The last few years have seen an enormous increase in the adoption of marketing automation software across a variety of industries. Whether Act-On, Hubspot, Marketo or any one of growing number of platforms, firms are investing in the software hailed as a “must-have” in today’s digital-centric marketing ecosystem

And rightfully so. Marketing automation is a powerful software tool that can boost a firm’s online marketing program, increase alignment with marketing and sales and graduate email marketing from the typical batch-and-blast approach.

Marketing automation is not so automated after all

But while there is virtually limitless potential for what marketers can do with marketing automation (as the slick and persuasive sales demonstrations showed), achieving success and generating a return on the investment can be a bigger task than many realize. The truth is, “automation” is a bit of a misnomer, as marketing automation out of the box is anything but automated. For marketing automation to be effectively leveraged, it requires ongoing time, strategy, content creation, monitoring and adjustment.

Moving forward post-implementation

Once you’ve selected the right platform for your firm’s needs and you’ve successfully completed a thorough implementation process, your work is really just beginning. However, this is precisely where many firms stop and move on to other initiatives. The tough reality is that purchasing marketing automation and getting your account set up is the easiest aspect of the whole process. What’s needed is a strategy and plan for integrating the various pieces and components of the tool with your firm’s content marketing and digital efforts.

Strategy sets the course

Remember, marketing automation is simply a tool for marketing; it isn’t marketing all by itself. Who you are trying to reach, what content they’re interested in receiving and how and when you engage them needs to be determined upfront. Persona-based research is one of the best ways to ensure that your strategy is aligned with the context of the buyer’s journey. There are A LOT of moving parts in the digital ecosystem, so without a flight plan in place, you’ll either not get off the ground post-implementation, or crash and burn along the way. The point is, marketing automation should be a tool you adopt to assist with a digital strategy that’s already in place.

Content marketing feeds the machine

To realize the many benefits of marketing automation, a solid content marketing program needs to be in place. Landing pages, lead capture forms, triggered and automated emails, social media publishing and calls-to-action all rely heavily on quality, educational content to feed the machine. If you don’t have content marketing, you’ve probably put the cart before the horse. That’s not to say that you have to have piles and piles of content to get started, but at least some content is a requirement.

Crawl, walk, run (or just keep moving forward)

How marketing automation is leveraged will vary greatly depending on the industry you’re in, your sales process and the sophistication of your marketing activities. And how fast you advance in your usage of the tool will vary as well. But regardless of your unique situation, the “crawl, walk, run” approach is ideally suited to ensure that you get your money’s worth from your investment in marketing automation and you realize the benefits the software offers.

Crawl: start with the basics

Out of the gate, there are several marketing automation features that all firms can and should be using. Everyone starts with website visitor tracking (likely the featured that sold you in the first place). But don’t stop there! Here are other items that fall under the “crawl” stage:

  • Integrate all the forms on your website
  • Add a subscription form to your blog (if you don’t already have one)
  • Set up subscription management for email opt-outs
  • Segment your contact lists as appropriate for your business
  • Create responsive templates for email and landing pages
  • Send regular, targeted emails to your segmented lists
  • Set up landing pages with lead capture forms for premium content
  • Create calls-to-action to promote landing pages and signups
  • Create triggered emails for all form fills and downloads
  • Monitor the website analytics regularly; keep sales/BD in the loop
  • Set up visitor alerts and daily reports
  • Use social publishing to promote content

Walk: graduate to more advanced features

As your marketing team becomes more comfortable with the tool, build on what you’ve started with and start to leverage some of the more advance features:

  • Integrate with your CRM (Salesforce, Dynamics, etc.)
  • Configure push/pull relationship with CRM, forms, etc.
  • Create multi-email drip nurturing campaigns for premium content
  • Work with sales/BD to set up lead scoring rules
  • Set up weekly/monthly RSS-to-email campaign for your blog
  • Integrate with other 3rd party tools (webinars, events, analytics, etc.)
  • A/B test content such as emails, landing pages, calls-to-action, etc.
  • Use progressive profiling for gated content forms
  • Leverage SEO audits and optimize web/landing pages
  • Integrate with Google AdWords to optimize SEM efforts
  • Perform proper email list hygiene regularly

Run: take all your efforts to another level

Much like going from walking to running, this stage is all taking what you’ve been doing to another level:

  • Focus more on email deliverability; consider getting a dedicated IP
  • Use dynamic or “smart” content in emails, web pages, landing pages, etc.
  • Implement more email marketing personalization
  • Create re-engagement campaigns for unengaged subscribers
  • Create more complex, multi-branch automated programs
  • Update existing automated campaigns regularly with fresh content
  • Fine-tune lead scoring rules and process
  • Leverage social media listening and prospecting
  • Create sophisticated revenue attribution and impact reports
  • Use account-based marketing features for more targeted engagement

Always a work in progress

There are certainly examples of industries and firms using marketing automation to its highest potential, but it’s certainly not the norm. The reality for most firms is that marketing automation can be a challenging tool to leverage at a high level. The key is to make sure your team is making progress, knowing that as platforms continue to advance in sophistication, your work is never done.

While these ideas represent some realistic things to achieve with marketing automation as you get going, they are really just scratching the surface of what’s possible. If your team feels overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) with marketing automation, hopefully this will get you moving forward.