6 Marketing Automation Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Jessica Meher
Jessica Meher



marketing-automation-technologyNot too long ago, my colleague Katie Burke wrote a great article, "The Right Way to Think About Your Marketing Software RFP," and it got me thinking about my own experiences as a buyer of marketing technology. Particularly I realized, more often than not, I was thinking about automation the wrong way.

In the past nine or so years, I've evaluated, purchased, implemented, and used over ten different email marketing and marketing automation platforms (there may be more but I've lost count). My love for technology and marketing is what led me to join HubSpot over two years ago, and why I regularly speak with prospects and customers on what I learned when I was in their shoes.

Right now the marketing automation industry couldn't be hotter. Due to increasing adoption rates, analysts are predicting a more than 50% industry revenue increase this year. Recent acquisitions (Eloqua acquired by Oracle, Pardot by ExactTarget, and others) are also signs of a market headed in the right direction.

I'm certainly not going to complain about our industry's growth, but I wonder, are companies adopting automation the right way? Perhaps the belief that marketing automation just encourages bad behavior more than it creates lovable marketing, or that it's simply a more efficient spamming engine, is a telling sign.

Too often I hear from companies that are headed down the wrong path in the decision process despite where they started (with good intentions). Make no mistake, automation can do wonders for your bottom line -- if you avoid the purchasing pitfalls. Below are six common mistakes I see over and over again, failures I've experienced myself, and how you can avoid them so that you're successful with marketing automation.

6 Marketing Automation Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

1) Automating bad processes doesn't magically make marketing better.

This might appear like a no-brainer, but it's the #1 offense I see. Let me you give you a real-life scenario:

A three-person marketing team for a large technology company is struggling to supply inside sales reps with good leads. In addition, a lot of the work to hand leads to sales is very manual, due to a lack of integration with their email provider and CRM. They target a niche audience in the Fortune 1000. Because of this, the company attends tradeshows and buys targeted prospect lists of "Directors of IT." They email these lists regularly with the goal to schedule more sales appointments, or maybe they will send a newsletter or product offer. But the company often experiences high bounce rates and low engagement. Their database hasn't really grown in years, and in fact, it's churning at a high rate. They decide it's time to buy marketing automation to better utilize their existing database and put new lists through automated drip campaigns. They plan to use lead scoring, as well.

What's wrong with this picture? First, yes, buying email lists is a no-no and no one should do it. But the main problem is that this company is solely looking at automation to fix an already broken process. In this case, this company needs to fix their lead problem by creating better content. In other words, they should consider marketing transformation prior to marketing automation.

John Common, CEO of Intelligent Demand, mentioned in this post:

“It is a disruptive technology in that it forces a company to think differently about its most important process: revenue creation. This is a good thing! At most companies today, marketing and sales are working from an outdated playbook that was written back when interruptive, batch-and-blast, product-focused, hunch-based marketing actually worked, and Sales was in control of the buying process. Those days are gone, but the thinking behind that playbook still exists."

Sure, automation can make things easier in some cases and you may even see some short-term gains. But long-term success is what matters, and that requires a different way of marketing. Using automation as a glorified email tool won't get you where you need to be.

Great automation is a result of highly targeted, personalized, valuable, timely, and remarkable content that is sent to a healthy and engaged database (see point #2 below in just a minute). As John mentions above, the batch-and-blast approach to sending prospects stuff they don't care about isn't going to suddenly make things better with automation. If your company feels like creating great content is the core of your problem -- and in most of the scenarios I've seen, it is -- start there.

2) Automation requires a growing and engaged database to nurture.

marketing-automation-funnelThe average email database expires at the rate of ~25% per year. That means a database of 50,000 email addresses will have shrunk to 21,000 in just three short years. The best way to solve for attrition is to replenish the funnel with new leads at a higher rate than you're burning through. Or else you'll find yourself with diminishing returns.

Before you invest in marketing automation, ask yourself, "What am I doing to fuel the top of my funnel?" In other words, automation is a fantastic tool to further qualify and nurture leads, but when you don't even generate enough for Sales, what's the point?

I learned this the hard way. A few years ago, I implemented marketing automation before putting the processes in place to attract and convert more leads, like creating better content, offers, calls-to-action, and landing pages, and doing things like blogging and optimization (and to clarify, buying email lists does not count as lead generation). Essentially, I put the cart before the horse and my results later suffered.

3) People don't exist in a vacuum.

Even for those of you that don't have a lead problem (lucky you), marketing automation is not the end-all, be-all to demand generation. It's just the piece of the puzzle. While it's a great engine to qualifying and scoring leads, the hard truth is that your leads don't move perfectly from one campaign to the next.

Most automated campaigns look something like this:


Seems logical. You're simply building a path of influence. But in reality, your prospects aren't moving laterally through a branching campaign. Instead, their journey looks more like this:


Most marketing automation ignores the fact that your leads and contacts aren’t working their way through your campaigns in isolation. If your marketing is working the way it should be, your leads aren’t just sitting, waiting for your emails -- they're engaging with you through social media, searching for your brand on Google, and finding their way back to your website. Because most marketing automation campaigns treat your leads as if they exist in a vacuum, your marketing misses several opportunities to interact with prospects and customers when and where they prefer.

A lesson that I learned was to not put automation at the center of my universe. Additionally, when I thought about my campaigns, I removed "branching logic" entirely, realizing that the buying process doesn't work that way.

4) Features don't solve problems, solutions do.

As a closet-coder and huge tech geek, I love features. I often "ooh and ahh" over shiny bells and whistles. But when evaluating marketing software, features are the last thing you want to be drooling over. Instead, you need to focus on solutions, since all vendors solve problems differently.

If you've ever used a Request for Proposal (RFP), it might be of no surprise that RFPs generally end up becoming a superfluous feature list. Understandably, features are meant accomplish particular functions or tasks in a software solution, but features can also hypnotize buyers into something they don't really need. I think at one point I even put "drag and drop interface" in my RFP. Really. Last time I checked, and I could be wrong, drag and drop does not increase revenue.

As a solution to this, instead of creating a laundry list of feature sets, ask questions (where possible) for how the vendor goes about solving particular problems. When you assess the areas of the funnel that stand to gain the most from those improvements, your RFP will have you focused on the right areas. This means instead of using what a more traditional RFP would look like:

  • Does your software have auto-complete?
  • Does your software have bright icons in different colors to identify hot leads?
  • Does your software have the ability to create lists in five different ways?
  • Does your software smell like candy?
  • Does your software update analytics in less than 30 seconds?
  • Does your software organize assets in folders?
  • Does your software smile at me when I send an email?

Use a solution-based approach:

Problem: Email open rates are trending down. Consumers are saying they are overwhelmed by email, and we're up against tools like Gmail’s Priority Inbox that make it easier to tune email out.

Solution: What specific solutions does your company offer to help us increase the power of our offering so we break through the clutter and are seen, read, and heard by potential buyers?

Problem: Our email database is expiring at a rapid rate and we're struggling to generate more leads of high-quality. We have a small team, so we lack the resources to generate more content to feed the top of the funnel while building our nurturing campaigns.

Solution: Please explain what tools and expertise you offer to build a world-class inbound program, as well as how you have helped clients similar to ours solve for the email database expiration challenge.

Problem: Reaching buyers in the right channel with the right content at the right time is becoming increasingly complex, but it’s critical in order to achieve success.

Solution: We want to build a personalization vehicle that helps facilitate the customer experience across all channels -- what tools does your company provide to enable customer experience beyond email?

Granted, there will always be specific requirements that need to met and inquired about, such as, "Can your software integration with our CRM?" But using a more solution-based model when evaluating technology providers will help keep you from feature-blindness and focused on the right priorities.

5) Successful automation relies on sales and marketing alignment.

Sales & Marketing SLA

The purpose of marketing automation isn't just to make marketing's job more efficient, but to make the sales team more efficient, too, by improving the velocity at which potential buyers move down the funnel. To achieve this, it's essential to have a shared understanding of the buying process between marketing and sales.

If you ask any sales professional, their view of how automation should be used will likely look different than yours. To overcome a breakdown in sales and marketing alignment, it's important to establish and communicate clear guidelines around how automation will accomplish the goals of both teams. Building a Service Level Agreement (SLA) between the two teams helps tremendously to work toward a common goal.

Before you begin evaluating software, I'd recommend having this conversion with your sales team so the priorities and action items are clear and agreed upon. In many organizations, the head of sales has more purchasing power than marketing, so it helps to have their buy-in.

6) Marketing expertise by the vendor really, really matters.

Many companies promote their great technical support. In fact, I have had very positive experiences with many vendors throughout my career in this area. Many of them know the software in and out and can answer questions quickly.

But very few vendors can also help you become a better marketer. Not many take the time to really understand your business and goals, and then map out a plan to accomplish those goals so that you see results. But great things happen when you have people who are truly passionate about seeing you accomplish great things, too.

A vendor that's knee-deep in the forefront of marketing can help you stay ahead of the curve with them. Marketing changes a lot, and fast. That means it's critical that your teams stay up-to-date, too. During the evaluation process, ask the vendor, "What resources, training, and consulting does your company offer so my team can stay current on best practices?"  This will give you some insights on how up-to-date the provider is.

So, are you ready for marketing automation?

You'll find that with many of the pitfalls above, the best thing to keep in mind is that automation is a shift in thinking, not just a change in technology. Marketing automation is an amazing tool to communicate with your audience, improve efficiencies, and increase sales qualified leads, among other benefits -- but it's important to identify your pain points, then develop a plan to address them before you dive into automation. If you're not quite sure where your gaps are but you're investigating automation as a solution, I would recommend scheduling a marketing assessment here with a HubSpot consultant (they are free and it will be very much worth your time).

What lessons have you learned from evaluating and implementing marketing automation technology? Share your stories with us.

Image credit: terren in Virginia

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