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Marketing automation programs are the digital marketing industry’s current “in vogue” subject. But what are they exactly and how can they help you grow your business?
Below, we’ll cover twenty-five of the most important things you need to know about marketing automation (or “MA”) programs. While we won’t be recommending any program in particular, we’ll highlight the things you’ll want to understand and watch out for as you choose the right MA program for your business.
What Is Marketing Automation?
Marketing automation programs include such a wide range of features that defining what they are is easiest done by examining what it is they can do.
MA programs can help you track prospects’ activities
One of the most important features of any good marketing automation program is its ability to track the movement of prospects across your various web properties. Tracking prospects in this way requires three things: tracking codes embedded on your website or in your email links, a conversion action (such as a click on an email link or the completion of a web page form) and a cookie that’s stored on the prospects’ web browser.
Here’s how this works in practice… When you launch your marketing automation program, you add a piece of tracking code to the back side of your website. Then, when a visitor comes to your website and completes a form you’ve embedded in your landing page, the MA program adds a cookie to the visitor’s web browser. Since the visitor has taken the conversion action and his computer is now known, every time he returns to the site, his visits will be tracked within the marketing automation program.
MA programs can automate email nurturing campaigns
In addition to monitoring visitor activities on your website, your marketing automation program can run email nurturing campaigns on your behalf that keep prospects aware of your brand. But these aren’t just simple autoresponder programs! Marketing automation programs typically include a robust series of dynamic lists, segmentation rules and email automation logic options that help you automatically tailor your messages to the prospects’ individual needs.
As an example, suppose you run a remodeling business and have a form on your website that visitors can fill out to request free consultations. Upon completion of the form, these new prospects can automatically be added to an email series that sends out construction project tips and case studies from past customers. Once the MA program detects that a prospect can successfully completed a remodeling project, she can be switched over to a referral program email series that offers periodic incentives to refer new customers – all with no effort made on your part!
MA programs can help you qualify leads
Typically, marketing automation programs include lead scoring and/or grading modules that help you to determine where leads are in the buying cycle and how closely they align with your definition of an “ideal” buyer. For example, a visitor could accrue one point for visiting a page on your website, ten points for downloading a document and fifty points for completing a lead generation form. As visitors gather points through their interactions with your brand, you’ll be able to quickly ascertain which visitors are most likely to convert into qualified prospects or customers.
Having this background information can help you determine how you’ll allocate your time and marketing resources. If, as an example, you receive two lead generation form submissions and you see that one prospect has a score of 25 and the other has a score of 100, you can decide to call on the second prospect first, as his score indicates that he’s already more engaged with your brand.
MA programs can help you reach people at the best possible times
Depending on the marketing automation program you select, you may have access to “real time” lead monitoring features that show you when visitors are completed specific actions on your web properties. Some MA programs come with standalone tools that allow you to watch as these actions are taken while others send alerts whenever prospects take defined actions or hit certain scores.
Whichever options you have access to, the advantage here is that you can take action as soon as you see a prospect demonstrating high levels of engagement. If, for example, your marketing automation program notifies you that a prospect is currently on your website and viewing your pricing page (generally an indication that you’re dealing with a prospect who’s nearing a buying decision), you could pick up the phone and call right away, while your brand is at the top of the prospect’s mind.
MA programs can reduce the time and energy needed to close deals
When you take all these different features together, the end result is that marketing automation programs can significantly reduce the effort it takes to close a deal. Instead of treating every prospect equally – and, losing time on tire-kickers or window-shoppers in the process – you can hone in your sales and marketing efforts on the potential customers that have already demonstrated interest in and engagement with your brand. Ultimately, this makes your marketing program more efficient and more profitable.
Small and mid-sized businesses are the fastest growing MA segment today
Now, although you may think that these powerful features are reserved for big companies with big marketing budgets, the reality is that they’re more accessible than ever. According to Marketo, small and mid-sized businesses with roughly $5-500 million in revenue represent the fastest growing MA program adoption segment. But even though these types of programs are more accessible than ever, there are still a few things you’ll want to be aware of before adding one to your marketing arsenal…
Before You Buy
Marketing automation programs represent major investments in your business's sales and marketing strategy. So before you shell out a dime, make sure these systems are a good fit for your unique sales funnel.
Marketing automation programs aren’t a good fit for every business
Whether or not marketing automation will work for your business depends on a number of different factors, including your sales cycle, the size of your average sale, your strongest advertising channels, your business’s relative tech savvy, your ability to devote the time needed to implementation and more. Since MA programs aren’t cheap, it’s important that you understand exactly how you expect marketing automation programs to impact your business before signing on the dotted line. Researching different programs, viewing online demos and reading case studies from companies that have successfully launched MA programs can help you decide if these systems will be a good fit for you.
Not all MA programs are created equal
On a related note, as you research, you’ll find that every marketing automation program you look into will be slightly different from the next. The biggest differences between MA programs lie in their feature sets, as well as the complexity of their offerings. Take, for example, the dynamic list driven email nurturing programs described above. One MA provider might give you extensive filtering tools and logic options, while another may offer a more simplified system.
In some cases, though, the differences are even more substantial. Some marketing automation programs cater more to content marketers with tools that allow for the dynamic insertion of content into a company’s website, while others focus more on the email nurturing tools preferred by sales people. Others may tie in to some popular CRM systems, but not others. As mentioned above, doing your due diligence is the only way to determine which program is the right choice for your business.
Know the features you need
Because of these differences, it’s vitally important that you determine exactly how you plan to use marketing automation before selecting a plan. Some marketing automation programs, for example, don’t include advanced features like landing page split testing or multi-touch funnel reporting – or they only include them in their highest price package tiers.
As a result, it’s important that you really take the time to walk through the features you plan to use and identify how they’ll support your current sales cycle. The more detailed your initial vision can be, the better choices you’ll make in terms of selecting a plan. This brainstorming process isn’t easy – especially if you’ve never worked with MA software before and don’t yet understand its full potential – but it is necessary.
Understand your plan’s limitations
Besides knowing what features you want your plan to have, do your research on the limitations a program may come with. For example, most marketing automation programs limit the number of active contacts your account can have, based on its pricing tier – but few companies share this information on their websites. If you wound up entering an unusually high number of contacts into your system, you could be stuck with unexpected overage fees. The bottom line is, if you aren’t sure a feature you need is included, ask!
Support programs are key
In terms of features, we can’t overestimate the importance of having access to good support resources. Marketing automation programs can be very complex, and if you’ve never tackled systems like these before, having access to support personnel and other training resources is vitally important. In particular, be sure to find out how any support requests you have will be handled. The last thing you want is to be stuck waiting on a support ticket that won’t be updated for days when your system’s gone haywire. Phone support is ideal, but if you’re stuck with email or ticket-based support systems, at least be sure you’re guaranteed a response within 4-8 business hours.
Ask about onboarding assistance
Similarly, be sure to ask about the onboarding assistance that will be offered to you once you sign a contract. Many marketing automation programs require the purchase of a separate onboarding package, though the execution of these sessions can vary widely. Although the best onboarding experiences typically come from internal training teams, many MA programs use third-party onboarding contractors for this purpose. Before committing to a contract, find out who will be handling your onboarding and, if you anticipate being shuffled off to a separate company, take some time to Google reviews on the provider to be sure you’re in good hands.
Ask for free trials
Finally, while it isn’t common, some marketing automation programs will give you a free trial account to play around with the software before you commit to purchasing. Even if you aren’t offered a trial, ask if it’s possible to have one. Given the size, complexity and cost of these systems, having the opportunity to try each one hands-on ensures that you’ll ultimately make the right choice for your business.
The Cost of Marketing Automation
Considering the powerful tools they contain, marketing automation programs represent a major investment for most businesses. However, the following considerations may justify their cost in your organization – or even help you to reduce it.
MA programs aren’t cheap
As a general rule, the cost of a marketing automation program is relatively commensurate with the scope of its features. If you want the most advanced features out there, plan to spend several thousand dollars a month. Even if you’re willing to compromise on some bells and whistles, you’re still likely looking at a few hundred dollars a month. If you’re a major multinational corporation, this might be a drop in the bucket. But for most small business owners, it’s an expense that must be carefully weighed against its potential benefit.
MA programs can help you reduce your sales force
If the idea of spending several hundred to several thousand dollars each month on a marketing program sounds unreasonable, consider it in light of potential reductions to your sales force. When executed correctly, a good MA program can reduce the man hours needed to close sales, saving you not just the sales person’s salary, but his benefits, time off and turnover costs as well. Not only does this make investing in an MA program more reasonable from a cost perspective, your new software will never take a sick day on you!
MA programs can reduce your subscription costs to other programs
Additionally, if you currently spend money on things like email subscription services, social media centralization tools or even SEO monitoring systems, you may find many of these functionalities present in your new marketing automation program. Canceling these subscriptions will result in cost savings that can be counted against what you’ll spend on your new MA system.
Get a “better than advertised” deal
That said, be aware that competition in the marketing automation industry can be fierce. Simply mention that you’re considering other providers, and you may find that individual MA systems are willing to offer hefty discounts to their published rates to get you to sign up. You may also be able to get a la carte pricing for adding higher tier services to lower tier packages, or secure better rates for signing longer term contracts.
Don’t rule out individual providers because their cost seems too high initially. Ask your sales rep for options and you might be surprised by the deals you’re able to find.
Getting Started with Marketing Automation
Simply selecting a marketing automation program can feel like a major undertaking – but you’re just getting started!
MA programs require buy-in from different departments
It’s great that you’re excited about the potential a marketing automation program has for your business, but you can’t be the only one onboard. Obviously, you’ll also need the support of your sales team and any managers or marketing personnel that work with them. But you may also need to bring in customer service professionals, IT workers and others throughout the process. If you anticipate pushback, spend some time thinking about different ways to increase buy-in among these different groups before announcing and launching the new program.
MA programs require internal resources
But it isn’t just buy-in you’ll need. Unless you’ve got the world’s widest skill set, you’re going to need people to help you setup the tracking code needed to run an MA program, design the forms, landing pages and email templates used in your marketing collateral, and write the email messages you’ll use in your nurturing campaigns. Depending on the size of your organization, you may need to get these needs on peoples’ radars months ahead of time to ensure you’ll have the necessary resources for your implementation (especially given that most MA onboarding programs only provide support for a certain number of days following your purchase).
Plan some time for training
At the same time, consider that training the people who will actively use your marketing automation program will take some time. And given how busy today’s professionals can be, it’s not a bad idea to get things on calendars well in advance. Plan ahead for conducting different training sessions for different constituent groups, based on how they’ll use the program. Keep each training focused on their specific needs only, and be sure to emphasize how they’ll benefit from the successful implementation of your new MA system.
MA programs may alter your sales funnel
Interestingly enough, you may find that the way you handle sales opportunities changes as you launch a marketing automation program. Specifically, one area where organizations often see change is in the differentiation between marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs). If your past sales policies have taken more of a free-for-all approach, you may find that adding an MA program gives you the information needed to add in these filters. The result may be a sales process that’s more efficient and effective – if you’re open to the change!
Successful Marketing Automation Implementation
Beyond your initial “kick start” implementation window, there are a number of things you’ll want to keep in mind as you move forward to ensure that your new MA program will become a worthwhile addition to your sales and marketing processes.
Marketing automation programs aren’t perfect
For instance, you need to be aware of is that the tracking tools built into marketing automation programs aren’t perfect. There are three major weaknesses you’ll contend with:
- Until website visitors take some sort of conversion action (for example, completing a form or clicking on an email link), they won’t be tracked. As a result, you may start out with mountains of visitor data and no real way to convert it into tracked prospect activities.
- Marketing automation programs are cookie-based, which leaves them vulnerable to prospects who clear cookies or use browser extensions designed to prevent cookie tracking.
- Email virus detection programs may click on email message links to check for spam automatically, triggering MA actions that may artificially inflate a prospect’s score.
Are these weaknesses reason enough to give up on marketing automation? Of course not! As long as you’re aware of them from the start, you’ll be able to take steps to minimize their impact on your data. As an example, you could set the points assigned to an email link click to be relatively low so that automated opens don’t throw off your score. Or, to convert more anonymous visitors into tracked prospects, you could send out general interest messages or promotions to every email in your database to tie visitor IP records to these email addresses. Just be sure to follow proper opt-in procedures when sending MA messages!
MA programs work best with CRM integration
Overall, marketing automation programs tend to provide the greatest benefits when they’re paired with CRM systems like Salesforce or SugarCRM, as this enables you and/or your sales team to approach account management with as much data as possible. As an added bonus, if you’re looking to implement both a marketing automation tool and CRM system, you may be able to get a special discount for signing contracts on both if you decide to go with a service like Pardot (which is owned by Salesforce).
Marketing automation programs may take a year to fully roll out
Get ready for some bad news… Unless you have unlimited resources to throw at your MA program implementation, expect the process to take several months to complete, if not a full year. Even if you have your email lists prepped and the content of a few email nurturing series ready, you’ll likely find that the data your program generates will have you adjusting course and diving deeper into the features your system has to offer. So don’t panic if your initial results are lackluster. Keep pushing forward and within a year, you should see substantial improvements to your sales ROI if you’ve followed the guidelines described above.
Get active in your program’s forums
To improve your odds of achieving these successful outcomes, commit to ongoing education. And for most MA programs, the best way to do this is to get active in your system’s user forums. When provided, these resources can give you everything from quick answers to minor issues to elegant solutions to problems you face executing specific program features within the context of your unique business. Get active and check back periodically, as the information you find there can be worth its weight in gold when it comes to the overall success of your marketing automation implementation.
If, after reading this far, you still think marketing automation might be right for your organization, take a look at the following tools. Each program has its own strengths and weaknesses, so consider each offering carefully before moving forward:
- Oracle Marketing Cloud (formerly Eloqua)
Have another program you’d like to see added to that list or any other questions about marketing automation programs in general? Share your thoughts below in the comments!