It’s nice to see two acronyms make friends

Paul Ford
7 min readMay 24, 2018
Illustration by Stephen Carlson

At Postlight we build software for lots of different industries (custom search engines, financial APIs, a birding app for the Audubon society, things like that). This means we hear lots of different people complain about software. That’s my favorite part of the job, because, when you listen to people complain enough, you can extrapolate out what’s actually going on out there in the global software-powered economy.

“We are trying to connect our content to our funnel.”

Here’s what I’ve been hearing:

  • “At least before July the whole focus is getting our actual customers to attend the big conference, but you’d have no idea from the website.”
  • “We swore a solemn oath that we’d never pass around spreadsheets with emails in them. But we’re always passing around spreadsheets with emails in them.”
  • “The CMO now reports to the CTO so that’s weird. And the last CMO was all social all the time but the new CMO wants to know what the hell we’re actually buying and the last CMO is still unemployed so we’re very motivated to solve this.”
  • “We built the big database of customer behavior but no one will update it.”

The question underneath this is a simple one: “How do we connect the content to the funnel?” Meaning that companies know how they get customers, and they know how to publish, but it’s hard to put the two together.

There’s a thing that does this!

That’s always true. We spoke about this on our podcast and received this helpful tweet from Andy McIlwain, who pointed out that the term is “marketing automation platforms” and mentioned that there are many products like Marketo, Pardot, HubSpot, and others that let you automate part of your sales process. I’ve spent time looking through many of these products since then, and they’re all good one-stop solutions.

So why are people coming to us asking to spend money to build something large and customized, instead of, for example, signing up for HubSpot? Did they just not get the marketing automation memo?

No. They’d love to just use a service and not build something custom! But their needs are particular to their business. They have a lot of content—20 or 30 interconnected sites—and want to bring all of those onto a single platform in a very specific way. Or they’re a publisher first and need to optimize around subscriptions. And most marketing automation platforms are focused on…marketing. Sales. Taking people from Copper to Bronze to Gold.

Our clients often have a different focus. They need to work relationship management into their products in smart ways.

What is a Funnel?

A funnel is just a self-interested triangle. It shows how you bring people into your world and get money out of them. Increasingly when I go to client meetings, whether it’s media or banking, I find myself thinking, “what’s the funnel here?” Here’s a funnel I just drew, it’s roughly how people come to find Postlight. I live this funnel:

General brand marketing > Social/Twitter/Podcast > Events/Newsletter > Email > 1st visit > 2nd visit > Relationships > $$$

Everyone talks about “moving people through the funnel” but that’s a fantasy in which you control your own destiny. All you can do is say, “hey, if you want to do more stuff with us, it usually goes like this.” And then they go, “okay, let’s get that coffee.” Or, more broadly, “Okay, here’s my credit card, sign me up.” They move at their own pace. You can only show them the path.

What is CRM?

A Customer Relationship Management system is a database designed for persuasion—the software version of a funnel. You put people in the CRM database and then it tells you to do things to them, like send them emails. If they reply to the emails, the CRM keeps track of that too.

An old version of Salesforce found via Enterprise Screenshots.

There are lots of CRMs, but the big one is Salesforce, followed by Salesforce. Whether you like or hate Salesforce doesn’t particularly matter. It’s called Salesforce because they have forced everyone to use it for sales. There is Salesforce for marketing, Salesforce for small business, Salesforce for not-for-profits, and Salesforce for cats. There’s also ProsperWorks, Zoho CRM, SugarCRM, Microsoft Dynamics, and many others.

What’s a CMS?

A Content Management System is a place to make stuff you plan to publish. If you’re a little company you use Squarespace. If you’re mostly selling stuff you might publish with HubSpot. If you sell hats, you use the CMS built into Shopify.

A tiny number of organizations will build a custom CMS. This is something you spend millions of dollars to build and maintain because you have extremely specific requirements and you need full control over things like page latency, ad network integration, licensing, and globalization. We build these, often in partnership with giant media companies. You almost definitely don’t need one (unless you absolutely do, in which case send us an email).

And then there’s WordPress, the Salesforce of CMS’s. The thing about WordPress is it’s big, it’s everywhere, it works, and it is a very good box into which people can type. Lots of big companies and small ones alike use it to publish. (There are zillions of other CMSes, too, of course. But WordPress is big.)

No heads anywhere!

And finally, everything these days is “headless.” This means that CMSes, CRMs, everything—they don’t make HTML pages for your browser any more. They’re APIs that clients connect to. They produce data, not pages. This means lots of things but the big one is that it’s much easier to smush up two APIs and make something new than it is to smush up two HTML pages.

API is just a fancy way to say “funnel”

So now you’ve taken my CMS and my CRM, which used to be just boxes that I typed into, and made them into APIs. This means we can do all kinds of new things. Let’s say our goal is to get people to come to a big event or conference.

  1. Someone visits our website (CMS) and signs up for our newsletter (put them in the CRM) and stays subscribed for three months and opens the email every single week.
  2. Should we invite them to a special event? Put the event information on our website with a special link (CMS), and tell only the people who’ve subscribed for three months about it (CRM + email API).
  3. Now we know how many people visit the home page, how many of those will sign up for the newsletter, how many of those will keep reading after three months, and how many of those will visit a web page about an event, and how many of those will actually RSVP.
  4. So if our goal is to get 100 people to come to an event but we only got 25 to actually attend, we may need to get 16 times as many newsletter subscribers in order to achieve our marketing goals, and they need to be good subscribers who care.
  5. So we’d better start rethinking how we’re acquiring subscribers and focus on that part of our funnel.

The upshot is that we can be more strategic. In five steps we went from “get people to come to an event” to “rethink our funnel and change the way we market.”

You used to have to wing a lot of of this using Google Analytics and hunches. But if you connect the CMS and the CRM into one system it can help you understand real human behavior, and change your offering so that it’s more useful and more connected to what people want. And you’ll get a dashboard that’s updated in real-time to boot.

What people are coming to us to do is to wire all these things together: Can you connect an API like Salesforce’s to an API like WordPress’s so we can actually see how people are using our content and give them more customized content, and also build us a dashboard so we can make smarter decisions over the next few years?

Designing a funnel and thinking through your business is a form of data modeling and API design. Your marketing person is probably the best high-level API strategist in your company. They just don’t know it.

Why now?

I’ve been working in and around CRM systems for 15 years and they’ve always been terrible pieces of software. It’s like they were designed to punish salespeople and make them more annoying.

Now, even the CRM is catching up with reality. We live in a world where it’s not just feasible but relatively pleasant—and a lot of hard work, sure—to glue things together if they have well-designed APIs.

Plus, the desire is there to make content work a little harder, and to actually know your customers/clients/members/subscribers, whether there’s a thousand of them or a couple million. And thus the worlds of content and CRM are colliding not just in the stratosphere of Procter & Gamble and GE (they probably just use a lot of Adobe products), but down in the middle market where the rest of us work, too.

My co-founder Rich and I spoke about this very subject on our weekly podcast Track Changes. Give it a listen!