Ear­li­er this month, Ora­cle spent almost a bil­lion dol­lars on a mar­ket­ing tool that few peo­ple had ever heard of. Moat is used to audit social media ads and ensure that they’re show­ing up on Face­book and Google, as promised. But the exact func­tion is large­ly beside the point.

What’s impor­tant is this: Once again, big-time soft­ware play­ers like Ora­cle, Adobe and Sales­force are turn­ing their atten­tion to buy­ing up social media and relat­ed tools for their mar­ket­ing clouds. And this time around, they’re con­fi­dent that things will turn out bet­ter than the last buy­ing spree.
Let’s rewind five years or so. Back in the ear­ly 2010s, the con­cept of the uni­fied mar­ket­ing cloud—a sin­gle col­lec­tion of inte­grat­ed tools for mar­ket­ing teams, embrac­ing every­thing from email to ana­lyt­ics, cam­paigns, ads and more—was still fresh. Adobe had been among the first to the scene, but oth­er indus­try heavy­weights were rac­ing in with their own alter­na­tives.
At the same time, social media as a busi­ness tool remained a nov­el con­cept. Face­book had been around for years, but com­pa­nies were only just begin­ning to explore how social net­works could be used as a part of a seri­ous mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy. Ear­ly social media man­age­ment tools promised to solve their pain points: sim­pli­fy­ing pub­lish­ing of mes­sages across mul­ti­ple net­works; “lis­ten­ing” to social buzz to pick up and iden­ti­fy con­sumer trends; and spit­ting out ana­lyt­ics reports to mea­sure the impact of social cam­paigns.
It was in that uncer­tain cli­mate that some of the biggest names in soft­ware began drop­ping lit­er­al­ly bil­lions of dol­lars on emerg­ing social tools. In fast suc­ces­sion, Sales­force acquired social lis­ten­ing tool Radian6 in 2011 for $326 mil­lion and social pub­lish­ing tool Bud­dy Media in 2012 for $745 mil­lion. Adobe scooped up Con­text Option­al and ad tool Effi­cient Fron­tier for a rumored $400 mil­lion in 2011. In 2012, Ora­cle acquired social mar­ket­ing start­up Vit­rue for $300 mil­lion. All of these tech­nolo­gies promised to add a robust new social media com­po­nent to exist­ing mar­ket­ing clouds. Press releas­es tout­ed the com­ing social busi­ness rev­o­lu­tion.
Then, crick­ets. After news of the high-priced acqui­si­tions died down, eager CMOs wait­ed … and wait­ed … for these new social tools to roll out. Some were moth­balled almost as soon as they were bought. In oth­er cas­es, inte­gra­tions took years, with results that were patent­ly under­whelm­ing.

What went wrong the first time?

The post-mortem on the first wave of social cloud appli­ca­tions reveals a host of fatal errors. For starters, social media itself was mis­un­der­stood. At the time, it was still thought of as a siloed func­tion with­in a busi­ness: the domain of a lone social media man­ag­er and small team of social savvy mil­len­ni­als. There wasn’t yet an appre­ci­a­tion for how social per­vades the entire buyer’s jour­ney, from prod­uct dis­cov­ery to con­sid­er­a­tion, pur­chase and advo­ca­cy.
Pre­cise­ly because social media was thought of as an “add-on,” it was rel­e­gat­ed to a periph­er­al role in ear­ly mar­ket­ing clouds. Rather than being part of the cen­tral “brain” of these plat­forms, it was treat­ed as sim­ply anoth­er sys­tem of engage­ment — no dif­fer­ent than an email appli­ca­tion or a mes­sag­ing ser­vice. Cus­tomer data from oth­er parts of the cloud didn’t flow freely into social tools. Nor were these tools engi­neered to gath­er and orga­nize insights from cus­tomers.
On top of this, the ini­tial crop of social media mar­ket­ing tools were large­ly untest­ed. It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that the ear­ly 2010s were still the nascent days of mar­ket­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The promise of automat­ing and refin­ing mun­dane mar­ket­ing tasks—and find­ing ways to track rev­enue from campaigns—had whipped mar­ket­ing teams at com­pa­nies big and small into a buy­ing fren­zy. (Gart­ner famous­ly pre­dict­ed that CMOs’ tech bud­gets would soon out­pace CIOs’.) Big soft­ware com­pa­nies were eager to get in on the action. So Sales­force, Ora­cle and their peers end­ed up dou­bling down on tools that may not have been quite ready for prime­time.
The com­bined result was dis­ap­point­ment. These new social media addi­tions were hard to use, non-intu­itive and not well integrated—afterthoughts, rather than cen­tral pieces of the mar­ket­ing cloud. As a result, mar­keters who want­ed seri­ous social media tools were forced to look out­side the big clouds and instead rely on more tar­get­ed point solu­tions … which kind of defeat­ed the pur­pose of buy­ing a com­pre­hen­sive mar­ket­ing cloud in the first place.

Social cloud redux

Just five years lat­er, how­ev­er, the sit­u­a­tion has changed marked­ly. Social media has proven less a tech­no­log­i­cal fad than a cul­tur­al sea change. Thanks to mobile tech­nol­o­gy, the aver­age user now spends two hours on social media every day. Teens (i.e. tomorrow’s con­sumers) spend up to nine hours a day. Com­pa­nies have come to rec­og­nize social media as pos­si­bly the cen­tral tool for reach­ing customers—both B2B and B2C—and guid­ing them from dis­cov­ery to pur­chase.
Like­wise, social media man­age­ment plat­forms avail­able today have matured sub­stan­tial­ly from the ear­li­er wave of acqui­si­tions. AI-pow­ered ana­lyt­ics tools enable sep­a­rat­ing “sig­nal from noise” in a way incon­ceiv­able just a few years ago—sorting through mil­lions of data points to iden­ti­fy trends and con­sumer sen­ti­ment at a glance. Mean­while, with social ad spend now sur­pass­ing TV spend, new ad buy­ing tools have emerged to launch, auto­mate and max­i­mize ad cam­paigns across social net­works. Social plat­forms have like­wise evolved to serve not just the nar­row needs of mar­keters but also sales and cus­tomer ser­vice teams.

Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, the role of social media with­in mar­ket­ing clouds is being fun­da­men­tal­ly recon­sid­ered. Far from an add-on, social media is increas­ing­ly being appre­ci­at­ed as a sys­tem of record, ful­ly inte­grat­ed with oth­er cloud fea­tures and capa­ble of gath­er­ing and receiv­ing data. Because social affords direct, sus­tained con­tact with buy­ers through­out the cus­tomer life­cy­cle, it’s well posi­tioned to act as a kind of back­bone for mar­ket­ing clouds.
So, will all of this trans­late to what CMOs have been ask­ing for all along: stronger mar­ket­ing clouds with bet­ter social tools and more intu­itive fea­tures? Time will tell. It’s note­wor­thy that, in addi­tion to Moat, Ora­cle (with its new mar­ket­ing cloud GM Lau­ra Ipsen and mar­ket­ing-mind­ed data-cloud leader Eric Roza) have made a flur­ry of mar­ket­ing tech­nol­o­gy acqui­si­tions in the last year. Sim­i­lar sig­nals are com­ing from the likes of Adobe, where dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing head Brad Rencher and his team recent­ly scooped up video ad plat­form Tube­Mogul for $540 mil­lion.
It also seems that Microsoft is again explor­ing its own mar­ket­ing cloud options. Their recent $26 bil­lion acqui­si­tion of LinkedIn rep­re­sents a valu­able social media addi­tion to Microsoft’s Dynam­ics CRM solu­tion for enter­pris­es. And some com­men­ta­tors have spec­u­lat­ed that Microsoft’s recent­ly announced part­ner­ship with Adobe’s Mar­ket­ing Cloud could be hint­ing at an out­right acqui­si­tion down the road. After a half-decade par­tial hiber­na­tion, in oth­er words, it appears the big soft­ware com­pa­nies may be gear­ing up for anoth­er MarTech buy­ing spree.

Con­sid­er­ing their first for­ay into social, Ora­cle, Adobe, Sales­force, IBM and oth­er soft­ware lead­ers are being con­sid­er­ably more cau­tious this time around. But the holy grail—an inte­grat­ed social plat­form that just works as part of a mar­ket­ing cloud—may well be with­in reach this time. The key: a dawn­ing appre­ci­a­tion that the right social media appli­ca­tion isn’t just anoth­er mar­ket­ing wid­get, but the pri­ma­ry inter­face to engage the next gen­er­a­tion of buy­ers.