Integrations: out of the box, or custom?

Almost inevitably, a strategic integration is part of a streamlined marketing automation solution. For some organizations, an out of the box solution will be good enough. As they grow in sophistication, they require deeper custom integrations and more robust communication between platforms.

In a recent blog post, we discussed why Marketing Automation isn’t the be-all and end-all in many organizations’ revenue growth plans. When implementing a new marketing automation initiative, companies must consider how it will fit into their existing work streams. This means looking at both the tech stack and internal business processes and figuring out how things will mesh.

Since it’s rare for a marketing automation platform to stand alone without touching other technologies within a company’s business, the question of integrations usually gets raised. Perhaps to start with, a marketing team will simply rely on list imports and exports in their daily work (what we used to call the “sneakernet”), but that gets old very quickly. It’s time and labor intensive, and all too likely to introduce errors.

In client engagements, we have found ourselves working with integrations as a matter of course now, for that reason. Early in the process, we go through an intensive workshop with the client to discover their current processes and identify the best ways we can help streamline those processes. Almost inevitably, a strategic integration is part of that streamlined solution. Depending on the client budget, we are then able to offer a choice of different types of integrations. Some organizations are limited enough in scope or funding, or are early enough in their marketing efforts, where an out of the box solution will be sufficient. As they grow in sophistication, they require deeper custom integrations and more robust communication between platforms; this, truly, is our specialty.

We have had two clients recently, both commercial real estate brokers, who fell neatly into each of these categories.

Client 1: Out of the box

This client is in early-stage growth mode, still watching every penny. They know they must build their marketing efforts, and want to revolutionize the approach they take to outreach. While their ambitions at the moment somewhat outpace their means, it’s a forward-thinking initiative with great promise.

They engaged RadHaus.Solutions to implement ActiveCampaign, one of our go-to recommendations for companies at this stage. Understanding that the implementation would be a proof of concept, they also wanted to explore how ActiveCampaign might integrate with their website and with their instance, and what changes they might see in their lead lifecycle as a result.

We knew that even within a proof of concept we could demonstrate an improvement in the quality of leads coming into the system, and that the sales team would be better able to prioritize the leads based on demographic and sales-ready behavior. We let them know up front that we would treat this as a proof of concept, and not a production system; the intent was to vet the plan they wanted to implement in a “scratch” form. Of course we discussed with them the possibility that the solution might be fragile and would likely break after a while, and that a production-safe version would need to be considerably more robust. They agreed.

One of the first things we did was rebuild their web site in WordPress to more easily implement the integration between the web site and ActiveCampaign. There are a number of plugins available to facilitate the data exchange, so rather than writing custom code (which was outside the project scope), we installed a combination of plugins to get the necessary data moved from the web site to ActiveCampaign.

Once the site was done and data was flowing from it into ActiveCampaign, we then began work on getting ActiveCampaign and to communicate.

ActiveCampaign does not provide a baked-in integration with; instead, they recommend using PieSync, a low-cost, database-agnostic API connector, to pass contact records across the divide. PieSync’s value is that it can listen for data value changes in either system and update the record in its counterpart within a matter of minutes; the result is a near-real-time sync between the connected systems.

Like most connectors of this type, PieSync requires the API or user credentials to access the systems it will be linking. Then the fields get mapped between the systems (“Name” in one system maps to “Full Name” in the other, for example; “Email Address” = “Email”, and so on).

PieSync has a limitation in that it will not update custom fields if they’re a certain type. We did indeed need those fields to sync from ActiveCampaign to, so we had to find a workaround that was still not a custom database connector.

Enter Zapier. Very similar to PieSync in scope and cost, it has the added benefit of being able to write to more field types. Unlike PieSync, however, it wasn’t a real-time sync in both directions.

Our solution was to implement Zapier in one direction and PieSync in the other to approximate the requirement. It (mostly) worked. In this phase, (mostly) was sufficient for the client.

Unfortunately, as the project came to a close, one of the WordPress plugins began failing; the developer had since abandoned it and it wasn’t keeping up with the latest core updates. In addition, a few of the mapped fields occasionally threw errors in either PieSync or Zapier for reasons the client wasn’t especially interested in investigating.

As a proof of concept, however, the web we wove did its job, demonstrating what could be done with an integrated system. As a production system, it predictably failed because the components were out of our hands.

Client 2: Custom integrations

The second client is in a later stage in their business, with multiple, self-sufficient branch offices and greatly expanded services. Their audience falls within a narrower definition than that of the first client, but perhaps because of that, they’re able to focus their efforts with agents who have deeper specializations. And because it’s now a national group, they understand and can support the need for a larger technology and marketing budget, recognizing that repeatable tasks not only can be automated, they must, to improve operational efficiency.

Equipped with a larger budget and a longer timeline, we were able to supply more robust solutions to meet their requirements.

This client has a tech stack almost exactly the same as the first client: WordPress,, and a new instance of ActiveCampaign. The ActiveCampaign implementation was, in fact, part of the scope of this project. The primary difference was a pre-existing custom plugin that was already built to pass lead data into their previous email service. The developer made some tweaks to the code, we added some new fields and expanded the amount of data that would pass between the two systems, and the plugin successfully made the transition from the previous email service to ActiveCampaign. Leads were flowing in perfectly.

In contrast to the first client, rather than Zapier and PieSync we implemented our custom Lead360 integration (soon to be available as an AppExchange solution — we’re excited to participate in this outstanding marketplace). It provides a deep data integration between and ActiveCampaign via their respective APIs, giving clients the ability to keep leads synced between the two systems in real time, and to update campaign data in’s standard Campaign data object. This allows for better insight into lead acquisition, campaign influence, and overall program success.

With the custom integration, we’re also able to manage the number of API calls per transaction, reducing the load and keeping the client’s instance well away from the API call limit. And of course, since we wrote the integration, we can manage updates to keep up with changes within, ActiveCampaign, and expanded client requirements.

The high cost of using low cost integrations

When a custom integration appears to cost 10x what an out of the box one does, it seems like a simple decision to go with the low cost solution. Unfortunately, however, it’s not quite that simple. Some behaviors or requirements are typically sacrificed in out of the box solutions, as they’re simply not available. There are invariably additional costs to consider, time lost to component failure, time lost to support for that failure, and potential revenue lost on it. While custom solutions are by no means infallible, support is typically built into the engagement, and better control over the components means faster resolution times and more robust performance overall.

And as far as RadHaus.Solutions is concerned, when a client engages us to implement solutions, we work to provide the client a best-in-class implementation using industry best practices across the board.

By Rebekkah Hilgraves

*RadHaus Solutions*: ActiveCampaign Certified Consultant. Marketo Certified Expert. Solutions Architect. Marketing automation implementation, integration, best practices, governance. Marketing automation, with a heavy dose of nerd.

*RadHaus Studio*: Broadcast and recording engineer, media production manager, cable monkey, marketing dork, project manager, chief cook and bottle-washer.

A seasoned trainer, marketer, web producer and front-end developer, solutions architect, writer, consultant, broadcaster, recording engineer, and public speaker, I've worked in eLearning, Instructional Design, CMS, Marketing Automation and CRM (especially Marketo, ActiveCampaign, and SimplyCast), content delivery and management, taxonomy, SEO, media production and technical support. I bring a unique blend of experience and expertise.

Through RadHaus (formerly SheTech and Company), and in partnership with ELK // Obscura Media, and Prove digital marketing agencies, I have supported enterprise clients in marketing automation implementation and operations, digital marketing and data strategies. I help design and operationalize custom integrated marketing programs for businesses, working with audience/user group segmentation, SEO, web analytics, design and UX best practices, multimedia, social media and other strategic web design and delivery mechanisms. I also do hands-on media production and arts marketing, allowing me to remain involved in the arts.

As part of Marketo's education team, I managed the production and publication of eLearning modules, and was a key member of the LMS implementation and certification development teams.

A consultant on the Web Operations team for OppenheimerFunds in New York, I offered technical, production, and strategy support on a major web site redesign project.

As Managing Editor for an online news magazine published by NetQoS, I supervised and managed the migration of the site from a legacy content management system to a .NET-based commercial system. I maintained the site and the content, updating the magazine with new content from industry analysts and technical experts on a weekly basis.

My earliest foray into both technology and training was as a software trainer for logistics company Cheetah Software Systems, helping create an implementation and training practice standard for the company, and building their user documentation.