Fill the feature gaps with plug-and-play apps. Solution highlights from Salesforce Marketing Cloud's AppExchange.
AppExchange is an app store for various Clouds within Salesforce Customer 360 platform. You will find in-house solutions from Salesforce Labs and 3rd party. Free and paid. Good and bad. But all - validated by Salesforce Security Review.
From over 4000 solutions available there, only around 60 are for the Saleforce Marketing Cloud. Here, I will focus only on those I had experience with to provide some value over the standard AppExchange descriptions.
This document is a living thing. New solutions keep popping up, and old ones sometimes disappear or are recreated. I try to keep it up-to-date, but your help with this task will be appreciated.
When is AppExchange worth it?
Before we jump into specific solutions available in the store, let's talk about whether you should consider going through AppExchange offerings. This question is especially relevant with how feature-packed and customizable the Marketing Cloud is. And not that easy to answer when you assess all decision drivers.
1. Define feature requirements
Ok, you want a feature and are eager to find a solution to deliver it. Now stop. Before opening the AppExchange repository, you should dive deep into the exact requirements the solution has to fulfil.
Key things to consider:
- What it needs to do - what is the minimum valuable outcome, and what is an ideal one?
- How it needs to do it - does it have to be a user-friendly no-code solution, or is a developer-oriented approach acceptable?
- Where it needs to do it - does it have to be done within the SFMC, or can it be external?
- Who needs to do it - do you have the resources to implement it, or should it be outsourced?
- What is the budget - does it have to be free, cheap, or you can pay for good value?
Those requirements should be aligned with the final users and be clear enough to serve as a guardrail for making an informed decision.
2. Validate out-of-the-box options
Once you have requirements, it's time to check what already is within your Marketing Cloud license. Over the years, Salesforce baked in many solutions, so you might find something already there, just waiting to be used.
Not all solutions are available by default - some require a support ticket to be enabled. Check out my list of features on-demand to see if there is anything hidden that might fulfil your requirements.
However, even if your requirement has an out-of-the-box solution, it doesn't always mean the end of the work. You need to check whether it is good and easy enough:
- Good Enough: Just because there is something, it might not meet all the requirements you gathered in the first step. Maybe it is too basic for your needs or doesn't have access to all data you want to leverage. It is where you start seeing the benefits of the prework.
- Easy Enough: Even if the solution is good enough, it might not be easy enough. Always assess the solution by considering the knowledge and skills of the end users - not yours (unless you will be the only end user, of course).
If the out-of-the-box solution checks both boxes - you hit the jackpot and can leverage what is already there.
Else, it's time to look somewhere... else.
3. Free AppExchange Solutions
Time to check whether there is any free solution available on demand. You can do it by going to marketing AppExchange and applying filters to get Free solutions dedicated to Marketing Cloud.
To manage your expectations: for Salesforce Marketing Cloud, the list won't be long. And even then, you have to make sure the app is genuinely offering a meaningful free tier. Expect free Salesforce Labs solutions (like Query Studio covered below) and little pearls made by 3rd parties - like Content Builder asset finder DESelect Search.
If you are lucky enough to find something free in AppExchange related to your requirements, check whether it is good enough. Just as you did in the previous step.
No luck? Before checking the paid filter in AppExchange, there is one more approach to consider.
4. Custom Solution
A decade ago, building a custom solution for every requirement was all the rage. Since then, the platforms and their 3rd party ecosystems have grown significantly, making this approach much less tempting. Why?
There are four things to consider:
- Can you build a Custom solution? This can be done using in-house developers or outsourced to external specialists, but you need either skills or a budget.
- Will it be good enough? If you have the means, building a custom is easy. But do you have enough skills or budget to make a good solution that will be user-friendly, optimized, polished and matching all your requirements?
- Will it be cheaper than AppExchange? Sure, with enough time and money, you can build something good enough. But will it be more affordable than a similar solution available in the paid section of AppExchange?
- Will you maintain it? Even if you answered yes to the previous three points, you must consider maintenance. In most cases, building a custom is just the beginning. Requirements change, new needs happen, platforms get updated and require refactor. With AppExchange solutions, it should be much less of a worry in the long term.
While the list might look like a hard pass for custom solutions, there is a place for them. Especially on the ends of the spectrum. Simple, but lifesaving micro solutions (Cloud Page Apps, Code Resources) or custom behemoths aligned to all non-negotiable quirks and features of your internal processes.
However, if you hit a hard "no" to any of the above questions, it's time to visit the AppExchange again.
5. Paid AppExchange Solutions
Here we are. After defining the requirements, we haven't found anything worthy among the out-of-the-box solutions, the land of the free AppExchange was barren, and the custom work didn't seem like the best choice. Paid AppExchange it is. But is it really?
Assuming you found a paid solution, you still need to assess whether it will be good enough. The positive part here? If you see only small pieces missing from the ideal, you might talk with the solution creators and discuss prioritization of the future changes.
However, you also need to keep in mind the budget. Not only the subscription cost but also implementation, training, and enhancements. After considering all that, will you still see a return on investment? If yes - you are good to go.
If not, it's time to update your requirements - the list of needed features or the budget size - and start again.
Sounds complex? Would you rather have a visual guide? Got you covered:
Looks complex? Would you rather have an example-based walkthrough? Got you covered as well in the next chapter:
SFMC Segmentation Solutions
Finding the right approach to database segmentation is one of the critical elements of successful marketing automation. In Salesforce Marketing Cloud, it's a complex topic because (spoiler) there is no perfect - powerful, simple and free - solution. You need to choose your priorities.
Looks like excellent use case to test the "Is AppExchange worth it?" process on a real-life scenario, so let's check how it works.
1. Feature Requirements
Let me paraphrase the user story constraints I encounter on nearly every implementation:
- As a company, I want to have segmentation based on our comprehensive data so that we can send the right communication to the right persons at the right time.
- As a marketer, I want to have a drag and drop segmentation so that it is fast and easy to deliver correctly built segments.
Let's split it into crucial things to consider:
- What it needs to do - Segment the database using multiple data points.
- How it needs to do it - Simple drag and drop solution.
- Where it needs to do it - Within Marketing Cloud.
- Who needs to do it - Undecided, but no internal resources for implementation.
- What is the budget - No budget.
Does it sound familiar? ;)
2. Out-of-the-box options
There are two ways to segment contacts in Marketing Cloud core. Filtered Data Extensions and SQL Query Activities. How do they stack against our requirements?
Filtered Data Extensions are free, require nearly no implementation (apart from setting Data Relationships), work directly in SFMC, and are a simple drag and drop solution, but... They don't support segmenting on more than two Data Extensions. Not good enough.
SQL Query Activities are free, require no implementation, work directly in SFMC and allow segmenting on multiple data points, but... demand SQL skills. It means training requirements, slower segmentation and a higher risk of errors by inexperienced users. Not easy enough.
3. Free AppExchange
Filtering the AppExchange for free solutions will show only one related to segmentation - Query Studio. While it's a great tool, it's still a SQL-based solution. It's also not an end-to-end tool for segmentation purposes. Not good enough.
4. Custom Solution
There are two base options for the drag and drop custom solution approach.
First - generator that modifies predefined segments. It's relatively simple to build, but it allows you to make only minor adaptations of the templated query, mostly on filtering (SQL WHERE. Very limited and requires hard coding for each new segment template. Not good enough and hard to maintain.
Second - fully-fledged visual wrapper over SQL queries. Full power with a drag and drop interface. Sounds like a dream? Correct. Such solution requires a lot of work and testing. The cost would skyrocket well above (spoiler alert) what is available in the paid section of AppExchange. Not worth it.
5. Paid AppExchange
Finally, we get to the last stop. After a quick search, we can find two solutions: tried and tested DESelect Segment and the new contender Activation Studio. More details on them in a moment, but from the perspective of this exercise - both are subscription based, while one of the key things to consider was the beloved "no budget".
Therefore we get to the update requirements step, where the company needs to prioritize between powerful, simple and free.
I hope it is now easier to find when AppExchange can solve Marketing Cloud requirements. With that, let's jump to the segmentation solutions available there.
Query Studio solves two problems:
- SFMC SQL Query Testing
- SFMC SQL Data Exploratory Analysis
Why did I call it problems?
Because the only out-of-the-box solution for working with SQL in Marketing Cloud is Query Activity in Automation Studio. It allows you to validate whether your query is valid, but checking if the outcomes are as expected is a pain.
You can see the results only after manually creating a data extension with the correct columns (names, data types, lengths) and executing the Query Activity. Outcomes are suboptimal and need to make some changes? The Data Extension needs a rework.
It sometimes happens when you are writing and testing a new query. It happens all the time when you are doing exploratory analysis.
Query Studio automatically builds a temporary Data Extension to store the query's output on every execution. It also displays a subset of outcomes below your SQL so you can quickly check whether it aligns with your expectations.
And that's not all - Query Studio lets you save your work as ready-to-use Query Activities. Even in a way that is impossible through the Automation Studio (like query targeting Auto-Suppression List)!
However, Query Studio is not perfect. The main issue is that it has implemented a different (and not that good) query validation. The outcome?
While every query you write in Query Studio will work in Query Activity, it is not always true the other way round. For example, Query Studio won't let you use comments, parentheses in the first line of the SELECT statement, TOP PERCENT, CAST in SELECT and more that are not a problem in Query Activity.
It also has very poor error messages making it hard to debug your queries properly. Sometimes it is helpful to copy the SQL to Query Activity and validate there to get a better response.
Finally, while it creates a temporary Data Extension on execution, it is not helpful as a template for the final solution because all fields have a Text data type regardless of the real data.
The Sum Up
Despite some quirks, Query Studio is a huge timesaver and quality of life improvement. Useful for creating queries, debugging outcomes, and quick checks on Data Views. Free. A must-have for any SQL-enabled or learning-to-be-enabled team.AppExchange
|DESelect||Starts at $700/month|
DESelect Segment is the golden standard for the middle ground between the very limited Filtered Data Extensions and yes-code SQL Queries. Actually, "middle ground" is not fair.
Over time, DESelect team polished it to cover nearly all use cases that were possible only with SQL in the past. It makes the app more of a no-code alternative to Query Activities then an enhanced Filtered Data Extensions.
In a fully drag and drop experience, DESelect Segment can:
- Join multiple data points (both Data Extensions and Data Views)
- Create complex, multilevel filters (using dynamic dates, aggregates and checks against other Data Extensions)
- Build final Data Extension on demand with selected or custom-created columns
- Deduplicate the data using specified logic
- Preview the outcomes to validate the configuration
And it doesn't stop there. There are features not available in the out-of-the-box SFMC experience that lets you:
- Create Picklists to mitigate typo issues when working with set lists of values
- Build Data Sets that works as templated multi-table relationships for quick drag and drop
- Share segmentation templates across Business Units to speed up rolling solutions
While the features sound great, true magic happens when you use them together. Why? Because they allow you to create your segment in one place, start to finish.
The out-of-the-box path for query segmentation is:
- Write and test segmentation query in Query Studio (with Contact Builder in another tab to check the values)
- Manually create Data Extension that has all needed columns in correct data types and lengths in Contact Builder
- Fix it in Email Studio because Content Builder is bugged around CustomerKey and default Current Date
- Copy the query to Query Activity in Automation Studio
- [Optionally] Create Automation
DESelect Segment can do all of it in a single, streamlined process using guided creator. Faster, simpler and less intimidating to beginners. Available right in the Marketing Cloud main menu.
Is it perfect then?
Well, there are two issues:
- It's not free. But it is nicely priced for the power you get. It's up to you whether you want to invest in SQL competencies or a no-code solution that can do the same, by everyone, faster.
- It's complex. Sure, it's a clean drag-and-drop interface, but because of all the available features, it has some learning curve (and training offered by DESelect) to leverage its full potential.
The Sum Up
To fully leverage Salesforce Marketing Cloud, you need a robust segmentation solution. Filtered Data Extensions ain't it. It leaves you with SQL Query Activity and AppExchange.
While I'm a big fan of SQL, I know it's not a tool for everyone. The code-based solutions always make scaling the marketing team much harder. DESelect Segment is currently the best option to solve that problem, and - with ongoing updates - it keeps getting better.
|Harvest Tech Labs||Starts at €350/month|
Activation Studio is a new player in the SFMC drag & drop segmentation game. Let's check what are the unique selling points that make it stand out:
- Different target
Activation Studio is not targeting power users but digital marketers that need an effortless but potent way of creating segments. You won't be able to leverage the full power of SQL in a drag-and-drop interface here. You also won't be able to join all Data Extensions available in your Marketing Cloud.
Instead, you can leverage the Attribute Groups built in the Contact Builder Data Designer. While it limits what you can do, it also makes building segments a breeze, as all relationships are already defined.
It also lets you quickly create the final Data Extension and leverage it as an Entry to the Journey. Och, and it provides you with engagement benchmarks and actual performance.
Not a jack-of-all-trades, but a purpose build solution.
- More than just segmentation
While segmentation is the core of Activation Studio, there are more features (to be made) available. Lead Scoring and Behavioral data from the web are options that significantly increase the tool's power. Both are built with effortless usage by marketers in mind.
- Down-to-earth pricing
Activation Studio segmentation is already significantly cheaper than other options, and additional features further improve the price-to-value ratio.
It's a new product, and you can still see its infancy. While fully operational, some relatively basic features (like folders) are missing.
However, the development pipeline is full of features, and many improvements will be delivered over the coming months improving the value proposition (and making me rewrite this mini-review).
The Sum Up
Activation Studio fills a niche as a segmentation more potent than the Filtered Data Extensions and more effortless than the DESelect Segment (while sacrificing some of its power).
Especially with Scoring and Interaction-focused add-ons, it will be an excellent suite of solutions targeted at smaller Marketing Cloud users that would benefit from a streamlined tool dedicated to non-technical marketers.