Marketing automation (MA) is a hot topic right now -- it’s also in the early stages of potentially becoming an integral component of engendering positive customer interactions. 

Quite a bit has been written about what comprises current marketing automation capabilities. Most use cases center on email drip marketing and lead management/nurturing -- done well, they can make a big difference for many companies. 

Enterprises are beginning to understand how to use MA for more on-target "shepherding" of prospects during the buying cycle. And for enterprises with sophisticated buyer needs, marketing automation tools can provide a good means for building sustainable processes for continuous high quality leads and revenue growth.

There are stumbling blocks for marketing automation:

  • Multi-channel customer experiences are fragmented and don’t always map well into MA
  • Marketing automation is doomed if it retracts into a robotic email-blasting machine
  • A customer focus aligned with marketing automation requires several interconnected strategies for customer, marketing, content, lead gen -- plus sales and marketing collaboration.

A further complication is this advice from Forrester: frequently the customer has completed 75 percent of the buyer journey before engaging with sales. Of course, not all buyer journeys are the same -- often marketing automation is the most useful for complex journeys. But there’s still a lot to do to be successful with marketing automation.

The Customer Perspective Always Matters

From the company perspective, enabling excellent (or even good) customer experiences can seem complicated, even ephemeral. Some marketing programs are trying to make the “customer experience” quite intricate, perhaps overly convoluted. Software solutions are being developed around marketing processes for “customer experience management,” where too much emphasis may be on the “management” part, and too little on what constitute positive or desirable experiences from the customer perspective.

The customer perspective should also drive the use of marketing automation. There’s a lot of activity for the development and adoption of MA technologies -- there’s also a lot of room for improvement regarding processes, practices and objectives.

All of this should swirl around what the customer needs and wants from the enterprise’s products and services. And that will take deep intelligence, constant measurement and improvement, and continuous analysis to achieve tangible results that benefit the customer and the enterprise.

A Forrester report from 2011 conveys some of what it takes for success with marketing automation:

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‘Customer’ and the Buyer Journey

To achieve more valuable use of marketing automation, you have to start with thoroughly understanding customers, buyer journeys, trigger events and key touchpoints. This means a lot of research, analysis and segmentation at sophisticated levels -- all of which will have to be constantly refreshed. Behavioral and predictive analytics can provide useful insights, but these types of analytical modeling are not simple tasks. Collaboration with domain experts must be included to validate research, analysis and recommended steps to take.

Buyer journey mapping is a significant undertaking for engendering better customer buying experiences and for adding intelligence to marketing automation plans. Customer segmentation may yield multiple buyer journeys and maps, and possibly different customer experiences -- this will serve to take marketing automation further away from an undesirable one-size-fits-all. Buyer journey mapping helps better decision-making for aligning the interconnected strategies and processes needed to constantly refresh relevance for customers, particularly when marketing automation is in play.

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Buyer journeys are not always linear progressions. Instead steps or phases in the journey can circle back on themselves. Different phases may be revisited until the buyer is ready to move to subsequent phases. Circle-back cycles can occur multiple times. All of which adds complexity to constructing effective marketing automation processes.

Forrester’s customer experience touchpoints flow captures the iterative nature of many buyer journeys:

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Forrester: Emergence of Customer Experience Management Solutions

Customer Intelligence: Data, Integration, Analytics

For almost all aspects of Marketing, data really matters for achieving sustained effectiveness. Data is needed from many different internal systems and also must be collected from external venues such as social sites. Data sources and business processes must be integrated to manage the constant need for up-to-date information on customers. Useful customer segmentation can only be achieved through such integration efforts.

Constant interaction between marketing automation and CRM systems is another must-have. Beyond these two systems, the understanding of customer needs and desires also requires data from customer experience systems, social media owned by the enterprise and campaign management. For marketing automation to support engaging and personalized customer interactions, detailed analysis of communications over time can reveal what buyers are likely interested in now and for the near future.

Marketing automation processes don’t have to end with converted leads. Significant opportunities remain for targeted customer communications to nurture a more developed long term customer relationship, to open the door for new interactions, and eventually grow new purchases and customer brand advocacy. Effective personalized interactions that evolve with the customer relationship can derive from the use of analytics. Customers can change very quickly -- marketing automation has to keep up.

The data and intelligence attained in support of MA objectives must be shared with many other systems to enrich the continuous improvement of enterprise-wide customer focus and service. Not only are integrated systems and processes needed to accomplish this, but healthy cross-team collaboration, as well as the right strategies from top to bottom.

Marketing Automation + Customer Intelligence = Lots of Quality Content

A key aspect of marketing automation is matching the right content or message to the right customer at the right phase of the buying journey. In some ways, this is easier said than done, keeping in mind what it takes to really understand the customer. A great deal of very creative content will need to be developed along with savvy rules and decision processes. This is Personalization on Steroids.

Web content / experience management platforms and practices have a complementary relationship with marketing automation, and a critical need for interoperability to benefit each of them. Marketing automation is first focused on prospects who are purposefully interacting with enterprise web assets. WEM and content marketing are often attuned to engaging prospects who are less familiar with the brand and what it has to offer. Integration of MA and WEM for comprehensive interactions with prospects and customers has great potential:

  • HubSpot conducted a study last year on website redesign. What we found was that marketers redesign their websites with a surprising frequency. Sixty eight percent of marketers underwent a website redesign in the last 12 months… Most marketers who redesigned their website did so for branding reasons or because “the previous website was old,” and the company “just needed to modernize.” When you think about it, none of these reasons are particularly focused on the customer.
  • After hearing from marketers, the survey also asked website visitors what they thought. The results were significant. Seventy six percent of respondents said the most important factor in the design of a website is that it “makes it easy for me to find what I want.” So why are so many homepages driven by company-needs rather than those of prospective-customers?
  • The short answer is data. Emails sent through marketing automation are triggered by lead intelligence data. But most marketing automation systems are set up separately from a website’s content tools so the same data can’t trigger website content in a similar way.

For marketing automation content to provide superior customer engagement it must follow the same "rules" that exist for effective content marketing: it’s no longer about the vendor and product features, it’s about content that helps prospects and customers solve their problems and improve the performance of their enterprises. Content marketing strategies map content to buyer journeys -- since the same applies to marketing automation, integration opportunities should be explored.

Silos or Ecosystem?

The more strategic aspects of marketing automation are in their infancy and are going to take time and a lot of hard work to deliver useful results. Customer-responsive email marketing and better management of lead generation are important steps in the right direction. But marketing automation has to go beyond email programs and lead nurturing to bring more value to improved customer interactions not only for buyer journey phases, but for ongoing relationships with customers.

Marketing automation can take on greater significance particularly when integrated with WEM and content marketing processes for intelligent content delivery that reflects real understanding of each customer segment. Anytime we are talking about content, we’re talking Customer -- so the needs and desires of customers must be at the strategic heart of integrated processes for MA, WEM and the other components of an integrated digital marketing ecosystem.

Marketing automation has the potential to evolve into a key piece for building dynamic intelligence that feeds many digital marketing processes. But marketing automation will not meet that potential if it focuses only on responses to the actions taken by buyers in one-off interactions.

Editor's Note: To read more by Julie, check out The Customer Journey: Content Marketing for B2B Software Buyers