2014-05-June-Conch.jpgThe gap between marketers and their audiences is growing. With more access than ever before to information, product reviews and social recommendations, many see our current stage of marketing evolution to be the “age of the consumer.”

Thinking of audiences as empowered consumers, while accurate in many ways, clings to an old paradigm in which marketers held the conch. We are not an Internet of consumers to be manipulated into one-off transactions -- we are an Internet of always-connected individuals with an ever-growing array of tools and technologies that empower our ability to engage with life. And yes, these individuals at times buy things.

This revolutionary shift in power and connectedness has given birth to an unprecedented increase in data and a digital landscape of apps, sites, communities, communication channels and technology platforms that converge to deliver effective digital experiences.

With these changes and the promise of more to come, two things are clear: First, a long view that anchors itself to a customer experience-based North Star is required. And second, automation will be necessary to deliver effective digital experiences at scale for prospective buyers.

The Many Faces of Marketing Automation

There is a lack of clarity across the board around what constitutes marketing automation. Broadly speaking, marketing automation refers to software platforms and technologies designed for marketing departments and organizations to market more effectively across multiple channels.

As a software category, marketing automation was designed for B2B companies to manage a relatively small volume of high value leads at the top of the sales funnel. This generally included functional capabilities such as lead nurturing, lead scoring, email marketing and CRM integration. As a software category, there is broad consensus that the industry will grow considerably. David Raab of Raab Associates predicts a 60 percent increase in industry revenue for 2014.

However, marketing automation as a concept is much broader than the few vendors that identify themselves as such, with offerings tailored specifically for SMB, mid-market and enterprise, as well as B2C scenarios and different industry verticals. If you lean towards marketing automation as a concept instead of a software category you must consider the entire gamut of marketing when discussing the topic of automation.

Regardless of definition, there are a few trends that predict how marketing automation will intersect with and be required for value-creating digital experiences in the future.

All Channels Welcome, Best Practices Supported

Marketing automation has traditionally relied upon email as the sole channel across which to automate the payload of triggered messages. However, in order to deliver against its promise, marketing automation needs to expand beyond email and web channels to encompass a richer cross section of the conversion landscape. This includes organic inbound marketing like social media, display advertising, SEO and lifecycle marketing functions such as behavioral retargeting, advanced segmentation and loyalty for cross-sell, upsell and retention.

As marketing automation expands it is important to steer clear of silver bullet mentalities. Roughly one-third of marketing automation users are unhappy with their results. The reasons for this unhappiness are varied but often point to a lack of resources, preparation or unreasonable expectations that technology will fill a void of strategy and clearly-defined goals. Content, lack of dedicated resources, low-quality customer databases or insufficient knowledge of your audience are all factors that lead to failure, resulting in unachieved goals and misspent resources.

The best way to protect against this is to pair technology with marketing services that position strategy and best practice domain expertise ahead of technology. Table stakes maneuvers like segmentation and targeting, email welcome programs, A/B split testing and dynamic content should be well mastered before any consideration of automation.

Flexibility to Address a Brave New World. Again, and again, and again ...

The pendulum seems to swing back and forth on the archetypal “suite versus best of breed” debate. While the allure of all-in-one solutions is understandably strong, how many of us truly believe that in the future there will be fewer channels, choices and outcomes available to our audiences?

In order to string together best-of-breed applications or access an ever-expanding number of data sources, marketing automation will require modular technology with broad integration capabilities that are not currently widely available.

Smarter Buyers + Vendor Transparency

At the enterprise level, you have the independent software vendors that want to sell software. They are pushing their offerings at buyers who are expecting technology to fill a void of strategy. So then what happens? Marketers are making bad purchasing decisions and are experiencing failed implementations because technology is not the end all be all.

Vendors should invest more in selling the right stuff to the right buyers and educating the marketplace. Everyone loses when product capabilities are mis-billed and/or uninformed buyers purchase less than appropriate technology solutions.

For marketing automation to find broad success, it is critical that we bring up the level of discourse with the appropriate amount of detail around the domain. Recognize that shiny object syndrome continues to fail us and that we can only apply technology against a clearly-defined strategy that serves our audiences.

Recommended ingredients for success include:

  • Place customer rather than marketer-centric metrics at the center of our success orientation.
  • Embrace the systems, processes and tools that empower us to address individuals’ needs.
  • Don’t automate that which you have not mastered manually.
  • Give room to fail on an endless pursuit of winning.
  • Focus on core, mature channels including email, web, search, display and newer channels like social, all within a mobile context.
  • Optimize your organizational setting for curiosity and experimentation.

We need to bring the dialog to a broader and deeper level. It’s a tough prescription but anything less won’t allow us to orchestrate the experiences our audiences are demanding. We as marketers are stuck retrying plays from an old playbook. We need a new playbook for a new paradigm. And here’s the tough part: we need to define the plays. My hope is that the future of marketing automation, as with all categories of digital marketing technology, will be measured by its positive impact on customer experiences.

Title image by mrhayata (Flickr) through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license