Any guide purporting to weigh the pros and cons of the hundreds of rapidly evolving project management tools available in 2023 will be outdated the moment it’s published. Furthermore, without understanding the use cases that are mission-critical to your business, even an expert can’t reliably make the best recommendation. So in this section, instead of giving you a proverbial fish by recommending the marketing tech stack we use at P3, we’re going to teach you to fish by outlining the key productivity features you need to look for when vetting the platforms that will power your marketing operations.
The Tools You Need, At A Glance
Here’s a primer on the basic components that compose a functional omnichannel marketing stack. Keep in mind that this is a simplified chart; at the time of writing, most ecommerce tool providers are in a capability arms race–email management systems now handle SMS, customer service is merging with customer data platforms, and virtually every tool with a dashboard is adding a home-brewed AI assistant. This trend makes vetting a little more burdensome, but ultimately it’s good news for consumers, since the fewer discrete tools you need to do your job, the easier your life will be.
Visualization of comparison searches for the popular Shark Speedstyle hair dryer from Answerthepublic.com
These are the outbound tools you will need to create, test, deploy, and measure your media campaigns.
Your campaigning tools are the ad platforms you use to deploy and measure your ad campaigns, as well as the outbound channel platforms (email, SMS, direct mail) you use to distribute conversion-focused communications to your audience.
These are the platforms you’ll use to launch your media campaigns to various audiences and channels: Meta Ads, Google Ads, Microsoft Ads (formerly Bing Ads), Linkedin Ads, Pinterest Ads, TikTok Ads etc. Each platform has its own interface and reporting. Many social platforms also offer native shopping features, but these are not managed from the ads interface.
Since each ad platform is unique, and since the platforms you use will be determined by the audience you’re trying to reach, there are no features to shop for–you will have to use the platforms that draw your stakeholders’ attention. However, to use any of the major online ad platforms, you’ll need:
- To install a pixel on your website that tracks attribution
- To set up a product feed to supply your display and dynamic ads
- To use a conversion measurement tool to gauge performance (either native to your ad platforms, or a third-party application that consolidates information from multiple platforms).
Email and SMS go together like peanut butter and chocolate. In fact, there is so much demand for tools that can combine email and SMS into unified campaign flows, that providers of both technologies have begun to converge: Klaviyo (an email platform) now handles SMS natively, Attentive (an SMS platform) handles email, and Shopify (an SAAS platform) has released native email and SMS solutions that integrate directly with merchants’ stores.
There are considerable logistical advantages to bundling your email and text marketing into a single tool–lower overall cost, combined reporting, fewer integrations to manage, and the ability to mount logic-based multichannel campaigns and flows. Furthermore, whether you’re evaluating discrete or combined solutions, take a second to realize what you’re looking for in each tool:
As you can see, email and SMS are so similar as communication protocols that there is significant overlap among the primary features you’ll need from platforms handling either one. And this begs the question: why pay more money to double the complexity of your marketing stack, when you have the option to work from a single set of contact lists and segments?
In our experience, the cost savings alone from using a combined email and SMS platform can be enough to make it worthwhile to merchants. Since email is essential to every ecommerce transaction (order confirmations, shipping notices etc.) and the more complex channel in terms of output, we strongly recommend that when shopping for a combined email/sms platform, you focus on those that began their lives as email platforms first. These will almost always feature a more powerful EMS than systems that began life as SMS platforms.
Organization & Tracking
These tools break down into asset management (where you store marketing images, video and completed ad creative), task management (collaborative productivity tools like Asana, Basecamp, ClickUp etc.), and goal management (Notion, Monday, Whatagraph etc.)
In a pinch, it is possible to use Dropbox, Google Drive, or other non-specialized cloud storage services as your asset repository. But here’s why it’s not the best idea: most file storage platforms encrypt your file URLs, turning your carefully calibrated file naming conventions into a random alphanumeric string. The result is that when you upload your files to another system, they can no longer be organized or searched according to name. This can create huge issues when you’re executing a bulk upload or when time is of the essence. It also means that if you’re sending a batch of files to someone else, they’ll have to open each one to locate what they need. Lost time all around.
Moreover, non-specialized file storage solutions lack the two key features we recommend in a basic asset management platform:
- An intuitive, flexible visual organization interface like a Kanban board
- The ability to make or automate notations on your assets
At P3, we use Kanban boards to move assets through the ad creation process, and then move those ads through the testing, deployment, and iteration phases of performance optimization. Using Kanban boards allows us to see all of our resources at a glance, which is especially useful when testing a large ad set with lots of small variations.
Once an attribution window for a particular ad closes, we always notate whether that ad succeeded or failed, as well as the metric we used to make that determination. Here’s roughly what you’d see hovering over a completed ad asset in the lightweight platform we use, Air:
Tested 10/15-10/20/23. Failed. CPC > target
There are more advanced asset management tools like Motion (often referred to as Motionapp) that can automate the notation process by pulling information directly from your ad platforms. Our in-house preference is to record results by hand because it ensures that we stay at the controls at all times, but the time savings you can achieve by choosing the automated route are significant.
There are more task management platforms to choose from than you can reliably vet. Some prioritize intuitive simplicity (Asana), and some aim to be completely customizable workspaces that can be configured for all of your business use cases (ClickUp). It’s tempting to conclude that you need the most flexible, most powerful project management platform available, but what you really need is a system that’s easy to use for every team within your organization and every stakeholder without.
If you’re coordinating an internal team as well as external clients, these are the features you should be looking for:
- Customizable permissions that allow you to create internal working groups and client-facing spaces
- The ability for clients or other external stakeholders to create their own tickets
- This is never an issue when clients have their own paid accounts on your platform of choice. It is almost always an issue when they do not.
- The ability to build a multi-step workflow for projects
- Especially with Kanban boards and Gantt charts
- The ability to share and collaborate on files of all types (.psd, .jpg, .mp4 etc.)
- Real-time messaging
Nice to haves:
- The ability to create unified tickets with both client-facing and internal-only sections
- If you work with clients who don’t have their own accounts on a platform, you’ll waste a lot of time duplicating tickets
- The ability to format tickets & messages with rich text editing and media features
- Most project management tools use a basic ticketing interface that allows you to upload text and media, but not together in a customized layout. You’ll quickly realize the limitations of using such a system, and the time-saving advantage of being able to, say, lay out a whole campaign email with creative directly in a ticket for your designers.
There are two caveats when it comes to using goal management platforms: The first is that if your needs are small, you can manage your goals entirely within the reporting structures of your campaign tools and ecommerce platform. It’s only when you’re evaluating multiple businesses or need a birds-eye view of your omnichannel marketing operation that you’ll require the consolidated dashboards that can be built with a third-party tool.
The second is that many marketers prefer spreadsheets like Excel or Google Sheets to automated visualization-based tools like Whatagraph (which we use at P3). The advantage to using spreadsheets is that you can parse the data yourself using any formula you want. With full customization, you can use custom formulas to give your stakeholders a full picture of how much money they’re making–going beyond gross revenue to calculate granular numbers like gross profit per unit.
On the other hand, most out-of-the-box goal tracking software pulls in end-reporting, but not the underlying data that fuels those reports. This means that you can use this software to see the information already reported by your analytics platforms, like revenue. But you can’t use it to calculate figures like gross profit per unit, because the system doesn’t contain the requisite underlying data.
This is not to say that you should eschew out-of-the-box goal tracking solutions. at P3, where we generate weekly performance reports for a large roster of clients, we find the consolidation, visual unity, and custom views afforded by goal tracking software to be invaluable. If you’re in the market for one of these platforms, here’s what to look for:
- API integration with your analytic sources of truth (Meta, Google, TikTok, your ecommerce platform etc.)
- Automated integration saves you time. Manual integration provides you with more control and flexibility, but requires technical expertise.
- Drag and drop dashboard customization
- The alternative is to write in your own SQL. If you know SQL, you probably don’t need our expertise
Nice To Haves
- The ability to write your own formulas
- The ability to analyze connected stores from a single, unified dash
- Valuable to blended B2B/DTC businesses especially, where many merchants build extension stores with their own reporting.
Nice To Haves
Customer Data Platforms
People who sell CDPs will try to convince you that you need one, and the case is compelling: wouldn’t it be great to have all of your customer data in one place: order histories, customer service logs, loyalty data, even resource planning? The attraction of the CDP is that it can take structured and unstructured customer data and combine it into a complete picture of each customer’s relevant online history. The truth is though, that these platforms only make sense if you’re an enterprise level player managing lots of data from diverse sources, with a mandate to maximize LTV.
Most companies never grow large enough to necessitate optimizing revenue in such a granular way. Plus, with a little savvy, you can glean many of the insights furnished by a dedicated CDP with lightweight CDP-like tools built into other platforms.
Klaviyo, for example, began life as a marketing email platform, but now connects to your other data sources to act as a CDP. Likewise, Shopify draws anonymous data from customers of all Shopify-powered stores to help with demographic ad targeting and fuel AI performance optimization suggestions. If you know which tools to leverage, you can access much of the value a CDP supplies without actually buying one.
Social Content Planners
Social content planners are a useful productivity tool if you’re active across many social media platforms simultaneously, but aren’t necessary if you drive business across only one or two platforms–especially if those platforms happen to be Instagram and Facebook. When they first hit the scene, social planners like Later and Hootsuite made themselves indispensable by allowing users to build and schedule their posts in advance.
But over time, social media platforms began to exert more control over what kinds of posts could be scheduled in advance (Later veterans will remember suddenly losing the ability to schedule video posts), and introduced their own native scheduling features, greatly diminishing the value of third-party planners. Right now, the major value adds of using a social content planner are:
- The ability to schedule posts more than 30 days in advance (the current limit set by Meta)
- The ability to centralize all of your social media activity onto a single calendar
- The ability to add link-in-bio style external links to your social media profiles
That’s it. If you don’t need these features yet, wait to invest.
Business Intelligence Tools
You can run successful campaigns without ever using any of the following tools. But harnessing their power will provide you with valuable intel on your competitors’ strategies, and give you actionable insight into the search terms and words driving customers to your site.
Creative libraries allow you to search and view a compendium of archived and live marketing creative. What’s more, most of the best creative libraries are free to use and hosted online, making them no-brainer tools to add to your arsenal. Here are four that the P3 marketing team uses all the time.
- Meta Ad Library (formerly Facebook Ad Library)
- A searchable compendium of live and archived ads from across Meta’s social platforms, with detailed metainformation on how long the ad’s been running, what type of ad it is (dynamic, carousel etc.), which platforms it’s deployed on, and the advertiser.
- Google Ad Transparency Center
- Similar to the Meta Ad Library, but for Google Ads. Includes a paid media transparency feature that’s particularly useful for evaluating competitors’ paid content strategies on Youtube.
- Linkedin Ad Library
- Similar to both the Meta Ad Library and the Google Ad Transparency Center, but for Linkedin ads. Provides information on ad targeting as well as geolocated impressions data.
- The leading marketing email database. Great for sourcing creative inspiration, mapping your competitors’ email cadence, seasonal promotions, loyalty plays and more.
Keyword Research Tools
Keyword research tools can be expensive, but they’re worth their weight in gold if you’re pursuing a long-term SEO strategy, bidding on search ads, or gathering intel on purchase-intent queries to answer with an FAQ or customer service script.
In Q4 2023, Moz and Semrush are the industry leading keyword research tools–as well as the most expensive. Each comes with a slew of advanced features for dedicated SEO marketers, and if you’re well budgeted and organizationally committed to SEO, they’re the tools you should consider first. However, at P3, we’ve derived tremendous value from more lightweight keyword research tools like Ubersuggest, Answerthepublic, and Keywords Everywhere. If you’ve decided to pay for a tool, here are some key bits of information it should provide you with:
Technology Tracking Tools
Want to see which marketing tech your competitors are using online? Or maybe you’d like to generate a list of companies that would be a good fit for your services based on their technology profile? Technology tracking tools like BuiltWith and WhatRuns can help with that. Just add the URL of the website you want analyzed, and lift the hood on your competitors’ websites for free.
BuiltWith shows you every tool your competitors are using, tracks macro technology trends, and more. All free.
At the paid level, technology trackers can also be used to generate exhaustive lists of companies fitting a specified technology profile, or to access macro data about a particular technology’s market share among businesses of different sizes.
The best prospecting databases, like ZoomInfo, also allow you to build B2B lead lists based on the ecommerce and martech tools used by other companies. This is a powerful time-saving capability if you’re building lead lists for cold campaigns, but you’ll have to pay a lot for a single seat on these databases. In fact, most of the independent lead generation services out there actually just use a technology like ZoomInfo, and defray the cost by selling lead lists to marketers who don’t have their own seats.