Can Software Build Your Marketing Plan?

February 25, 2010 •

I love software. I use software as a consumer. I use software as a businessperson. I use relatively simple software for simple needs – Outlook for email, Salesforce for CRM, QuickBooks for accounting, WordPress and others for publishing and content management, and so on and so forth. I also make part of my living from advising and providing services to software companies, and those services often include software recommendations.

Great software is irreplaceable. Most software is easily replicated, but nonetheless irreplaceable. As a matter of fact, some types of software are so irreplaceable that they have even made certain types of people…well, replaceable.

Marketing software comes in a lot of flavors – CMS, CRM, Analytics, Marketing Automation, PPC Management, Email Marketing – and can help you accomplish many of your marketing goals.

Here’s what it can’t do. It can’t build your marketing plan. It can’t develop your core message. It can’t replace leadership. It can’t generate creative ideas. Software is just a tool, not a marketing strategy.

Do Businesses Actually Think Software Can Solve all Marketing Problems?

Yes, some do. The blame for this lies with both the software providers and the business decision-makers.

I met with well-respected software executive a few weeks back to discuss some upcoming projects. He makes and sells B2B software, and therefore needs to market his B2B software. We discussed how we work with software companies, tossed around ideas about what is working from a lead generation and nurturing standpoint, and made some plans to address some of his company’s immediate needs. Towards the end of the conversation, he asked a seemingly innocent question:

“What about using HubSpot? Seems like a pretty sophisticated, comprehensive solution. What are your thoughts?”

My problem wasn’t the question. It wasn’t the mention of HubSpot, or software in general. It was the implication that this type of software could really represent a “plug and play” marketing solution. Marketing strategy, design, tactics and tracking in a box. Fill out a few forms, and…BAM, you just built a world-class marketing program.

(Disclaimer: This post is not a rant about HubSpot. I don’t know a single person that works for the company. I’ve never even seen their products, never hired them for their services. I am familiar with the model they are pursuing because they’ve been pretty transparent about it (kudos to them) and familiar with the company because they’ve been very smart about marketing their wares (kudos again). Hell, I even invested in a company that was designed to deliver on the same promise HubSpot wants to deliver on.)

Anyway, I answered the question in the most diplomatic way I could think of, and we moved on to other topics of discussion. That being said, the brief conversation clearly stuck with me and inspired this post.

So What’s the Real Problem You Are Getting At?

The real problem is two-fold.

First, many software companies are being deceptive. Deceptive with their messaging. Deceptive with their sales tactics. Even deceptive with how they represent the people they employ.

Second, while many of these software companies profess to “make your business stand out”, in the end they are contributing to the “Me Too Marketing” that results in every company looking like a mirror image of the next one. Sure, they put a nice messaging spin around it. I’ve seen Find/Get/Keep. I’ve seen Find/Convert/Close. And one more: Turn Searches into Sales. Is that all that marketing is about? Is it that simple?

Let’s dive into the deception topic quickly by way of example. One particular company raised a boatload of money a few years back and used it to build what amounts to an automated pay-per-click search engine marketing platform. They also used the money to hire “Internet Marketing Consultants” in bulk, in every major city, and now in secondary markets as well. Here’s the problem. These “Internet Marketing Consultants” are media salespeople. The only consulting they do is helping their small business clients figure out whether to spend 5k or 10k per month on…you guessed it, their pay-per-click platform. Need I say more? Is that what a company really wants out of their “Internet Marketing Consultant”?

And now, let’s get into the “Me Too” issue. I love processes. I love systems. I love software (really, I do). If everyone follows the same “rules of the game” put forth by the same 2-3 software companies, social media superheros, or agencies, then we’re just building factories. Factories that find, get and keep. Factories that listen, engage, connect. Factories that crank out the same website, PPC campaign, email template or landing pages as the next guy.

It’s a beautiful thing that so many entrepreneurs (and accompanying businesses) have been created over the last 10-15 years. It would be awfully sad for those same entrepreneurs – after exhausting the requisite blood, sweat and tears – to look, feel and operate just like the next guy. That will make for a lot of followers, and very few leaders.

My Advice to Businesses

Strive to be different. Sure, go ahead and look at the 800 pound gorilla, then decide to do something different.

Recognize that no piece of software can replace strategy.

Recognize that no piece of software can replace a well thought out plan.

Recognize that no piece of software can replace talented people.

If marketing software continues to encroach upon the “human” facets of marketing, will all marketers just become software consultants who know how to operate the latest and greatest on-demand, dashboard-based, WYSIWYG, web-based solution?

If so, I’ll certainly take myself out of the game. Maybe I’ll just write blog posts.

Oh wait. That won’t work. Just read about a new software company that reads your mind, writes and formats your blog posts, distributes them, reads and responds to comments, and even compiles all the good ones into an e-book. Sigh.

About the Author

As managing partner and chief strategy officer for Right Source, Mike Sweeney is responsible for all content marketing initiatives, including growing the company’s content marketing practice, guiding all client content marketing strategy, and recruiting and growing a team of modern marketers. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame. You can find Mike on Twitter and Google+, connect with him on LinkedIn, or read his other posts.

  • I agree completely! Software can make things easier, automate things, and provide data to influence and inform your strategy. But strategy is required for success.

    At HubSpot, we don’t just sell software, we want our customers to be successful. And we know that success requires strategy, not just tools. To help our customers be successful, we do lots of things:

    1) All of our customers get matched with an Inbound Marketing Consultant, and have a series of 8 conference calls with them. This is not a salesperson, their goals are based on customer success/results. This is someone with years of marketing experience who has also been through HubSpot training and certification. We also offer a product that includes weekly calls with a consultant to discuss your strategy.

    2) We wrote a book “Inbound Marketing” that is one of the top 10 marketing books on Amazon. It does not talk about our software. It talks about marketing, how marketing is changing, and how to build an overall inbound marketing strategy.

    3) We do dozens of educational webinars. Again, they don’t talk about our software (we have other webinars that do that) but they are higer level, like “How to use Twitter for Marketing and PR” or “Money, Management and Marketing” or topics like that. because they are purely education, our webinars have grown to over 10,000 people registering for some of the most popular ones.

    4) We have a top 25 marketing blog. We don’t write about our software. We write about marketing tips and marketing strategy.

    5) We offer free marketing certification. at we offer a series of online seminars and then an exam. None of the content relates to our software, it is all about marketing strategy and techniques.

    You are right that the strategy needs to come first!

    I hope more software companies in all industries read this article and start to figure out ways to deliver a more complete solution that includes strategy help. For us, we have found that the more education and strategic help we offer, the more people want to do business with us.

  • Appreciate the response Mike. It certainly seems like HubSpot embraces the need for marketing strategy and understands that software is merely a tool that supports that strategy. I remain concerned that the average small business may interpret some pieces of messaging as “this solution will tackle all my marketing needs/wants”, but the responsibility for that interpretation lies on the small business decision maker. The marketing commmunity – the good guys/gals – needs to continue to beat the strategy before tactics drum.

  • Hi Mike, you’re right. Software cannot replace gray matter, especially when it comes to strategic planning. Software apps are tactical tools that can achieve a strategic goal – that of obtaining information superiority over your competitors than can ultimate help sales bring in more deals.

    These tools can automate mundane processes, simplify complex ones, and handle volumes of data in speeds that we as carbon based organisms just cannot.

    Capabilities are increasing and price points are coming down. The planning and deployment of solutions platforms, whether it’s marketing, accounting or manufacturing, etc. requires *discipline* to project manage.

    But we are at the threshold of what I call the “golden age of online marketing” – many things are converging that is making this happen.

    There will be missteps by organizations along the way, but everything I hear from marketers that seem to be “doing it right” is that they’re not going to give up these tools.

    But yes, don’t the software is not a plan. It’s a means to an end. The plan needs to include well thought out processes some of which software still can’t fulfill.

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