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When Evaluating A Digital Partner, Look For Integration Mastery

Congratulations! In recognition for your hard work and reputation for getting things done, you’ve been assigned as the project lead for your company’s new “digital transformation” initiative. This initiative may have a different name involving terms such as “website”, “e-commerce”, “experience”, or all three, but the underlying challenge is the same. Your current digital infrastructure isn’t cutting it anymore. Your senior leadership knows this, and has agreed to your budget proposal to acquire the new technology necessary to move to the next level.

Great. What’t next? Where in the world do you start?

If you are like many of the companies we work with, this is the point that you realize you need some help from the outside world. Regardless of whether you are a marketer, IT professional, or other function involving customer experience and technology, you’re wondering about what sorts of companies could serve as a digital partner that specializes in managing these types of projects. Identifying the right partner is going to be key to the success of your project.

Welcome to the digital partner jungle

Finding that partner, however, is more difficult than ever before. There used to be distinct borders between agencies, systems integrators, strategy consultants, and communications firms. All four of these categories all operate in fiercely competitive markets: in the U.S., for example, there were over 10,000 agencies listed in the most recent government census. You knew that if you wanted a great campaign to launch a new brand, you went to an agency, and if you needed to get new software from a third party vendor to work with the spaghetti of your existing structure, you went to a systems integrator.

The world has changed. Mergers, acquisitions, and new investments in each of these traditional categories has resulted in a misty jungle of companies that all call themselves “digital transformation providers” or “experience agencies” or some other tagline that gives no indication of what they actually are good at (ironically, since many of these firms provide marketing services themselves.)  Accenture Interactive,, for example, has spent billions snapping up agencies around the world: witness its most recent acquisition of a majority stake in German firm SinnerSchrader. What’s more, since technology is invariably a part of brand experiences thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, many more traditionally “creative” agencies are bidding for projects built on technology platforms.

Demand examples of past integration success

Making your way through the digital partner jungle may seem daunting at first, but by focusing on what’s important to the success of your initiative, you can find a way forward. Rest assured that the partner that is  ultimately the best fit for your organization is not necessarily one that has won awards and accolades from the vendors whose solutions they implement, or that has gotten the most mentions in the upper right quadrants in technology analyst reports, or that is the biggest and most well-known. In fact, it may be the opposite of one or more of those things.

In our ongoing research into and engagements advising technology and service provider selections, we regularly hear about projects that went off the rails due to the partner – and yes, even the most well known, biggest ones out there – not being able to deliver on its promises or undestimating the challenges they face. Amongst these failures, a common thread is emerging: the partner has expertise with the new technology solution being implemented, but less to none with integrating that technology with legacy systems or solutions in other categories.

Here’s one recent example: the CIO of an online sports memorabilia retailer purchased a new content management system (CMS) from one vendor and wanted to integrate that system with the latest release of an open source e-commerce platform. This CIO had limited technical resources in-house, so was looking for a partner that had the combination of creative digital experience as well as the ability to manage the heavy lifting technical tasks involved in this integration. He selected a certified partner of that CMS vendor who assured him that it had the skills required. The project got as far as the discovery phase before the CIO realized that the team the partner had assigned to the project did not, in fact, have those integration skills. He halted the project and ultimately went with a much smaller, less-well known partner who fixed the previous partner’s errors and is managing the integration successfully. According to this CIO, had he stuck with the first partner, the project would not have worked and would, in fact, have put his company’s overall health in danger.

The lesson from this CIO’s sobering experience? Do not just take your digital partner’s word that they have the technical expertise needed for a project that involves complex integrations, such as between content and commerce systems of different pedigrees. Demand examples of at least two, and preferably three, reference customers of that partner whom you can speak to about their experiences. If you are considering a certified partner of a given vendor, ask that vendor for evidence of integration experience as well.

The bottom line: integration skills matter …. a lot

Digital transformation initiatives are not just about technology: they are about using technology to enable great customer experiences and ultimately help your organization to succeed at its mission. These initiatives tend to involve complex technology integrations, so the digital partner you choose must be able to navigate these issues. And it is not just primarily CMS-commerce integrations, as in the above example. Integration of CRM, ERP, marketing automation, and home-grown systems all need to be taken into account.

Your challenge is to navigate the digital partner jungle and figure out whether creative agencies have the tech expertise to do this, and conversely whether systems integrators can do this but lack the creative and digital chops. At Digital Clarity Group, we have experience helping organizations choose best-fit digital partners: if this is a challenge you are facing, contact us.

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