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Marketing Automation: Taking a Deeper Dive

When it comes to the topic of Marketing Automation (MA), count me among the cynics. On the one hand, it represents the sea change of accountability and measurement needed within marketing departments for decades. On the other hand, I’m perplexed why we don’t hear about more case studies from the large platform providers that claim to offer ease of use, fast configuration and results. Perhaps the reason for my cynicism is based on the way executives intend to use these “automation” platforms. From discussions with companies now in the throes of MA projects, and as a generalization, it seems these purchases are intended to use automation as a quick fix for gaps in marketing infrastructure instead of supporting well-defined business practices, a thought-out data strategy, and a thriving content engine.

If you’re old enough to remember, this same process used to be called system integration, one of the great promises from IT that’s rooted in the 1990s. My guess as to why it’s today referred to as automation has something to do with the fact that it’s happening in the “cloud,” meaning outsourced servers. Again, this is not news. Regardless of the term to describe the interaction of these marketing activities, the purpose of MA is to consolidate gathered data and repackage it in a meaningful way for a sales team’s use.

In the current state of MA vendor competition, multiple types of vendors are approaching this marketplace in a way similar to Jim immigrating to California starting the gold rush in 18481 in what is best described as a land grab. What makes it challenging is that no single vendor differentiates the types of automation. Each vendor has a starting point of reference they use to define automation.

This market situation continues to evolve as design companies are looking to either build, partner or purchase platform capabilities of other companies. IT consulting agencies that made such platforms, in search of better profit margins, are using MA as a way to change the conversations from IT delivery to the business stakeholders. I see some similarities with past fads and trends having experienced the technology sales process for over two decades from the selling and buying perspectives. First, similar to enterprise resource planning (ERP), software and services are not sold to the tactician. Instead, solutions are pitched to the highest level C-Suite executive accessible by the vendor. By using established contacts, the MA sales hook is positioned as the “right” solution based on their knowledge of the business.

Where no answer is available, the larger capitalized companies buy the response from the market, consolidating competition. In late 2012, Eloqua was acquired by Oracle for approximately $871 million and is now packaged as Oracle Platform as a Service (PAAS) to a large, geographically diverse customer base. The tone and message of the press release speak volumes.

From the Oracle press release: “Modern marketing practices are driving revenue growth and are a critical area of investment for companies today,” said Thomas Kurian, Executive Vice President, Oracle Development. “Eloqua’s leading marketing automation cloud will become the centerpiece of the Oracle Marketing Cloud and is an important addition to the Oracle Customer Experience offering, which includes the Oracle Sales Cloud, Oracle Commerce Cloud, Oracle Service Cloud, Oracle Content Cloud and Oracle Social Cloud.”

It can’t be much more explicit than that. Executives at many large companies find comfort, or perhaps job security, by selecting vendors that currently control the lion's share of the market. In truth, using multiple solutions from a single vendor does provide a certain level of safety and efficiency. Hopefully, safer as in they’re already familiar with the business and, second, a vetting process of the company’s solvency is not required. But what’s the cost of such a decision? There appear to be issues with the risk adverse manager willing to err on the side of familiarity at the expense of innovation.

Best-of-breed solution providers, typically innovative by a need to differentiate and often with a more advantageous pricing model that offers excellent customer support, are being overlooked by those larger organizations. Perhaps it’s the fear of a fragmented application portfolio which requires additional oversight and management that has an elevated level of risk that keep these executives at bay.

According to Wikipedia, the basic definition of Marketing Automation is:

… software platforms and technologies designed for marketing departments and organizations to more effectively market multiple channels online (such as email, social media, websites, etc.) and automate repetitive tasks.

Achieving the goals listed above based on this definition is not likely to accomplish the task or yield the expected return described by the zealous sales teams selling the PAAS subscription model. Merely automating tasks misses the idea that information needs to be fed back into the process for use in re-targeting for sales.

The real benefit of MA is the identification of activities associated with marketing that can be made more efficient. I’m not referring solely to just process enhancements but also the ability to extend the content reach used to compress the sales cycle. Amplification of the message in multiple mediums should move customers and prospects more quickly through the purchase path (aka, the buyer’s journey), culminating with a conversion defined by the sales and marketing teams.

One way to measure the corporate interest level of any tool-set or service is to ask marketing executives for a meeting to discuss MA capabilities. When prompted to meet with marketing professionals, senior sales people will make room in their busy schedules, accepting vendor invitations for a demonstration of the power of these tools. Fear of being left behind is a motivating factor in the ability to get the attention of these key stakeholders.

However, before these meetings take place, more specifics about a company’s preparedness should be gathered in advance of collecting requirements or even the selection of a platform vendor. This assessment is a prudent first step for any company contemplating a project for a PAAS, if for no other reason than to identify risks involved with implementation.

To be considered a success, MA results need to be tangible, measurable and actionable. The days of anecdotal feedback are not convincing senior management. It’s not surprising that executives are looking for real metrics that can add insight and value to the overall sales and marketing results.

Where is the low hanging fruit of MA?

Companies are already delivering campaigns— some with legs as follow up and others with a “one and done” mindset, quickly moving on to the next shiny object. Analysis of the traffic and results of emails are more than just data points and can prove very insightful. One place automation makes sense is for the planning of themed and opportunity campaigns. It’s the repetitive nature of the campaign work that lends itself to automation. When evaluating the engagement process with customers, campaigns are uniquely positioned to continue to provide authentic messages to audiences that demonstrate interest. For those with less attention, a different automated path, including delayed communications, can be defined even using an alternative venue or medium. What’s critical in the process is the use of the feedback received from the email to change the message or medium for the next iteration of emails. Companies jumping ahead of assessment and failing to incorporate these observations may increase the risk of the MA project to stall – or worse, fail to achieve the target conversion rates.

As a final thought, relationships between the sales and marketing teams are a determining factor in the success or failure of the automation results. Evaluating the interpersonal interactions between the groups should focus not only on the senior leaders but the observations between the staff of both sales and marketing. Today, automation has had two sides, automation and enablement. These separate silos of capabilities have too many cross-dependencies to remain managed by different teams with, at times, competing goals.

William R Benz is the Chief Digital Officer. Bill spent his career in Digital Marketing within the Financial Services industry working for firms including Morgan Stanley, TIAA, Ameriprise, Blackrock, Merrill Lynch and J. & W. Seligman & Co. and now manages Carnegie Agency.

1. The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. “The Gold Rush of California: A Bibliography of Periodical Articles.” California State University, Stanislaus. 2002. Retrieved 2008-01-23.

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