June 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

10 questions

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This has nothing to do with the ability of an analyst to swim the 21 miles of chilly seawater that divides England from France. Many providers tend to be channel-centric. Some specialize in web site optimization, others in search engine optimization, and others in external media. That would be fine if marketing efforts were confined to a particular channel. But today every campaign is cross-channel. An effective marketing solutions provider should be able to collect and analyze data across numerous channels both online and offline. It should be able to design initiatives that can meet clients’ goals for customer reach and frequency and that can be deployed simultaneously through e-mail, banner ads and search queries.

5) Is your box black or white?

Many providers of marketing services simply offer a black box. Content to charge a fixed fee per lead, they don’t let clients in on the mechanics of how their process works. As a result, there’s no way for the client to glean systemic knowledge that it can apply elsewhere. Others take a different tack, offering a white box. Without overwhelming clients, providers can feed clients data on which variables make the model work, whether and how the audience skews along geographic lines, and how to tweak offers if, for example, an audience skews lower or higher on the income scale. A white box approach makes the relationship between client and provider collaborative. And in the long run, having the ability to dig into the data and really understand what is going on underneath the numbers gives marketers meaningful improvements over time.

6) Can you provide references and case studies?

Everybody likes to keep good company. Marketers should make sure they’re doing the same when choosing marketing optimization providers. It’s not impolite to ask if the vendor works with top brands, and whether the engagements are small, short-term assignments, or long-term, value-creating relationships with senior executives. And given that this business revolves around numbers, marketers should not hesitate to ask for hard, quantifiable numbers. Don’t be afraid to ask: How much money have you made for your clients? That’s their job, after all.

7) Do you have a history of delivering innovation?

In the software industry, vaporware has long been a problem. Companies promise an innovative new product at some point in the near future, which serves to lock in existing clients and discourage competitors. Frequently, of course, the new product never arrives, never works as promised or never exists in the first place.

So when it comes to assessing promised new systems, marketers should do some research on older products. Does the vendor have a history of promising and delivering new optimization products? And can it be relied upon to deliver the next generation systems needed to run the business effectively? In this highly competitive, constantly shifting landscape, the market and competitors are continually growing more sophisticated. Marketing solutions have to evolve and grow in order to keep pace. And when marketers buy a solution they can use today, they are effectively investing in the vendor’s ability to innovate.

8) How many tools are in your toolkit?

If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. But what if your problem involves a screw, or a broken hinge, or a leaky valve? A handyman equipped only with a hammer won’t have much of a chance at getting the job done. Just so, a vendor who favors a single particular approach-to the exclusion of others-will find a lot of problems that don’t yield to his solution.

Marketers should ascertain whether their vendor is equipped with a suite of solutions, and whether it approaches each business problem-or set of business problems-with a fresh, unbiased eye. In certain instances, that might mean looking beyond the vendor’s own products to tools created by others. When a marketing solutions provider considers using ad servers, or marketing delivery systems other than its own, it isn’t a sign of weakness-it’s a sign of intelligence. It shows that the vendor is more concerned with finding the right solution at the given time for a particular client.

9) Can you make me a hero to my own team?

Marketers naturally look to solutions providers to help them navigate the Byzantine marketplace. They should also look to them for help in navigating internal bureaucracies. Despite the current vogue that favors flat organizations and networked companies, many firms maintain rigidly siloed organizations. They break marketing budgets down along product lines. As a result, there’s comparatively little sharing of best practices and data, and little synchronization.

A marketing optimization provider should be able to help marketers integrate strategies, navigate internal bureaucracies, and generate ideas on how to apply what works in one area to other areas. And the provider should be flexible. Whether the assignment calls for an entirely new strategy, or a simple tweaking of existing plans to get more bang for the buck, it should be able to offer the tactics, the execution and the follow-through that produces results.

10) Are you a boutique or a one-stop-shop?

The marketplace for online marketing solutions is exceedingly fragmented. A typical CMO, or head of interactive marketing, may manage two dozen or more vendors-one for on-site analytics, another for lead generation, ad infinitum. While these relationships can result in a steady stream of dinners and invitations to holiday parties, they can be a bear to manage and coordinate. With so many outside marketing organizations to work with, simply communicating corporate strategy, the values of the products, and the details of new initiatives being rolled out in real time can be nearly impossible.

What’s more, success in today’s marketplace frequently comes about when vendors can become embedded in an organization, when they spend the time and energy to understand a company’s strategy from the inside out. This can only be accomplished if marketers commit to work with a finite number of partners. Given this, it’s more important than ever that marketing services providers function as something more than one-trick ponies.

Toby Gabriner is CEO of online marketing services and consulting firm [x+1] and is the former president of advertising agency Carat Fusion. He can be reached through the marketing department at cmorse@xplusone.com.

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