Marketing automation has been a buzzword for the last couple of years. New software companies are popping up almost daily, offering cloud-based tools that will solve (insert problem here), cure your morning coffee breath, and make everyone look good naked. The term marketing automation is used somewhat loosely, describing everything from all-in-one marketing software to real-time-bidding platforms. Companies including Marketo, Eloqua, Silverpop and Hubspot are making the case that their software systems, which are primarily designed for B-to-B, are the marketing automation market. That may become reality, but at the moment any software that automatically handles a process a human once performed manually might meet the definition.
We are still in the infancy of this trend, but it’s clear that the use of automation software in the marketing world will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, especially with big data now front and center. Frost & Sullivan estimates the automation market at $550 million in revenue currently and projects it to hit $1.9 billion by 2020. Every business is trying to be more efficient with its marketing dollars and provide better results with fewer resources. Automation software offers applications to take the drudgery out of mundane marketing tasks and improve efficiency.
What could go wrong?
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
There are issues you can’t control, such as the software provider going under, or being bought out by a larger rival. A loyalty software platform that automated rewards closed up shop last month, and one of our clients was a customer. We’ll get most of the data, but our client’s customers have been inconvenienced and we have to clean up the mess and find a replacement.
Then there’s the problem of transparency. Some platforms have great reporting, others not so much. This is especially true with many Google Adwords automators and resellers. For reasons I can only speculate about, they don’t like to provide complete or in-depth reporting. Is it possible they are hiding something, like additional mark-ups? While the Adwords platform can be clunky, Google has been improving the interface and the information is there for you to evaluate, crunch, track and adjust your campaign.
On the upside, when set up and used properly, the benefits of marketing automation software can be tremendous. Features like lead scoring and nurturing can direct your sales efforts to the prospects that are ready to buy because they have completed the actions that lead to a sale. Rewards programs can be automated and gather additional data on your sales and customers at the same time. Your sales force becomes more effective because they engage prospects further down the sales funnel. Retailers can geo-target and send offers when a customer is nearby.
But automation software isn’t a cure-all.
I’m reminded of an old tech acronym: GIGO, garbage in garbage out. Automation software is only as good as the information fed into it, so when an email address is entered incorrectly the intended recipient never receives the information expected. If the lead scoring criteria is wrong, sales people will connect with unqualified prospects. Since that already happens anyway, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that your company is paying for software to reduce or eliminate unqualified prospects in the sales funnel, so now the problem isn’t solved and you’re paying for software. If your business is B-to-C and you serve a large segment of the public, pushing out the wrong offer may cost you immediate sales or even create a social media backlash.
I sense the automation software industry is selling its products as a cure-all, when in reality they are selling tools. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has several definitions of the word “tool.” The two that apply here are “something used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession,” and “an element of a computer program that activates and controls a particular function.”
In each case the tool must be operated correctly by a trained individual (not a high school intern) and it needs accurate information fed into it to get the desired output (result).
People still have to create the information (white paper, etc.) or offer (discount, upgrade, etc.) distributed by the automation tool and set the parameters that trigger engagement. Let me repeat the key here: PEOPLE. People determine the criteria of your target audience, write content, and decide what offer will attract the customers and clients. The software can’t do its job without people.
That brings me to the central point of this post. As an ad agency owner I see businesses subscribing to or purchasing software to advance their marketing efforts. Too often they “set it and forget it.” The initial parameters are set, input, and then they hope for the best. Tracking measures aren’t put in place and results aren’t measured. Good software is an investment that requires the same effort and attention as any successful marketing program. The word “automation” doesn’t mean “ignore.”
The key steps to successful implementation of automation software:
- Before purchasing decide what you want the software to accomplish.
- Is it going to automate processes you are doing manually right now?
- Is it to replace outdated software?
- Or will this extend your marketing efforts into new media channels?
- What are your expectations for impressions, leads, sales or the criteria you will measure to determine your results?
- Do you have the manpower to create the content, emails, ads or other creative needed, or do you have an external resource?
- How much time and money are you willing to commit to make it work?
- Even if your brother-in-law owns the software company you will be purchasing from, evaluate several competitors to gain knowledge of market offerings, features and pricing.
- Assign someone to be the lead, take primary responsibility and become an expert in operation and use of the software.
- Gather the information and resources needed to set up the software. This includes email lists, marketing messages, creative, demographic targets and any other data required.
- Set up the software and check all points of communication such as landing pages or redemption codes.
- Have at least three people not involved with the software test it and provide feedback. Was the process easy; were they able to get what they wanted; were there unexpected roadblocks?
Establish a baseline
- If the software is replacing an outdated system is there data available to provide a history for comparison and evaluation?
- If the software is for a new program, set goals for each step of the process.
- Set a timeline for regular evaluation of the results. In a retail business that may be daily, weekly or monthly. In a B-to-B setting with a longer sales cycle that may be monthly or quarterly.
- One of the selling points of good automation software is a dashboard that provides an overview of results. Check the metrics that determine success or failure, then dig deeper into the reporting to understand why.
- There are a number of variables that will impact your results. List the variables you can control, such as list segmentation, discount offers, or lead scoring parameters.
- Test how changing one variable at a time affects results. Ideally this should be done with A/B testing to get the most accurate results. If that’s not an option with your software, alternate your change so that 50 percent of the interactions/communications are with the original parameters and 50 percent with the changed parameter.
- The testing process should be ongoing because the pace of change in marketing and technology isn’t slowing down anytime soon. If you “set it and forget it” your results will diminish over time.
- The first few months of setting up and learning how to use new software are often overwhelming. At the 90-day mark take time to analyze the big picture based on the criteria established in step 1.
- Is the software meeting your initial objectives?
- Are you happy with how it’s performed? Or are you frustrated or annoyed?
- Has everyone involved with implementation and regular use of the software embraced it? Or are they resisting?
- What aspects of the software do you love?
- What aspects do you hate?
- Is this money well invested so far?
Modify Goals and Objectives
- Once you’ve completed the 90-day analysis, spend a little time setting goals for the next 90 days. What processes can you improve to get more out of the software? What changes are needed to your original goals based on your experience so far?
As is always the case with any successful effort to market your business, some hard work is required. Even though it’s called “marketing automation software,” it still needs people to set it up, provide information, monitor, and make changes. Tools are designed to make a particular job easier, and automation software is a great tool when used correctly.