Marketers: you are the software you use

You are what you eat. You are the company you keep. And now a new maxim: You are the software you use.

Like all great maxims, of course, that’s more than a little overstated. But now that software and technology underlie almost everything we do — inside our our organizations, as well as in the media and vehicles we use to engage with prospects and customers in the outside world — it’s important to appreciate the ripple effects our choices of software have.

This is not a blockade, this is language

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Thirteen Days about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is at the Pentagon when the admiral in charge of the blockade orders a ship to “clear its guns” (fire warning shots).

McNamara is furious that the admiral is escalating the situation without approval. The admiral brushes off McNamara by saying that they’re simply following the rules of engagement.

“The Navy has been running blockades since the days of John Paul Jones,” the admiral chides him. In the admiral’s worldview, it’s just standard Navy operations, nothing that warrants the Secretary’s interference.

“John Paul Jones!” exclaims McNamara. “You don’t understand a thing! This is not a blockade. This is language, a new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen! This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khrushchev!”

Marketing software selection — which impacts the capabilities, workflows, insights, and automations available to marketing — is not just “standard IT business” anymore. Analogously, it is a new kind of vocabulary for shaping strategy, culture, and brand.

Software embodies culture

See, software is not merely bits and bytes, logic statements and data fields. Software is the digital incarnation of ideas that its developers had for:

  • how to define a problem
  • how to solve that problem

Every aspect of software — features, workflow, UI, packaging, and even its business model — emerges through decisions made by its producer to solve what they see as “the problem.” Some of those decisions are made carefully, some not so much. But either way, the personalities, perspectives, and talents of its people — and the culture of the organization that bound them together — have a huge impact on the resulting solution.

This is not deterministic at all.

Ask 10 different software developers to write a program for any non-trivial purpose — be as exacting as you want in the specification — and you will get back 10 different programs. Some might see this as a negative comment on the state of software engineering, but I actually think it’s a spectacular endorsement of the field’s unsung creative power.

The folks at 37signals have been big proponents of embracing this, as stated in the Make Opinionated Software chapter of their Getting Real book:

The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it.


You can compare different software packages by their features — those ubiquitous matrices of checkboxes for what one program does over another — but that’s like marrying someone based on their college transcripts. The real value software offers is that “approach” and “vision” that is personified in it.

You ignore that broader cultural dimension of software at your peril.

Cultural match (or mismatch) with software

Eric D. Brown, who passionately brings enlightenment to the IT department, has a brilliant post on technology selection and cultural fit. Eric points out that when making a technology choice, not enough people ask this question: Does the technology fit our culture?

Why worry about “culture” in buying software? Eric writes:

Organizational culture is a key driver of technology acceptance and adoption.

Company culture will dictate how much support for a new technology is required. It will make a difference whether your users will take it upon themselves to learn a new technology or expect to have their hands held through detailed training classes.

Culture will also determine how technology is used. Will the technology you select and implement be used in some new, innovative way, or will it barely be used for its intended purpose?

Cultural fit is just as important to an organization as functional requirements, but it’s an often overlooked step in technology selection.

In other words, if you choose software that doesn’t mesh with your culture — or present an approach that you’re willing to embrace — all you do is set yourself up for frustration. Eric illustrates this with a case study of a large organization adopting a new content management system (CMS) that failed, not because of technical issues, but because of cultural ones.

Given all of the disruptive innovation in both culture and technology in the marketing department these days, this is a lesson that is highly relevant to marketing managers and executives.

For instance, Adam Needles of Propelling Brands did a great 4-part series on the “Real State” of modern B2B demand generation, where part 2 was dedicated to the topic that technology, alone, is not enough. The big challenge in his view:

We implement technology to solve our B2B demand generation problems, but we fail to substantially update our underlying processes and roles; thus, we find technology by itself has not really solved our problems.


My takeaway from Adam’s post: if you aren’t willing to embrace the culture embodied in software — its approach and vision — you’re short-changing yourself of the promised value of that software. Buying the software is not enough. You have to use it. And in doing so, it changes you.

How software affects your brand

software selection impacts your brands

As marketers, however, the ultimate realization of this “software as culture” meme is that the software we choose impacts how we interact with our market.

Even so-called “back-office” software has effects that filter through our organizations to prospects and customers. For instance, our choice of web analytics software influences how we look at online interactions, what insights we will garner from them, and how those insights will translate into strategic and tactical changes to the web experiences we deliver to our audience.

But the impact is even more obvious in marketing software that directly interacts with the outside world. For instance, the design of a particular marketing automation software solution will nudge/guide/force you in certain directions for how and when to do follow-up emails, the rules of drip marketing and remarketing campaigns, and the way in which a prospect’s defined profile feeds the personalization of their communications.

Another example is my company’s post-click marketing software. Lots of software competitors offer landing page optimization solutions, but our unique approach emphasizes portfolios of landing experiences — dozens or hundreds of highly specific destinations for click-throughs — and multi-step experiences such as “conversion paths” that focus on audience segmentation.

If you adopt our software, you’re very likely to incorporate our philosophy — in your own way — into your landing pages, which directly impacts the experience your customers have with your web marketing. If you choose someone else’s software, you’ll likely go in a slightly (or significantly) different direction.

It’s a nexus of marketing, technology, and culture.

And it’s what makes marketing software selection a new dimension of marketing.

P.S. This is one of the reasons that I advocate so strongly for having technology leadership within the marketing department.

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7 thoughts on “Marketers: you are the software you use”

  1. Great post, Scott. Marketing tools, as it turns out, are like any other major purchase in that that there’s an aspirational component to it, which the software companies count on (no offense). Just because you purchase Omniture, doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to be a web analytics wiz- especially if your company really only values basic reporting, but feels the need to show status.
    I think in a way it’s unforunate that so many companies buy marketing tools for the tools themselves – or worse, the “name brand”) – with no vision at all for what they want the tools to do.
    If people at these companies started with the vision, as the 37 signals guys suggest, I suspect that the big enterprise software companies would be in a bit of trouble and there would be a much higher rate of adoption for smaller open-source tools. I’ve been blown away by the quality and flexibility of some of these tools.
    Then again, that’s kind of my modus operandi (culture) – simple, quick and results driven – no fluff.

  2. Marketing tools as an aspirational purchase — well said, Jim. I think you’re quite right. That may very well be the most powerful device available to software marketers, a real incentive for them to polish and promote the “coded culture” of their software products.
    When companies blindly buy the biggest software in the market, I think that *is* a kind of cultural referendum too. I believe the phrase is “regression toward the mean” — relative to everyone else who has adopted that software, sacrificing an opportunity for differentiation and competitive advantage.
    Lots to think about — thanks for the comment!

  3. Thanks for the kind words Scott. Much appreciated.
    Culture is so important to any organization but most get it all wrong when they attempt to understand their culture….or worse they don’t care about culture.
    A recent article in the Association of Computing Machinery Journal provides 7 Principles for Software Selection and while the article is good and provides keen insights, one of the principles is to ‘choose a software package with a large install base and financially strong company’. While its hard to argue against that (remember that nobody got fired for hiring IBM), it leads many organizations to overlook those platforms that might be a better for for them.
    Great stuff as always Scott.

  4. Thank you, Eric — reading your post yesterday on technology selection and cultural fit was the inspiration for this piece.
    It’s funny, the article you mention in the ACM journal is an example of this. The ACM might have its best practices for software selection — a kind of business algorithm, if you will — but such recommendations are inherently colored by their culture. They are defining the problem in their worldview and solving it within that framing.
    Economic stability is arguably a valid requirement in a software vendor. But there’s a lot of big companies that go bankrupt, sell out, cut off software programs without warning. Take Google, for example? Nice, big, financially strong company. Sure hope you weren’t selecting Wave based on their backing.
    Okay, you say, Wave didn’t yet have the large install base — fair point, although it does raise a paradox that if you should only select software with a large install base, how do we ever get anywhere? But consider situations like Oracle’s acquisition of large companies, most recently Sun, and the way in which they phase out products that were once the “large installed base giants” of their field.
    This isn’t to say that the ACM’s approach is “wrong.” But it’s not the only approach. And it’s only the “best” approach if you buy into their culture for software selection.
    Maybe you and I should take a pass at our own 7 Principles for Software Selection?

  5. Love this post, Scott, especially how you used an incident from history (Cuban Missle Crisis) to tell a story. I too loved Adams thoughtful series. Great software married with strong leadership resulting in change (content, processes, etc) are the keys to success.
    Hopefully more businesses will embrace this in the future.
    Jeff Ogden, the Fearless Competitor
    Find New Customers “Lead Generation Made Simple”

  6. Here Here on the increasing needs for technology influence within the marketing organization. The lay of the land is shifting dramatically and technology will significantly impact the outcome. Some folks are going to be fighting with spears and others with smart bombs.
    Now, with that said, I’m curious on your outlook for what that technology picture should look like. I work with Alterian and Loopfuse – two companies that come at the same problem from extremely different angles. Maybe swaying away from vendor specifics, are there at least certain areas you see as opportunity rich?
    – Tewks

  7. Hi, Tewks — thanks for the comment.
    Powerful phase about “some will be fighting with spears and others with smart bombs” — a vivid metaphor.
    Alterian and LoopFuse are great examples of the diversity within a particular application space. As you point out, they come at the same problem from extremely different angles, and that’s a great thing, in my opinion.
    As far as categories that are rich for innovation and opportunity, I’d be hard-pressed to think of one that isn’t. Every time I think a category has maxed out — say, for instance, email marketing — some bold and bright new start-up takes a fresh approach. These categories also tend to have very porous and malleable boundaries: mixing web analytics, marketing automation, and email marketing for example.
    Now, personally, my money is on the post-click marketing space of testing, optimization, landing page management, and conversion content marketing — but I’ve definitely got a vested interest there (ion interactive). 😉

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