Here’s What You Need to Know About the Fast-Growing Discipline

You’d be forgiven for thinking “marketing automation” is an odd if not contradictory term. Until recently, those two words were rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath. The goal of marketing is to increase awareness for products and services, a mission often carried out via labor-intensive creative work. Meanwhile, automation is defined as making things happen with as little human intervention as possible.

But the shift to online media opened the door for automation to trickle into the world of marketing.

In the digital realm, marketers can see not only what messaging works but who responds and how those people have interacted with the brand in the past. By bringing all that data together and mapping the various consumer paths, marketers can automatically personalize content to prospects and customers.

That personalization of content at scale, and smart engagement with prospects based on the way they interact with content, sits at the core of marketing automation.

“It’s about engaging customers on any channel or device with an orchestrated approach based on data,” said Gordon Evans, VP-product marketing at’s ExactTarget Marketing Cloud, which offers marketing-automation software.

The power of these platforms has turned them into attractive acquisition targets for software behemoths like IBM, Oracle, Salesforce and Adobe, which have all snatched up at least one marketing-automation company in the past two years. When connected with other software platforms, such as CRM, a marketing- automation system can make an entire organization more effective in the way it communicates with prospects and customers.

The practice is already popular with b-to-b marketers, but the tools are beginning to be used by b-to-c marketers as well. Ad Age will be offering a Crash Course on Marketing Automation at the upcoming CMO Strategy Summit in San Francisco.

Content personalization
At its most basic, marketing-automation software can trigger specific communications if a prospect or customer performs a certain action. For example, when a potential customer visits a product page for boots, a marketing-automation system can automatically send an email with more details about the company’s line of footwear, Mr. Evans explained. Even better, when a customer abandons an online shopping cart with a certain product in it, the system can send an email or push notification with a special offer for that item. To make it work, a marketer places tags from a marketing-automation platform on its site, sets up forms to capture name and email information and builds triggers (if X action then Y outreach) within the platform.

Relationship building
For b-to-b marketers, an automation platform can influence buyers before they contact a sales rep. Research from advisory company CEB found that 57% of a b-to-b buyer’s decision-making process is completed before they first reach out to sales, which means buyers are learning as much as they can before a company has a chance to speak with them. Marketing-automation systems can be used to develop prospects, pushing useful information about product categories in order to build trust. “The first time you meet people, they’re not ready to buy from you,” said Sanjay Dholakia, CMO of marketing-automation company Marketo. “You’ve got to build a relationship first, and that is nurturing.”

Smart engagement
Marketing automation’s real power is its ability to tailor messaging based on how far along a prospect is in the buying process. A click to a website’s pricing page, for instance, is a hint that a prospect may be ready to buy, so content appropriate for that stage — competitive analysis, for example — can be sent. Lead scoring, which assigns points to prospects based on whether they fit the description of a typical buyer and what actions they’ve taken, is used to segment consumers and target outreach. A low lead score means a prospect likely needs more content about the category, a high lead score means it may be time to clinch the sale with some sort of outreach or promotional offer. Reach out too early, Mr. Dholakia said, and it will seem like a bad lead; reach out too late and you’ve likely lost the sale.

Predictive analytics
Lead scoring is an inexact science, which is why some marketers are turning to predictive analytics. The practice uses thousands of available data points to determine which attributes are actually predictive of a sale or opportunity. “Those

[lead scoring] point valuations for different behaviors or your job title are frankly judgments, they’re not based on science,” said Brian Kardon, CMO of predictive analytics company Lattice Engines. Instead, using predictive analytics, marketers can run historical sales and marketing data against thousands of attributes including funding rounds, office openings, new hirings, patents, lawsuits and even Twitter posts. For b-to-c marketers, predictive analytics can be used to make programmatic-ad-buying decisions. Some marketers are even watching the performance of those ads and shaping their messaging across channels based on what resonates.

By Alex Kantrowitz for AdAge. Published on August 13, 2014.