eBay Offers $2.4 Billion for GSI Commerce: More Support for Marketing Automation


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eBay‘s $2.4 billion offer for e-commerce services giant GSI Commerce has been described largely in terms of helping eBay to compete with Amazon in servicing retailers – or, as eBay President John Donahoe put it somewhat more diplomatically in the press release, “GSI will enhance our position as the leading strategic global commerce partner of choice for retailers and brands of all sizes.”

I suppose that’s legitimately the main point of the story. But what I really want to know is what it means for marketing automation. Not that I’m obsessed or anything.

What makes the connection worth pondering is the approach to marketing automation taken by IBM, most recently in the Smarter Commerce initiative announced earlier this month. IBM defines marketing automation as digital analytics, and puts digital analytics at the center of the business universe. The broad argument is that online activities, including both paid advertising and social messages, drive consumer behavior and can therefore be used to improve both supply chain operations (creating and stocking the right products) and demand chain operations (creating sales and managing brand attributes).

This desire to merge marketing into the larger stream of business activities is shared by GSI Commerce (and now eBay) in their approach of offering marketing within a suite of ecommerce operations. It’s been intriguing over the past few years to watch GSI supplement its core operational services (order processing, fulfillment and call center) with marketing services including email (e-Dialog), agency (Silverlign), mobile (M3), affiliate (Pepperjam), retargeting (Fetchback), database (MBS), and attribution (ClearSaleing).

I fully realize that eBay/GSI’s focus is limited to retail while IBM’s scope is literally the entire world. But both are pushing the fundamental idea of marketing as a node within the larger organizational collective. This is quite different from marketing, and marketing automation, as a largely self-contained activity that only connects with the rest of the organization comes when it drives customers to make a purchase. It also suggests that the notion of “integrated marketing management” is fundamentally flawed – if you take “integrated marketing management” as referring to a system to tightly integrate activities within the marketing department..

There, I said it. It feels so good I’ll say it again: integrated marketing management is bad. Bad bad bad. Companies need to integrate their customer treatments across all functions. The role of marketing, and marketing automation, is to guide those treatments. To do that efficiently, marketing automation must be built into the operational systems, not sit outside them. The only thing that can be handled separately is marketing analytics, just like other types of specialized analytics. But the results of those analytics must be communicated to operational systems for execution. Those operational systems must themselves be tightly integrated with each other to ensure the treatments are coordinated.

You could argue that this coordination across operational systems is also a role for “marketing automation”. I agree it is, but don’t think it’s not the primary meaning of the term. Traditional marketing automation is about campaign planning, execution, and analysis.

Now, don’t take this to mean that I’ve swallowed the Smarter Commerce Kool-Aid. I still think it’s presented in ways that ignore the fact that most activity is still non-digital. (I also recognize that the folks are IBM are plenty smart enough to realize this, and expect that they’ll merrily include non-digital activities in their projects. Or they’ll argue that even non-digital activities are captured digitally and therefore included in their definition. The latter is true, but if “digital” encompasses everything, why use the term at all?)

Okay, that’s just quibbling about words. I see a more important difference between whether you start with an operational platform and add analytics (the GSI approach, if I oversimplify a bit), or you start with analytics and tie it into operational systems (the IBM approach, for sure). In an ideal world, the operational systems would all have great customer management features and the operational approach would win. But here on Planet Earth, most companies have several customer-unfriendly operational systems that won’t go away any time soon. Connecting them into an external analytics system – even if the connections are a bit superficial – is probably the best bet for most organizations. (I could explain this with a wonderful analogy about running extension cords vs. rewiring the walls. But I won’t. You’re welcome.)

Bottom line: whether eBay intends to or not, their GSI purchase supports the broad view of marketing automation as an enterprise-wide utility, not a tool for intra-marketing efficiency. (Ha – and you thought I couldn’t write a concise sentence.)

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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