That question might mean many different things, but it’s a critical question businesses must ask when evaluating marketing tech.
Before becoming famous for Trump lip-synching, the comedian and ex-Googler Sarah Cooper published a great book about how to sound impressive during meetings, and among the top-ten pieces of advice she doles out is to ask, “But will it scale?”
Well, at the risk of getting all smarty-pants on you, I think scale is actually a really important question to ask if you work in marketing tech for a large enterprise.
“Scale” is ripe for satire because it’s a tricky concept, rarely well defined, yet somehow ubiquitous. That’s why you can mention it casually in a meeting, without getting held responsible for what you really mean. So what, really does scalability mean, and when should martech leaders care?
The problem of scale
In the world of packaged martech platforms of the kind Real Story Group evaluates, people will say “scale” when talking about very different things, like:
- Feature breadth and scenario diversity (scope);
- Functional depth and richness (complexity);
- Administrative and customization capacity (adaptability);
- Activity volumes and traffic intensity (usage); or
- Response times, especially at peak (performance).
Since all those meanings are relevant, notions of scale can start to become vague and generic. In the hands of vendors, scalability takes on a marketing-speak quality. For example, nearly every small email marketing vendor touts at least one Fortune 1000 client. Turns out their platform got licensed by the Munich office pet-lovers’ club at that megafirm. Would it also work for your large enterprise?
Still, I believe the concept of scalability has value, and for some of you may become a decisive consideration when building your martech stacks. So let’s dig deeper.
Not a super-sized department
We know from debriefs with RSG subscribers that most of you face significant challenges of scale — challenges that many software vendors, in their pursuit of mass markets, often don’t accommodate adequately. In countless conversations with enterprise architects from major global firms over the past decade, we’ve heard customers express a consistent frustration: “Vendors treat us like a super-sized department, rather than a complex, multifaceted organization.”
With rare exceptions, the modern enterprise is not a super-sized department. To be sure, the enterprise may want to instill some commonality to its diverse activity. This could mean executing as a unified marketing team globally, perhaps speaking with one voice from a public communications perspective, and providing a single customer support environment across its offerings. But doing this with thousands of employees serving customers across dozens of different marketplaces is no simple task. Technology needs to help here, not get in the way.
Some universal challenges of scale
Rather than define scale as X number of employees and Y amount of sales, let’s review some challenges that emerge when trying to implement technologies at larger enterprises. Not every organization faces every challenge below, but when they start piling up, the technology choices you face start to become qualitatively different.
Access control & entitlements
Here’s where platforms that can scale will quickly surpass those that can’t. It’s not enough to be able to connect to a single enterprise directory for authentication and possibly authorization; the platform may need to work with multiple directories. Also, the platform may need to support complex group and role entitlements. This is a huge issue in particular for distributed digital marketing teams for enterprises with multiple products or offerings.
Surprisingly few of the 160 products that RSG covers can do this, or do it well.
Firms with a global or near-global footprint face significant marketing technology challenges. It’s not just that the software they deploy needs to support multiple languages (although that remains an issue). The tools you implement need to support multiple geographic concepts, such as regions as well as countries, and staff that may be matrixed geographically as well as functionally.
Multiple regulatory and legal regimes
Large enterprises don’t have the luxury of dismissing compliance as a mere hassle. They have to “play it by the book” in ways that smaller companies often do not — or more precisely, play by multiple different books because they have to work amid diverse (often conflicting) regulatory and legal authorities. It’s not enough anymore for a vendor to simply assert their platform is “GDPR-compliant”
When Acme Towing’s public website gets hacked, few people pay attention. When Amazon or Apple get hacked, people notice. Larger enterprises have to be extra careful about using platforms that are constantly targeted, even if those tools (like WordPress) are eminently securable. Large enterprises want to be agile like everyone else, but their stakes in the game typically have them seeking something more reliable than “public beta.” And of course, higher profile also means more likelihood of lawsuits, especially in litigation-happy North America.
Intense operational needs
The largest enterprises care deeply about operations and knowledge management, even if they don’t actually label it that way. They know that to succeed at scale, they need effective ways of cataloging and repeating good practices, even if it is simple approaches to answering questions or locating expertise. Enterprises can (and should) debate how to operationalize digital marketing, but ignoring process entirely is a small-company luxury.
High volumes and variable spikes
Big-name brands can experience high volumes as well as spikes in traffic to public-facing sites, applications, and API interfaces. Some firms, like those in ecommerce or media segments, face particularly daunting challenges above and beyond the size of their operation.
Employees at a larger enterprise are often geographically dispersed and can also put unpredictable demands on marketing systems. I’ve seen more departmental tools simply fall over at enterprise volumes than I care to remember.
This is the big one, people.
Many software platforms can support a single use-case across multiple business units, or multiple use-cases in a single business unit. This is not that same thing as deploying a platform that can solve diverse business problems across the spectrum, around the world. Technologies that can scale to the largest enterprises also have to address a diversity of business lines, sometimes even competing with one another internally.
This tension between scratching a local itch versus managing enterprise-wide diversity lies behind the popularity of quick-to-deploy, SaaS-based offerings on the one hand, and the seemingly inevitable ceilings that large enterprises encounter with SaaS-based solutions on the other.
On the other hand, bigger and broader is not always better. You need to be especially careful here about subscribing to the mythologies of marketing tech suite vendors. Time and again I find myself consoling customers of vendors whose name brands suggested a suitable attention to scale, yet who sold a platform that didn’t address some of those key challenges above.
This article is just a brief tour. If you’ve been in this business awhile, you could add your own scalability war stories. In RSG’s evaluation research we dig into greater depth on these issues to differentiate among vendors. If you work for a large, or global, or complex enterprise, scalability matters, and you won’t just look.smart trying to make sure you get on top of scale before scale gets on top of you.
Real Story on MarTech is presented through a partnership between MarTech and Real Story Group, a vendor-agnostic research and advisory organization that helps enterprises make better marketing technology stack and platform selection decisions.