What Is Marketing Automation?

marketing automation

So, what is marketing automation, really? 

Marketing automation platforms (MAP) help you make your marketing efforts more relevant and targeted, more quickly and with less effort. They’re kind of like magic, for marketers.But what does that really mean? 

Marketing automation is how you can deliver personalized, relevant marketing messages at scale, round the clock, without making yourself or your team nuts. With a MAP, you can create workflows (cough, cough, automations triggered by a certain activity) that run 24/7, segment your audiences based on behavior and other attributes, stalk…we mean, track lead and customer activity, and publish your marketing messages via landing pages, emails, dynamic web content and more.

What’s in it for me?

  • Save serious time: With marketing automation, you can set up workflows to trigger and run multi-touch campaigns automatically. You can create a workflow once, then let it run indefinitely, nurturing new leads as they qualify based on your enrollment criteria.
  • Scale your efforts easily: Without a MAP, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to send tailored, timely marketing outreach (think: email, social media, etc.) to a large database on a regular basis, while also attempting to measure how it all works. Trust me, I’ve tried it. It’s no good.
  • Monitor lead & customer behavior: Track the actions that your leads and customers are taking with your website, landing pages, email and other marketing assets to understand what they care about, what they want to learn more about, and where you can add more value.
  • Data, data, data: Speaking of tracking, with a marketing automation platform, you can track literally everything to measure important KPIs like conversion rates and marketing attribution. You’ll be able to output this useful info into dashboards and visualizations that will help you know exactly what’s working, and what isn’t.
  • Nurture & qualify leads: Once a lead enters your marketing funnel, your MAP will enroll them in the afore-mentioned workflows to nurture them, and then track key actions to assign a lead score, which is then used to automatically surface the leads that are most qualified and ready for sales outreach. Genius!
  • Get everyone aligned: Your marketing automation platform will integrate with the rest of your core martech stack: CRM, CMS and reporting tools. By having all of your systems share the same data in real time, you can keep your sales and customer service departments in sync. Talk about sales & marketing alignment!

But what does it actually do?

At the core, marketing automation platforms help automate campaigns and tactics (duh), organize your team’s activities and processes, segment audiences and tailor your outreach, track visitor and lead activity, and report on performance. What does that mean in action?

  • Interface with website & CRM: Your automation tool is the middle piece of your martech stack, connecting the efforts of your sales team with the online lead and customer touchpoints of your website.
  • Activity tracking: Monitor all actions that a visitor, lead or customer takes with your integrated marketing assets (think: website, email, landing pages, blog posts, etc.)
  • Automation / workflows: Set up automated workflows to trigger and run drip campaigns or to trigger other types of actions (ex: assigning leads to specific owners or assigning tasks to the associated salesperson via your CRM)
  • Lead capture: Create forms, landing pages, CTAs and other conversion points to collect information on new leads.
  • Lead scoring: Assign points to your leads based on predetermined actions (that you set), to identify the leads who are closest to conversion and ready for sales interaction.
  • Reporting: Generate on-demand, real-time reports and dashboards to monitor how your marketing efforts are performing.
  • Dynamic content: Create emails or website content and elements that are tailored specifically to your visitors, based on what you know about them from previous interactions. Check our article on dynamic email content for a bit more.
  • List & contact management: Easily segment your audiences and create lists based on attributes or actions taken. When integrated with a CRM, you can pass data to your sales team via your contact records.
  • A/B testing: Marketing is science, right? Don’t just make decisions based on a gut feeling. With a marketing automation platform, you can run A/B tests on emails, landing pages, CTAs and more to determine which message, headline, button color, font size, etc, resonates best with your audience.

Throw out a few names I’ll know

What are some of the big names in marketing automation? There are lots of players in this space, and LOTS of software that offer some level of marketing automation (for example, most email marketing tools let you set up email drip campaigns via automation, and all social publishing platforms let you schedule posts ahead of time). 

For the purposes of this article, and because we get to make the rules here and are drunk on our own power, we’re going to focus on the biggest brands offering more comprehensive solutions for mid-size to larger companies.

  1. HubSpot: a flexible all-in-one solution that offers marketing automation, CRM, CMS and customer service support (think: tickets). Check out our platform review for more.
  2. Marketo: a high-powered MAP owned by Adobe, check out our review on this platform, straight from the mouth (fingertips?) of a power user.
  3. Pardot: a marketing automation solution owned by heavy-hitter Salesforce, making it a solid choice for companies using that CRM. See our review here.
  4. Eloqua: a beast of a MAP owned by Oracle, perfect for huge enterprises with complex marketing needs. Check out our review to see what we think.
  5. Zoho: a simpler entry point to automation, ideal for companies with less complex needs, from a brand with a huge range of software solutions that integrate. More details are in our review.

What’s not to love about marketing automation?

A few things, turns out:

  • MAPs can be complicated. They have tons of features and are uber-customizable, but that also means they take a long time to learn how to use properly – meaning, intelligently enough to get maximum ROI on your investment. Speaking of…
  • Cost can be an issue. All marketing automation platforms offer tiered plans for different price ranges, but the less expensive tiers pull back on features. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to cough up some cash to get the benefits of automation.
  • Forgetting the strategy. Marketing automation is great, but like we always say here at MTS, technology without a solid strategy behind it just doesn’t work. You need to have the internal processes in place and a solid plan for creating campaigns and building content to feed the beast.
  • Useless reports. The risk of more data is getting lost in it all. With a MAP, you can report on almost anything, so you need to be really careful about determining which metrics actually matter to you.
  • Data privacy. Today’s marketers are challenged by an endlessly evolving world of data privacy compliance. Most marketing automation platforms offer features to help you keep compliant, but at the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to understand the processes and rules around your data and ensure that you’re maintaining it properly.

The future of marketing automation

Marketing automation, like all martech, is a chaotic space. The big theme in marketing automation over the past few years has been a different type of M&A – consolidation. With Salesforce buying Pardot, Oracle buying Eloqua and Adobe buying Marketo, there’s a clear theme: marketing automation is a core piece of the martech (and business tech) puzzle, but it can’t stand alone. That theme is only echoed by HubSpot’s strategy of building an entire business tech suite around its core automation platform.

We suspect that this trend will lead to more robust solutions that are more comprehensive (if also more costly) business tech suites that connect everything around your customer. From a connected future standpoint, that’s awesome, even if it is messy over the next few years as we figure out how to get there. 

But it will also mean less competition in the market, as a few big names buy up all the tools, which could result in the usual suspects: weaker customer service, higher prices, etc. Something to watch?