"If you want your business to convert customers and lock in online business partners, you need to integrate to create a seamless customer experience."
Many years ago, a senior product manager shared this pearl of insight. It was not intuitive to me, but once I understood it, career-changing in its power. Here are some examples of integration and the ways it extends digital marketers' reach:
Another way Google allows advertisers to integrate with their partners is through its pay-per-click search advertising extensions. Google allows advertisers to identify their dealer networks through affiliate advertising extensions. Here is how it works. Set up your Google ad for searches on keywords (e.g., "XYZ headphones"), go to extensions for the advertisement, and choose your affiliates who sell these headphones for you. Once the distribution partner is selected, when you run this ad, Google will use geolocation to allow users (people to whom you are selling your headphones) to see your XYZ headphone ad. Below the ad, Google will place an extension, listing nearby locations to buy those headphones through your dealer network.
Programmatic Advertising. There is no better example of marketing integration than Programmatic Advertising. With Programmatic, Ad-Tech Companies rent advertising space around the internet. When a user like you visits a page where the ad tech company is leasing space, in the 100 milliseconds it takes for the page to load, the ad tech company:
Now, put some machine learning on the back end, allowing the ad tech company to integrate with many large-scale databases and optimize CPM advertising. You have the makings of a seamless, efficient, and highly customized way of delivering display advertising to you. Because of the obvious privacy concerns around this kind of advertising, how the advertisers manage the "electronic plumbing" that makes this possible is, forgive the pun, highly fluid. Follow this link to a good blog piece on what is currently happening in the programmatic advertising space. The only thing we know is that programmatic is snowballing and will be around for the foreseeable future.
Online Reservation Management for Restaurants. Restaurant reservations have moved online to the delight of restauranteur and customers alike. The benefits are readily apparent. The phone no longer needs to be manned at odd or peak hours for the restaurant owner, distracting food prep staff from cooking and dining staff from customers. Online reservation systems like Resy, Open Table, Tablein, and eat automate the reservation process and send follow-up text message confirmation of reservations. They can integrate upstream with online advertisers like Google My Business, Facebook/Meta, Instagram, or TripAdvisor. These systems allow customers like you and me to find a trendy new restaurant online. We can click a link on Google My Business Thursday early morning in our jammies and make a reservation for the last table available at 6 PM on Saturday's busy holiday season. Downstream integrations for this kind of application allow some systems (like Open Table) to integrate with Point of Sale restaurant management systems, enabling restaurant managers to follow a customer from online lead to reservation to Crème Brulé Cheesecake order. The customer insights from this data can be compelling, allowing restaurants to optimize advertising and menu choices and maximize revenue.
Online Giving. You may be surprised that there is such a thing as church management software and church online giving platforms that allow customers to set up their church donations online. The truth is that we donate more if we set up automatic tithing. Ministry Brands owns several online giving platforms and has integrated its payment systems with its church management software. Faith-based organizations can offer secure, flexible giving options tied directly to their church management software's member management tools, allowing churches to track donations, and recognize, communicate with, and engage their constituents.
HVAC Manufacturing. Carrier Corporation, the HVAC vendor, has developed a marketing communications site for downstream dealers. The site allows Carrier dealers to advertise their products to their customers using branded materials developed by Carrier. The online marketing kit includes marketing materials, local radio and television advertising copy, logos, photos of equipment, social media posts – 12 for each month of the year, even advice on Google My Business and Search Engine Optimization for partner websites. They even offer materials for the recruitment of technicians!
A supplier to this industry has taken this concept one step further. The agency created a digital platform that allows co-branded marketing between manufacturers and downstream distributors. The technology enables manufacturers to house data on distribution affiliates and the affiliates' prospects in the cloud. The system validates all mailing addresses and eliminates wrong addresses for correction to minimize waste. Users can choose direct mail options or send templated, co-branded emails to recipients. The manufacturer controls branding and content in exchange for subsidized marketing for affiliates. Everybody wins in this formula.
It's About Systems Integration
Okay, so you get the gist of it now. Systems integration is an engineering process concerned with joining two or more systems as one. Innovative companies use system integration to add value by connecting two or more different technologies.
The benefit of integrating with suppliers is that it helps build relationships that last over time and provide opportunities for future growth together while at the same time improving the overall experience for the customer. Moreover, through upstream integration, you better understand your supply chain. You can save time and money by eliminating the need for third-party logistics providers. Leadership can cut down on stock-outs and increase customer satisfaction, reducing inventory and materials waste. Finally, integration can simplify product development through suppliers' research and innovation capabilities.
Looking downstream, integrating your vendors can improve your sales and marketing effectiveness. Sharing customer information with a partner can help you better serve that customer. Joining forces with your distributors, you can develop co-marketing plans, partner on events or sponsorship together, share marketing materials and content online to reach new audiences, and create joint customer promotions (e.g., discounts or other incentives). In the brave new world of digital marketing, integration can mean creating that clever piece of code that allows users to add your functionality to theirs. For example, Calendly was a ho-hum calendaring application. Or so I thought until I learned that I could use the application to automate appointment-setting on my websites. Calendly's website integration allows people on my websites to set appointments with me. Integration with Google calendar, in turn, permits me to see my meetings in one calendar. On my cell phone!
How to Get Started
You may ask how integration opportunities become apparent. Options appear most easily when you and your partners put yourselves in your customers' shoes. That means first researching and defining a customer persona to understand deeply who your customers are and how they shop, buy, and fulfill their needs.
Most importantly, once you have developed this persona, you need to create customer journey maps to understand what customers want to do and how their needs are underserved by the current process. Draw a flowchart of what your customer does when they shop for and buy your product. Identify any pain points along the way (including during product delivery) and work with your partners and systems folks to make the pain points go away! As the examples above show, those pain points often involve a lack of integration!
A favorite example of leveraging customer journey information comes from Patricia Seybold's Digital Marketing chestnut, Customers.com.
Anyone who has ever rented a car can tell you that walking into the point of sale and renting a car is a time-consuming and patience-challenging experience filled with lots of waiting and filling out forms. In response, Hertz invented the number One Club (now Gold Plus Rewards), which allowed its business customers to leverage the internet and a newly developed Hertz CRM. Customers could provide all the needed information for a car rental in advance (e.g., credit card, driver's license information, flight info, car preference, etc.) and book rentals online. This new process allowed customers to go to the Hertz desk and pick up their keys, walk to their cars, and show their driver's license information to get out of the lot, saving hours!
Making Your Value Proposition Digital
The pain points for renting a car as a busy professional were waiting to check-in at the rental desk, then having to fill out reams of paper forms. Once I had signed up for Hertz Number One club, I never had to fill out another rental form. Once a member, I never switched, even when Hertz charged more than its competitors. It was worth it to me. Hertz had created a value proposition that served my need for check-in speed. Here is the new Hertz value proposition. As a persona type [busy management consultant], I need help doing something important [quickly checking in and picking up my rental] so that I can achieve my goal [efficiently leave the airport and drive to see my client]. Voila, a new value proposition using systems integration, is born!
Why APIs Are Important
API stands for Application Programming Interface. For your application to integrate easily with business partners, you will need engineers who are good at developing APIs or other easy, secure methods for integrating with partners. Here's an example to explain why. Online insurance comparison engine and independent insurance agency Answer Financial offers comparison shopping tools for auto and homeowner's insurance. These tools allow customers to compare quotes from many different auto insurance companies at a time. To achieve the ability to compare quotes from many companies [all of whom have different pricing algorithms] nearly instantaneously, Answer Financial needed to create a digital standard end-to-end interface between Answer's system and insurance companies. This standard was a significant step for the property and casualty insurance industry permitting Answer to integrate with its major insurance carrier partners and winning it an industry award in the process! Two different insurers can differ by as much as $500 in the same consumer rate for the same term. By integrating to provide an easy way to compare rates, Answer Financial allows customers to benefit from integration with its insurance carrier suppliers.
Now It's Your Turn
What are some examples of successful systems/partner integrations from your business? How did you achieve them?