Marketing automation: the solution? Or part of the problem?

We’re in the business of helping clients promote technology as a solution to customers’ pain points. So it might seem counter-intuitive to be seen to be knocking marketing automation platforms. They’re incredibly sophisticated tools that help brands connect with and engage prospects, automate complex workflows, set behavioural triggers, deliver content and quantify the impact of programmes and activities. When used judiciously, marketing automation simplifies and streamlines execution and can do some of the heavy lifting of pipeline progression.

But… (you were waiting for the ‘but’)

But marketing automation is not a panacea. There are gaps it can’t – and shouldn’t – try to fill. So it’s a challenge for us to stifle an involuntary sigh when we hear marketers who believe that investing in the tech will be the answer to their prayers when, in fact, it’s just a delivery mechanism. Automation tends to amplify whatever you’re doing (a bit like alcohol tends to exaggerate your prevailing mood). So done badly – throwing out indiscriminate content or trying to sell before a prospect is ready – it can actively alienate buyers. Overall, we’ve seen net response rates declining, but underwhelming results can often be masked by intelligent targeting through the decision path.

Where did it all go wrong?

Marketing automation won’t do you many favours if you forget to put yourself in the buyer’s shoes, or if you see your nurture programme as a linear progression, rather than a complex and often meandering set of interactions. And of course, people don’t buy from email alone – it’s just one component of an ongoing, multi-channel engagement and nurturing effort.

We’ve also seen automation being used to cut costs by taking a DIY approach to creative. But marketing managers cannot simultaneously be expert copywriters, coders, designers and UX specialists and do their day-job. The trouble with homespun copy dropped into pre-formatted EDM or landing page templates is that all the lessons learned over the last decade – optimisation, context, positioning, heat-mapping – are lost in the process. The resulting generic emails are a turn-off for today’s sophisticated, time-pressed buyers, who expect thoughtfully-designed communications that reflect their past behaviours and current information needs.

Making automation your ally

Marketing automation isn’t necessarily a retrograde step – in fact, the software has never offered greater potential than in today’s digital, dynamic and data-driven marketing environment. However, for your nurture programme to perform rather than merely function, you need to have the right strategy, people, processes, content and skills in place. Only then can you build on the software’s framework to guide a timely and connected customer experience, and respond adaptively to the behavioural footprints along the path to purchase.

Perhaps we need to reframe perceptions of marketing automation. It’s not a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher, designed to take the repetitive activities out of running an email campaign. And it’s not even about doing the same old thing more efficiently and cheaply. It’s a set of tactics and triggers for managing highly personalised communications and intuitively delivering relevant insights at crucial moments on an industrial scale.


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