B2B Tech

The Contently Interview: Scott Brinker on the Pitfalls and Promise of Martech

As much as marketing has changed in the past 10 years, it’s no exaggeration to say it may change even more in the next five. The marketing technology industry has exploded, which has disrupted traditional notions about the role of the marketer at an exponential rate. At this point, human marketers are at risk of being replaced altogether.

Data, optimization, and automation have now become central parts of marketing strategies. In many cases, software gets implemented across a variety of functions to help handle the increasing complexity of the digital world.

Put simply: It’s a complicated time to be a marketer. Luckily, there are people like Scott Brinker to help navigate it.

Brinker—the founding editor of Chief Martec, program chair of the MarTech Conference, and co-founder of his own martech company, ion interactive—has been a leading voice in the space since 2008. I spoke with him about martech’s automated future, where content fits into the marketing stack, and what marketers get wrong about martech.

You write a lot about the importance of strategy. A report came out recently that suggested strategy, not integration, is actually the most challenging part of martech. That’s interesting because strategy is the one thing that you can’t really “solve” with technology. So how can marketers up their strategy game?

Strategy is one of these words that means different things to different people. A very high-level business often wants clarity around position in the marketplace, its value proposition, how it compares its positioning to competitors, and so on.

If I’m looking from a content marketing perspective, you have to think strategically about, “Okay, which keywords do I want to dominate in search engine results? What sort of influencers am I looking to connect with in social media circles?” It’s work to really go through that process of identifying “where do we think the best investments are for what we want to achieve?”

Then, once you have that clarity at different levels within the organization, you start looking at technology as a way of solving: “Okay, how do we achieve that? If we know search engine optimization is incredibly important for us, what are some of the tools that we can use to support better SEO efforts?”

What are your thoughts on attribution and tagging? There seems to be a lot of pushback against it lately—Chief Martec even had a post about that. Do you think that pushback is warranted?

The guy who wrote that guest post on Chief Martec was making the case that, scientifically, it’s impossible to ever have perfect attribution. There are too many variables that we don’t have the data on. We can’t quantify what went into everyone’s decision-making process.

His point was that it’s very important to have realistic expectations. If we’re looking for this magic machine that we press a button and it tells us, “Do X, Y, and Z, and you’ll be guaranteed that people are going to buy”… We’re just not going to get there. It’s very damaging for the profession as a whole because we’re going to miss the bar.

“Few things in marketing are about achieving perfection. They’re largely about doing a better job than your competitors.”

This is not a knock against data-driven marketing. One of the places where he indicated there’s tremendous success is using partial attribution as a way to do things like media mix modeling, designing how much budget is best spent in different channels, and going after different segments and different messaging ideas that have been tried.

It’s not perfect, but few things in marketing are about achieving perfection. They’re largely about doing a better job than your competitors.

It seems to me like a lot of people buy software and then expect it to solve all their problems.

[Laughs] It would be nice if it worked that way. Unfortunately, it does not.

Another thing you write about a lot is consolidation and expansion within the martech industry. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it’s still expanding, or is it contracting?

I think it’s a combination of both, which is what makes it such a tricky space. You certainly do see some consolidation. There continues to be a fairly healthy [mergers and acquisitions] market in the martech sector.

We’ve got two challenges in the other direction. One is there continues to be new startups that enter the space who think they can do better. Second, the boundaries of marketing seem to be expanding, particularly as we talk about things like digital business transformation. Marketing isn’t just about running campaigns independent of the rest of the company. Increasingly, marketing gets built into these new kinds of products and services that companies are offering.

Same thing with additional channels. We’re starting to play around with things like Amazon Alexa, or IoT, or augmented reality. All these new things that keep appearing on the horizon, they all become new opportunities for new kinds of software that marketers can leverage. That keeps the field large and vibrant.

Another thing emerging recently is artificial intelligence. In martech, there’s Einstein (Salesforce), Watson (IBM), Sensei (Adobe), and more. Do you think AI will ultimately be supplementary, just giving recommendations, or do you think it will actually take over a lot of the marketing processes?

Some of that will be our choice.

One of the arguments I hear in favor of giving more control to the algorithms is that marketing has become so complex that a human has a very hard time managing all these different levers. At that point, maybe the only way you can manage the complexity is to turn more of it over to a computer.

“The sense of control having been lost is very uncomfortable. I think that’s what we will wrestle with in adopting AI in marketing.”

But as we turn over more of these functions to algorithms, they might end up taking actions that are going to affect our brands. You could use the metaphor of the self-driving car. I think most people believe that self-driving cars will be safer than human drivers. But the moment we have news stories of self-driving cars getting into accidents and killing people, it’s going to really freak people out. The sense of control having been lost is very uncomfortable. I think that’s kind of what we will wrestle with in adopting AI in marketing.

There’s been a lot of recent rulings, like with the FCC and in Europe, around data collection. It seems more people are pushing for consumer protections. Yet at the same time, consumer data is so important for different marketing functions. Do you think there will ever be a point when regulations will undermine martech’s effectiveness or growth?

Yes, to a certain degree. There is a big portion of martech today premised on the idea that increasingly targeted analytics and greater personalization is really the best way for marketing to improve its effectiveness. Those strategies are at great risk if regulation clamps down on the very data those things need to be effective.

I’m actually pretty confident that the marketing technology space, as a whole, is going to continue to thrive, even if there are very tight regulations around data. A big part of martech isn’t just about the analytics or personalization but about creating better experiences for people. It’s taking the insights from user experience, applying it, and building better websites, better mobile apps, and managing the way we interact with people through social media in a way that’s more effective.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes that people make when it comes to martech and implementing martech solutions?

The biggest mistake, by far, is underestimating the people and processes side of these adoptions. When people say, “Hey, we’re having difficulty integrating these six different products,” there’s truth to that. People do still have integration challenges, but those challenges pale in comparison to the challenges the companies tend to end up with. Once they’ve got the software installed, and they’ve got it integrated, they throw the switch, and then they’re like, “Okay, now what?”

The truth is that most of the marketing world doesn’t really know what to do with this stuff yet.”

The truth is that most of the marketing world doesn’t really know what to do with this stuff yet, and they’re still going about the process of marketing the way they always had before. They’re not really doing anything different with the technology, and not surprisingly, they don’t get much return from it.

You see companies that are willing to invest in training their people and promoting more experimentation, and those are the ones that tend to have greater success. It doesn’t feel like we bang that drum loud enough, sometimes.

Do you think that’s partly the fault of martech vendors as well? That they’re not informing their customers how best to use their software?

I think you’re absolutely right. Martech vendors, and I say this being a martech vendor myself, are looking to sell things. They tend to think their job is best fulfilled by reducing the number of things that a prospect has to think about.

What tends to not get brought up in that process is, “Oh, and by the way, you’re really going to want to make sure that you’ve got these training programs for people. And the way you’ve been managing your marketing team probably isn’t going to be as effective as perhaps shifting to more of an agile marketing methodology.”

That’s the really good advice of how people can get the greatest effectiveness out of these tools. Sadly, I think most martech vendors don’t really have an incentive to tackle that education.

Where do you think content marketing technology fits into most companies’ marketing stacks, and where do you think it fits into the landscape overall?

For most marketers, content marketing is a necessary part of what they’re doing. There is a question of degree. Generally speaking, B2C businesses still have need for content, but it tends to be a different quantity of content or a different depth of content, compared to B2B.

Content marketing really seems to be driving a tremendous amount of the buyer’s journey with B2B. Buyers are really hungry to get that depth of insight and information on how they do their early evaluation of solutions and who they want to do business with. I think it’s a pretty important part of the stack.

Do you think content marketing software will be swallowed up by big players, like Adobe, or will continue to grow as maybe its own niche sector within the martech landscape?

Well, one of the questions is how do you define content marketing software? There are literally hundreds of tools within that space, and they are not all competitive with each other. In a lot of cases, many of them are complementary. There might be a couple big pieces of software in there, but I find for a lot of content marketers, their toolbox includes at least a dozen web services or very small, fast things that they use for different tasks within developing content and getting it distributed.

I’m sure there will be some consolidation of tools, particularly the larger tools, into the major marketing clouds, but I think you’re still going to have a robust landscape of more niche providers that complement those for a very long time.

You run Chief Martec, which has been very successful. It’s a huge resource for a lot of people, yet at the same time, there’s a lot of talk about the death of blogging. So what’s the value of Chief Martec? Why do you still blog?

The number one reason I blog is because I find it helpful for myself. They say if you want to learn something really well, figure out how to teach it to someone else. By studying and trying to write, hopefully, some sort of coherent analysis of it, it helps clarify things for me that I find useful in my work. Even if no one was reading it, it would still have a lot of value.

It’s interesting coming from more of a publishing perspective. I feel like there are these legacy models in the industry where we think of publishers that publish largely news stories, or maybe they do (relatively light) features. They’re in the publish or perish business—cranking out as much of that as possible.

“Sadly, I think most martech vendors don’t really have an incentive to tackle that education.”

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got these analyst firms, the Gartners, the Forresters, folks like that, who publish much less frequently. Very often they have some sort of paywall, and it is a very expensive paywall. Like if you want to read this research report, please fork over $4,000.

I’d say that there’s actually an opportunity there. There’s a space between those two models that bloggers can jump in the middle of. You can have bloggers who are truly specialists in their fields.

Final questions: What do you think is the future of marketing technology? What do you think the marketer’s job is going to look like five to 10 years down the road?

At the rate at which things are changing, I think it’s hard for me to have clarity of what this is all going to look like in 10 years. But the thing that I find most exciting in the foreseeable future is—and I know this is an overused term, but it’s a powerful movement—this idea of digital business transformation.

Look at companies that are the digital natives—like Amazon, Netflix, and Uber—and the way they operate, the way they’ve grown, the way they manage relationships with their customers. As the world just becomes more and more digital, it is clear that almost every business is going to need to develop some sort of capability along those lines for the way they connect and build relationships with their customers.

I think that’s a tremendous opportunity for people who are in marketing and marketing technology to think beyond the campaign and to think much more holistically about what the future digital business relationship with our audience looks like. How do we create an incredible customer experience in that world? That’s going to be really exciting.

Image by Liu Zishan / Shutterstock

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