Guide to what, why, when and how to use marketing automation

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Are you confused by all the talk surrounding marketing automation? Good news: you're not alone, and we're here to straighten out your question marks.

We know from experience just how much there is to learn about marketing automation. The purpose of this guide is to share with you the knowledge we've gained over the years. It's also to make you comfortable in making decisions on the subject.




What is marketing automation?


According to Wikipedia, marketing automation is "a process where technology is used to automate several repetitive tasks that are undertaken regularly in a marketing campaign". Tasks can include sending email messages, posting updates on social media, delivering text messages and more. 

It doesn't generate leads

A common misconception is that marketing automation software can solve any challenge in the customer journey, including the need to create new leads. This misconception, unfortunately, leaves many marketers with advanced tools that automate the middle of their funnel but no solution for capturing new leads to nurture in the first place.

Helps marketers increase sales qualified leads (SQLs)

Marketing automation allows marketers to move leads from the top of the marketing funnel to being sales-ready leads (a.k.a. Sales Qualified Leads, SQLs) at the bottom of the funnel. Prospects are identified based on their actions and activities, then receive targeted content and messaging to nurture them from first interest through to the sales process.

For a more in-depth description, we've written an article titled "What is marketing automation?" that covers more myths vs facts and also describes why marketing automation requires extensive resources to do well.

Why marketing automation is important

Increased efficiency

On a high level, marketing departments tend to focus on marketing automation for increased efficiency since it lets them implement digital marketing campaigns without having to manually press "send" on every email, social media message and so on that they create.

Note: Efficiency doesn't mean fewer resources are needed in the marketing department, simply that resources shift from manual tasks to higher-value tasks like content creation. More on this, you can find several examples of tasks to automate in our article "Why marketing automation is important".

A more personalised experience

In addition to efficiency, another advantage of marketing automation tends to be that it enables a more personalised experience for anyone interacting with our content. Automation tools should help you identify your audience, design the right content, and automatically trigger actions based on customer behaviour.

Better insights and analytics

Once a campaign is live, marketing automation should help you focus on analysing and tweaking your marketing plan as results come in. Learning what works best and adding more resources to those areas are vital in delivering increased internal efficiency and a more personalised experience for your target audience.

When to invest in marketing automation

The danger with the word "automation"

An apparent risk with marketing automation is to give too much focus on the word "automation" above anything else. Automation implies that it's possible to buy a marketing automation tool, then simply sit back and watch the results produce themselves. It's not the case, of course. Successful marketing automation requires a comprehensive approach that integrates the right processes, people, content, data, and more.

Are we ready?

If your organisation is already creating inbound content and generating leads from organic traffic and social media, then it's time to focus some of your efforts on nurturing those leads into paying customers with the help of marketing automation. Below is a checklist you can use to determine if your organisation would benefit from investing in marketing automation:

  • We have an editorial team, content plan and production in place
  • We are generating a steady flow of new leads
  • Marketing and sales have agreed on what conversations should happen with marketing and which with sales
  • We are tracking our leads' footprint across every online touchpoint
  • Sales are asking for higher quality in the leads that they receive
  • We have tested some lead nurturing tactics, but it's hard to scale

These are all indications that your organisation is ready. The key here is understanding that marketing automation does not do marketing for you but can help scale your successful efforts.

Marketing automation adoption

Google "marketing automation statistics", and you will find all sorts of data showing that marketing automation is now a mainstream tactic. Here are just two examples:

  • On average, 51% of companies currently use marketing automation, and 58% of B2B companies plan to adopt the technology. (Emailmonday)
  • 63% of participants surveyed by Invespcro said they plan to increase their marketing automation budget.

If you're interested in even more figures, we've created an article that lists some key marketing automation statistics you should know.

How does marketing automation work?

More than email

Traditionally marketing automation has referred to triggering emails based on time delays or actions like email opens and email clicks. While email data is still vital, it's not enough to execute a personalised lead nurturing campaign. You need more context about who your prospects are and what they're interested in to give them a pleasant experience. Marketing automation, combined with an inbound methodology, provides you with that context. 

Inbound and marketing automation

Inbound supercharged with marketing automation uses all the information we know about a lead to inform our automation tactics. Not just email. Using behavioural inputs from multiple touchpoints such as social media, viewing a pricing page, or consuming a particular piece of content gives us the context to understand our leads' challenges. The ambition is to deliver the information they need to ultimately make a purchase, exactly when they need it, in the place they're looking for. Hence, the most effective marketing automation also uses various channels - beyond email - to communicate and influence a buyer's decision.

Marketing automation vs CRM

Marketing automation at scale requires the following three elements, preferably in a single tool:

  • An online contact database. A place to store all your marketing data, including detailed interactions and behaviours for all contacts.
  • A marketing automation engine. A tool for the creation, management and automation of marketing processes.
  • An analytics engine. A place to understand what worked and what didn't, and to test, measure, and optimise tactics to maximise ROI and impact on revenue.

To be more specific, typical features would include email marketing, landing pages and forms, campaign management, predictive lead scoring, CRM integration, social media management, marketing analytics and more.

You can learn more about this topic in our article, 'How does marketing automation work?'

Examples of marketing automation

Automated emails

Historically the main tactic of marketing automation, sending emails targeted towards contacts depending on their behaviour and place in the customer journey is still essential. Examples of such automated emails are:

  • Welcome series. Your first chance to make a great impression on new contacts, onboarding and incentivising them to move further down the buyers' journey.
  • Content offer. A classic lead nurturing tactic. Deliver a content offer based on what content the individual has consumed previously.
  • Reminder. An opportunity to deliver a timely message and make contacts repeat customers or cross-sell or up-sell.
  • Birthday or anniversary. Celebrate a milestone, e.g. their first purchase. Effectiveness will vary depending on your industry.
  • Re-engagement. Encourage contacts whom you haven't engaged with for a while to reactivate.
  • Feedback. Ask contacts what they think about your content, products and services. 
  • Reviews and testimonials. Request product reviews or testimonials from new and repeat customers. 
  • VIP. Have a high-value segment? Treat them extra well.

For more details on tasks, you can automate when starting, read our article on marketing automation examples to implement in your company.

Personalised onsite content

Just as easy as sending automated targeted emails is displaying relevant messages onsite when your visitor returns (given that you can store visitor profiles). In many ways, e.g. a guiding welcome message, a contextually relevant content offer or an essential reminder is more efficient to display when a user is already actively interacting with your content. Thus, consider email very relevant for passive users, but treat personalised onsite content as equally crucial for your more active users.

Chatbots (conversational marketing)

Increasingly marketing is becoming conversational, driven by voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple's Siri on the one hand and chatbots on the other. Rather than looking for an answer by browsing a site or using an onsite search, we're increasingly turning specific questions into conversations. Chatbots thus complement email and onsite content tactics in that once a targeted message is delivered, we can encourage users to enter into a conversation with us.

Marketing automation for B2B

Is marketing automation mostly suited for B2C, or is it also used in B2B, which often has smaller target audiences? The answer is that it's commonly used in business-to-business (B2B) settings and longer sales cycle business-to-consumer (B2C) instances. Hence, the sales cycle's length rather than the type of business determines how valuable marketing automation tactics are. And like any investment, resources put into marketing automation shall be compared against other potential investments and budgets allocated where they create the most added value.

For a deeper look at this topic, take a look at this article on automation best practices in the B2B segment - B2B marketing automation: best practices.

Benefits of marketing automation

Endless amounts of reports and articles explain the benefits of marketing automation. Some show wildly successful numbers, and one can question whether the author is interested in showing positive figures. Still, we know from having deployed such tactics for a decade that they work.

One example is a lead nurturing flow that automates the follow-up of leads with relevant content based on their profile (persona). Of about 4000 leads that have passed through, roughly 5% have become so-called Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs). An SQL has been looked at more closely and handed over to a sales rep. Depending on the Life-Time Value of your customers, generating those SQLs and turning them into customers can be a highly profitable operation, even with significant investments in marketing automation.

For those of you who like the wilder numbers you can find on Google, here are a few sample statistics:

  • Businesses implementing marketing automation see an average increase of 451% in qualified leads. (Business2Community)
  • 91% of marketers surveyed by Instapages say marketing automation is "essential" to the success of their marketing campaigns.
  • Using lead nurturing, 15-20% of potential buyers that were "not yet ready to purchase" opportunities converted to sales. (Protocol80)
  • 44% of companies implementing marketing automation see a return on investment within six months, and 76% see it within the first year. (Marketo)

Sales and marketing automation

As always, there tend to be multiple explanations of subjects that are open to interpretations. Sales and marketing automation are no different, and the two main views are:

  1. Marketing automation refers to the top and middle-of-the-funnel activities, whereas sales automation covers the lower end of the funnel.
  2. Marketing automation manages and automates all marketing touchpoints, whereas sales automation facilitates the internal workflows (e.g., streamline your sales pipeline with alerts.)

Have a look at what this can mean in practice with an anonymous real-life example.

The best marketing automation tools

The market is filled with tools that promise to make marketing automation fast, easy and effective - but choosing the right tool for your company can be challenging. In this chapter, we'll explain what you should look for in a prospective marketing automation tool and give some suggestions for leading tools to try. If you want more detail, look at our article on what to consider when choosing a marketing automation tool.

Look into the origins of the tool

Having decided to venture into marketing automation, you want a system that supports your efforts in the best possible way. So which platform should you choose? Since there is an ongoing battle where CRM vendors are venturing into marketing automation and CMS tools and vice versa, we argue that you should choose your provider based on their origins. What they did from the beginning is usually their strength.

The tool should fit into your existing software stack

We also argue that you should never choose to add new software that doesn't offer an integration with your current software stack. This integration can be native or through software like Zapier or PieSync, which HubSpot recently acquired

Competitors to Marketo and HubSpot Enterprise

Of the early pioneers in the field of marketing automation, only HubSpot and Marketo remain stand-alone offerings, and Marketo will likely be an integrated part of Adobe Marketing Cloud eventually. Here are a few facts about the leading players in marketing automation:

  • Marketo (Adobe) was one of the pioneers, founded in 2006 and serves primarily large-scale enterprise customers. 
  • Pardot (Salesforce) is now an integrated part of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Thus, don't consider Pardot as a stand-alone offering but as part of the Salesforce suite.
  • Eloqua (Oracle) is now an integrated part of Oracle Marketing Cloud's enterprise offering.
  • HubSpot, founded in 2006 on the inbound marketing philosophy, covers the entire buyer's journey from attracting traffic to delighting existing customers. It was the first all-in-one inbound platform rather than purely a marketing automation tool. Has also been the leader in building an ecosystem of third-party apps and integrations. Historically HubSpot targeted small and medium-sized companies and built its strength on usability. Ease-of-use remains the core strength when steadily moving upmarket to serve enterprise businesses.

To learn more, we suggest visiting G2's list of best marketing automation software to study the user reviews and scores of the more than 200 marketing automation tools listed. You can also look at our article 'The best B2B marketing automation platforms to get our comparison and opinions.

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