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Why is the ROI from Martech Still Underwhelming?

Marketing technology is supposed to become nearly a $152 billion market by 2027 — but why? Will marketing leaders get a good return on an annual investment greater than the GDP of Hungary?

That depends. Back in 2017, the average enterprise used 91 marketing cloud solutions according to Scott Brinker of In 2019, however, marketing leaders told Gartner that they used only 58% of their stack’s “potential,” despite ongoing growth in martech spending. And in December 2020, Gartner reported that only 18% of brands had “mastered their extensive martech stack.”

No, most marketing leaders are not getting an optimal return. As Partner Manager for Widen, a company that specializes in digital asset management (DAM) and product information management (PIM), I may view this unused potential differently from a marketer. I speak about this with my counterparts at other vendors every day. In those conversations, one problem comes up repeatedly: an inability to use the content, data, and other assets enterprises have — somewhere — in their stack.

Along the road from 18% martech mastery to a better number, this problem must be solved. And how we address this problem will determine whether AI-driven marketing technology ever becomes more than buzzword soup.

The storage unit

Imagine that you’re planning a party for potential customers. They are supposed to arrive in 10 minutes, when you realize that you don’t have enough seating. Your folding chairs are in a storage unit 20 minutes away. You can’t rummage through storage while your customers are expecting to be fed and entertained. So, you make do with whatever is in the house: pillows, picnic blankets, and yoga blocks. The guests pretend not to be disappointed.

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That is a recurring scene in digital marketing. Just sub chairs for content. Photos, videos, graphics, ads, product imagery, and other marketing collateral sit in a storage system so inaccessible that it may as well be 20 minutes away. The content sent is whatever can be found immediately on someone’s desktop or the company’s shared folder system. It’s not necessarily up to date or brand approved.

One consequence of the storage problem is wasted investments in unused content. A second consequence is that the martech stack isn’t used to its full potential. Think of systems like CRM, marketing automation, and sales enablement, which, broadly, are tools for delivering content to people. No content, nothing to deliver.

Vendors sometimes hesitate to say, “Look, our platform is awesome at X, but it would be more useful if you combined us with a platform for Y.” That’s not weakness; that’s self-awareness. Partnerships are one of many ways vendors signal to marketing leaders that they should combine our solutions with others. The storage unit problem is just one example of how a lack of partnership limits potential.

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The complexity of ROI of Martech

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Sometimes, investments in technology have an explicit ROI. In e-commerce, for example, if you offer a Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) solution, you can trace revenue to that tool. When you try that exercise with marketing technologies it’s messy because they are part of a system with goals that sit above any individual solution.

For example, I talk to other martech vendors about why having one, central content repository is useful to them and their customers. I discuss how a DAM (and PIM) can help teams develop content more efficiently, get more use and value from each piece of content, and protect brand consistency. DAM is a bit like moving your storage unit into your garage and, after hard work, having everything so well organized and findable that you’d think Marie Kondo did the job herself.

Ok, but how do we draw a causal line from that DAM system to revenue or profit? What is the dollar value of not sending outdated images or not publishing contradictory information about your products?

Good luck doing that math. The point is that that unused potential — or unseen ROI — is relative to goals set for the martech system. At a single enterprise, 91 vendors all face the challenge of demonstrating that they are valuable. Vendors are more successful when they do that together, in partnership, rather than alone. And that brings me back to AI.

All by itself, altogether

There is a belief that marketing systems will behave autonomously thanks to advancements in AI and machine learning. Maybe marketing AIs and consumer AIs will have “conversations” about what the consumer needs — like folding chairs that pack down to half the traditional size.

This future system, if it’s split into siloes with too many AIs and vendors speaking different languages, is going to flop. An AI that curates images in DAM needs to communicate with the AI that decides what mix of product images and offers a lead should receive. None of that can happen without partnerships and integrations.

Maybe a few “mega” vendors will buy up enough point solutions to escape this dilemma. But that hasn’t worked yet. If it had, enterprises wouldn’t have 91 martech solutions a piece. Marketing personalization, fueled by reservoirs of data and content-driven by AI, is going to rise in martech stacks and ecosystems — not in single-vendor platforms.

Time best spent

Ultimately, marketers deliver content to people. If it were as easy as that sounds, marketers wouldn’t need to spend $152 billion per year on technology, and there wouldn’t be a sense of unused potential.

But we know it’s not easy. Marketers don’t use marketing automation, CRM, etc. because they’re lazy; they use it because cutting through the noise of the market with a product or solution is ridiculously hard.

Meanwhile, we’re all trying to preserve our focus, creativity, and time for the important part: creating something, whether it’s a relationship, emotion, story, product, or vision. Sometimes a partnership is all that and more. And maybe if we get partnerships right, we can let AI do the heavy lifting and be impressed rather than underwhelmed by martech.

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