The world of marketing technology and marketing automation is wide, complex, and full of different functions and features to pick from. Digital marketers are constantly looking for new ways to do their jobs faster, create more meaningful messages, and connect with their audiences. Marketing automation makes managing campaigns, channels, follow-up, and everything else much easier. The key is choosing the right tools.
My career background is in marketing operations, specifically email marketing. I have worked with six different marketing automation platforms – some have been robust and reputable, some adequate but lesser known, and some you couldn’t even find with a Google search. Today I’d like to focus on two products: Acquia Campaign Studio, the open marketing automation platform, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud (SFMC). Both solutions offer marketing automation and campaign management capabilities as well as the ability to enable personalization and dynamic content.
What qualifies me to compare these two systems? In my roles at two different companies before joining Acquia, I used SFMC every day for almost six years. Along the way, I acquired advanced developer and “superuser” access credentials, and I learned SQL, HTML, and SFMC’s internal scripting language, AMPscript.
The history of SFMC
Let’s review the history of SFMC. The “marketing cloud” was essentially created in 2013 when Salesforce acquired the email company ExactTarget. I had been an ExactTarget customer for a while already, and after the acquisition, I became a SFMC customer. For a long time, I had to catch myself from saying “ExactTarget” or “ET” because, despite the name change, the functionality of the tool hadn't changed and the interface underwent a very minor redesign. Data Extensions, the Query tool, and AMPscript – the existing features from ExactTarget – still worked in exactly the same ways. Like many former coworkers and users in my network, I missed the days when ExactTarget existed apart from the behemoth that is Salesforce, but more on that in a bit.
Since the acquisition, the email tool formerly known as ExactTarget has been revamped to become a suite of marketing products – what SFMC calls “Studios” – and it has been updated to broaden its usability. This expansion has allowed for more communication channels such as mobile push, web advertising, and social media publishing, as well as enhanced automation, easy-to-use builder tools, and analytics functions.
SFMC vs. Acquia Campaign Studio: Email builders
SFMC has certainly improved their email creation experience over time, and I’ll give them credit for making their tools more usable. Acquia Campaign Studio was also built with usability in mind. No coding experience is required for either platform.
The biggest post-acquisition addition to SFMC was the introduction of Content Builder in 2016. Content Builder removed HTML and AMPscript and replaced it with drag-and-drop features. This change was designed to help users without any HTML knowledge create personalized emails within the platform. There's still a lot of set-up required, such as creating your personalization segments in Data Extensions, uploading all the content to be used, and rendering previews.
If you’re creating an email in SFMC with several levels of personalization and variants of dynamic content, it's still a slow, manual process. Instead of writing out the AMPscript, you need to define your rules in a new builder. Being a creature of habit, I would tend to use the classic builder. However, Salesforce really tried to push users out of this.
The Content Builder function lives in two places: Email Studio and as part of the overall cloud dashboard, “Content Builder.” It’s put at this top level so that content can be used across channels and business units. For example, a banner used in Email Studio can also be accessed and published in the Social Studio. And a banner can be placed into numerous child accounts from a parent account. This makes it easy for different business units to have access to the same content.
Acquia Campaign Studio’s email builder was built to be used the same way as SFMC’s Content Builder. You can use a variety of templates to design the best emails for your brand. There are various drag-and-drop elements to use including dynamic content, call-to-action (CTA) buttons, HTML blocks, image blocks, and social media links. I really like having the option to use the HTML “code mode” just in case I want to see the bare bones of a content block. The dynamic content blocks work the same as SFMC’s builder, where you set your variants and define what data to bring in based on segments to personalize. After just a few uses, I felt very confident in my ability to customize the templates with colors, columns, backgrounds – whatever I need to make my messages visually pleasing and impactful.
Email builder takeaways
- Both SFMC and Acquia Campaign Studio have similar what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editors for building and editing content, so team members without HTML or coding knowledge can create attractive and effective email templates. Unlike SFMC, Acquia Campaign Studio can help get you started with customized templates that match your brand and messaging strategy so your marketers can hit the ground running.
- Both platforms’ email tools enable personalization and dynamic content, but there are some differences in terms of how users access the contact data that’s needed to make these features work best. In SFMC, users rely on the separate Data Extensions tool (more on this later) to bring in predefined segments and dynamic content elements. In Acquia Campaign Studio, standard and custom contact field data is easily accessible in multiple locations throughout the platform, so users can modify their dynamic content targeting filters directly within the email builder.
Obviously I can no longer claim to be totally unbiased, but after using these similar features in my day-to-day life, I do feel that the intuitive access and flexibility to contact data gives Acquia Campaign Studio’s email builder an edge because it helps me move faster.
- At the beginning of this post, I mentioned how I lived in SFMC for almost six years. I can honestly say it took me three of those years to become a power user. As for those different coding languages that I taught myself along the way – SQL, HTML, and AMPscript – I learned them not because I wanted to possess deep technical knowledge, but because it was essential to using SFMC to perform daily functions. This level of technical knowledge is unnecessary with Acquia Campaign Studio’s email builder.
SFMC vs. Acquia Campaign Studio: Contact management
SFMC requires a dedicated resource to design your contact management upfront. Acquia Campaign Studio can integrate with your CRM database. Both platforms have powerful segmentation abilities but have key differences in how they allow users to access and activate their data.
Let’s start with SFMC. There are a lot of ways to use your contact records here. When I first started using SFMC, my team only worked with Lists. Lists is the straightforward, rudimentary contact feature in SFMC recommended for marketing teams with databases that feature fewer than 500,000 subscribers, limited subscriber attributes, slower import times (if you’re using an XML API), or for anyone who prefers simplicity over performance.
Very quickly, my team determined that the Lists tool couldn't support us based on our marketing roadmap. Email automation really couldn’t thrive without something more powerful. The SFMC upgrade from Lists was called Data Extensions, and we decided to switch to that. But even with a dedicated Salesforce resource assigned to help us migrate, it still took us months. We kept running into issues where the unique identifiers didn't match up because SFMC didn’t remove duplicates at the list level.
Additionally, SFMC was erroneously modifying records, stripping out necessary account numbers and causing massive chaos for our engineering team and our customers. Because we couldn't afford to lose the valuable customer behavior data we had collected through all of our marketing efforts, our dedicated Salesforce resource ended up spending most of his time redesigning and mirroring our data warehouse in the SFMC tool through Data Extensions. Each week, we found we needed another Salesforce team’s help because the project kept getting out of scope.
Understanding data extensions
In my past roles, I found that the decision to work with SFMC was made specifically because of the system’s ability to house different data tables that could be filtered off of and tied to other lists. Data Extensions and the query tool allow a user to do this. SFMC’s definition of Data Extensions is simply “a table that contains your data.” My definition of Data Extensions is relational record tables – as many as you need – that can house your customer behavior data, customer identity data, filtering and trigger data, import data, and reporting data (like an Excel document with pivot tables).
Each table can have a different unique identifier – or not – which is helpful when you have millions of instances for each record and when different tables need to speak to each other. Users can filter off of Data Extensions and write SQL code in the query tool to match and pull data. Data Extensions also helps reduce lag time when loading new pages in the Contacts tab. The search capability in Data Extensions isn't great, and you really need to be mindful of where you create folders and archiving them. But in general, I found it easy to compare Data Extensions to our own data warehouse.
While Lists is the appropriate tool for databases with fewer than 500,000 subscribers, limited subscriber attributes, and slower import times, you need Data Extensions for databases with 500,000+ subscribers, sending messages globally, enabling faster import speeds, and performing SOAP or REST API calls.
Think of Data Extensions as a place where you can store multiple levels of customer behavior and history data. Consider your favorite online retailer. I like to think of Zappos. It’s intuitive and personalized. I can “heart” my favorites, see past search results, see past purchases, and get recommendations based on all of that engagement. Each of these features (hearts, searches, and purchases) is a separate table within the Zappos database. I might have 10 hearts and three past purchases. That means my unique identifier (e.g., my email address) is going to be 10 rows in one Data Extension table (for hearts) and three rows in another Data Extension table (for past purchases).
If Zappos wanted to promote a product based on the combination of hearts and past purchases, they would create a new Data Extension that would act as a send-list by querying the two tables and grabbing all the records that meet the criteria for the new product. If Zappos had a new rain boot and wanted to promote it to relevant customers, they would compare the two tables to see who was interested in rain boots (based on hearts) and who had bought something similar (based on purchases).
About SFMC’s contact builder and data designer
After the 2013 Salesforce acquisition of ExactTarget, features like Contact Builder and Data Designer came into the platform. Contact Builder is meant to connect records across all studios and apps (think of the Salesforce CRM system). Data Designer is how Contact Builder functions — it’s the tool to use within the Contact Builder Studio.
Ultimately, if you want a single customer to be a single record across all apps, studios, and platforms, you’ll need to live in Contact Builder to make sure this performs. Every time you want to make a new cross-channel campaign, you’ll have to make sure Contact Builder is synced correctly. I usually found that connecting contacts to the different Studios was very cumbersome as I needed to constantly sync new or updated data extensions to the Contact Builder tool. I felt I had to act as more of a developer than a marketer just to execute across the various SFMC channels that my team had paid for.
Contact management in Acquia Campaign Studio
I love the intuitive way I can coordinate records in Acquia Campaign Studio. Campaign Studio requires just two areas to understand for housing your data: The first is Contacts – I think of this as the core table – and the second is Segments. The Segments capability is quite powerful because I can define several different filters within one segment, and I can filter for a combination of a record’s attributes and past engagement behavior. In Contacts, I can create many different column fields just like in SFMC Data Extension. But in Acquia Campaign Studio, I can define a complete list in one place and I don’t have to worry about additional exclusion or suppression lists when it's time to send.
In addition, Acquia Campaign Studio Segments update in real time, so if I import a list manually, if the CRM database is updated, or when a contact engages, I have that update immediately and don’t need to rely on a separate feature as I did in SFMC with Automation Studio. Using SFMC, I had queries that would take hours to complete and would often delay my email sends, to the point that my content would be delivered after my competitors’ because the automations in SFMC would fail or take too long.
Lastly, Acquia Campaign Studio has a feature called Custom Objects that compares pretty directly with Data Extensions for making robust and flexible data tables available. More than one table can be used for filtering and segmenting, and those tables can speak to each other without the extra developer work that SFMC requires.
Contact management takeaways
SFMC users need to acquaint themselves with how Data Extensions work and how they speak to each other. Data types, configuring automation, syntax, query builder, and filtering will become common language over time. Data Extensions are powerful and can be very agile when mastered. If your database has millions of records, you’ll need a user who knows how to wrangle the data using these tables to avoid automation time-outs and errors.
By comparison, when you use Acquia Campaign Studio, you have a flexible way to work with your data lists. Planning how you want to view your data and what you want your fields to do requires some work up front, which makes sense because you should carefully consider your objectives around these efforts. Once set up, though, accessing and editing is easy. You don't need to write additional code or bring in developers. You can stand alone as a marketer and execute your campaigns confidently.
SFMC vs. Acquia Campaign Studio: Automation
SFMC’s Journey Builder is cumbersome to set up, but it can be a very effective way to execute a multichannel strategy. Acquia Campaign Studio’s builder is user-friendly and flexible, offering users a lot of creative and strategic freedom.
Every time I thought I was done setting up a journey in SFMC’s Journey Builder, I realized I still had another step. I had my Data Extensions, I had my content (emails, push messages, in-app messaging), I had my automation scheduled, I had a goal defined, I had endpoints, I had Contact Builder syncing … but still, after creating over 100 journeys, I would find I missed something along the way. SFMC’s support response was always slow and often the issue would be due to a back-end error or bug update that affected my account.
Giving credit where it’s due, the Journey Builder tool is super powerful. It allows you to connect different channels, split random test segments, provide reporting at each node, and trigger based on API calls. Welcome series, sales nurtures, and re-engagement campaigns are three of the best ways to utilize one-to-one personalized communications in the Journey Builder platform.
Acquia Campaign Studio’s Journey Builder holds its own against SFMC’s Journey Builder. I can plan multichannel communications, make decisions on real-time engagement data, bucket new segments, and so much more. One of the best features is the ability to trigger engagement alert emails internally just like you would send a triggered customer email externally. A sales team member can gain just as much insight as the marketer who created the campaign drips. This level of transparency is unmatched with SFMC and allows our entire organization to become more integrated and move faster and more precisely.
Automation features takeaways
If I’m being honest, creating automated campaigns isn’t always easy. If it were, every company would have the perfect sales funnel. It usually takes different teams to sign off, provide content, manage notifications, define data parameters, and craft reports besides setting up lists, emails, and decisions in the actual marketing automation platform. But this last part should be more manageable thanks to today’s technology, and the truth is that Acquia Campaign Studio’s Campaign Builder is truly like butter.
It’s smooth and easy to plan and execute across channels and teams. I can create a flow and be confident that any internal team will understand the decisions, operations, actions, and goals. Like any automated campaign, you need to make sure you have assets ready, goals defined, and timeframes confirmed. Once you have those, you should be ready to fly without being bogged down by the nuances of other automation solutions like SFMC.
SFMC vs. Acquia Campaign Studio: Reporting
SFMC has several built-in reports to give you high-level or very detailed views of reporting metrics. Acquia Campaign Studio has a reporting area where users can create reports for the metrics they want.
There's a lot going on in the SFMC Reports tab, which has 30+ built-in reports. These reports require a user to enter the exact criteria they want reporting for. Other reporting functions exist in the Report Builder option in the Activity tab and in different Studios, like Journey and Mobile. Despite having more reports available, the reality is that I rarely used more than three or four for any given campaign.
One feature in particular that I enjoyed was the email click heatmap that gave a great visual of where recipients were engaging within a given email. This is a good example of an individual feature that shines in SFMC. But SFMC also lacks roll-up reporting, making it difficult to compare what’s going on at the parent level. In the past, I needed to work with tools like Tableau to get a true read on how different business units compared to each other.
Acquia Campaign Studio's Reports are very nimble. I've been able to create detailed reports in a variety of visual graphs that can be exported or sent directly to stakeholders. Comparing A/B tests has been easy, and the tool helps to clearly show the winner. I do miss the link alias function that SFMC has, but I can use Google Analytics to get the same comparative results.
The essential takeaway? Reporting is critical to measuring your results (obviously). SFMC has fancy bells and whistles, but Acquia Campaign Studio has what’s needed. Ask yourself what you really need: What are the core metrics your organization actually cares about? Are your reports just going to be exported to another tool altogether? If so, the point is moot.
SFMC vs. Acquia Campaign Studio: Customer success
Now, to talk about what a lot of us ExactTarget users sadly miss post-acquisition. I never knew how lucky I was to have premium support for our ExactTarget account pre-2013. If I had an issue, I would call and immediately be connected to someone who could address and fix my issue.
I'll admit that, at first, I called about issues I'm too embarrassed to list here, but as I became more adept with the scripting language and functions, I started running into issues that were undocumented bugs or failures in the back end. Response time was immediate, and if a representative couldn’t fix the issue right away, they'd follow up throughout the day until a solution was found.
Post-acquisition, the support escalation process changed and became one of the most frustrating aspects of working with SFMC. Even with premium support, you had to either call or open a ticket. Depending on the priority level of the ticket, you get a response in a few hours that just acknowledges your ticket is open and being assigned. The first level of support begins with a junior-level support representative. They try their hardest to make you pay for developer help to get something fixed or they tell you that your problem can’t be fixed. You need to push back. I found this junior support level lacked a working knowledge of AMPscript or SQL. I constantly had my tickets escalated to the next tier of support. Still, at this next level, they continue to try and make you pay for developer help.
There is, however, a great community of users who might be able to help if you present your problem on one of their pages. Still, when paying for the extra premium support, I found I was waiting days — even weeks — for help resolving an issue. The restructuring of their support is the biggest gripe I hear when attending Salesforce’s conferences.
Acquia Campaign Studio's customer success team has a clear advantage. They provide onboarding sessions to prep each new customer and team for success right out of the gate. If there's an issue, support is quick and thorough in their response. And because the platform is flexible and easy to use, there are never attempts to upsell for developer-level support.
SFMC vs. Acquia Campaign Studio: Final takeaways
I understand my comparison is unique to my experiences with each platform. I'm confident, though, that an open, more flexible solution is better for a marketing team to execute short-term tactics while supporting a sustainable, long-term digital marketing strategy. The Acquia Campaign Studio marketing automation platform is built with the user in mind, and it’s built to accommodate an omnichannel strategy without the extra development work.
When evaluating marketing automation platforms, keep a running list of your business requirements. Having this in a flexible and editable spot will allow you to constantly gauge what you need and the costs associated with it. Ask yourself: What can I cut? What hasn’t been used in months? Who's using the tools? Is your strategy adapting based on your platform’s limitations, or can your platform adapt and keep pace with an evolving strategy?
Good luck and happy evaluating, fellow marketers.
To learn more about using Acquia Campaign Studio, read about our own migration to the platform in the free e-book, Migrating From Marketo to Acquia Campaign Studio: A Guide.