Tips & Tricks

Marketing Automation 101: The Complete Guide to Automating Your Marketing Actions to Do More in Less Time

Technology has made it possible for businesses of any size to automate a major portion of marketing activities – by leveraging the right tools, you could even automate it all. A totally hands-off approach isn’t advisable, though, as it takes the human aspect out of your marketing, and your users and customers ultimately are connecting with your people, not your brand.

Still, smart enterprises know that many marketing activities don’t need to be handled manually, and in fact, trying to handle every aspect of marketing manually can take up substantially more time and resources than you have available. Automating repetitive tasks, on the other hand, frees up marketers’ time to focus on the activities that have to be human-led – or are simply more effective when they have that personal, human-to-human touch.


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We’ve put together this comprehensive guide to walk you through marketing automation from start to finish, from identifying which activities to automate, what tools to leverage, and best practices for success.

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

What is Marketing Automation?

To implement marketing automation properly, you must first understand what it actually is. While most marketers are familiar with the term, it’s often used to describe a category of software – that is, marketing automation software – which is an integral component but doesn’t paint the full picture. SearchSalesforce offers a solid definition: “Marketing automation is the use of software to automate marketing processes such as customer segmentation, customer data integration (CDI), and campaign management. The use of marketing automation makes processes that would otherwise have been performed manually much more efficient, and makes some new processes possible. Marketing automation is an integral component of customer relationship management (CRM).”

So, in other words, the software solutions are the tools you use to make it happen, but the term marketing automation actually refers to the process of making otherwise manual activities more efficient by implementing systems to facilitate those same activities without direct human intervention.

Studies reveal that marketing automation is incredibly effective:

  • Businesses that make use of marketing automation to nurture prospects realize a 451% increase in qualified leads.
  • Research from Gartner shows that businesses that automate CRM lead management get a 10% (or greater) boost in revenue within 6 to 9 months. Gartner also predicts that companies will manage 85% of their relationships without human-to-human interaction by 2020.
  • According to Forrester research, companies that nuture leads using marketing automation generate 50% more sales-ready leads – at just 33% of the cost.
  • A DemandGen report reveals that nurtured leads produce a 20% increase in sales opportunities on average, when compared to non-nurtured leads. HubSpot confirms the benefits of lead nurturing, pointing out that nurtured leads make purchases that are 47% larger compared to their non-nurtured counterparts.
  • VentureBeat finds that 80% of marketing automation users find realize an increase in the number of leads generated, while 77% also see a boost in conversions.

According to HubSpot’s survey data, 63% of companies say generating traffic and leads is their top marketing challenge, followed by proving the ROI of their marketing activities (40%). WebEngage also conducted a survey on the top marketing challenges in 2016, in which online lead generation once again emerged as one of the top marketing challenges faced by most companies, followed by multi-channel engagement:

Marketing Challenges Survey Results Graphic

Screenshot via WebEngage

Fortunately, the right marketing automation tools and processes can help to solve these challenges.

The need for (and the use of) marketing automation is growing, due in part to the growing number of channels through which consumers interact with brands. This is particularly true for growing companies, who find it increasingly difficult to maintain 1:1 relationships with every lead, prospect, and customer. Coupled with the increase in the number of marketing channels marketers are faced with managing, at some point, every company reaches a tipping point at which it’s simply not realistic – or even possible – to continue managing and monitoring all of those activities and their associated data using standard spreadsheets and other outdated tools. It’s time to consider marketing automation if:

  • Leads aren’t being handled consistently
  • Your sales process is poorly defined
  • The time it takes your team to acquire, nurture, and close leads is increasing
  • All prospect and customer inquiries are being handled manually
  • Customer retention needs to be improved
  • You’re missing out on cross-selling and up-selling opportunities

By leveraging marketing automation, you can deliver the right messaging to the right customers at the right time – in less time and with greater accuracy thanks to the ability to better integrate your data, build behavioral profiles, and understand your audience’s needs in the moment. You’ll respond to leads faster, move prospects through the marketing funnel with efficiency and with greater personalization, more readily convert prospects to customers, and ultimately boost the bottom line.

The 4 Most Important Components of Marketing Automation

Naturally, there are many things (data, processes, etc.) that go into a complete marketing automation program, but every initiative shares four major components:

  • Lists/Segmentation: Lists and segmentation are the foundation of effective marketing automation. Your company already utilizes lists in some fashion (every business does), but without quality lists, automation isn’t possible. Lists consist of your target audience – whether potential leads, existing prospects, or existing customers – that you want to build or nurture a relationship with. Lists might be segmented by buyer persona, by the channel through which they became a lead, by product or service line, or by some other demographic or geographic data.
  • Lead Scoring: Lead scoring is a method for assigning a value to a contact based on their likelihood of converting to a customer. It’s an essential process for marketing teams for determining when a lead is qualified to be passed on to sales. Effective lead scoring means marketing continues to nurture leads until they’re ready to buy, passing on only the most qualified leads to sales – ultimately saving the sales team valuable time by enabling them to focus solely on the prospects that are likely to offer the most value to the company.
  • Triggers: Triggers are defined thresholds that spark a specified action from a marketing automation solution. For example, a trigger might be used to indicate when your software should send an email to a prospect and offer a product demo. Another trigger might be used to prompt your software to send a discount offer to a prospect who is close to the point of purchase but hasn’t yet converted. One of the simplest examples of a trigger is a sign-up form for an email newsletter – when an individual enters their email address or fills out the form, that’s the trigger that results in your email software sending that person a confirmation email. It wouldn’t make sense for software to send out a confirmation email to an existing customer, and that’s why clearly defined triggers are so crucial.
  • Actions: Actions are the things that occur after a trigger. Using the example above, the action is the sending of the confirmation email after a user signs up.

If This Then That

Some combination of these four elements are configured in various ways to create workflows. At a minimum, a trigger and an action are necessary to create a workflow. Depending on the number of channels, audiences, personas, and possible triggers and actions, an enterprise could have thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of possible workflows. In its simplest form, a workflow has a very basic structure: If X, then Y. Popular services like IFTTT (which stands for If This, Then That) and Zapier use this foundational structure to enable users automate a variety of tasks between other existing apps and services, not exclusively related to marketing.

But it’s really more complicated than that, because you also need to account for context. Both Zapier and IFTTT also allow for certain more complex actions, such as multi-step zaps with Zapier and triggering multiple applets, multiple applet actions, and trigger filtering with IFTTT.

Creating Marketing Automation Workflows

When it comes to marketing automation, though, the need for greater context and myriad conditions demand a robust solution and more complex workflows. For instance, you might want to send a welcome email with relevant content to a consumer who has signed up to receive your email newsletter when their point of entry and prior known behaviors indicate that they’d have an interest in a particular product or service line. But another consumer who fills out the same form but clearly has different interests wouldn’t receive the same value from the exact same content – here is where the need for greater personalization arises. Flowchart Example Graphic

By the same token, you want to create different experiences and offer different content to prospects based on their current stage in the buyer’s journey. You don’t want to send prospects who are nearing the point of purchase to a landing page offering an introductory webinar when the prospect-company relationship has already been established; they’re already familiar with your brand and, in many cases, have been exposed to this information already. You might, however, want to send those same prospects to a landing page encouraging them to book a demo.

But you may not want some of these actions to take place immediately. An email drip campaign is perhaps the simplest use case that illustrates the concept of delays in action. In a drip campaign, a specified sequence of emails is sent with pre-determined delays in between those messages.

Say you’re delivering various email messages in a sequence designed to gradually convince a prospect to make a purchase over the course of a few weeks or months. Rather than bombard (and likely alienate) your prospects by blowing up their inboxes, you’d want to send the next message in the sequence every few days, maybe once per week.

Simple Drip Campaign Flowchart

However, you might also want to migrate prospects to another list (and therefore deliver different messages to them throughout the duration of the campaign) if they take a certain action at some prior point during the sequence. In other words, you want to segment your list. Here’s another flowchart example illustrating a more complex, multi-thread (or multi-branch) workflow from SmartInsights:

Marketing Automation Flowchart Example

Screenshot via SmartInsights

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario:

  1. Leads are generated through a signup form in which consumers opt in to receive email updates from your company.
  2. Those leads are added to a general “email leads” list and begin to receive a sequence of 10 emails, spaced out with five days between each, over the next several weeks.
  3. Email message #4 in the sequence makes an irresistible offer. Some of the leads on your list take advantage of that offer and take an action (making a purchase, downloading an asset, etc.).
  4. Leads that took the desired action after receiving message #4 are then migrated to a “prospect” list, who then begin receiving more targeted messages for the duration of the campaign (such as messages designed to up-sell or cross-sell those who have made a purchase, or messages designed to get consumers who downloaded an asset to sign up for a product demo or talk to a sales rep on the phone ).
  5. Leads that did not take that same action after receiving email message #4 remain on the original list and continue receiving the remaining messages in the drip campaign.

Lead Scoring Workflow Flowchart Example

Image Credit: Wilson Hung via ConversionXL

Basically, this type of workflow structure breaks off from a single branch to two or more branches depending on how your audience responds to your messaging. The workflow may branch off depending on whether the user opens an email, clicks on a link in the body of the email, or takes any number of other possible actions.

Lead scoring can come into play here, as well. Prospects with higher lead scores are potentially more valuable to the company, meaning you may choose to nurture those prospects down a more personalized path with the option of booking a live demo when they can have a 1:1 conversation with sales. Lower-scoring leads with a lower potential value may be offered a pre-recorded demo, thereby reducing the investment in 1:1 interactions when those interactions are less likely to produce ROI.

Lead Nurturing and Scoring Flowchart Example

Image Credit: Myk Pono via Medium 

Automation-Ready Marketing Activities

Many people associate “marketing automation” with “email marketing automation,” and because email marketing is an established process that most marketers are familiar with, these examples are useful for understanding the concept of triggers, actions, conditions, and workflows. But marketing automation can be applied to much more than email marketing; many marketing activities are automation-friendly. But, there is a difference between the marketing activities that can be automated and those that should be automated.

Social media, for instance, is one marketing channel that can be almost entirely automated, thanks to dozens of tools that can handle everything from automatically following people of interest to curating and posting updates and even replying to comments, mentions, and direct messages on your behalf. But a totally hands-off approach to social media can backfire if your automated systems don’t sufficiently address comments and questions – or if it becomes obvious to your followers that there’s no genuine human engagement happening.

Social Media Marketing Automation

Therefore, while it’s efficient and cost-effective to automate some or many social media tasks, this is one aspect of marketing that you’ll still want to give that personal, human touch. The same principle can be applied to most other marketing automation processes: Take advantage of the time-saving and cost-saving advantages of automation, but don’t let automated activities set the tone for your brand.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the tasks and processes that can be automated in full or part:

  • Behavioral tracking
  • Email marketing
  • Lead generation
  • Lead management/nurturing
  • User onboarding
  • Customer retention
  • Social media marketing
  • Analytics/performance monitoring
  • Cross-selling/up-selling
  • Retargeting
  • Resource management
  • Campaign management

In August 2016, conducted a survey on behalf of Autopilot, the “2016 State of Customer Journey Marketing Survey,” revealing data based on the responses of 290 marketing decision-makers in the U.S. who use marketing automation software. The data, illustrated by Marketing Charts, offers some helpful insights on the specific marketing automation journeys that produce the best results.

Top-Performing Marketing Automation Journeys

Image Credit:

Respondents were asked to select up to three marketing automation journeys that perform best for their respective companies. The following journeys were selected by 25% or more respondents:

  • Generating leads from paid or acquired email lists: 40%
  • Automating manual sales outreach or emails designed to stay in touch with prospects: 38%
  • Nurturing new warm leads who are not yet ready to engage: 38%
  • Welcoming and onboarding new buyers: 35%
  • Reactivating cold leads: 28%
  • Converting trial users or evaluators into buyers: 25%

Selecting Marketing Activities for Automation

While these proven journeys provide a good starting point, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for selecting the right activities to automate. A company in one niche may require a more hands-on approach for certain marketing activities, while another can automate the same process entirely without risking relationships or opportunities. Also consider that you’re not necessarily automating an entire channel or process, but repetitive tasks that are part of an ongoing process. In general, good candidates for automation are:

  • Time-consuming tasks
  • Repetitive tasks
  • Tasks that can realistically be triggered by standard rules

Start by identifying the repetitive tasks and processes that consume the most time, and then determine which activities among them are the best candidates for having standard, universal trigger rules applied to them. If this list is long, you might start with the activities that consume the most time or those that can have the biggest bottom-line impact.

Marketing Automation Tasks

At the end of the day, you’re looking to improve your metrics – more qualified leads, more conversions, cost per lead, response rate, and so on. As with any marketing initiative, when implementing marketing automation you should identify your goals, define key performance indicators (KPIs), and measure, refine, and repeat.

It’s important to get not just buy-in, but also involvement, from sales. Marketing automation can play a valuable role in achieving that elusive marketing-sales alignment, so engaging the sales team from the start and working together to establish a lead scoring system and define thresholds (such as what score constitutes a sales-qualified lead) can make the entire process more streamlined from the start.

Choosing the Right Marketing Automation Software

While you could build in-house systems to automate your marketing workflows, the vast number of marketing automation solutions makes this effort unnecessary in most cases. Choosing the right software for your needs can speed adoption and generate ROI more quickly than building and implementing your own processes from scratch.

While some software companies offer a broad set of capabilities that encompass many aspects of marketing automation, others focus solely on one function, such as email, social media, or customer relationship management. Don’t confuse email marketing software with marketing automation software. Many email marketing solutions offer the ability to segment lists, create autoresponders and drip campaigns, and even apply multiple triggers based on conditions, but email is only one facet of marketing automation. Marketing automation solutions often either have a built-in CRM or the ability to integrate with a third-party CRM, allowing them to offer more robust functionality in line with your marketing and sales processes.

If you opt for dedicated solutions for specific functions, your top priority should be choosing solutions that integrate seamlessly to avoid forcing your data into silos. GetResponse breaks down marketing automation solutions into three levels:

  • Email Marketing Automation – The bottom and most basic level of marketing automation, these solutions focus on automating email processes with features such as A/B testing, templates, and analytics. These solutions offer functions such as autoresponder sequences and drip campaigns.
  • Email Marketing Automation + Marketing – Software solutions at this level are often targeted primarily to SMBs, catering to growing companies that are looking to expand their lead nurturing efforts beyond email. These solutions often integrate with CRM platforms.
  • Email Marketing Automation + Marketing + CRM + Sales – These platforms are generally used by enterprises and some mid-sized companies that have dedicated marketing teams. In addition to CRM integration, these solutions have a broader set of features including support for multiple users, as well as more robust features that facilitate better marketing-sales collaboration.

Before you select software, you need to establish a plan. After all, you can’t find a solution that meets your need if you haven’t established exactly what it is you’re trying to automate and measure. Ideally, you should opt for a solution that serves not just marketing, but also sales and customer service/customer relationship management. A unified solution keeps all departments on the same page and relying on the same data, and it also gives every department a better understanding of the entire buyer’s journey, rather than just the portion of the journey they’re responsible for.

Other things to look for include:

  • Automation for the complete customer journey. Solutions that can automate the complete customer journey. Marketing automation is built on workflows, and because every consumer is unique, those workflows can become quite complex. The more complex the workflow, the more personalized the experience for the consumer. Contextual Information
  • Ease of use. Ease of use is an obvious consideration, as well. If setting up workflows is overwhelmingly complex, adoption may suffer, meaning you won’t get the full value from your investment.
  • Scalability. A solution that can scale with the growth of your business. While you want to avoid purchasing software with myriad features that you don’t currently use and aren’t likely to use in the future, you do want to have a long-term vision for your company and a long-term plan for getting there – and then select a solution that can accommodate that vision.
  • Continuous measurement, analysis, and optimization. Because marketing automation relies on the rules, triggers, and actions that you define, you’ll want to analyze performance and be able to easily adjust your processes for a fully optimized customer experience, and that means constant measurement against your KPIs and goals. Real-time insights are essential, as today’s consumers demand that companies readily respond to their changing needs and expectations with relevant, in-the-moment messaging and experiences.
  • Robust segmentation, or better, complete personalization. Full personalization is better than segmentation, but you’ll want the ability to define groups of leads, prospects, and buyers to more readily create unique journeys and provide experiences that are relevant to each individual engaging with your brand.
  • Built-in templates and workflows. Already having the basic building blocks makes it easier to set up campaigns and start implementing automation. This goes along with ease of use, reducing the upfront time investment and easing the migration process from whatever systems you’re currently using to carry out certain tasks.
  • Customization. Templates and built-in workflows mean you don’t have to recreate the wheel each time you set up a workflow or create a landing page, but customization is essential for the modern enterprise. Your business is unique, and your customers and prospects are unique as individuals. Solutions that only allow you to choose from a short list of pre-defined rules and triggers fail to meet the needs of most businesses today; instead, look for the ability to create rules from scratch, define your own triggers, and create customized workflows for different segments, buyer personas, and even consumers on an individual basis based on their historical behavior and recent actions.

Today, creating a seamless omni-channel customer experience is essential for enterprises. The right software solution (or set of seamlessly integrated solutions) make it easier to create a cohesive customer experience across channels throughout the entire buyer’s journey – plus, you can better align your marketing and sales funnels to generate more qualified leads and revenue opportunities. By reducing the time your marketing and sales teams spend on repetitive tasks, you free up valuable time they can spend on other revenue-generating activities.

The Intelligent Engagement Platform helps many industries leverage their marketing automation, so they can deliver the right messaging to the right customers at the right time. Explore the features of our advanced CDP.