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Automation offers many benefits: efficiency, scale, measurability. But what does it offer your customers? PHOTO: Saundra Castaneda

I first used a marketing automation platform 10 years ago. We all loved the potential of those new systems back then: We’d build large databases of the names of potential customers and use marketing automation to nurture them along until they were ready to buy.

We’d segment by industry or product interest, send email offers, track open and click rates, then score them. Those prospects who exceeded a score threshold would be passed along to sales. Oh, the power!

Recently, certain global leaders referenced the buttons on their desks (i.e., those that are symbolically connected to their countries’ nuclear weapons arsenals). While marketers can’t start a world war, we do have powerful buttons on our desk. When pushed, those buttons can send 100,000 emails in a matter of hours.

Are We Doing Marketing Wrong?

Recently, author and marketing consultant Mark Schaefer published a blog post titled “Why Marketing Technology Is Sucking the Life Out of the Marketing Profession,” in which he noted that marketers “are implementing strategies and tactics based on what statistically is supposed to work, instead of what customers really want.”

Schaefer gives the example of pop-up ads: Data shows that they create leads, but most people hate them. This simple technology allows marketers to scale lead generation: As traffic grows, we generate more leads. But we could also generate more annoyance, distrust and hate by using pop-up ads.

“Today, marketing is best known for doing the stuff that people hate,” Schaefer wrote in his blog post. As more marketers embrace tactics that people hate, the problem could become worse, until, as Schaefer said, we end up “creating consumer hate at scale.”

Truth be told, I use these same marketing systems. And I think we’re doing marketing wrong.

Examples of Marketing Gone Wrong

On Twitter, I’ve been the target of social selling platforms employed by B2B marketers. Here’s a common flow used by the software:

  1. Find a user who fits a customer profile (me!).
  2. Follow that user, then wait for a follow back.
  3. If the user follows back, wait a little while, then send a direct message with a gated content offer.
  4. User fills out the form for the gated content, and — bam! — you have generated a sales lead.

That happens to me a few times each week. The direct message often reads, “Hi, Dennis! I enjoy your tweets on [TOPIC I DON’T TWEET ABOUT]. Thought you’d enjoy this free ebook: [LINK].” First, brands should understand that many users dislike automated messages (auto DM). Some users go as far as to unfollow anyone who sends an auto DM.

So sending an automated message is strike one. Then mistakenly saying that I tweet on a particular topic is strike two. That type of outreach leaves me inclined to not do business with any brand that initiates it.

Recently, I replied back to a bunch of auto DMs, indicating that I prefer to engage one to one with a real person, rather than social automation software.

Of the 10 replies I sent, only one brand responded. The rest? They went silent and apparently moved on to focus on other Twitter targets.

Here’s another example of marketing gone wrong: As I sat down to write this article, I received an email from a well-known brand. The greeting said “Hello, [first name]” instead of “Hello, Dennis.” That’s an innocent mistake on the part of someone on the brand’s marketing team, but it’s still a good example of creating negative karma at scale.

To combat the forces of automation, I resolve to do the opposite in 2018: I will automate less and rely instead on meaningful dialogue and engagement. While that may not “scale,” it could potentially create more successful outcomes.

Let’s consider a few ideas.

Organize Face-to-Face Events for Customers and Prospects

The automation-first mindset can yield low-quality marketing efforts. The thinking might go something like this: “Let’s send this email to our 100,000-person house list and hope to get 500 sign-ups. It’s not a big deal if there’s a typo or two, as long as we hit the sign-up goal.”

Instead of taking the easy (and sloppy) route afforded by automation, consider reaching out to prospects through face-to-face events.

Find the questions that your customers and prospects need answered and organize events around topics related to those questions. Invite or hire speakers who are experts on those topics.

Demandbase, a vendor of account-based marketing (ABM) technology, does a nice job with face-to-face marketing. Rather than just using events to promote its products, Demandbase organizes get-togethers that focus on the why’s and how-to’s of account-based marketing in general.

Using face-to-face events to help people address pressing needs, even if the topics discussed are not directly connected to your offerings, can generate upsell and pipeline acceleration.

Note: If you don’t have the budget for face-to-face events, try organizing webinars instead.

Dial Back Your Reliance on Automation

Here’s a good question that can put your content marketing efforts in perspective: If you stopped publishing content tomorrow, would anyone notice? The marketing automation version of that question is this: If you stopped sending mass emails and email nurtures, what would prospects say?

I bet some of your prospects would thank you for it!

So try dialing back your use of automation. Next month, send 10,000 instead of 100,000 emails. Also, craft some one-on-one emails — for example, you could ask prospects to collaborate on an upcoming blog post. And yes, I’m talking about emails that you type yourself in your own email client.

In 2018, I’d rather send 10 personalized emails that result in one customer conversation than 100 emails that result in one white paper download.

Do Some Early Spring Cleaning

It might be a good idea to clean out your email list. My experience shows that for every 100 emails sent, marketers get the following results:

  • Two responses from people asking to be removed from the list.
  • Five hard bounces (i.e., invalid email addresses).
  • 10 automatic responses, indicating that the intended recipients have retired or left their organizations for other reasons.

And then there are the 60 to 80 recipients who never open the email in the first place.

Many marketing automation and email marketing platforms are priced based on the number of contacts they have to handle. So cleansing your list can not only yield stronger engagement rates, but also save you money.

There are two approaches you can take: The first is to gently clean (i.e. unsubscribe) the obvious candidates, such as those mentioned above. A more extreme approach is to ask inactive recipients to opt-in to the list again.

If you have people who haven’t opened or clicked on an email in a year, send them an email asking them to click a button or link to stay subscribed. If they don’t respond in a certain amount of time, they’re unsubscribed.

Let’s all follow Mark Schaefer’s plea:

“What do our customers love? Now, go do that.”