CRM, MAT, ABM. Jason and Jeff agree — for once — the promise that was martech has been underwhelming. Then, they discuss lessons learned from 10+ years with marketing technology.
Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, you and 25,000 of your closest friends got together last week to talk about inbound marketing. Do you think that there’s hysteria around martech?
Jeff McKay: No, that event could do so much better.
Jason Mlicki: I’ve never been. You actually have. So the topic of today’s episode is martech hysteria, that’s what we’ve called it. And I think we both agree that it definitely is in a state of hysteria. I mean Dreamforce gets 250,000 people. It takes over all of San Francisco. U2 played there a couple of years ago. Inbound gets 25,000 people. I don’t know what the martech conferences get, I’m sure right in that ballpark.
But there’s certainly an unbelievably massive groundswell of interest and excitement around marketing technology and there has been for quite some time, so this is not new information obviously. Maybe to start out, we talked a little bit about this leaning in, but I’m curious where you are intellectually on this. And we talked about the notion of the Gartner hype cycle, and the hype cycle being almost like a sine curve but not a sine curve that, technology started at innovation level and then there’s peak of inflated expectations where there’s hysteria around it. Everybody’s so excited to use the technology and then all that excitement collapses into the trough of disillusionment followed by this slope of enlightenment. I’m looking at it obviously right now and the plateau of productivity as the way they’ve described it.
I’m just curious where you are in that landscape. Because I can say squarely and I am probably deep in the trough of disillusionment coming out of the peak of inflated expectations for free, but pretty much all of the martech cycle. So I’m curious, where are you, emotionally, intellectually on the landscape of martech?
Jeff McKay: I want our listeners to know that I’m going to pass on that softball you just threw me because that would’ve been an easy one to hit out of the park. You being in the trough.
Jason Mlicki: I’m just waiting till we can get to a point here.
Jeff McKay: I’m probably in the trough with you and like we’ve said, marketing ruins everything, and marketing has ruined technology too. And I do think there is just so much hype over this and having been to Inbound and being a partner with several of these martech technologies, yes, there’s just a disillusionment.
Working with clients every day you see it. There was so much promise in these things and people worked so hard to implement them and I don’t know that any of them really achieved the pitch that they were pitched. And I think that speaks to the unique space of professional services in general.
You made a comment earlier before we jumped on and hit record that martech was supposed to help us personalize and communicate more effectively with our prospects and our clients. And you felt like it did exactly the opposite. Why don’t you share a little of your thinking there?
Jason Mlicki: Well, you think about just really selling anything large and complex, which all professional services are, or even software sales, enterprise software sales tend to be. It requires a conversation between a buyer and a seller. I mean I think back to 2011, our first exposure to HubSpot was ’09. We started using it in ’11, and I want to say ’10 was when Halligan comes out with his video about how it’s tough to be an agency these days. They’ve just published the Inbound book, and the whole premise of the thing is that buyers are retreating away from sellers and it’s, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you. When I’m interested, I’ll reach out. I’ll do my homework and I’ll come to you,” message. So buyers are retreating is the message that the martech community brought to us and said, “Well, US sellers need to figure out how to market in that cycle. You need to embrace Inbound. You need to market in a way that draws them into you.”
I agree with all that conceptually, but I feel like a lot of times I see people in the sales function, people in firms, it’s almost as if they’re using the software as a tool that enables that distance to continue. How frequently do you get canned emails that are proposing to provide some sales solution to you that’s a hyped up combination of email, LinkedIn invites, and some sales calls that’s completely uninformed?
The whole sales hacker movement, how many of those emails are really automated things that use really delicate use of language to scale something that’s a highly personal interaction in the first place? And I feel like sellers are often hiding behind the technology and avoiding when the conversation is going to happen.
I’ll tell a quick story and then I’ll let you jump in. I still remember this years ago. I get this prospect inquiry from a firm and I can’t even remember the name of the firm now or what they even did. And I go to the guy’s office. This would’ve been ’07, ’08 maybe, and he’s saying to me. He’s like, “Jason, I don’t know what to do. I’ve got this giant database of leads, all these people that have inquired for our services at these events and these things and I just don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to handle it.”
And of course I’m looking at him. I’m going, “Well, why don’t you just start at the top and pick up the phone and call them? What’s so hard here?” Of course what he was looking for was a lead scoring solution at the time before lead scoring became mainstream. He had more leads than he could handle in a sales function. He needed a way to prioritize them and that’s great. It’s a great problem to have, but it’s fun and interesting that his thinking was to do nothing.
It’s like you’ve got people that are ready and willing to talk to you and rather than call them one at a time systematically, he’s like, “Well let me just retreat in a corner and be overwhelmed by the task at hand.” I don’t know, this is a little bit off the trail of the question you asked. That’s what I see is the sellers a lot of times retreating, for whatever reason, and then the gap is wider and the technology seems to be making it wider because we keep using technology as a substitute for the things that we can be doing to initiate a sales dialogue.
Jeff McKay: I think that’s spot on. Although I think many professional services firms would probably say, “Well, I’d love to have that problem. I’ll start calling them.” But who knows. I think the one thing that is so incredibly unique about professional services and in my mind is that it’s so personal. It is so personal and you just can’t do personal at scale the way professional services firms need to do it in my mind. You just can’t.
I think so many of these martech systems are really geared towards more product-based selling with standardized sales process. And that really just does not exist in the professional services world. You have as many selling approaches as you have consultants, accountants, actuaries, whatever. And it’s just so hard to get that at scale.
I think that hysteria, it used to just be CRM and getting consultants to use CRM was difficult enough, but now you throw on all the marketing automation, all the social media, all the other digital tools and it just ends up confusing people and it really becomes sand in a very simple machine.
And people, at least my experience, they jump on some big implementation takes forever to implement. It’s poorly adopted or it gets split in half. Marketing can take on the marketing technology and run with it, but then they run into problems bringing all that knowledge and data back into practical day to day use for consultants or accountants.
I run into a lot of firms that just think there’s some kind of panacea technology out there and they keep jumping from system to system or they finally reach a point where they just say, “It just doesn’t work. I don’t care. I’m not going to fight that fight anymore. I’m going to go brand the firm and do some big branding events.”
Jason Mlicki: Well, you made a lot of interesting points there. The one thing that I thought was interesting, and this isn’t even really a technology comment as you said, that you can’t do personal at scale and you really basically said there’s no standard sales process in most firms, and I think that’s a topic of a different episode, and I would love to do it because I think that’s wrong.
I don’t think that firms should have a rigorous sales methodology or process the way a SAAS company does, but I think the fact that they’re letting their consultants, their actuaries or whatever, run out there into the world to apply whatever process that they think is appropriate for them is not healthy and I think it’s also the fact that sales is a dirty word in most of these firms. It’s not sales, it’s business development, it’s account management. It’s anything but sales.
At the end of the day, it’s selling, and I think that firms need to embrace that selling is something they need to do and that they need to embrace a process for their firm on how they believe it should be done. If you’re going to make martech work, that’s the first thing to your point, you have to do. You have to say, “This is the way we do this. This is the way a lead comes in the system. This is what constitutes a qualified lead. This is how we convert a lead and when we convert them and why we convert them. This is how we qualify an opportunity.”
I mean you have to have that type of rigor. It doesn’t necessarily matter how you get to that point as the practice leader or BDM or whatever your role is. But the fact of the matter remains that there should be some objective criteria that is used for those things.
I think a lot of firms, they just don’t have that and I think it does hurt them when they try to apply marketing technology against it because all of a sudden the technology isn’t working because there’s holes in their process and their philosophy, and to your point, I don’t think they addressed the holes.
They jumped to the next technology. A sidebar conversation, I mean, I’m sure you have this too. Just to give some historical context. When we started email marketing in 2003 and I can’t even remember what system we used, we launched our blog in ’08 and then we morphed into HubSpot eventually around 2011 I think is when that happened. And we jumped out of HubSpot and into Act-On in 2012 and we’ve been with Act-On for seven years on the marketing automation front. And we use Salesforce, so Pardot calls on us all the time. Our Salesforce reps are always encouraging us to go to Pardot.
I’ve evaluated all these systems for all of our clients. They’re all pretty much the same. I think a lot of firms, they would jump from one system to the other for this reason or that, and I just don’t think it matters. I think on some level you pick a system and just drive it and drive it for awhile and get really good at that system, whatever it is, and then it’s going to have some problems that won’t work for you. But that’s okay.
Just work with those problems and work around them. Unless the problems are complete functionality problems that are completely blocking your ability to be successful, you can probably find a work-around that will do the job and you’ll be just fine. So I jumped all over the place there a little bit. I apologize.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, but you got to a really good point. We could have called this martech as panacea. You made two good points is, automation doesn’t fix broken process, which I think most people should know that.
Jason Mlicki: I think most people do but still stumble into by accident, right?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, but your other point is you just have to pick one and go with it and you have to be good at it. If it’s going to be Salesforce, then be Salesforce. There’s a long learning curve on that one, but it doesn’t really matter. You just have to pick one and get rocking and rolling and become good at it. You’re absolutely right because, I’ve written about this before, it’s the discipline of using the tools that helps you refine the processes and that discipline is transferable to whatever technology you’re going to use. Each technology just says it a little bit differently, but I think those were two really good points, Jason.
Jason Mlicki: Well, there you go. Let’s just wrap there. I always like to end on a high note, George Costanza style.
Jeff McKay: We always talk about martech using inbound concepts and inbound I think is really important. And you talked about Brian Halligan’s speech on that and I think that still has credence but where the technology is going and I think really under-utilized in professional services because of weaknesses on both sides, but where if I were a CMO right now I would be putting most of my efforts would be into key account management and account based marketing to land and expand and penetrate these clients.
Because I think that is the one thing these technologies could add a lot of value to problems that firms experience and I would just be very, very good at that because everything else that you’re probably already doing from a marketing perspective feeds into that. It’s just a completely different lens in terms of how you communicate and go to market but a standard inbound marketing methodology, I mean gosh that was nothing new when Brian talked about it back when for professional services firms because that’s really all they did.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I mean I think what made it new at that moment in time really it was just to me, and we’ve talked about this, was just the massive rise of Google’s influence and their ability to surgically find anything on the planet in ways you just couldn’t before. And then of course the collapse of the cost of publishing, the idea that anybody can start a blog and get found online.
Those two concurrent issues hadn’t played out before. But in my mind, those are probably the two biggest things that influenced this massive expansion of martech. Because if you really look at the whole martech landscape, really everything on that landscape is about doing those fundamental things better, producing that base content that can get found better, making that content convert better, getting more intelligence once someone’s converted with the content, using that intelligence to start sales conversations, all built around that very simple premise.
I don’t want to dismiss the inbound movement at all. That wasn’t my criticism other than I thought that there was a lot of hyperbole and this notion that buyers never want to hear from you. That’s really not true. And I think most firms have figured that out. That’s not really a true statement at all. It’s just, how you approach them is different.
I think you’re right. The notion of account based marketing is certainly probably where firms need to be putting most of their energy, which is interesting only because if I think back in time, I mentioned this at the beginning, we adopted Salesforce in 2008 and it was brought to us by a seasoned sales expert from ABB. So a large company that was using Salesforce to manage their sales methodology.
And he applied a very traditional sales process to our business at the time. And it was all about creating leads, working those leads, converting them, turning them into contacts and opportunities, the way Salesforce was designed to do. And I’ve noticed a lot of firms, they shut off the leads database. They don’t even use it. I mean HubSpot doesn’t have a leads databases. They just don’t think it’s valuable for them to think that way.
I disagree, but I think your point is a valid one which is that most of their thinking is around, “Well, who are the accounts you want to do business with? Who are the people in those accounts and what do we know about them?” That’s where I think about marketing automation being a valuable tool for them because it does give you really good, useful data that is an aid in the sales process that helps you make decisions and have better conversations and if you’re using it correctly, you can do a lot with it.
Jeff McKay: Exactly. The whole point of these technologies is to understand people and build relationships and once you take your eye off that ball, that’s where I think things begin to break down, is losing focus on what is it we’re trying to do. We just started talking about leads, leads, leads, leads, and then you get into fights over what’s a good lead, what’s a bad lead, instead of where do we want to build relationships and what can we do to help the firm build, deepen, expand relationships at the clients that we want to work with, who value the work that we do. To me that’s just such a clear vision and purpose for marketing to add such incredible value in firms.
Jason Mlicki: All right, so we’re running short on time here. I’m going to say let’s do it this way. So you and I have both been in around this martech world for, like everybody, I mean we’re not unique in that of course, for the last 10 years. What is maybe one thing that you’ve learned in that journey that you think would be a valuable piece of wisdom for our listeners that are at any point in their journey?
They might be advanced users of martech systems. They may have automation and conversion tools and all kinds of things operating in the firm. They may be relatively new and just exploring these types of technologies for their firm. Maybe a one piece of wisdom for our listeners. I’ll share one as well.
Jeff McKay: Be very clear on what you’re trying to achieve, for whom, and don’t start tilting at windmills because the rest of the marketing communities-
Jason Mlicki: Wait, what? Tilting at windmills? What is that? What does it mean?
Jeff McKay: That’s a reference to a classic…
Jason Mlicki: Is that a simile from 1933?
Jeff McKay: … piece of literature, Don Quixote.
Jason Mlicki:…Timeout, you need to explain the analogy.
Jeff McKay: Oh my god.
Jason Mlicki: What do you mean?
Jeff McKay: Oh my god. We’ll put something in the show notes on that.
Jason Mlicki: Go read the show notes, listeners, please.
Jeff McKay: That reminds me of, there was a Wall Street Journal editorial yesterday about is an English major worth it? English programs have gotten so bad that we don’t study classics and understand those types of things, but anyway, my whole point is be very clear on what you’re trying to achieve for whom. Don’t solve problems that aren’t problems that are important to the people that you serve inside the firm. Just because you read chiefmartech.com or Gartner or something else, it’s probably not about what your firm needs to solve.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. And move to Holland and hang out with windmills. Okay. I’ll give them my one piece of wisdom and it’s really just simpler is better. We deal with a lot of firms that have a tendency to over-bake everything and want to over-bake the lead qualification process. They over-bake their workflow rules. They have a lot of complexity built into how they’re going to move information between the systems from one system to the next.
Your comment about, “You can’t do personal at scale.” You can if you make it simple. And I always am shocked that a lot of our marketing that comes from me directly is not really all that personalized. The systems underlying it are incredibly simple. Whenever I tell a marketer that they’re shocked. They think, “Gosh, it’s like you’re inside my head. How do you do that? I mean, how do you build nurtures that are that sophisticated?”
They’re not that sophisticated. They’re incredibly simple. We’re just pretty good at listening to our audience and trying to understand what they’re frustrated with and try to present them with information that’s valuable. Sometimes it connects and resonates at a level that’s very instinctive and it’s not the systems that do that. It’s the understanding of the client and what you’re writing about.
I mean it’s the content that goes into the systems that matter, so simpler is better. Don’t over-bake the complexity of these things because it’s very easy to and feel a need to do a lot of complex things with nurture streams and scoring rules and all that stuff that may not create as much value as you’d like.
Jeff McKay: That’s good advice. Every once in awhile you come up with one.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I know. Whenever I look at a windmill, I see a windmill, and it inspires me to think differently as I tilt my head at the mill. I’ll talk to you next week.
Jeff McKay: Bye, buddy.
Jason Mlicki: See you.