Marketing Automation: Far From Automatic

Can marketing be automated? Marketers and ad technology vendors are betting that it can, although the word “automation” better describes an automobile assembly line than creative advertising campaigns.

A search on Google for “marketing automation” turns up 2.37 million results plus ads from Aprimo, Unica, Silverpop, and SAS. Marketing software company HubSpot’s purchase this month of Performable, an 18-person marketing automation software company, also suggests heightened interest in this area. “The way people learn, shop for and buy products has changed, and marketers need to adapt to these changes if they want to succeed,” HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan said in a blog post, announcing the deal.

Where did the term “marketing automation” come from? In the 1990s, Internet marketers Corey Rudl and Derek Gehl launched products that could be considered marketing automation tools, including MailLoop for bulk email delivery. “I would not say we called it ‘marketing automation,’ but it was automating your Internet business. We were always looking for tools to help with heavy-lifting tasks,” Gehl recalled in a phone interview.

Fast-forward to today. Many vendors that offer marketing automation software, such as Marketo, Silverpop, and Eloqua also offer email marketing tools. So that begs the question: Is marketing automation actually email marketing on steroids? “No,” said Eloqua Chief Marketing Officer Brian Kardon. “That’s a common misconception.” He said automation can be used for all forms of communication, including social media, SMS, direct mail, face to face, and webinars.

More Marketing Automation Strategies

Marketing automation is a “mission-critical” system for B2B companies because they must communicate with customers and prospects in new ways, said Jeff Ernst, a Forrester Research analyst, in a report. What’s fueling this change? He said buyers are doing more research on their own, buying cycles are getting longer, and more stakeholders are involved in the buying process.

Applications range from those that emphasize so-called revenue performance management, which includes lead nurturing and scoring, to programs that are part of broader integrated marketing efforts that tie together customer relationship management, predictive analytics, behavioral targeting, and more.

While marketing automation programs hold the promise of making marketing and sales efforts more efficient, marketers agree that lots of preparation is needed. Obstacles to success include: poorly defined requirements; lack of coordination among sales, marketing, and information technology teams; and failure to establish a campaign strategy.

“While automation gives a ‘set it and forget it’ vibe, those who are constantly monitoring their campaigns and making adjustments will typically see the greatest success. Is a 30-day lead nurturing program better than a 90-day program? Which form on my landing page is getting more responses? These are the kinds of questions that require human intervention,” advised Adam Blitzer, chief operating officer at Pardot.

To learn what’s needed to implement an effective marketing automation program, I reached out to executives at five ad tech vendors – Teradata’s Aprimo, Eloqua, Marketo, Pardot, and IBM’s Unica – and asked them via email to define marketing automation, discuss pain points, and identify skills for the new role of marketing automation manager.

“Research from one of our consulting partners, Accenture, showed that a typical $1 billion brand can secure $35 million to $70 million in annual benefits by addressing marketing efficiency and effectiveness. If those efficiencies are redirected into strategic thinking and new creative programming, the potential to increase top-line revenue is significant. So as important as automation is, it can’t turn that $35 million in savings into $100 million in new revenue, only people can,” said Stephanie Miller, vice president, digital messaging, at Aprimo.

Bottom line: technology can help automate some marketing processes, but successful marketing programs still require smart creative people.

Anna Maria Virzi is off today. This column was originally published June 24, 2011.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.