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Marketing Automation: The marketer’s silver bullet or an expensive toy?

Have you heard of marketing automation software? If not, you soon will. It’s possibly the answer to the challenges facing marketers who are trying to carry out multi-channel marketing in a complex data environment and business is booming for these vendors. You probably need to be thinking about using it in your business, writes Kate Mayfield.

By Kate Mayfield

Here are some things you might want to know before you begin, and some things to know after you’ve deployed it.

Firstly, what is it?

Marketing automation is a term which usually refers to a type of software or, sometimes, to a way of doing marketing. It means campaigns or tasks are created automatically by the software, based on interactions from your customers and prospects (online or with web-facing interfaces within the marketing automation system) or from workflows operating between your own staff (eg. signing off a campaign by editorial team may trigger an email campaign to be sent).

Marketing automation is typically used to refer to multi-channel automation and more complex workflows than you have with email marketing software. For example, you might set up a campaign which starts with an email alert to a prospect; that person visits webpage; that triggers another email; they click on a link within the email; the sales team gets notified to call them within 24 hours; and a sale is made. Or the process begins again. As you can imagine, these campaigns can get quite involved as prospects have several options at each stage and each of those can lead them down a different path. Marketers become puppet masters of the system and analysts of the results, which means they can tweak the workflows and test different approaches to optimise your marketing results. The potential for small numbers of marketers to use such a system to do highly targeted, multi-channel campaigns across high volumes of data is immense.

But this is the theory. There are many difficulties in achieving this goal and it is sensible to see the path to full automation as long and steadily uphill, albeit with the summit in sight.

Remember what you know already

With marketing automation, as with all software deployments, we’re all being offered quick deployment via SaaS software and it’s tempting to just jump in feet first. With the time pressures placed upon us all to deliver, taking the time to do a proper analysis of requirements is sometimes hard to justify. But remember the lessons of CRM and marketing databases. This software is no different. Do your requirements first and then shop for software which matches those requirements. It may seem long-winded but it’ll save you considerable pain, delay and expense down the line if you get this bit right.

Often marketing people write their own requirements. Use this as a check list to make your requirements robust:

1. Missing key requirements assumed to be present in all systems of the type being selected. List the functionality of your incumbent system if you need to. Make sure you don’t miss things out even if they seem obvious.

2. Not specific enough. Don't underestimate how specific you need to be to communicate clearly to a vendor, who doesn't know your business or your terminology, what you mean.

3. A critique of the current system. There is a strong and understandable tendency for requirements to be lists of what’s wrong with your current system. See point 1.

4. People often write lists of what vendors say their systems do because they are seduced by the prospect of a shiny new system to play with and the marketing around that solution. By all means shop around to assess whether you need functionality and get ideas about how you might do your marketing better. But think about whether you really need it before you jump in and buy.

5. Not enough technical knowledge about underlying databases, data and the overall sales and marketing and technology architecture of the organisation. Use your technical experts to help you buy sensibly. They'll see through vendor sales pitches and understand the more difficult aspects of software deployment.

The devil is in the detail with requirements and so are the cost overrun risks and the risk of buying the wrong software.

Process engineering

Marketing automation systems, more than email marketing systems but similarly to sales management systems, often live or die by the quality of the processes they are supporting. You need to create strong processes that are replicated in the system and to adapt your marketing teams’ working practices to using a process management tool.

If you decide to automate, document your processes, reengineer them to make them slick and efficient and only then create them in the system. Humans easily and readily work around poor processes. We do it all the time but software is not capable of doing this. Get the processes down on paper and properly thought out before you create them in the software. And remember, if you’re changing processes and the way people work, you need to carry some change management too. It won't work to just ask people to do it differently even if it's their idea in the first place.

Test before you buy

Automation lends itself to businesses that have lots of data to leverage (ie. web behavioural data, contact data, buying patterns and so on) and who are using a range of channels for marketing. Rich and large data sets that can create highly targeted, personalised, time sensitive and multi-channel campaigns are ripe for marketing automation. But we strongly recommend you run some of these multi-channel, complex and personalised campaigns manually before you invest in the software or with a trial of the software.

To carry out a test, as for the process work, draw out your theoretical ideal campaign. Make sure it’s multi-channel, make sure you’ve got the resources to run it manually and make sure you can measure the results. Hopefully the business case, or the absence of a business case, will become apparent. This will help you improve your processes and will give reassurance to the people that sign the cheques.

And finally, you can go shopping

Using your robustly analysed requirements, you can go shopping for suitable software. The line between marketing automation and email marketing systems is blurring, as is that between marketing automation and marketing databases. So, think about which channels you want to use and think about your revenues and what improvement you might see in your results, based on your test results. Set an affordable budget that will see your investment pay off in the next one to two years, no longer. Include some allowance for the project exceeding your budget and all the costs of deployment - extra manpower, data cleansing and so on - that you will need. Look for out-of-the-box solutions, not bespoke systems. And don’t build your own. There is no way you can build what you can buy, for anything like the same price or as quickly. This is a very well-funded, fast-moving software market.

Deployment and beyond

You’ve chosen your vendor and now you’re in the honeymoon stage. Try and prolong that warm feeling between you both by running a good deployment. Here are some tips on achieving that and things to think about beyond the implementation:

1. Realistic project plans – let the vendor guide you and don’t push them too much to deliver something they don’t think they can;

2. Get the vendor to focus on your requirements properly, with you. You need their technical people, not their sales people, to really understand your requirements and this takes effort by both parties. Pay them to do it if you need to because it’s important they give it proper time and attention.

3. Involve your technical people and data integration experts to help deploy and integrate the system and get the data in that you want to use for marketing.

4. Create a system administrator role for the system and ensure they’re connected in to the rest of the IT functions of the organisation for cross fertilisation of skills.

5. Be aware of your data cleansing and management needs and resource and plan those properly.

6. And lastly skills… this sort of system changes your skill needs radically. Be prepared to retrain, hire different sorts of people and generally move to a wholly different way of marketing. Once you're up and running, set up internal programmes for ongoing training and sharing of results. You're only just beginning once the system is in.

And lastly, beware the wasted investment

Many organisations who have bought marketing automation are just using it to send out email campaigns. There is no triggering, bar the very basics (dropped baskets and email sign up offers and confirmations); no multi-channel; no integration with sales systems; and more. Don’t spend a whole load of money on such a system if you could be using Mailchimp.

By all means, start that way, but plan to extend and expand its use and then you’ll start to get real value from the system. In theory, the work of three marketers can be done by one if they are using a properly implemented marketing automation system. Have a think about that and what it might mean for your business.

Will it help you sell more? As with all sales and marketing software, marketing automation is an enabler not a silver bullet. But buy well and deploy well and it might well enable your marketing to reach a whole new level of sophistication in this very complex multi-channel world.