What Is Marketing Automation?

Learn what marketing automation is, what good marketing automation looks like, and how to make it work for your business.

What is marketing automation?

Marketing automation is all about using software to automate marketing activities. Many marketing departments automate repetitive tasks such as email marketing, social media posting, and even ad campaigns -- not just for the sake of efficiency, but so they can provide a more personalized experience for their customers. The technology of marketing automation makes these tasks easier.

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The Ideal

At its best, marketing automation is a combination of software and strategy. It should allow you to nurture prospects with highly personalized, useful content that helps convert prospects to delighted customers. 

Think of effective marketing automation like growing a garden. You need fertile soil, ripe for growth. You need seeds to sow. And you need water and light to nurture those seeds into a lush, blooming plant. With good marketing automation, it's easier to nurture leads (the seedlings) well enough to produce paying customers (a lush, full-grown plant).

But it doesn't end there. Customers are more than just the output of successful marketing automation. They should be at the center of everything you do, which means marketing automation should continue to play an important role in your relationship with them.

That's why the most successful marketing automation strategies don't consider customers an afterthought at the end of a traditional funnel. Instead, customers should be at the center of a flywheel that gets more efficient when you add force to that flywheel, and reduce points of customer friction.

Successful marketing automation strategies will reduce that friction and speed up your flywheel, helping you continue to nurture customer relationships well after they've been passed to Sales and the deal has been won.

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The Reality

Because of the popularity of marketing automation, a misconception has grown that marketing automation software can be a salve for any slowdowns in marketing growth -- including the need to generate new leads. This misconception leaves many marketers with sophisticated tools to automate the middle of their funnel, but no solution for generating new leads to nurture in the first place.

The consequence is that marketers begin buying lists of email addresses to nurture instead of generating inbound leads. While it seems like a quick fix, it's not a long-term solution, nor does it create the fertile ground for a healthy, long-term relationship with your customers. 

Many marketers also continue to think of marketing automation in the context of a funnel, instead of a flywheel. Generate a lead, put them in an automated email queue, and pass hand-raisers over to Sales. This creates a disjointed experience for prospects and customers as they move from Marketing, to Sales, to Customer Service. Instead of building a contextual, efficient experience based on each individual's needs, marketing automation becomes a way to force people through a funnel with arbitrary touch points and irrelevant content.

When marketing automation operates in a silo like this, points of friction are introduced that stall and strain what could have been productive, long-term customer relationships.

How do you make marketing automation work?

Marketing automation is powerful, which also means to make it work, you must understand all its components and nuances. This page has compiled some of our top resources that will help you understand those nuances so you can make marketing automation work for your company.

Frequently Asked Questions About Marketing Automation

  • Because often, there’s no top-of-the-funnel foundation put in place to support middle-of-the-funnel marketing automation. Marketers won’t have the ingredients they need for effective marketing automation until they have a steady flow of leads. Too many marketers without inbound lead generation strategies spend their time figuring out how to take the tiny fraction of the market they already have in their database, and squeeze more out of them. While they’re doing that, their competition is figuring out how to get more out of the 99.99% of the market that’s still out there.

    Do you have all the existing leads needed to hit your revenue goals in your database already? Are you getting your fair share of the available market?

    Even if your database is currently filled with quality leads, how effective will your marketing automation be when you’ve either converted all those leads into customers, or when your database begins decaying by ~22.5%/year?

    Understanding that a large database of leads is required for marketing automation to have any effect on their bottom line, many marketers end up buying lists of contacts to nurture with marketing automation. This spammy tactic produces incredibly low ROI. Along with the cost of buying these lists, sending unsolicited emails to people who have never requested any information from you leads to low engagement and hurts your IP address reputation, lowering your email deliverability rates.

    Don't invest in marketing automation before you have fertile ground for nurturing campaigns to blossom.

  • Traditional marketing automation often refers to triggering emails based on time delays or actions like email opens and email clicks. But is an email click alone enough data to execute a personalized lead nurturing strategy?

    Marketing automation strategies that offer limited data like this to the marketer often result in bad marketing automation. You need context about who leads are and what they’re interested in to give prospects a good experience.

    Marketing automation backed by an inbound strategy is centered around the prospect. Inbound marketing automation uses all the information we know about a person to inform the automation strategy, so we deliver the information they need to make a purchase, exactly when they need that information, in the place they’re looking for it.

    Good marketing automation takes into account the evolving needs of your leads, and the behaviors and interactions they have with you across all of your marketing channels. Not just email. Using behavioral inputs from multiple channels such as social media, viewing a pricing page, or consuming a particular piece of content gives marketers the context they need to fully understand a lead’s challenges.

    The most effective marketing automation also uses those various channels -- beyond email -- to communicate. That means the success of your campaign relies less on the email, and fully utilizes the various channels that influence a buyer’s decision.

  • If you’re publishing good content, generating a steady flow of new, organic leads, and you’re ready to scale your efforts, chances are it’s time to focus your efforts on a marketing automation strategy that will nurture those quality leads into paying customers. Here are some good questions to ask yourself when deciding if marketing automation is the right move for your business:

    - Are you generating a steady flow of new and qualified leads

    - Has Marketing and Sales agreed on what conversations should happen with marketing and which with sales?

    - Do you have a content strategy mapped to your buyer’s journey

    - Are you tracking your leads’ digital body language across every touch point and marketing channel (not just email)?

    - Do you have a proven lead nurturing strategy that you want to scale?

    These are all good signs that marketing automation could work for your business. The key here is understanding that marketing automation does not do marketing for you, but can help scale your successful efforts.

  • When considering a marketing automation solution, don't focus on the individual features -- focus on the business results and the long term partnership.

    Here are some resources to help you make your strategic decision.

    - Clouded in Confusion? How to Choose a Marketing Automation Provider (MyCustomer, November 2013)

    - Marketing Automation Software Grid (G2Crowd)

    - HubSpot vs. Marketo (HubSpot)

    - HubSpot vs. Pardot (HubSpot)

Marketing Automation Blog Posts

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A Beginner's Guide to Marketing Automation

Marketing automation is designed to help you prioritize and execute your marketing tasks in a more streamlined and efficient way. But what does that mean for you as a marketer?

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Is Marketing Automation Worth The Hassle?

Read through an analysis of new data that explains when marketing automation can become problematic for businesses.

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5 Dangerous Myths About Marketing Automation

Don't believe everything you hear about marketing automation. Here are five common myths that need to be busted.

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Free Marketing Automation Resources

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How to Optimize Your Marketing Automation

Marketing automation is more than blasting email newsletters. Learn to better automate the process of closing deals using highly targeted content.

Download now
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The Science of Marketing Automation

The Science of Marketing Automation is a free Webinar hosted by marketing scientist Dan Zarella.

Download now
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Marketing Automation RFP Kit

Evaluating marketing automation or marketing software? This free guide and RFP template will help you identify a qualified vendor to meet your needs.

Download now

Start Growing With Marketing Automation

Get a demo to see how the marketing automation tools in HubSpot can help your business grow.