Going forward, we’ll realize that “marketing automation” is really “marketing assistance”

In my December blog post, I predicted that 2014 would be the year of the great marketing U-turn. My third of three predicted trends was that we’d become more successful at using marketing automation to move prospects through the sales funnel, and I promised to write more on that later. Here goes.

As Carabiner takes an increasing role in client lead generation and lead nurturing efforts, I’ve become convinced that many companies have been slightly tricked – or more accurately, have slightly tricked themselves – into thinking marketing-automation technology can deliver more than it really can.

My suspicions were reinforced by a recent Ascend2 study, in which marketers were asked which inbound marketing tactics they considered most effective and which were most difficult to execute. The only two tactics with significantly higher scores for difficulty than for effectiveness were marketing automation and lead nurturing/scoring.

Most Effective vs Most Difficult to Execute Tactics

Let me be clear: I do not think this illustrates that we should ease up on using these new tools, but rather that we’ve managed to set ourselves up for disappointment in what we expect of them. In the face of real needs to meet real challenges, it’s easy to place too much trust in new technologies as being able to save the day.

How we got here

The seeds for the marketing-automation movement were planted when Salesforce.com became a runaway success. Salesforce.com’s open platform and near-ubiquity attracted scores of technology innovators, many of them aiming to help marketers accomplish more with their customer databases. Eloqua, Marketo, Pardot and their ilk essentially said that you have to go beyond Salesforce.com by treating people in the database as individuals if you want to move them through the funnel. And they give us software tools to do just that.

But as is typically the case with applying technology to complex challenges, the tools themselves aren’t answers. Anyone who has gone through marketing-automation vendor training can identify with it being similar to having artistic talent and going to an art school run by geeks. Instead of being taught to paint, you learn about the underlying makeup of paints, and of canvas, and of brushes, and by the end of training you know your tools really well – but you get no lessons in how to paint. In the case of marketing automation, you get lessons in the tools, but not lessons in how to use them to market effectively.

That’s because most technologists aren’t marketers. They develop hard-earned skills in math and computer science and they create great software, but we frequently give them too much credit for solution completeness. And so we evaluate our options, pick a tool, and decide later that it’s more difficult than it is effective.

Don’t blame the tool

Effective automation can be extremely valuable in increasing efficiency – but the efficiency of what? It all comes down to the strategy and content being supported by automation. The key is to use technology as an assistant. Eloqua, Marketo and Pardot need to be married to skilled marketers; there has to be someone of substance behind the curtain.

Think about the term “marketing automation” for a bit. Marketing is a complex discipline that many of us have worked to master for years or decades. Automating that discipline is no more fully attainable than automated sales, or automated product development, or automated finance.

I think we’re on the cusp of realizing that, and look forward to our coming to accept that marketing automation’s real value is assistive. Pulling the right levers and pushing the right buttons to generate qualified leads and turn them into prospects and finally customers must still be driven by skilled marketing minds.

If we approach marketing automation tools in that light, we should see them move into a more favorable position in Ascend2’s next survey of marketing tactics.

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