Off-the-Shelf vs. Custom Software: How to Know What’s Best for Your Business

Off the Shelf Versus Custom Software

How to Know What’s Best for Your Business

Not much about the martech and marcomtech world is black and white. One area that can be especially gray? Facing the decision to purchase an off-the-shelf software solution or to invest in a custom-built system.

Gaining clarity begins with a careful evaluation of processes and workflows to identify major pain points the software needs to address. With a customized solution, software developers will collaborate with you to develop components tailored to any unique aspects of your business. Upfront costs are typically higher than out-of-the-box software (OTBS). In the long term, however, the advantages of a custom build can justify that higher price tag.

It’s also important to recognize when SaaS will do the job. Custom-built software solutions can certainly give you greater agility and business-specific capabilities, but sometimes OTBS makes more sense in terms of less involved implementation and lower initial costs. Keep in mind that you’ll still need to do comprehensive research and evaluation to select the OTBS solution that will best fit your needs.

The points below can serve as a guide to helping you navigate this gray area.

A Fully Custom System May Be Best When…

  1. You’re growing and have evolving needs.
    A growing organization or department will need a solution that’s scalable. Scalability refers to the capability of a system, network, or process to handle a growing amount of work, or its potential to grow to accommodate that growth. While OTBS can offer some level of adaptability via vendor updates and add-ons, a custom design in many cases can be more scalable to your specific changing needs. Developers can build in adaptability so that the software will be relevant and useful even as numbers of users and APIs grow and workflows evolve.
  2. You need seamless integration with existing systems.
    It’s true that many OTBS solutions support integration with commonly used platforms and applications (e.g., Salesforce, HubSpot, Adobe Creative Cloud). However, if you need a solution that will integrate with a more niche program – and this could be a database, an internal application, single sign-on functionality – it will most likely put you in the custom build category.
  3. Data transfer and compatibility is a concern.
    With the colossal increase in data from different sources, as well as structure (or lack there-of), any move to a packaged solution should be carefully thought out. Organizations must know beforehand the potential difficulty of moving their data to the new system, and outlining processes for aligning the two.
  4. Custom development is necessary to solve your most pressing problems.
    You’ve determined that for a martech solution to truly enable your team to work faster, smarter and provide measurable ROI, a custom solution is the only way to go. The gaps are just too wide between your problems and standard features of out-of-the-box software.
  5. OTBS solutions include too many features you wouldn’t use.
    Too many non-valuable features mean you’re only using a small portion of what you’re paying for, which is not the way to prove ROI. While the price point of some packaged solutions may be low enough to negate issues of feature frivolity, it is not always the case and should be calculated before making any final software purchase decisions.

The Takeaway:

The sky’s the limit as far as functionality and capability when it comes to a custom build, as long as you have the budget and time to devote to the project. Involve analysts to help evaluate your current systems and processes and advise on whether custom is the right choice. Keep in mind that speed to market must take into account research, requirements, development and implementation phases (almost certainly more than a month, more often two months or longer depending on the scope of the project).

On the Other Hand, SaaS Can Work When…

  1. You have a fairly common challenge to solve.
    If you need a solution to address a business challenge that most companies face, there’s likely a SaaS solution available. For example, a mid-size retail business seeking a platform to automate an email marketing program will have no problem finding a host of ready-made solutions.
  2. The need for control and ownership is not a priority.
    For some use cases, owning a custom system does not deliver enough value. The business need that the software will fill may have been identified by the business as short-term, and thus long-term ownership is not warranted.
  3. A custom build wouldn’t give you a competitive edge.
    It won’t help you provide a higher quality service or a lower-cost product. In other words, you can execute key business processes and create deliverables without the need for a system with custom-developed functionality.
  4. An off-the-shelf product comes acceptably close to solving your issues.
    You may have a wish list of custom features that will enable a platform to “do it all.” But consider whether those features truly justify a custom build. These gray areas can be hard to judge, but typically, if an out-of-the-box option solves at least 90% of your process issues, it makes sense to forego a custom build. This philosophy applies only if acceptable workarounds exist for the areas the solution doesn’t address. (This point is basically the inverse of number 4 above.)

The Takeaway:

If you have a fairly broad need, you’re likely to find a robust SaaS solution that offers a wide range of functionality. OTBS also tend to evolve over time as they undergo vendor updates to better serve a wide client base – and the allure of receiving new features can definitely drive satisfaction. But if you have a very specific need in terms of processes or deliverables, keep in mind that OTBS software may fall short of expectations.

Making the decision to go custom or out of the box is just the beginning when it comes to selecting and implementing marketing-driven software. For more than 20 years, clients have turned to Strata Company for both custom development and SaaS solutions that deliver optimal value and improve speed and efficiency of business processes.

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