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What Is Marketing Automation and How Does It Help Marketers?

19 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar
We explore the definition of marketing automation software, its features, components, how is it used and what the benefits are for marketers who implement it.

Editor's Note: This content has been updated to reflect changes in technologies and trends.

Marketing automation is the process of leveraging software to automate repetitive marketing tasks. Automation can save marketers a lot of time when they are following up on leads and taking potential clients through the conversion funnel.

Marketing automation software often works by integrating with customer relationship management (CRM) and customer data platform (CDP) software. Marketers can use automation tools to personalize the messages or content they send to leads. They can also schedule messages and automate common responses. For businesses with a large customer database, these tools can greatly increase the productivity of sales and marketing teams.

Small businesses often pride themselves on the personal touch. Sending individual emails to leads isn't a scalable approach, however. As the reach of a business grows, it's important to find new ways to stay in touch with people at different stages of the customer lifecycle.

Automation is a Growing Industry

Interest in marketing tools has increased over the last few years, and that trend looks set to continue.

In 2018, Adobe acquired marketing automation provider Marketo for $4.75 billion. Oracle and Salesforce have also made notable marketing automation acquisitions in the past nine years. Bloomreach, a digital experience platform (DXP) provider, acquired Exponea in December 2020. Exponea offers marketing automation and CDP integrations.

In September 2021, Intuit announced plans to acquire Mailchimp for $12 billion in cash and stock advances. Mailchimp is a consumer engagement and marketing automation platform aimed at small and mid-sized businesses. Susan Goodarzi, CEO of Intuit, explains the company's aim was to expand the platform so that it's at the center of business growth for small and medium businesses. Goodarzi says, "[This] helps them overcome their most important financial challenges. Adding Mailchimp furthers our vision to provide an end-to-end customer growth platform to help our customers grow and run their businesses, putting the power of data in their hands to thrive.”

The global marketing automation market size is expected to reach $8.42 billion by 2027. This means the industry is expected to expand at a CAGR of 9.8% from 2020 to 2027, according to a 2020 report from ResearchAndMarkets.com.

Related Article: A Look at the Top 5 Marketing Automation Software by Market Share

Marketing Automation Helps You Understand Your Customers

According to a 2018 report from Epsilon Research, 80% of customers are more likely to buy from brands that offer customized and relevant experiences. Marketing automation helps brands provide those customized experiences.

Smaller businesses can offer a hands-on approach to customer service. When an account manager has just a handful of clients to deal with, they can remember their preferences and needs quite easily. Bigger brands or time-strapped sole traders can't offer that experience as easily. That's where automation tools and CRM platforms become useful.

The Vision for Marketing Automation

Marketing automation tools help brands engage with their customers more efficiently. They streamline the process of lead management, and make marketing activities more scalable, helping brands increase their revenues, explains Andrea Lechner-Becker, chief marketing officer of LeadMD. “That’s the definition and that’s what it's supposed to do,” Lechner-Becker told CMSWire. “But it doesn't actually happen without proper training, strategy and implementation.”

Related Article: What Is Email Automation And How Does It Fuel Marketing Strategy?

How Are Automated Systems Used in Marketing?

Let's take a look at an example of an automated marketing system in use. An automated email that is sent to a user based on behavior triggers set ahead of time by marketers inside the marketing automation platform. “You can remind a website visitor of items in their abandoned shopping cart, or send an automated email welcome series to subscribers,” said Nitai Aventaggiato, co-founder at Helpmonks. "Marketing automation helps companies to increase efficiency, sales and engage with customers in a more personal way and grow revenue faster."

Automated systems can also send tailored messages based on past purchases. For example, a customer who purchases a printer could be offered discounts on cartridges for it at a later date. Someone who purchases nutritional supplements could be offered recommendations for new flavors at around the time they'd be expected to have used up their previous purchase.

Automation Versus ABM

Some vendors and analysts believe the next step in streamlining marketing would be to see a convergence of account-based marketing (ABM) and marketing automation software. ABM software companies are adding more marketing automation-like capabilities and marketing automation-like functionalities to their products. Today, ABM can include native email, landing page and form functionality, engagement programs, native databases. Some also offer demand generation and prospecting use cases.

Account-based marketing software helps B2B marketers identify and target accounts based on specific metrics, allowing marketers to better coordinate with sales teams. This approach differs from the one used in B2C, where marketers target individuals.

The philosophy driving ABM is that it's the accounts that drive sales in the B2B world. Focusing on account behavior, engagement and activity can help marketers identify, attract, engage, convert, close and then measure progress against customers and prospects.

Handling the volumes of data processed by B2B marketers can be tricky, even with ABM tools. That's why ABMs are starting to include automation features, and vice-versa. MAPs have grown in their feature sets. “Especially after a couple of years of rapid evolution to accommodate ABM practices,” Forrester explained in its Forrester Tech TideTM: Extended CRM Technologies, Q1 2021. “The technology has evolved from supporting the obsolete practices of fill-the-funnel campaigns and drip marketing on steroids to supporting contextual and personalized digital marketing." They added, noting that this is "an increasingly important customer engagement strategy in all industries."

The Marketing Automation Holy Grail: Qualified Leads

It's not just B2B organizations that can benefit from automation. There's a lot to be said for marketing automation in the B2C world, too. The ultimate outcome of marketing-automation efforts is to gain conversions, produce qualified leads, market at scale and personalize messages. Qualified leads are helpful for marketing-sales collaboration. Having well-qualified leads helps fill sales funnels and makes life easier for marketing professionals. Whether you're selling in B2B or B2C, it's important to have meaningful, fruitful conversations with prospects.

HubSpot Marketing Writer Martina Bretous explains the importance of regular contact with prospects. Nurturing leads through email contact and social proof is helpful for converting leads to customers. Bretous stresses the value of automation for streamlining this process as a business grows. She explains, "These tactics can not only save your team time but also streamline the conversion process so that no lead falls through the cracks. This practice also leaves room for your sales and marketing team to focus on big-ticket items."

Identifying Qualified Leads

According to Jasmine Chung, director of demand generation for Openprise, marketing automation helps to get qualified leads in a number of ways:

  • Using a scoring model to track behavior and demographic/firmographic information
  • Creating landing pages that act and look like the main website
  • Dynamic content that focuses highly on personalization

Sending the right messages to the right prospects at the right time is the key to generating leads, according to Aventaggiato. Marketing automation helps businesses send messages that are relevant to the customer at the right moment. “It helps them to connect,” he said, “with the prospects and existing customers on a deeper level.”Lechner-Becker, looking at marketing automation and leads from a different lens, disagrees. In their view, marketing automation does not help you get qualified leads. It helps you send more emails and quite possibly get more people to complete sign-up forms, but nothing more. Marketing automation can help increase the scale of an operation but not the quality of leads.

How Do You Make Marketing Automation Work?

For marketing automation to be successful, the leads that the automation tools work with must be high quality. As Lechner-Becker suggests, automation cannot be used in a scatter-spray way.

Properly screening prospects and confirming the quality of the leads in your CRM system is an important part of the job of the marketing team, and is something they should be doing before letting automation software loose on any database.

Marketing and Sales Collaboration

One of the promises of marketing automation software is the direct collaboration between marketing and sales. We’re not going to promise this always gets realized once you roll out a piece of software. However, automation helps sales and marketing alignment because it creates service level agreements, and processes in general, on what strategies you’re going to deploy, according to Lechner-Becker. “Marketing automation forces teams into consistency,” she said.

Marketing automation streamlines the sales funnel and makes it easier for the sales and marketing team to generate leads and turn them into current customers, according to Aventaggiato.

Marketing automation supports marketing and sales collaboration by ensuring that both teams are aligned and “act like a baton in a relay race,” said Chung. “Passing the baton between marketing and sales is crucial,” she added, “and the timing is critical." Chung explains that marketing alone is not enough. Marketing works to reach the right prospects and deliver qualified leads. However, if this information isn’t routed to the right rep, the opportunity goes stale. So it’s vital for the right leads to get to the right sales representative at the right time.”

Marketing Automation Features

Marketing automation tools can come with numerous features. According to Aventaggiato, some key uses of marketing automation platforms include:

Nurturing Leads

Automation allows teams to send automated emails to drive a lead through the sales funnel. These emails can offer information relevant to the consumer's interests and preferences. A 2021 report from analytics firm Databox highlights that lead nurturing is important for B2B organizations for several reasons, including:

  1. Generating higher-quality leads
  2. Increasing each customer's average order value
  3. Reducing the average customer acquisition cost
  4. Increasing customer loyalty
  5. Establishing a brand as an authority

Personalized Email Marketing

Email personalization helps businesses to develop better relationships with their customers. It can help increase the lifetime value of a customer by bringing them back for upgrades, to purchase consumables, or repeat past purchases.

Allie Decker of HubSpot writes that the cost of acquiring new customers increased by 60% between 2015 and 2021. Retaining existing customers is much better value for money than attempting to recruit new ones.

Campaign Management

Companies can run email campaigns to nurture leads along the sales cycle. Automation enables teams to send direct and personalized emails to a large number of people.As the number of products an organization has grows, running personalized campaigns becomes increasingly complicated. Combining metrics from past orders, abandoned carts, or sign-up surveys helps marketers better target customers.

CRM Integration

Integrating automation tools with an existing CRM allows businesses to transfer lead information between marketing and sales teams. This offers a smoother experience for leads and customers, increasing overall satisfaction. It also saves marketing and sales workers time and improves their productivity.

Tools for Marketing Automation

Customer and employee experience services company Yield included among its marketing automation features in a 2020 report:

Forms and Landing Pages

These tools have been the mainstay of online marketing for a long time. They help brands capture information from prospects and then route it to various systems for storing and/or action, according to Yield.

Historically, landing pages were something that had to be created by web developers. Allowing sales and marketing teams to design multiple, highly targeted landing pages themselves takes a lot of the friction out of the process of launching new products or campaigns.

Lead Scoring

An integral part of all marketing automation and email platforms. “Many of these more advanced solutions are moving beyond scoring as a result of activities (visits, opens, clicks, etc.) and scoring based on perceived intent and/or buying stage,” Yield officials noted.

Lead scoring improves the communication between the marketing and sales teams and helps everyone do a better job.

Lead Filtering and Management

Some marketing automation platforms serve as a landing spot for leads that don’t quite include enough information to pass on to sales, according to Yield. “For an increasing number of B2B organizations, this is becoming less relevant. The abundance of data on a targeted market segment makes it possible to move to a “contacts only” customer data structure. This brings every account and contact into the CRM,” its researchers said.

Social Media Management

This allows for the distribution of content across most major social platforms from one interface. Marketers no longer have to manage each account individually. This can increase security because social media account managers don't need access to the underlying login credentials. Rather, they receive access via the automation platform.The use of social media management tools also helps maintain a consistent brand image across all social media platforms. Marketers can reuse images or content easily, tweaking them to suit the format of each platform but maintaining the integrity of the message.

The Difference Between Marketing Automation and CRM

Marketing automation and CRM work together but serve different functions. Marketing automation follows top-of-funnel activities to drive qualified prospects to sales, while CRM stores information about the prospect and where they are in the sales cycle, according to Chung. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between marketing automation and CRM, which means it’s critical to use a data orchestration solution or other tools to ensure only cleansed data flows between the marketing automation system and the CRM,” she said.

Learning Opportunities

Common Marketing Automation Integrations

Marketing automation can integrate with potentially hundreds of other applications. On top of CRM, one of the most common integrations is with webinar applications to drive engagement, according to Chung. Many webinar solutions offer an installed package that connects with the marketing automation platform. The automation platform can then access the webinar tool's engagement data. This can generate valuable insights since someone who stays throughout the webinar will have a higher engagement than someone registered but did not attend.

It's also very common to integrate marketing automation with a chat platform, according to Lechner-Becker. API connectors can lead to several other integrations for marketing automation.

Bots and Data Connections Without The Need for Code

Chatbots are becoming increasingly popular with marketers who want to provide rapid responses to common queries. Colm O' Searcoid of GetJenny, a chatbot service from LeadDesk, cites several case studies of brands that have benefited from their bots. Searcoid explains that chatbots can:

  • Generate and qualify leads
  • Save hours of work
  • Help brands maintain a consistent voice
  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Improve agent satisfaction
  • Automate many processes
  • Provide self-service options for consumers
  • Reduce the impact of short-term surges in customer support requests

Not all organizations will make use of the same features. Some businesses rely heavily on social media. Others use email or their own ticketing systems. Having access to metrics from those tools and the ability to streamline their use is what makes marketing automation tools so useful.

In the past, designing forms was something only web developers could do. Today, the complexities of creating forms and collecting information are abstracted by CRM platforms. Creating bots that can respond to simple queries is also easier than ever before.

Low-code and no-code solutions put the power in the hands of the people with the marketing expertise.

Related Article: How Low-Code/No-Code Platforms Bring a Marketing Team’s Dreams to Life

Reporting Tools to Get Better Insights

Whatever tools or platforms a brand uses to communicate with its prospects, it needs to understand the response those communications are getting. Jessica Greene of Databox recommends marketers track their campaign performance using visualization tools.

These tools help marketers "instantly visualize your email engagement, including where any spikes or dropoffs occur," Greene explained. The insights offered can help with email segmentation, the selection of more relevant content, and planning longer automated email sequences.

Effective marketing means sending communications that help the user, rather than simply trying to sell them something. Visualization tools for HubSpot, MailChimp, Marketo and other popular mailing list tools make it possible for marketing teams to understand the effectiveness of their existing communications at a glance.

Good Marketing Automation Practices

When used properly, automation saves time and money and improves the overall experience people have with a brand. Used incorrectly, automation could hamper a brand or simply waste resources.

Lechner-Becker describes a good example of using marketing automation in a workflow as:

  1. Tracking how someone first lands on your site (referral source).
  2. Tracking where they convert (the first form they fill out or engaging with your chatbot for example).
  3. Orchestrating how, when and with what messages marketing and sales continue to engage the buyer.
  4. Following the prospect all the way through that purchase.

Another important area in which these tools are used is reporting. Marketers can generate reports to find out which campaigns are generating the most impact. They can also see which referral sources bring in the most web traffic, whether those sources are ads or organic links.

“You can do that all manually,” she said, “but marketing automation's entire purpose is to create scale and, as a result, efficiency and repeatability in such a way that the result is predictable. Before marketing automation, marketers were dependent on IT resources to code emails, build landing pages and actually deploy mass emails. Marketing automation gives marketers the power and therefore saves time and money.”

Good marketing automation will look like an organized space where it’s easy to find and locate the things you need, with orchestrated processes running smoothly, and holistically, in a refined database, Chung said. “Marketing automation at its best should enhance every program and process, improving the lead lifecycle journey for the sales team to trust the data and every effort driven by marketing,” Chung added.

Bad Marketing Automation Examples

Marketing automation’s real value is in the data. The worst part of the marketing automation process is that marketers rarely get the training necessary to effectively manage, manipulate and use data, according to Lechner-Becker.

“All the marketer’s training in school was mostly around learning price, product, promotion, place — the four Ps — and not data stewardship, field validation, or privacy compliance concerns,” she said. “All of marketing automation’s best features are data-related, but marketers rarely learn that. So if marketers don’t follow data best practices, they will eventually manage to mess up the whole process and do the opposite of what marketing automation is supposed to achieve.”

Poor marketing automation sabotages marketing efforts, Chung said, adding these bad processes affect the data that all critical marketing technologies depend on. “It’s the proverbial ‘garbage in/garbage out’ problem,” Chung said. “However, there are ways to minimize the impact of junk data entering the marketing automation system, including using progressive profiling to gather additional information iteratively and using a data orchestration solution to automate data hygiene processes.”

Marketing Automation Pricing and Selection Process

Two common pricing models for marketing automation tools are:

  • Per month subscription plans
  • Per contact, per month subscription plans

Which type of plan is most suited to a business depends on its size and its plans for scaling. A smaller business with just a few hundred contacts may find a per contact plan is more than enough to accommodate their use case.

Bigger organizations, or ones with very large marketing databases, are more likely to benefit from paying a flat fee per month. The predictability of this pricing could be a bonus for them.

B2B vs. B2C

As for selecting these kinds of tools, the choice between marketing automation platforms often comes down to B2C versus B2B types of marketing automation. Another consideration is how many emails you need to send on a daily/weekly basis and what the timeliness of those emails needs to be, according to Lechner-Becker.

“So, in the B2B world, most emails that we send don't really have a timeliness element to them, like a B2C email,” she said. “For example, a lot of B2C companies typically send coupons that are going to expire in 24 hours, or some level of urgency to act. You need a system that deploys those 10 million emails quickly, or you're going to have really angry customers," added Lechner-Becker.

In many cases, B2C marketing focuses on impulse buys and smaller purchases. While there are exceptions, such as for cars or holidays, many B2C emails are for consumables, experiences or goods that a person can purchase out of their discretionary budget. Capturing the customer at a time they're ready to buy is important.

Lechner-Becker explained, "The sending engine, and the back end of that, is primarily what differentiates B2C and B2B. A B2C company typically calls their marketing automation an ESP (email service provider) instead of a full marketing automation system.”

B2B Marketing Automation Platforms

B2B tends to use marketing automation platforms like Pardot, HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua. “Their sending engine is not as strong because they have more tools that incorporate more of the ways that B2B marketers go to market,” Lechner-Becker said. “So that's a main differentiator.”

There is also a big competitive advantage of certain platforms if you really need to track the life cycle of your customer. For example, if you're trying to report on what campaigns influenced someone's conversion journey (attribution).

B2B marketing can often involve selling higher-value products than those advertised by B2C companies. However, this isn't always the case. In many cases, the person receiving a B2B marketing email isn't the person with final purchasing authority. Therefore, the journey from sign-up to conversion can take longer.

“B2B companies should opt for marketing automation tools with lead management, nurturing, and scoring features,” Aventaggiato said. “B2C businesses need tools that can manage a more extensive customer database. B2C companies also need analytics and segmentation tools to determine the target audience for better leads.”