In writing about the best software stack for digital marketing I’m making a lot of assumptions based on my own experience and that of my clients.
What I’ve tried to do in this post is to slice the marketing stack into areas of function and align solutions to those areas. This approach reflects one of the most important decisions we made early on. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the requirements.
We have a pretty ruthless attitude to software at Helter Skelter Digital, our basement is littered with the bones of failed experimentation. So anything we recommend here has been tested and retained either by us or a client.
Also, solutions differ as you scale, so I’ve tried to include a Starter solution and a Growth solution for each part of the stack.
What is a Marketing Technology Stack?
The concept of a software stack has been around for a very long time. It refers to a collection of software that enables the user to address the IT requirements of their role.
One of the first examples of a software stack in business computing was Microsoft Office where Word, Excel and Powerpoint were used to help business people write, analyse and present.
In 2021 the term refers to a collection of software, not always sourced from the same company, that fills out various aspects of a role.
In digital marketing, those aspects are related to Attraction, Engagement, Analytics and Optimisation. Tools that focus on attracting clients, engaging with them, analysing what works and optimising in response to the analytics.
Trends for 2021 and 2022
2021 has been the first year since the pandemic that businesses have been able to start to focus on marketing and it’s very obvious that things have changed. Perhaps this is because of the pandemic. We now know that face to face is the exception rather than the rule and people are much happier to engage digitally than they were prior to national lockdown.
My view is that the pandemic has merely accelerated the trend. This would have happened anyway, it’s just happened sooner.
I wish this were a trend! Probably the most important thing to remind ourselves is that software is a tool. Without a strategy, all the software in the world will not prevent things from becoming a big, fat muddle.
Mix and Match vs. Suite
I’m going to stick my neck out here and declare the monolithic software suite is dead in the water. The rug has well and truly been pulled out from under the noses of software giants like IBM and Oracle by smaller, nimbler companies producing groundbreaking software that does specialised function really well.
The trend if there is one, is towards slimmer pared-down software stacks that don’t cost a fortune to run and that produce measurable improvement at each stage. of the journey.
There has been much talk about AI in the last twelve months and most of it simply isn’t AI. The term has become ubiquitous and is used to refer to any half baked software that can match patterns.
The only tool that I think really merits the AI tag is Jarvis, the AI-powered content creation tool. This software is truly remarkable but brings with it a host of new challenges as well as opportunities.
The challenges brought by AI-powered content should be obvious in a world where new websites appear every hour, and Google is gatekeeping the access to an audience. Getting an audience is hyper-competitive these days and only the best content will make it to the coveted front page.
This implies that content has to be well researched, useful and original. Three qualities that AI is well equipped to bring to the table. I’ve been saying this for a while, but the light and frothy approach to content isn’t going to stay the course.
What I expect to happen is that light and frothy will thrive in the domain of social media where short posts that attract attention will drive an audience towards more satisfying content on the website.
Data-driven is the new buzzword. The approach we take with our clients is 100% data-driven. This approach was triggered by the realisation that more than half of the people we spoke to about marketing in 2020 were marketing to themselves.
Back in the day, when I promoted rock bands in London, I used to sometimes hear them earnestly discussing themselves backstage before the gig. “We’re like the New York Dolls with a touch of the Smiths” – “We’re REM with a hint of the Sex Pistols” – the more they talked, the less likely it was they would be any good because they weren’t engaging with the audience, only each other.
The best of the bunch, the bands that authentically rocked, the Replacements, Johnny Thunders, the Gun Club, were acts that connected with their audience, surfed the energy they found there and turned it into an unforgettable experience. They did this by instinct, not analytics.
There is a parallel with marketing. If we don’t engage with our audience, we’re doomed to endlessly discuss ourselves backstage. The equivalent of crowd surfing today is data analysis and optimisation.
The Return of the Sales Funnel
Sales funnels have never really gone away, but it’s useful to remind ourselves that they exist for a reason and the reason is they work.
In digital more so than any other sector the default state is invisibility. The days when my restaurant website won awards, articles in glossy monthly magazines and lucrative publishing contracts just for existing are over. That site was a one-off in a world where there was barely any competition.
Estimations show that there are around 1.18 billion websites in the World at the moment. 17% of these websites are active, 83% are inactive.Siteefy.com
Today we are invisible by default. The task of the digital marketer is to become visible. So what does the journey look like?
This is the traditional top of funnel activity. By promoting awareness we start to build an audience. It sounds obvious but so many people ignore it – you can’t engage if you don’t have an audience. You can’t transact if you don’t engage.
The business of attraction is the business of marketing. We need to put ourselves in the path of our audience.
The Universal Solution: Google Ads – PPC
PPC is the tool that we use to promote awareness fast, Google Ads being the most effective. We also use Facebook ads and LinkedIn for different requirements. The choice of platform is important, to go where your audience goes and deliver personalized online ads.
SMB Add on: Unbounce
Landing pages are a marketing tool for lead generation that is easy to measure and done well, very effective. Most email marketing tools thises days come with a website builder and if you have an in-house web designer then it’s worth building your own.
At $90 a month, we rate Unbounce highly as a cost-effective way of building out landing pages at volume and speed.
The best practice in designing a Landing page is to make it do one thing and one thing only. Offer no choice!
In the sales funnel approach, consideration is the phase where you or your business are being considered as a possible provider of a service or goods.
Consideration is directly linked to engagement. Small companies and one-man bands are well equipped to deal with engagement organically. As the enterprise grows this becomes more difficult. There is software targeted at the SMB level that helps us to engage.
I’m trialling Publer at the moment – it’s an all in one social media management tool, similar, but better featured than Buffer and reasonably priced. The Free version is limited to five social accounts, the Silver version starts at $10 with extra users costing $2 apiece. There are discounts available if you pay six months or twelve in advance.
At $26 a month Loomly offers two user seats and ten social accounts. Loomly positions itself as a competitor for the much more expensive Sprout Social and majors in the collaborative aspects of social media marketing. It’s a step above the spreadsheet organisation that we all started out with and integrates with Slack and Microsoft Teams, generates ideas and is basically a CMS for social.
Meet Edgar positions itself similarly to Loomly and with a $19 a month Lite edition is less expensive.
The key to successful social media engagement is the Analyse-Opimise-Repeat cycle. Use the tools to analyse your activity on social and adjust it in response to what you find. A word of warning – analytics really only works well where large numbers are concerned, With small numbers any event will have a disproportionate impact.
The Sales Funnel moves from Awareness through Consideration to Transaction. In marketing terms, this manifests as lead production.
I’ve mentioned several solutions so far, now I’m going to take a look at the best software stack for digital marketing in 2022.
Elements of a Marketing Stack
You will find people who disagree, but I’m firmly in the camp that says your website should be at the centre of your digital world. Social Media, Email etc should all point back to. your website for two main reasons:
Check out my article on the subject of good website designers. In a nutshell, you need a fast, easy to navigate site that offers a good user experience and a wealth of useful, informative information for your visitors.
Speed is more important now than it ever has been. You need your website to to load quickly over a mobile connection.
The trend today is to move as much functionality as possible off the server and into the environment. That means fewer plugins and leaves the CMS free to do its job. I recommend using a hosting company that is bought into the Litespeed Server. I use Brixly, a UK based independent web provider.
I recommend WordPress with the Kadence Theme. The theme is one of the fastest on the market and paired with Kadence Blocks gives you an environment that is very well integrated with the WordPress Gutenberg Core. This website is built with Kadence.
You will need good SEO in order for our site to rank.
SEO is an art that depends on objectively measuring your content against that of your competitors. It’s not difficult but it does require discipline.
Rank Math is a lightweight plugin that scores your writing against a set of on-page SEO criteria.
Surfer SEO turned the industry on its head when it appeared a year or so ago. In a nutshell it analyses your competitors content and tells you what you need to shoot at in terms of article structure and keywords. Read my Surfer SEO review for more detail.
We also use Ahrefs for keyword research, rank tracking and competitor analysis.
Another app to take a look at is the AI powered Content creator – Jarvis.
Jarvis is trained to generate text and does a pretty good job of too. I don’t recommend it as a substitute for writing on a topic you are passionate about but it is becoming very popular with niche site owners who need content generating at scale. It is exceptional at generating short content eg. Intros and outros, subheadings, facebook posts etc.
Google Analytics & Google Search Console
You need Google Analytics and Google Search Console so that you can see what is happening with your site.
GA will tell you which pages people visit, whether they go to more than one page, where they come from and a host of other information that tells you at a high level whether you are hitting the right audience and gaining interaction.
GSC tells you at a more detailed level what keywords are featuring in search, which pages on the site are in the Google Index and which are not.
Learning Management Systems are increasingly popular as a fantastic means of increasing engagement. I can recommend LearnDash, I’ve used it on two websites so far and its integration with Kadence theme puts it ahead of its main competitor Lifter LMS.
I have a feeling that Chatbots deserve an article all of their own as the recent crop of products leans increasingly into the AI environment. Put simply, if your website sells a service or product that requires an FAQ to support then chatbots are a more user-friendly way of interacting with the user.
Hotjar is a product that helps you to analyse actions that people take on the page. For example, do they use the menu or click on a button or inline link. It is a fantastic way of seeing whether or not a design works as intended. In terms of Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) Hotjar is practically indispensable.
Webinars / Zoom
Webinars are a very powerful way of engaging with your audience. Facebook Live is excellent for certain types of business. We see a lot of Webinar use in the Digital sector supporting product launches. Webinars also make a powerful addition to an online course offering as they are live events rather than pre-recorded video.
I recommend Zoom unreservedly. We started using it in the business when the first lockdown was announced and we’ve never stopped. 90% of my interaction with clients is now entirely virtual.
Things I use Zoom for include: Client Meetings, Hands-on Demos, 1-1 Training, onboarding meetings and remote presentation.
As the cost of NAS came down, cloud storage came down faster. We use Cloud storage to back up all of our document templates, client communication, contracts and accounts. As well as all of the media we produce.
As a pure Backup system I recommend BackBlaze. It’s easy to set up and just runs quietly in the background.
We also use it to collaborate with clients and to backup our NAS so that we have three copies of every important media and document.
Lately, I’ve started to use pCloud as a virtual hard drive. I’ve been looking for a Dropbox replacement for a few years now and I think this is it. I travel a lot and pCloud gives me a way of accessing data wherever I am that is more user friendly than any other cloud service.
Check out our detailed review of pCloud
Social Media should be the warm and inviting host that welcomes you into the party.
There are a lot of social media channels and we tend to stick to three for our clients. We choose the platform on the basis of where we think the client’s best prospects will be hanging out. That could be Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, Medium or Instagram. Tiktok and YouTube for video.
Buffer is one of the oldest social media managers and still one of the best for preloading and automating posts. Perfect for individuals and small businesses,
Sprout Social, Loomly and Meet Edgar are more sophisticated apps that are aimed at SMEs with large audiences.
It’s easy to get carried away with social media, but to get value from it, it needs to become a means to an end and not the end in itself.
Email marketing is still the most effective marketing platform if the least glamorous! We use MailerLite which is perfect for our requirements. Others in the same class include SendinBlue and Mailchimp. More sophisticated (and expensive) platforms include AWeber and ConvertKit.
The one thing the Email marketing vendors don’t tell you is how difficult it is to build a mailing list from scratch. It is entirely dependent on how engaged the audience is. We have one client who attracts signups at a great of less than one a week, another who has added 900 users in two months. One is very active on Instagram and Facebook, the other on LinkedIn only. Guess which one is more successful.
The lesson here is to bust a gut to build your list, once you have over a thousand subscribers you’re looking at a measurable sales channel.
If all you need to do is capture email addresses to sign up for a newsletter, then there are a number of free and cheap form solutions out there that will do the job. Contact Form 7 is probably the most well known and despite being known to insert code into pages that have no form, does a pretty decent job of fielding information and despatching it via email.
If you need to do anything more sophisticated such as payments, recording details in a CRM or mailing list, conditional logic etc. you’d be wise to choose a lightweight solution such as Fluent Forms or Gravity Forms. Both are excellent.
The solution we use is Fluent Forms, (check out the Fluent Forms review) which has the benefit of being very easy to use and has advanced functionality like conditional logic and parameter passing via URL built in.
Once your business is larger than the clients who are front of mind, you need to think about sharing the load and this is where the process comes in.
You need a database of customers at a minimum and preferably a way of recording contact.
Of the systems we have tried and worked with, we recommend
Free to begin with but can get expensive as you grow.
I haven’t found anything to dislike about Zoho. It is a cloud-based CRM, easy to use and affordable (begins at £12 a month with a free trial). It has good integration with a number of other apps and is part of a much larger BI universe that offers service desk, business intelligence and other things you might grow into using.
I’ve tried to categorise the elements according to where they sit in the sales and marketing cycle. Here is a table that does the same job more concisely!
These are my recommendations,
|Function||Startups and small business||SMEs|
|Website||WordPress + Kadence Theme||WordPress + Kadence Theme|
|Landing Pages||Kadence Theme||Unbounce|
|SEO||Rank Math + Surfer SEO||Rank Math + Surfer SEO|
|Web Analytics||Google Analytics and Google Search Console||Google Analytics and Google Search Console|
|Webinars||Facebook / Zoom||Zoom|
|Cloud Storage||BackBlaze / Cloud / Google Drive||BackBlaze, Amazon S3|
|Social Media||Buffer / Hootsuite / Tweepi||Loomly, Sprout Social, Meet Edgar|
Looking at this table, the left hand side offers affordable solutions that do a great job. On the right hand side you can see that most of these solutions scale quite happily.
The exception is in the social media segment. It is here that things can become unmanageable very quickly indeed, so as a business grows, the demands on the social media team grow exponentially in terms of producing content and analysing its effect.
What is Martech?
Martech is an abbreviation of Marketing Technology
Why are there so many technology choices?
In 2020 there were 7000 companies specialising in marketing software. They won’t all be successful but they must see a future in the sector.
Why do you include the Website as part of the software stack?
Because the website is (or should be) the centre of the marketing ecosystem. All roads lead to the website. While you sleep, the website is your marketing department!
How do you link these systems together?
Sometimes there is no need to have technology linked, where there is a need vendors are very focused on connectivity, in fact it is one of the main selling points for a lot of software. Tools like Zapier can be used to link systems that lack connectors.
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