The great platform myth

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Users love a platform. From the seamless setup of iOS to Microsoft Office 365, services that “just work” and make it easy for users are wildly popular, and for good reason. Whether it’s a customer trying to buy from a website or a customer experience manager trying to work their CRM system, ease of use is king nowadays.

About the author

Scott Brinker, VP Platform Ecosystem, HubSpot.

However, with thousands of cloud-based apps in the market and a frenzy of M&A activity by deep-pocketed incumbents or private equity firms, it's all too common to see an array of services cobbled together through acquisitions, branded with a name, and marketed as a platform — regardless of whether those services actually integrate effectively and provide a positive user experience.

This approach is prevalent in the marketing technology space. But users know the difference.

In 2020, the number of marketers looking for integrated solutions doubled compared to the previous year, no doubt in part due to the challenges the pandemic brought. As a result, legacy players known for their suites of acquired products have increasingly tried to position their offerings as a ‘platform’ to cater to these market demands. But acquiring products built on entirely different tech stacks, stitching them together in a sales presentation and calling it a platform — when all the user really has is a Frankenstein mishmash that may be powerful, but also surprisingly unwieldy — is not a platform. It’s a patchwork.

Marketing leaders shouldn’t accept this. How can they hope to offer a seamless customer experience if they’re having to invest time and money just to make their own tools work smoothly? Here’s some advice on choosing an enterprise technology platform, including what to look out for in a provider when evaluating an ‘integrated’ suite of products.

Look at the building blocks

Firstly, it’s important to look under the cover at how the platform is built. Ideally, it’s best to look for a native platform (one that’s been built from the ground-up to fulfil a specific purpose) so you know with confidence that you’re working with just one tech stack. Even if there’s a common user interface across a series of products that make it seem like a platform, a lot can be gleaned from the way a suite was assembled. With an ‘acqui-stack platform,’ you run the risk of having to invest time and money in process overhead and custom fixes to compensate for the lack of cohesion in the vendor’s suite of offerings.

One area to look at to help figure out if you’re working off of one tech stack is to find out what onboarding processes and permissions are involved with a product. If it’s a complex process with users requiring multiple permissions and logins across the different subsections of the platform, it could be an indicator that the platform isn’t as integrated as you might think.

Having a platform that works across a single technology stack is also important because it makes it easier to integrate with your existing IT infrastructure, thereby saving additional time and money and lowering the total cost of ownership. Similarly, a true platform should be modular, meaning you don’t need to set up and configure parts you don’t need for other parts to work.

Follow the data

So you’ve figured out the tech stack for the platform - now it’s important to look at the data within your platform and how it’s being processed.

‘Lifeblood’ might be an overused phrase when talking about the importance of data to modern businesses, but it’s true. To deliver an outstanding customer experience, all services need to be singing from the same hymn sheet, which means having a clear record of all the data that can be a single source of truth. If this isn’t the case, then it’s not a platform; it’s a bunch of silos packaged together.

This is by no means easy. Some offerings may pour all that disparate data into a giant data lake in the cloud, but it doesn’t make it straightforward to effectively use that data across different services. If this data is distributed across several different data models — rather than being collated in a unified one from the start — making this data work seamlessly across different apps and services becomes a nightmare.

Take a CRM system for example. In trying to address marketing, sales and customer service needs, a vast array of data is needed to ensure all efforts are aligned. Not only customer data, but internal data too. Each function is likely to process, use and tag this data differently according to their needs. Without a tool that unifies this data, keeping it clean and functional, it can quickly become fragmented as it’s handled differently by different business units. Reconciling these discrepancies can be a lengthy and costly process that no true platform should subject its users to.

Look at the wider ecosystem

But perhaps the most important characteristic of a true platform is that its internally cohesive foundation is open, enabling other third-party apps — or your own custom extensions — to gracefully plug into it. These integrations then work smoothly across all facets of the product. There’s not one API for marketing, a different API for sales, and a completely unrelated API for CMS web experiences. A coherent platform enables a coherent ecosystem, delivering a better experience for you, your customers, and the third-party developers building apps and integrations on top of it.

A wide ecosystem of supporting tools and services can be a great indicator of how strong a platform is. Many organizations offering enterprise technology products have different partner agreements and cross-selling opportunities, but a true ecosystem empowers the end-user to find and quickly integrate new services they need in an open marketplace, rather than going through convoluted procurement processes with a limited set of preferred partners.

A strong partner ecosystem is often a sign of a true platform. A thriving partner marketplace not only indicates that the platform itself runs smoothly and has little problem with adding in third-party services on top which can easily be set up and managed on the end-user side, but opens up a world of possibilities for delivering a truly effective customer experience.

By focusing on these three areas, business leaders should be able to separate true platforms from the pretenders and find a truly integrated suite of products that works for their business, rather than buying into a monolithic and hard to use product.

Scott Brinker, VP Platform Ecosystem, HubSpot.