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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. Marketers use this software in order to help nurture leads, often through integrations with customer relationship management (CRM) and customer data platform (CDP) software. They also use these platforms to automate and personalize marketing messages and content. It’s big business for vendors. Bloomreach, a digital experience platform (DXP) provider, acquired Exponea in December of 2020. Exponea offers marketing automation and CDP integrations.

The largest acquisition of a marketing automation provider came in 2018 when 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. The global marketing automation market size is expected to reach $8.42 billion by 2027, expanding at a CAGR of 9.8% from 2020 to 2027,according to a 2020 report from ResearchAndMarkets.com.

Vision for Marketing Automation

Marketing automation are tools that make marketers more efficient. Their purpose are to streamline and scale lead management and other marketing activities in order to generate more revenue, according to 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.”

An example of marketing automation software 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 on your email newsletter,” 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.”

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Collision Course With ABM?

Marketers should note, some vendors and analysts are touting a convergence of account-based marketing (ABM) and marketing automation software. ABM software players are adding more marketing automation-like capabilities and marketing automation-like functionality such as native email, landing page and form functionality, engagement programs, native databases and demand generation/prospecting use cases, according to analysts from Forrester and Gartner.

Account-based marketing software helps B2B marketers identify and target the accounts (rather than individuals) and coordinate with sales. The foundational thinking is “accounts” drive sales in the B2B world, and account-based data and technology in ABM programs help marketers identify, attract, engage, convert, close and then measure progress against customers and prospects. 

“MAPs (marketing automation platforms) are fully featured, especially after a couple of years of rapid evolution to accommodate ABM practices,” Forrester noted in its Forrester Tech TideTM: Extended CRM Technologies, Q1 2021 released this month. “The technology has evolved from supporting the obsolete practices of fill-the-funnel campaigns and drip marketing on steroids to support contextual and personalized digital marketing — an increasingly important customer engagement strategy in all industries," Forrester noted.

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The Marketing Automation Holy Grail: Qualified Leads

But back to the pure practice of marketing automation. The ultimate outcome of marketing-automation efforts is to gain conversions, produce qualified leads, market at scale and personalize messages. Qualified leads is the stuff of great marketing-sales collaboration. It can help fill sales funnels and lead to better experiences for business-development and sales professionals who want to have meaningful, fruitful conversations with prospects.

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, said marketing automation does not help you get qualified leads. It helps you send more emails and quite possibly get more form fills. Scale is achieved with marketing automation, but not qualified leads.

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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. If marketing is doing the essential work to reach the right prospects and deliver qualified leads, but this information isn’t routed to the right rep, the opportunity goes stale and delivers no results. So it’s vital for the right leads to get to the right sales representative at the right time.”

Marketing Automation Features

Marketing automation comes with numerous features. According to Aventaggiato, some key features of marketing automation platforms include:

  • Lead nurturing: This is the process of sending a series of automated emails to engage the prospects by offering relevant information.
  • Personalized email marketing: Email personalization helps businesses to develop better relationships with their customers.
  • Campaign management: Companies can run email campaigns to nurture leads along the sales cycle. It enables teams to send direct and personalized emails to a large number of people.
  • CRM integration: This allows businesses to transfer lead information between marketing and sales.

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

  • Forms and landing pages: A tool that enables you to capture information from your prospects and then route it to various systems for storing and/or action, according to Yield.
  • 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 management: Some marketing automation platforms serve as a landing spot for leads that don’t quite have enough information to pass on to sales, according to Yield. “For an increasing number of B2B organizations, this is becoming less relevant as the abundance of data on a targeted market segment makes it possible to move to a “contacts only” customer data structure, which brings every Account and Contact into the CRM,” Yield researchers said.
  • Social media management: This allows for the distribution of content across most major social platforms into one place.

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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. 

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 and makes it accessible to the engagement data since someone that 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 automations, covered by LearningCurv and Leadfeeder.

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Good Marketing Automation Practices

A good example of marketing automation? Tracking how someone first lands on your site (referral source), then where they convert (the first form they fill out or engaging with your chatbot for example), then orchestrating how, when and with what messages marketing and sales continue to engage the buyer, all the way through that purchase decision, according to Lechner-Becker.

And finally, being able to report through various lenses. Which campaigns are having the most impact on revenue? What referral sources are driving the most website traffic?

“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.”

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Marketing Automation Pricing and Selection Process

Two common ways of pricing marketing automation tools are:

  • Per month subscription plan
  • Per contact, per month subscription plan

B2B vs. B2C

As for selecting these kinds of tools, often marketing automation tools come down to a B2C (Mailchimp) versus B2B types of marketing automation (Oracle-Eloqua). Mostly it boils down to 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. 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 tends to use marketing automation platforms like Pardot, HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua. “And frankly, their sending engine is not as strong because they have more tools that incorporate more of the full suite of 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 are going to try to report on what campaigns really influenced the journey of someone (attribution), from finding you all the way through giving you money, then the best in the market is Marketo and Bizible, she added.

“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.”