Are We Ready for What’s New in Marketing Automation?

I am returning from two days of talking with various marketers at a conference and realize that the most common phrase I heard was, “We are getting there.”

On one hand, that is wonderful – there is a lot of momentum and progress and a desire to improve marketing through integrated marketing management (IMM). Certainly marketing automation technology powers that revolution.

On the other hand, it worries me a bit. Are we – as an industry of marketers – ready for the future of marketing automation? Or are we still just dipping our toes in the lake and wondering how cold the water is?

Marketers are spending more on marketing automation technology than ever before. SiriusDecisions benchmarks show that spend on technology has more than doubled in the last two years, from an average of 2 percent of the overall marketing budget in 2009 to the current average in 2011 of 4 percent of the marketing budget. At the same time, SiriusDecisions also reports:

  • 85 percent of B2B marketers describe themselves as “self-taught” professionals
  • 81 percent of B2B organizations spend $1,000 or less per year on marketing skills development
  • Only 25 percent of all organizations (B2B and B2C) that have purchased marketing automation are utilizing it to the fullest (self-assessment)

Research from The Pedowitz Group reveals similar stats – more than 25 percent of marketing automation adopters have not integrated with CRM and more than 50 percent have not added in lead scoring or nurturing. That puts the rest of us in “batch and blast” mode. I certainly see that many marketers are using automation technology simply as “email 2.0.” That is a good starting point, but definitely doesn’t capture the full potential.

Frankly, we may not be ready to talk about the next “big thing” when many marketing teams are still grappling with acquiring the right skills and knowledge to tap what exists today. I see this as a dual challenge, shared between marketers and vendors.

  1. Marketers must do better than “self educate.” We must learn and apply the database principles behind using behavior, demographic, and social data to create 1:1 experiences for customers and prospects.
  2. Vendors must make technology more accessible and simplified, allowing different roles with different levels of experience and aptitude to work together and access just what they need. At the same time, the technology needs to be more powerful to adapt and master our fragmented, multi-channel world that is dominated by social communication and real-time activity.

It’s not easy to use sophisticated technology. It takes training and discipline and a mastery of database and process logic. Marketers now have to think not just like marketers, but like engineers and financial analysts…even like lawyers and compliance experts. That is a tall order, and best accomplished by a team of specialists working under shared objectives and a common goal.

We need it all – and can’t allow a technology aptitude to trump good marketing strategy. Automating bad marketing is a bad thing. Marketers must embrace the power of customer-centric strategies – too often I see marketers try to automate strategies that are focused on volume, not quality. Effective 1:1 marketing is about the individual and improving the close rate, not just shoveling more leads into the top of the funnel.

Educate yourself and your team. Use the “coaching” methodologies that work well in other disciplines like sales and customer service. CRM taught us about tracking behavior, but also consider how social media teaches that one-to-one marketing requires listening, as well as honest dialogue rather than broadcasting sanitized positioning messages. Rely on your own vendors of course, but also industry organizations like the Marketing Automation Institute. Require that your team and your agencies are certified in the application you have invested in, and utilize experts so that you leapfrog common obstacles and optimize practices.

At the same time, it should not require a PhD in five disciplines to use marketing software successfully. Marketing people are not IT experts and should not have to be. Marketing automation is still a relatively new industry – started maybe a dozen years ago as an offshoot to on-premise CRM applications. We’ll continue to see an evolution, perhaps faster than other tech markets, given the power of cloud computing and the advance of integrated databases. Products will become easier to use, have more complete features, faster implementations and upgrades, and lower cost of ownership.

The Gartner Hype Cycle – a map of how innovation and technology is adopted and utilized by a growing number of users – shows how the market may evolve. I would guess we are somewhere beyond the Trough of Disillusionment and moving toward the Slope of Enlightenment. What do you think, based on your own vendor and experience?

Perhaps also the issue is not that there isn’t innovation, or should not be, but that vendors themselves have not yet made it easy enough, or compelling enough, for marketers to take advantage. Is that a question of development effort, or adoption? Perhaps both. Vendors must focus on:

  • Time to market (for marketers, this is also measured by time to results)
  • Ease of use/usability
  • Performance and stability at high volumes and with highly sophisticated data management
  • Integration with sales force, e-commerce, web analytics, and other solutions

In short, the future of marketing automation needs to be making marketing simpler, but more powerful. It’s about giving the marketer control over her own ecosystem and allowing her to share the tasks, content, and access with people around the company, including customers themselves. That will require partnership between marketers and vendors, as we all increase our commitment to using sophisticated tools as well as to making sophisticated tools more approachable and role based.

What do you think? Where are you in your adoption? Are you looking for more innovation today, or for ways to get started? Please share in the comments section below.

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