The future of the marketing platform ecosystem is now

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher October 18, 2017
Building a platform ecosystem is a common agenda but a rare result. Scott Brinker is determined to build a platform at HubSpot that customers and developers love. Here's his plan.

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Scott Brinker is a huge (understatement) proponent of marketing technology. Just look at the effort he puts into creating the marketing technology landscape supergraphic. Brinker’s martech company, ion interactive, was recently acquired by ScribbleLive, something he was very excited about for the company. But Brinker’s path didn’t lead to ScribbleLive; he chose another direction - VP platform ecosystem at HubSpot.

He’s only been in the position a short while, but I took the opportunity to talk to Brinker about the new job and more importantly the idea that the marketing platform ecosystem is something all major marketing platform vendors should be striving for. Of course, to create a platform ecosystem, you have to understand what it means and what it takes to make it happen.

Spoiler Alert: If you think Brinker has all the answers to build a successful platform ecosystem and you think we’ll share them here, you’d be wrong. The role of VP platform ecosystem with HubSpot is a brand new role for Brinker, an opportunity that he couldn’t refuse. After all, he’s been sniping (his word) at vendors to do a better job at this type of thing for years; now he has to put his money where his mouth is and figure out how to make it happen.

What does a successful platform company look like?

Brinker isn’t the first person to think about or work on building a platform ecosystem. As he pointed out Marketo, Oracle, Salesforce, and others are doing similar things. But it’s interesting to understand what success should look like because I’m not sure anyone has figured it out yet.

You want to create a lovable platform, said Brinker. One that developers and customers alike love working with. Your business vision might be to build a platform that helps you grow your customer base, or grow revenues, but if the right foundation isn’t put in place, then Brinker said all those things are difficult to achieve.

There are a few ingredients that go into a lovable platform according to Brinker. The first is that it’s the platform’s responsibility to create an attractive market for third-party developers. It must be a large market, and it must have unmet needs. Here he noted that HubSpot is in this position. It has 34,000+ installs and a large expanding base. It also has unmet needs, one of which is video.

One platform to rule them all - forget about it

It’s possible that when you think of “platform,” you think of a time when vendors in some markets created a solution that did everything. When something new came along, it developed built-in support for that too. End-to-end is the fancy word. ERP, CRM are examples of markets that took this path, but they aren’t the only ones. For years, this approach was the goal of many web content management vendors, until they realized it’s pretty much impossible (should I show you that supergraphic again?).

Today, vendors need to think more like Apple and Android. Brinker said the value proposition is in the extra apps that third-party developers build to run on these platforms. Maybe you won’t go to this extreme, or maybe you will. The idea is to find the right mix: what will you build and what will you open up to the rest of the ecosystem. Vendors are moving this way at different speeds, Brinker said.

HubSpot was already heading in this direction with its Connect program. Bringing Brinker on board demonstrates their commitment to the importance of an ecosystem.

The right level of integration

I was curious about integration expectations. I wondered if small martech vendors would be able to build the integrations required to connect into these platform ecosystems.

Brinker sees different levels of integration. As a basic level, there is a sharing of data back and forth. Ion interactive was an example of this type of integration where ion collected data about customers when they read their interactive content and fed that data into marketing automation systems such as HubSpot and Marketo or CRMs like Salesforce. It’s a good starting point he said.

But those integrations still require marketers to work in multiple systems to do different activities. What is exciting for Brinker is the idea of embedding the user experience of a third party application into the platform, giving marketers a single place to work.

For example, HubSpot offers extensions for its CRM. Panadoc, a proposal management system, embeds its interface into the HubSpot CRM interface. So the user doesn’t have to think about using two different systems, they have a process and workflow and run it from one system.

The idea of this seamless experience in the world of many marketing systems is so appealing you can almost imagine marketers everywhere heaving huge sighs just thinking about how nice that would be, myself included. As Brinker said, marketers would be able to think more about what they are doing, then how they have to do it.

Brinker isn’t suggesting this will be easy, but he believes it is the direction that collectively platform vendors should head in over the next few years.

A great developer experience

The first ingredient into that lovable platform is an attractive market. The second ingredient said Brinker is a great developer experience. You want to do everything you can to make it easy for a developer to build on your platform.

Documentation, the onboarding process, the experience you provide when they build an app, and when they deploy it, these are all important elements of the developer experience. Brinker acknowledges that this is something vendors could do a much better job at.

Brinker talked about the relationship ion interactive had with some platforms as an ISV. They didn’t always feel the love from the platform vendor. Having questions and concerns, finding the right people to help, these are all challenges they faced.

Stability at both the business and technical level is critical

Developers need to believe they can trust the platform, that the mechanics are rock solid. Brinker also said the business needs to have clarity on how it will support these ISV businesses - what is the partner strategy and process.

Here Brinker also points to HubSpot and a partner pledge that Brad Coffey, Chief Strategy Officer, put out before Brinker arrived. It talks about all the things HubSpot will do for its ecosystem.

A section of that pledge:

Remain agnostic and treat our integration partners with respect.

We won’t take unfair advantage of our platform ownership simply because we want to sell more of our stuff. This means not restricting public APIs or throttling specific integration partners. That wouldn't SFTC because it stifles innovation.

We will strive to make our platform a level playing field across integration partners so that we don’t deliberately penalize a partner (via pricing or commissions) to push them out of the market.

We will treat prospective and shared customers routed from our integration partners as someone coming through our funnel directly.

Brinker points out that it’s one thing to say this kind of thing. It’s another to deliver on it. And he believes platform vendors should be held accountable.

A true platform company gets the role of the ecosystem

You’ve seen the Apple commercials: “there’s an app for that.” Apple loves its ecosystem. It understands how important that ecosystem is to its success. And they love their developers.

But there aren’t a lot of the same examples with business software, Brinker points out. The mindset in many of these platform companies is that they are the most important. It’s about their platform, and while it’s great there are other martech vendors out there that want to integrate with them, their platform is the priority and the focus.

That’s not how it can work. Platform vendors need to think of ISVs as their children. They need to love and nurture them, bringing them into the fold. It’s a relationship that’s hard to visualize because it seems to go against the natural instinct of survival of the fittest.

So why does Brinker think it needs to happen?

Let’s go back to that supergraphic again. Brinker said there is tremendous change in how you interact with customers and how you do business. It’s also never been easier to create new software thanks to the Cloud, and many people are taking advantage and making some amazing things.

The ecosystem creates a level playing field. It’s a mix of competitors and complementors, and it’s the platform’s responsibility to provide an environment that customers love, regardless of which application(s) they use. It’s not about equality for all; it’s about a metrocity - what the customer wants to use.

This is a long road. It is aspirational. But Brinker believes this is where the industry wants to go. It’s where it’s desperate to go.

Marketers have an incredible array of choices. But they often see it as a bad thing because they have to figure out how it all fits together and then integrate it and keep it running. There is a lot of work involved. Brinker believes it should be the industry’s collective goal to eliminate as many of these pain points as possible. He says it’s technically feasible.

A true marketing platform ecosystem taps into innovation. It enables marketers to safely and securely try new apps. The benefits are endless.

This is the end goal for Brinker and his work at HubSpot. He believes it can happen and he’s decided to prove that with HubSpot. It will be interesting to watch it unfold because Brinker is very open and transparent about much of the work he does.

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