Ensure security and data protection compliance
Adding a technology to your stack is a simple decision, but it can have massive implications because of the cascading effects for the organization. Even a simple $10k trial can put your entire company at risk if certain checks are not done appropriately. Depending on the complexity of your company, a request may impact Legal, Global IT, Data Protection and/or other Lines of Business beyond the department that wants the new technology.
Asking the right questions and evaluating all the angles will ensure your eyes are wide open to the true value and outcomes.
If you are not aware of the latest round of data protection laws in Europe, you should immediately read up on the topic and evaluate your company’s risk.
The Eyes Wide Open technology evaluation process I’ve created is straightforward and has proven effective in driving global decisions for technology solutions. It is broken into four respective stages, each with a clear value-add to drive a great decision with all factors considered, and to engage key actors in the process at the right time. The respective stages are:
- Interlock — understand the need, value and ownership
- Research — deep dive into the requirements and potential solutions
- Evaluation — determine the best solution
- Negotiation — drive a value-based relationship
Start by talking openly with your business unit or stakeholder about the business need and expected outcomes. I say business need, because you should not be talking about technologies or vendors at this stage. Instead, find out what your stakeholder wants to accomplish, and the value it will bring to the organization.
This value-level discussion is critical. It is your first quality “gate” to make sure that the juice is worth the squeeze. If the requestor can’t explain the need and the value desired, then the process should be stopped and the request should be rejected. I cannot count the number of times that business teams will explain the importance using generic terms like efficiency or brand, but have not spent the time to really think through how to measure and track the impact. Unfortunately, this is a common issue, but in any company that looks at investments with any rigor, the ability to measure and track should be a steadfast rule.
Budget and ownership are the next key considerations. Budget determines the potential solutions that should be considered and how much due diligence should take place. A 10k investment as opposed to a 1M investment require different levels of scrutiny. If the budget is not available, the effort is purely exploratory and should be handled with less scrutiny except when it comes to security and data protection compliance. (I’ll get to that shortly.)
Next up: Ownership and support. You need an executive sponsor — a key contact for the purchasing department regarding the money. Second, and just as important is run support. As mentioned earlier, it is easy to buy a solution, but one of the many implications is around who will manage it? The day-to-day can be as simple as end-user questions, training, authorizations, and communications, or as complicated as system upgrades, technical support, integration scenarios or single sign on.
With the emergence of Cloud technologies, most vendors provide Success Managers to help guide you through some of these aspects, but do not be deceived. These vendor-provided experts will require lots of guidance and they will try to upsell you very expensive consulting resources if you are not properly staffed.
To accomplish this task, you can build a simple request form that asks a series of questions to drive the necessary conversation such as:
- Overview of business need
- Budget and ownership
- Business process and challenge
- Impact in quantitative terms
- Measure of success / outcomes
- Support plan
All of these questions should be designed to drive a business-level discussion not a technical one. The technical discussions will happen at a much more granular level.
To put it simply, it pays to do your homework before engaging with any vendor in a detailed manner. Studies have shown that most teams typically have a vendor already in mind when starting out, but doing proper due diligence is still imperative. Teams should focus on the following steps:
- Break down the requirements / user stories
- Understand the security and data implications
- Research the technology space
- Recognize the “reality” of each vendor
- Ensure transparency across the organization
Step 1: Requirements / User stories
Knowing customer requirements and user stories are prerequisites for success. Work with the business leads to better understand their user stories and expected outcomes. Once that context is established, we can then work to assess the technology requirements.
- Develop the requirements in a way that transforms them easily into simple questions for a vendor. Avoid open-ended questions and try for simple yes / no answers. Open-ended questions lead to open-ended answers and unnecessary confusion. Example: Can your platform execute social campaigns to Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest? NOT: Can your platform execute social campaigns?
- It’s important to phrase questions in a proper format to better understand what you truly need to meet the business requirements.
- Step 2: Security & Data Implications
Now that you have the user stories, it is critical to understand the security and data implications of each story that may impact your business. This has become increasingly important with more stringent laws of the EU that impact European data. The risk becomes very real in 2018 with penalties of up to 4% of revenue.
If you are a global company or have European operations, you need to take this step very seriously and set the right tone with any potential vendors. If your company does not already have governance around Personally Identifiable Information (PII) or customer data, I recommend that you start the conversation now. The risk is very real and you do not want to onboard a vendor that puts your company at risk.
- Create a standard set of data protection requirements that can be used across vendors that covers topics like personal data and security compliance.
Step 3: Research the Technology Space
Once you understand the requirements and data security topics, you can begin researching the technology space and matching the requirements to the proper technology category. This phase can be very simple or complex, depending on whether there is a predefined category for your business needs. If a vendor is already identified (which is usually the case), use information from their website to determine the category and potential competitors. Here are some tips:
1. Search for category reports and blogs online
2. Look for analyst reports from firms such as Gartner, IDC, Sirius Decision or Forrester
3. Leverage independent sites like MarTechAdvisor, TrustRadius or Chiefmartec for further research
After your research, create a short list of potential vendors that meet the needs of your business. This is also an opportunity to learn more about and compare capabilities of competing vendors.
Step 4: Recognize the “Reality”
Once you have your short list, take the time to research potential vendors more closely. This is an important, often ignored step that shouldn’t be glossed over.
First, let’s take a step backwards and describe the reality of new technology companies today. Since the advent of cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, Rackspace or Heroku, barriers to entry into the software business have dropped significantly. A new business can be started with just a handful of employees, an offshore development team, an AWS server environment and a website.
Ask yourself: How much of my business do I want to put at risk with a vendor that may not have a fully formed operational model, support teams and minimal funding? This step encourages you to review and edit your top vendor list based on your risk tolerance.
Now, review your prospective vendor’s website, executive team and office addresses. Next, run searches through business and technology profiling sites such as TechCrunch and Crunchbase to review articles and financial details. If possible, leverage D&B Hoovers to go even deeper. There’s plenty of very useful information from these basic resources.
Next, go to user reviews sites for the technology you’re considering. I also recommend doing a general Google/Bing search for additional articles and reviews.
Finally, my favorite step, especially for smaller vendors, is to copy their addresses into Google Maps and go to Street View to see where their offices are located. Some of the locations may surprise you.
Step 5: Ensure Transparency
Finally, once you have your short list of vendors, reach out to your Purchasing and IT team (if they are not involved yet) and inform them of your intentions. Both are critical in the next phase. Now that you’ve documented the business need, business value, requirements and shortlisted vendors, the Purchasing team can help drive an unbiased RFP process.
When it’s time for evaluating vendors, it’s very important to work closely with your Purchasing department and their processes. If you do not have a department that supports a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Information (RFI), follow these steps:
- Build an internal evaluation team with business stakeholders, process experts and IT representatives
- Request each vendor you engage with to first sign a non-disclosure agreement (to safeguard your business and ensure that all shared information is legally protected)
- Write an RFP or RFI, simple documents that state the business need, goals, requirements and expectations. Ensure the requirements are written in a yes / no format and avoid too many open-ended questions. Consider submitting the document as a Request for Information (RFI) if you need to include several open-ended questions.
The document should include a series of end-to-end scenarios expected to be demonstrated in a follow-up face-to-face meeting as part of the RFP / RFI process. This is critical to ensure you receive consistent demonstrations from the vendors to judge. Disregarding this step may mean having to sit through several flashy demos that highlight a vendor’s best feature, but not necessarily what is important for your business.
The goal of an RFP is to be fair and ensure that every vendor has an opportunity to share their value proposition and that their technology can meet your requirements.
- Submit the RFP to the respective vendors with a defined timeline for response and set up follow-up demo meetings where you can review their responses and see the technology live.
- During the demo session, ensure the entire business team involved provides feedback and scores the solution.
Build a simple Excel or PowerPoint document that walks through each demo scenario and provides areas for scores and comments. Keep the scoring very simple and allow for comments for each scenario in the RFP. Everyone interprets a demo differently, and it is important to make sure each voice or concern is heard. This is the opportunity to learn your group’s various, maybe conflicting, views and drive an objective assessment of the technology.
- Finally, collect all the feedback from the RFP, research and demos to help determine a winner. I use a fairly detailed approach utilizing a weighted model, but what is most important is that you take advantage of all the information received during the process. The key is to determine which factors are most important, and then drive an objective data-driven decision.
By now, you will have narrowed the field to a few top vendors that have gained your team’s confidence and you feel are meeting your business needs. Now, it becomes critical to create value for yourself and your future vendor.
You may only get one opportunity to form a relationship. My experience is that both parties need to feel successful in the negotiation to set up a positive start to the partnership. If you sign a contract with a new vendor, you want more than just a piece of code. You will need services and support. You will greatly increase your chance for success by negotiating clear terms, explaining what is important to you, and understanding what is important to the vendor.
There are countless shiny objects in the Marketing world. Taking an ‘Eyes Wide Open’ approach can ensure that you not only remove vanity requests, but drive real value for your organization.
In his subsequent columns, Brian will walk marketers through the actual processes of assessing their technology needs, mapping where they occur on the framwework, evaluating the vendors and extracting the maximum ROI from these tools. Stay tuned!