CMO interview: Putting IBM’s marketing technology under the microscope

VP of offerings and development for Big Blue's marketing solutions talks about data management, martech versus adtech, integration and the Internet of Things

Kareem Yusuf
Kareem Yusuf

IBM’s marketing cloud efforts might have been overshadowed by the likes of Adobe, Salesforce and Oracle in more recent times, but the vendor was in fact one of the first enterprise vendors to spy the massive opportunity for technology, analytics and automation in the marketing function. And like many of its peers, Big Blue has built up this suite of capabilities with the help of acquisitions.

Kicking off with the purchase of Unica’s on-premise, multi-channel campaign management solutions in 2010, the vendor has made several significant acquisitions in this space including CoreMetric’s Web analytics software (2010), Silverpop’s marketing automation and campaign management platform (2012), and Tealeaf’s digital analytics offering (2012).

But again, just as many of its rivals struggle to integrate features and functions, pulling capabilities together into a cohesive marketing technology offering is a work in progress for IBM. What’s also clear is that IBM has a wealth of other enterprise technologies, particularly within advanced analytics, that could provide its marketing suite with an edge, provided it can get the story right for marketers.

At this year’s IBM’s Amplify digital marketing and commerce conference in Tampa, the vendor provided several updates around better uniting marketing product sets, including direct integrations between IBM Campaign (Unica) and IBM Marketing Cloud (Silverpop), as well as tighter links between campaign management systems and its Journey Designer features.

But it’s not just integration in terms of function. IBM has its sights on helping clients pool together disparate data sources for martech and adtech activity, and is touting its Universal Behaviour Exchange (UBX) hub as ready for the job. The data connection hub allows users to bring together information stored in different applications within and outside of IBM platforms to power marketing activities. To date, the vendor has pre-integrated UBX with more than 100 different adtech and social platforms to achieve this, including a fresh agreement with tag management vendor, Ensighten.

IBM’s biggest competitive advantage, however, may well be from outside its current martech stack. During the conference, the vendor also took the opportunity to showcase how its Watson cognitive computing system could be put to use on marketing tasks, bringing natural language processing and machine learning to everyday campaign and content work.

To discuss these initiatives and efforts, CMO caught up with Kareem Yusuf, newly appointed VP of offering management and development for IBM Commerce, to find out more.

CMO: There has been an emphasis this year from marketing technology vendors on integrating acquired pieces within the marketing suites, and IBM is no exception. How would you describe IBM’s approach to integration?

Kareem Yusuf: Yes, we started by acquiring a lot of companies to establish a position in this broader space of commerce and marketing.It was a very valid strategy to get in this space, but we never approached acquisitions like we’re a holding company. We always had a view on how we were going to bring these capabilities together, while enhancing them with things we were doing organically.

If you consider the Silverpop acquisition two years ago: We spent time firstly completing things that were already being done. Then we began to infuse new, organic capability into what we now call the IBM Marketing Cloud based upon what we were doing internally, and also capabilities we could build on from other parts of IBM. The real-time personalisation service and performance insights capabilities, for example, are some of the types of things we’ve been building internally.

The latest decision to bring cognitive into marketing was inspired by our brethren in Watson, learning from them, then looking from a Commerce perspective on how we wanted to apply that, and doing work of our own to surface capability.

But I also think about the integration problem from another perspective. Often, when we use the term ‘integration’, we think of tools working together. But ignore the tools for a minute and think about certain outcomes people are trying to drive. One of the things that prompted us to create UBX for example, was that question of how you begin to ‘integrate’ multiple channels. How do you link the fact that a consumer clicked on that paid advert to coming to your website, to a segment you want to do an actual treatment against?

That’s a big aspect of the ‘integration’problem. It’s not just about capability integration, and it’s not a pure data integration problem, I suggest it’s an event integration problem.

It’s not that putting all the data in one place won’t work – that’s one approach – but you soon find there’s data you still don’t have. What you then begin to realise is that it’s the activation of that data that’s really important, and how you integrate events. That’s what UBX is all about: How do we take the fact that you’ve built something in IBM Campaign, which customers technically use as a data segmentation engine, and link that with your digital marketing tool in a manner that’s actually seamless? How do you begin to track from an analytics perspective, what someone is doing across multiple channels?

I want to elevate the notion of integration so that it’s not so much a focus of making these tools work together because I own them and they logically should, to more about what people are ultimately going to try and do.

How is that informing the way IBM decides which third-party applications to hook into?

Yusuf: We’re looking at the ‘ecosystem’ our clients, the marketers, really need to work with every day. We know they’re not just working with our tools. So we tried to use that to inform our strategy, then engage with other vendors and providers and initiate conversations about what is the actual value we’re trying to deliver.

In our conversations with Facebook and WeChat, for instance, what the marketer really wants is look-a-like segments – it’s the most important use case. From there, we’ve looked at APIs we each have to integrate systems so marketers aren’t just doing those activities as a one-off.

To what degree are you ensuring your marketing solutions can be connected to other parts of the organisation, such as the contact centre, so marketing knows it shouldn’t send an ad to this disgruntled customer, for example?

Yusuf: People want to integrate their marketing clouds to their CRM and build connectors, so one of the most common integrations out of our marketing cloud is to Salesforce. IBM’s philosophy has always been about open ecosystems – we believe in well-defined interfaces and important ways to interact, and our marketing solutions are no different. Most modern-day services, especially cloud-based properties, embrace that ethos. They readily provide APIs, so you help the customer by doing that.

Our partner ecosystem is very important to us and always has been as a business. We have a role to make it easy for partners to on-board, be publishers and subscribers, and we also go out and do some things ourselves that clients tell us are popular.

We also build partnerships to take us into ecosystems we might not have. For example, we’ve just announced a partnership with Ensighten, a tag data management vendor that has built a lot of integrations with other end points. By coming into the UBX ecosystem,that gives us a connection point into yet another range of services.

What differentiates UBX from the Data Management Platform (DMP) approach that’s rising in popularity globally?

Yusuf: In simple terms, we’re not storing all the data. A DMP exists to store data - to deliver you that integrated value, you need to put all that data in that data mart. We looked at that strategy and thought deeply about it, but decided we didn’t want to go down the DMP path in that same way. It’s not holding all the data that matters, it’s the event and triggers people are really interested in.

If you look at our relationship with MediaMath and that paid and owned connection, all marketers really want to know is that their ad was clicked on, and an identifier that associates with who clicked on it. That’s the real piece of information they need to activate that information. Based upon someone doing that, and also coming to my website, I’m going to put that prospect in a specific audience segment for a specific treatment.

What IBM is focused on is those events and driving correlation. The piece of data that identifies that varies from every system, so part of our value-add is creating the right identity maps. What we have done with MediaMath is understand the key data, what it publishes as an event, with just the right amount of info to identify it. We have the ID from the marketing cloud, we know how you think about those customers, and we link them together. In my mind, that is where the help was needed – not in storing all the data, but how you bring this value to bear.

There is a lot of speculation about whether martech and adtech will increasingly collide. What’s your view on M&A between the two spaces, and is it something IBM is interested in pursuing?

It’s almost impossible for me to comment on what we would or wouldn’t acquire. What I would say is, as demonstrated, our focus is on where that ecosystem of value is and where you build the partnerships. The rest almost takes care of itself, whether it’s inhouse, outhouse, build or partner.

What I would agree with you on is that clients are looking more and more at how they connect paid and owned. Convergence is the wrong word, as it suggests coming into one thing, but that coming together is definitely key and central. All too often, these activities are treated as separate things.

From the end customer’s perspective, they’re not looking at these touchpoints as separate, they’re looking at them as a cohesive whole. In turn, our focus has been on this notion of omni-channel and what relationships we need to build in any given touchpoint or channel that enable that holistic view.

What impact do you see the Internet of Things (IoT) having on marketing technology and customer engagement?

Yusuf: I have two perspectives on that. The first is IBM has declared IoT as an important opportunity; it’s so important we’ve established an integrated business unit around it.

From my perspective in Commerce, I view IoT as not so much proliferation of channels as a proliferation of touchpoints. And there are a number of additional, different ways in which we engage with a customer, and those need to fit into a cohesive strategy. As a marketer, do you want to push your ad to the fridge? Or do you want more look-a-like audiences, and from what sources? With those kinds of identifiable things there’s still content, offers and audiences, IoT just increases the different places in which we can either receive from, or push out to, or do analytics against.

Doesn’t IoT also change the definition of what engagement looks like?

Yusuf: I believe so, and it also changes the nature of content. When I say content, we all immediately jump to images or text, but it might not be. IoT is going to force an evolution in engagement styles, and that’s part of what we’ll be driving in terms of capabilities and support. One of the biggest use cases for IoT right now is in manufacturing and sensing what is going on in industrial systems. In turn, think about B2B scenarios when a system knows it’s time to replenish itself: Tracking that event and using that to understand a cohort of audiences is just one such scenario.

But we could also see all types of new content forms emerge as we work through this. That’s really going to change how we talk about this. We could be talking about flashing LED lights as a content type.

- Nadia Cameron travelled to IBM Amplify as a guest of IBM.

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