Underdog Marketo Sees Marketing Software Price War

February 10, 2016, 10:17 PM UTC
Courtesy of Marketo

First, the bad news: Marketo (MKTO) is still caught in the middle of a strategic pivot toward a future in which a larger portion of its revenue will come from bigger businesses than in the past. Last July, a sales reorganization began to support that market shift, and the strategy is still playing out.

Now, the not-so-bad news: the company is clearly becoming a credible option among marketers who seek “sophisticated” campaign automation and orchestration software. The proof? Marketo’s much larger rivals are trying to thwart it with “panic-driven” pricing strategies, according to Marketo CEO Phil Fernandez.

“It’s clear to me that we’re seeing a new level of price competition—what I would characterize as desperate price competition coming from the large suite vendors that are our primary competitors,” said Fernandez during the company’s financial update call Tuesday, following the release of its 2015 financial results. “We’re seeing them literally give away their products to try to block us from closing deals, when we have won clear user preference.”

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While on the call, Fernandez didn’t name the rivals, but he acknowledged some contracts were delayed last quarter, as a result of the competitive climate.

Here’s the educated guess. Technically speaking, Marketo’s upmarket strategy has put it in much more direct competition with mammoth marketing software companies including Oracle (ORCL) and Salesforce (CRM), both of which have been highly acquisitive in this category. Historically, the vast majority of Marketo’s revenue has come from small and midsize businesses, where it competes with the likes of HubSpot (HUBS). The low end favors product simplicity, Fernandez said, while big companies value sophistication.

Despite that pressure, Marketo finished the fourth quarter ending Dec. 31 with more than 4,500 customers—compared with the 4,100 number that it shared on its earnings call about six months ago. It managed to beat analysts’ expectations (albeit slightly), for the quarter. Its net loss was $17.2 million. Revenue was $58.3 million, up 38% year-over-year.

For more read: Why Technology Shouldn’t Change the Core Mission of Marketers.

Marketo’s full-year revenue reached $210 million, up 40% from last year. Its net loss was $71.5 million compared with $58.3 million for 2014.

During the call, Marketo executives also suggested that the sales reorganization initiated last summer will pay off during the current quarter—for which it projects revenue in the range of $61 million to $62 million. “Management is in place; we have more quota capacity than ever before,” Fernandez said.

Another factor fueling his optimism is a new alliance formed last week with digital marketing agency Wunderman, a huge division of British advertising giant WPP that counts Best Buy, Citibank, Coca-Cola, Ford, Microsoft, and Pfizer among its customers. The idea is to use Marketo’s data analytics to optimize messages without sacrificing creativity. “Marketing automation has tremendous potential, but consumers don’t want to feel that a machine is talking to them,” Wunderman CEO Mark Read said in a statement.

How much is Wall Street buying Marketo’s spin? The past six weeks have not been kind. The company’s stock closed Dec. 31 at $28.71 per share. It closed Wednesday at $14.79, off 5.8% from the previous day’s close, and is now down almost 50% since the beginning of 2016.

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