By Amberly Dressler, Managing Editor
Whether it's a face-to-face interaction or a digital one, business software buyers are the MVPs in any room - especially one filled with software vendors peddling their products to them.
From conferences and content to pitches and promotions, those responsible for purchasing software for their online enterprises have to quiet the crowd to make impartial decisions (supported with significant research and an in-depth understanding of its real-world impact). Often, however, they come to the plate with a full count - caught in highly sophisticated sales processes including software companies knowing their intent (via Web searches, whitepaper downloads, social conversations, etc.), whether their emails have been read (and even forwarded and to whom), and other tactics and technology used to reveal buyers' motivations and allow vendors to approach their leads in more relevant ways to close more deals.
Maybe that's why software buyers have tried to disguise their intent, avoiding outside influences by completing most of their research - SiriusDecisions says by as much as 70 percent - before ever reaching out to a sales representative. However the buying process occurs, it should be clear that purchasing software is a critical endeavor in every enterprise.
In this month's feature in Website Magazine, readers will be provided a playbook for finding the most direct route for accomplishing their goals - all while educating themselves about new and emerging software, identifying needs, setting a budget and maintaining their investment.
Anyone interested in software today must understand - at least in a general sense - the dramatic shift that has occurred in the industry over the last several years. The catalysts have been the software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud software markets, which are outpacing traditional software delivery and consumption.
IDC recently reported that SaaS is growing nearly five times faster than the traditional software market and becoming a significant growth driver to all functional software markets. By 2019, IDC projects the cloud software model will account for $1 of every $4.59 spent on software (up from a $48.8 billion market in 2014 to $112.8 billion by 2019) - and forward-thinking vendors are feeling the pressure to stake their claim. By all accounts, Magento appears to be locking in one of those leadership roles in the ecommerce space.
Mostly known for its free open-source community edition, Magento has recently began focusing on solutions for larger companies with its Enterprise Edition. Both offerings have always been traditional on-premise software, but Magento announced this spring at its annual conference that it would begin offering an Enterprise Edition for the cloud - decreasing some of the burden of hosting costs and operations - a move reportedly a direct result of customer demand. According to Peter Sheldon, head of strategy at Magento, this offering allows retailers to grow their businesses while Magento worries about complexities like how many servers it's running on or uptime during the holidays (or other peaks). That's really the name of the game these days in software: giving businesses (and the professionals they employ) tremendous sophistication without the IT headache - just think of how many SaaS providers give marketers dashboards and drag-and-drop capabilities so they can be more hands-on than ever before (reducing IT involvement in the process).
In part, these capabilities are leading business buyers to consider new software that will provide greater operational sophistication with less manual work and technical support, fewer steps to completion and additional transparency across the enterprise. Let's review some of the software offerings that are in greatest demand today.
As more companies look to not only acquire and retain customers on the Web, but also digitize every touchpoint of their business, the need for software to support those initiatives has never been more important. There are myriad software categories and types to choose from, of course, but the following overview will get software buyers up to speed about some of the systems in use by their competition.
Companies are turning to marketing automation in droves to automate tasks that nurture each part of the customer journey, from awareness to conversions to retention. In fact, Salesforce reports that high-performing teams are 6.7 times more likely to be using marketing automation than their under-performing counterparts; and marketing automation use is expected to grow 37 percent in the U.S. over the next 12 months.
+ Discover the top 50 marketing automation solutions at wsm.co/top50ma.
The advances made in Web content management rival any in the software industry - giving users access to easy-to-use testing capabilities, personalization features (recommended content, location, behavior), engagement opportunities (gamification, interactive content, communities), performance insights (page, overall site) and document management (approved material, previously used content) to name but a few. According to BuiltWith, WordPress is by far the most-used CMS with Drupal, Blogger, Joomla, Adobe and DNN also taking top-10 spots, among others.
+ Explore the top 50 content management and Web experience solutions at wsm.co/top50cms.
Thanks to increasing use by audiences around the globe, brands continue to commit time and budget to acquiring and retaining customers on social. With dramatically decreased organic reach and an increase in customer service type inquires within these channels, however, enterprises have to be savvier about how they approach their efforts on the popular networks, which has led to software solutions that provide social listening, analytics and influencer outreach. Sprout Social, for instance, reports that despite incoming social messages up 53 percent in the last year, brands only respond to an average of 11 percent of inbound messages - pushing Sprout Social to launch its Suggested Replies offering.
Comparable to Gmail's Canned Responses, the machine-learning algorithm makes engagement easier for social media managers by suggesting replies to frequently asked questions.
+ Access a list of the top 50 essential social media solutions at wsm.co/top50social.
As end-users demand near real-time responses from companies (thanks to the previously mentioned outreach on social media), the customer support software industry has grown to include live chat, helpdesks, advocate outreach and in-app service. Enterprises must explore options that will allow them to know who the customer is (and their intent and buying history, as well as past interactions) in order to provide a higher level of service that omits the customer having to explain who they are, what they need and, worst of all, making them switch channels (like from email to a phone call or live chat to a phone call) to accomplish their goals.
In fact, Walker Information predicts that by the year 2020, customer experience will be more important in business strategy than products and price.
+ Check out some of the most innovative customer support solutions available today at wsm.co/6support.
Data has never been more important and enterprises of all sizes are looking to analytics software to inform decisions, test for better outcomes, and improve both the user experience and key performance metrics (KPIs). If understanding audience behavior and intent is the goal, they'll be better off for leveraging one of the many Web analytics software solutions available today.
+ Find out some of the Google Analytics alternatives in use at wsm.co/otheranalytics.
With organic search serving as the number one driver of website traffic for most companies (BrightEdge research shows organic search drives 51 percent of website traffic and 40 percent of website revenue), it's no wonder SEO software remains in high demand - running the spectrum from on- and off-page analysis and competitive research to link management and keyword research.
+ Read, "Top 50 Search Engine Optimization Solutions" at wsm.co/top50seo.
Savvy retailers are leveraging software that not only helps them create their digital storefront, but also helps them sell more. With the right platform (and extensions), merchants can deliver experiences that are personalized, modern, mobile and flawlessly executed across channels in a secure environment.
+ Get a rundown of some of the most intriguing ecommerce platform extensions at wsm.co/dozenext.
Unavailable or under-performing digital assets are conversion killers. Identifying, monitoring and then reacting to performance issues is the role of many Web performance software solutions, and there is an abundance of them.
+ See a roundup of top resources for monitoring and optimizing Web performance at wsm.co/webspeedy.
While it is the goal of every enterprise to get the software it needs to succeed, the combination of today's many available solutions, the connectedness of the Web and all the content that vendors are publishing to persuade their prospects has created a FOMO-based buying culture (or fear of missing out). This is especially true for Web-based companies trying to stand out on the many available marketing channels while providing a seamless experience across them. With so much information coming in, however, the chances of making an inaccurate decision increases.
Deloitte published a report recently giving stakeholders ideas about how to use FOMO to drive organizational change, but in it, Deloitte stated there is a correlation between information load and decision accuracy, writing:
"There is a peak amount of information a person can take in that improves decision-making ability; any additional information added past this point results in a decrease in accuracy. Therefore, the superfluous information can have negative effects on a worker's accuracy in the workplace, resulting in poorer products, and have potentially expensive and/or detrimental consequences."
So, how can business buyers not only obtain the "right" amount of information to base their decisions on but also identify a real need? It's complicated, but before listening and engaging in the chatter that is outside of their enterprise, software buyers should turn to internal data. For instance, a B2B company whose sales team is struggling to close leads, in large part because its prospects are more informed about its offerings than those pitching them, may want to look into sales acceleration software like InsideSales.com; this software not only gamifies product education (increasing rep performance) but also provides scores to help sales representatives prioritize their leads based on how likely the prospects are to purchase and to be contacted at all. Other solutions to help companies prioritize leads (and sell more) include Velocify, Accent Technologies and KiteDesk, among others of course, as well as a company's CRM (e.g., Salesforce, Oracle, Zoho, SAP) and marketing automation solution (e.g., Marketo, HubSpot, Act-On, Bronto).
+ For a top 50 list of customer relationship management and sales force automation solutions, visit wsm.co/top50crm.
Another example of a need-based software investment is that of CRM. If a company has no way to track a user's lifecycle through their company and share that information across departments (resulting in poor user experience, low conversion rates and general overall annoyance both in house and out), an investment into CRM could certainly be justified (see sidebar).
Analyzing the information already at a company's disposal is certainly the best and first step to take when purchasing software, but if companies get the feeling (from competitive research or direct feedback) that competitors are moving past them at lightning speed, they should explore the options that will get them where they need to be and the quickest. It's important, however, to keep one's head on straight when they start diving into marketing collateral and begin being contacted by vendors; luckily, plenty of people have come before and have both success and failure stories to share.
Software procurers are a sought-after group and individually and with their team will need to become experts in the market they are entering in order to know which vendor to select, seeking out their own unbiased reviews and support system.
"Sales pitches always sound great, but sometimes those pitches don't translate to real-life workflows," said Ty Cameron, direct of information technology at Christopherson Business Travel. "If software providers would more easily connect us buyers to actual users of their solutions - who could speak honestly and without bias - we would have a better idea of their product and what our experience will be after the purchase. You can sometimes accomplish this by trolling forums and user communities, but it's not always possible."
Cameron recommends putting the vendors to work as well, making sure they are doing their due diligence to know and understand the business environment and providing a completely custom solution that meets the company's needs and budget. Similarly, Joe Nutinsky, CEO of Ruvna (an online tool that allows schools to locate and account for their students in real-time during emergencies) recently purchased Pipedrive as the company's CRM and recommends leveraging free trials.
"It makes my life so much easier to try something out before spending money, especially when I'm straying away from a name-brand tool (like Salesforce)," said Nutinsky. "Also, phone support is incredibly valuable. When we're thinking about new tools, I love being able to call the company and ask them questions."
Of the many software purchasers Website Magazine has interviewed, integrations are also a major selling point and should always be considered before signing on the dotted line. When Nutinsky ultimately chose Pipedrive as his company's CRM, integrations with his existing software were required.
"Thankfully, Pipedrive made it super easy," said Nutinsky of Ruvna. "They have instructions for integrating with any of the other software they know startups already use (things like email tracking, lead generation, phone systems, etc.)."
Today's software sellers often lead with the high volume of companies and systems they integrate with - extending core functionality with software already in use by an enterprise or solutions they'd like to explore.
Integrations are an important ecosystem to understand, so Website Magazine put together an "experts speak" article highlighting real-world integration successes and failures at wsm.co/expertint, which is worth exploring by anyone in the market for software today.
What's included and what's not in an initial software package not only makes the difference in how it will operate and be implemented, but also how much additional it will cost from what was expected.
It's not often a software buyer has access to pricing information - this is particularly true of systems that are more complex by nature - which can be frustrating to eventual buyers.
"It's very common to have to call to find out the price of a piece of software and remarkably the final price you pay, is often around what your stated budget is," said Ian Wright, CEO and founder of MoverDB.com.
Vendors certainly have their reasons for this tactic, but setting a budget and adhering to it (assuming it was made with reasonable considerations) is a factor in whether a software purchase can be considered a success; is what it cost worth what it returned?
Wright suggests there are two steps buyers must take to stay on budget:
1. For any complex products that do have advertised prices, make sure to get quotes from as many vendors as possible selling that software.
2. Ensure buyers understand what is included when purchasing. For example, is support included or not? Can they add extra users for free or are they charged a per-user license fee.
Failing to understand all the costs is the easiest way to end up over budget. Researching alternative options that may be outside the box is also suggested advice for maintaining a budget.
"Many times, open source projects will do 90 percent of what you need to accomplish, and while this is sometimes adequate, there are other times when you need ongoing professional support for maintenance of critical systems, and you usually get what you pay for," said Cameron of Christopherson Business Travel.
"Research the vendor and see what users are saying. If vendors can't stand up to their service-level agreements (SLAs) move on to one that can. It will save you money in the future when things go wrong, which is inevitable with technology.
There's only so much data that can be analyzed, research that can be conducted, and pros and cons that can be discussed before a decision needs to be made if moving a company forward is the aim.
Executives who have done their due diligence, however, should feel confident that they are entering into a partnership that will be to the benefit of their enterprises. This may be the time in some organizations where the bulk of the responsibility is passed on to someone who can be the champion for onboarding this new technology, setting realistic goals (and metrics to track) for the project and seeing that ongoing maintenance is tended to. Not doing so is the number one reason for failure according to a paper published by Quorum Business Solutions, Inc., which recommends identifying the highest level line person who will gain the most (from his/her personal perspective) from a successful software implementation. What's more, this person will want to be comfortable taking the lead across departments and pay grades.
The risks of making bad software decisions certainly exist, but those charged with researching, budgeting, deciding, and choosing how and who will implement the technology for their enterprise are chosen for a reason. Software buyers will need to be confident in their ability to sort through all available information and offerings to identify what will propel their business forward - keeping up with both external and internal demands.