Interview: CMOs hindered by marketing tech complexity, says Sitecore chief

Michael Seifert claims technology has added complexity and become a barrier for marketers looking to gain a single customer view

Sitecore CEO, Michael Seifert
Sitecore CEO, Michael Seifert

CMOs are destined to become their CEO’s right hand in a customer-driven economy, but they’re being stifled by the complex array of technology sitting within their marketing department.

That’s the view of Sitecore co-founder and managing director, Michael Seifert, who believes technology has become a “barrier of complexity” for marketing departments striving to attain a single view of the customer.

“If you look at the digital marketing technology lumascape, there are about 950 vendors, mapped out in categories, and it’s maddening to look at. This is the reason for the complexity we’re facing today,” he says.

“Every time something new happens on the Web, you get a marketing tool and you put it on top of your stack. Each of these tools only sees a little bit of each customer. None of them see the whole picture because they’re all operating on a particular channel and the view is limited to that view of the customer.”

Related: Aussie marketers still struggling with single customer view and ROI
How CMOs can orchestrate a single customer experience

Even though marketing departments are spending about 50 per cent of their time collecting and connecting data, and as much time analysing and reporting on it, nobody really has the single view of the customer, Seifert says.

“Importantly, no one has a view of the customer in real time so you can personalise experiences across channels instantly,” he claims. “Marketing needs to be equipped with a single view of the customer. When we have achieved that, then we can talk about being at the point where we’re doing experience marketing between the company and the customer.”

Seifert recently caught up with CMO at the vendor’s Digital Trendspot event in Sydney to discuss how CMOs can better deliver personalised brand experiences, as well as why the vendor thinks it can win the race to own the marketing technology platform.

Carrying the customer torch

According to Seifert, marketers today are carrying the “Olympic torch of experience” within their organisations, and rightly so, given the need to put customers at the heart of marketing activity.

“The next generation after that is what I call ‘brand experience’, and that’s when those marketers realise it’s not just marketing but also sales, service and every department in the company that touches a customer somehow, impacting the customer experience,” he says.

“Getting all of that – online and office, service calls and social – into a single view of the customer, and understanding how all business units impact the customer experience, is key.

“Marketing over time will be the right hand to the CEO, ensuring the customer experience is great across every business function. They’ll work closely to enable the CEO to drive the business process transformation needed to ensure customer experience from sales and service is what it needs to be.

“Right now we’re in the middle of that complexity.”

Seifert claims the next three to five years will be about lowering that complexity. “After that is when you’ll really see digital transformation really happening across the enterprise. We may be a decade out from that,” he comments.

An OASIS of marketing technology platforms

Sitecore is one of several software platform vendors striving to solve the technology challenge marketers face, and has come a long way since its early days providing a Microsoft-compatible CMS for dynamic Web pages.

In 2006, Seifert says he told his board that “CMS was dead”. It was partly a realisation that CMS solutions would become commoditised, and partly an acknowledgment that more needed to be done to deliver two-way engagement with customers.

“When you look at the business value of content management, it’s no different to the business value of Microsoft Word,” he claims. “Word is of course an important tool, but it doesn’t provide any business value.

“I could also see there was a unique difference to Word, in that customers and companies were interacting, but no one was listening. There was a connection between customers and the business but no one was paying attention to that.”

In recent years Sitecore has extended its Web content management platform to include other channels, such as mobile. It has also added data analytics and visualisation tools, ecommerce management, customer segmentation and personalisation mapping. And in July, the company acquired a majority stake in Danish social media marketing vendor, Komfo, in order to integrate social media management tools into the mix.

Seifert rejects the term “marketing cloud” and says Sitecore’s approach to the modern marketer’s technology is about delivering an “experience cloud”. He is bullish about the company’s prospects in the face of aggressive growth from the likes of higher level competitors such as Adobe, IBM, Oracle and Salesforce.

Related: Oracle, Salesforce.com trade moves in marketing software battle

“There is clear a platform race going on today… I call it ‘OASIS’, or the vendors I see rushing to build a platform for marketers to manage the customer experience,” he says. “We are directly competing with these marketing cloud vendors and there are unique advantages to our portfolio.”

According to Seifert, one of Sitecore’s strengths is building its core platform from the ground up, rather than by acquiring standalone applications from the growing pool of marketing technology apps. By contrast, vendors such as Adobe, Oracle and Salesforce in particular have been rapidly acquiring best-of-breed solutions to build out their marketing clouds but must now work to integrate these capabilities seamlessly.

Over the past four years, Sitecore has also been expanding its big data technology capabilities to better achieve that single view of the customer.

When it comes to winning the platform race, the thing that worries Seifert the most is time.

“We need to get it done faster,” he says. “But what we showed at our [Sydney] event was how far we have progressed in terms of our platform.”

The vendor’s latest Sitecore 8 customer experience management release, which becomes available in Australia in December, is its most ambitious yet and gives users the ability to visualise each individual customer segment and interactions they have with their brand using a visual graphic timeline of touchpoints and experience profiles.

Other key features include integration with other customer-facing platforms such as ERP and CRM as well as non-Sitecore website, audience segmentation, improved analytics and optimisation testing.

“You can click one icon to see who visited the website, then another to view when they tweeted, or if another customer purchased a product,” Seifert explains. “All of that information is available across all channels to be personalised. So we have come an extremely far way.

“We are not done – we have a lot more ground to cover – but this release is pivotal in many ways. I’m not normally someone who’s overly bullish, but at this point in time I actually do feel that way. It’s an exciting opportunity.”

Advice for CMOs

Seifert’s advice for CMOs struggling to drive better customer experience across their organisation and facing technology and data complexity is to start small.

“Begin with a Web project or mobile project, and start to get the experience profile and single view of the customer just for that project,” he says. “Within the marketing department, everyone can start to rally around both the single view of the customer, as well as the analytics and segmentation coming out of that. It’s a snowball – then everyone gets excited, then they start putting in other data sources so you can see how that impacts everything.

“That is the way forward – take one step at a time.”

Seifert also warns marketers against positioning big data as the complete answer. As a way of illustrating the importance of balancing data with human intuition and creativity, he points to weather forecasting.

“In the past, we couldn’t forecast the weather much into the future. Then at one point we realised that if we animated the weather pattern models and showed them to the forecasters, they would interpret the models,” he explains. “Based on their knowledge, they’d say they believed the weather front would move south. That information is fed into the supercomputer, which then revises its model and the end result is a better forecast. It’s the human and the computer working together.

“We are on the same trajectory, and with version 8 we have the first place where the marketer and the system can work together. The marketer can make changes they think will improve performance, and that same guidance helps the system to better optimisation and testing.”

Despite his programming and IT heritage, Seifert advocated getting away from the “complexity and interruption of marketing” and putting the combination of technology smarts and insight back in balance.

“These systems will help us take care of part of the science and complexity and give us more time to think creativity as marketers and how to touch our customers emotionally.”

Seifert adds that he believes today’s CMOs do have the ability to lead experience-based customer engagement.

“For quite a while there was talk about the CMO becoming the chief digital officer, or that we’d need a new generation of CMOs. I don’t believe that,” he says. “I believe the traditional CMO is a very strong CMO, they have just not really been enabled yet by technology.”

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