By Alan Krans, Technology Business Research

Editor’s note: Allan Krans is a senior analyst with IBM Corp. is (Nasdaq: UNCA), a marketing services company, for $480 million, or $21 per share. Krans analyzes the deal.

HAMPTON, N.H. – Websites are assuming the role of attentive sales executive.

Just as a seasoned account executive can pick on subtle clues regarding what a customer may need or want, Unica’s web marketing tools enables that same type of insight in a website driven model. Whereas sales have historically occurred either face to face or via the phone, research and even purchasing is increasingly taking place via a website.

IBM’s large enterprise customers will likely continue relying on direct sales contact for most purchases, but for smaller purchases and with SMB customers, the website can handle many tasks formerly reserved for the sales team. With a broad portfolio that can overwhelm many smaller customers, interpreting a customers needs and mapping that to end-to-end IBM solutions requires a significant amount of intelligence for a website to accomplish.

Tools such as Unica’s NetInsight provides the aggregation of user behavior that can facilitate custom recommendations that lead to more sales leads and higher closure rates for customers.

Insight can drive SMB growth

With growing demand amongst SMB customers, website sales are becoming an increasingly important tool for IT vendors. Symantec is another vendor that recognized this trend and responded by building its own online storefront after previously contracting with Digital River for the service.

Though building and maintaining the storefront required an up front and ongoing investment, Symantec made the decision because of the greater control and insight the website provided into its customers’ behavior. The ability to track all the different combinations of what customers view, for how long, in what sequence, and what is eventually purchased, or not, provides powerful insight into purchase scenarios and decision criteria that can be extremely valuable.

From customer to acquirer

The $480 million purchase follows a typical pattern of acquisitions for IBM – focusing on increasing the software revenue base with a minimum of risk. Unica brings more than $100 million of annual revenue into the IBM fold, and the company is profitable in 2010 after accounting charges produced an operating loss during 2009.

Following an extensive review period, IBM purchased Unica’s NetInsight product in November of 2009 to benefit directly from the web marketing tool. The research into Unica’s technology against competitive offerings in the space was done as part of IBM’s purchase decision, but that research combined with the experience of using the technology for nine months provided much of the insight needed to move an acquisition forward.

The fact that Unica is already profitable and has an existing customer base of more than 1,500 will make the acquisition immediately accretive both to IBM’s software revenue and profit growth.

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