The New Rules of Automation

Are companies relying too much on automation to optimize the customer experience? These seven strategies will help to strike a balance between automation and human intervention.

Marketing automation solutions are transforming the marketing landscape. Marketers are increasingly turning to marketing automation platforms to find more leads, streamline and automate repetitive tasks, and increase operational efficiency. And while marketing automation has been primarily used by B2B companies, the technology is quickly gaining traction among B2C companies as well.

It's unquestionable that automated solutions offer a bevy of advantages to businesses. B2B marketers who implement marketing automation increase their sales-pipeline contribution by 10 percent, according to Forrester Research. And 79 percent of B2B marketers worldwide are using some form of marketing automation this year, reported Regalix, a digital marketing company. Likewise, B2C marketers have numerous data collection tools and data points at their fingertips.

But companies may becoming overly confident in automation technology's ability to optimize the customer experience. Industry experts and analysts identified the top automation mistakes that can trip up businesses and offer seven strategies for striking the perfect balance between automation and human intervention.

One Size Does Not Fit All
Of course, before investing in any new technology, buyers need to do their research. It's easy to be dazzled, for example, by the many features and functions that marketing automation vendors offer, but it isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, warns Paige Musto, director of communications at marketing automation provider Act-On.

"Look for a vendor that is right for your business size and resource capacity," Musto advises. "Some systems require heavy lifting from IT and need dedicated specialists to run. If you are a smaller company this is important to know."

The biggest mistake marketers can make is to bite off more than they're able to chew, Musto adds. There are more functionalities in marketing automation platforms than can possibly be utilized all at once, and it's important that users prioritize the competencies that are sure to have the most immediate impact on their businesses.

"What we recommend is a peel-the-onion approach: Start small with programs that have proven effective [such as] webinars, landing pages, or emails and work outward from there to more sophisticated campaigns leveraging behavioral profiling, advanced segmentation, and drip or trigger automated programs," Musto says.

Line Up Your Data
Accurate customer data is also a critical part of marketing automation. Marketers should avoid "chasing Big Data dreams" before addressing their small data challenges, says Jake Sorofman, research vice president at Gartner. "Many marketers still struggle to get a handle on their first-party data, which is often a precondition for any Big Data strategy," he notes.

Creating a shared and unified view of your customer is a key requirement for success, agrees Lori Wizdo, principal analyst at Forrester. Marketers can't develop targeted content "without such knowledge, derived from data-about the customer, about the customer's context, and about the customer's engagement-across email, websites, call centers, and social channels," she says.

Bulk Up on Content
Additionally, many marketers forget that an effective marketing automation solution requires a robust amount of content and therefore underinvest in it. "Automation is only as good as the message or offer you have to share," Sorofman notes. "Too often, marketers overinvest in automation and underinvest in the content supply chain, which becomes a conspicuous bottleneck."

Marketers should look at marketing automation as the "engine of their marketing programs, with an understanding that the engine doesn't work without fuel," Musto advises. "The fuel is their content. For a marketing automation strategy to be effective, marketers must create content; it won't go to work on its own."

Trends analyses and predictive analytics can help marketers identify the content that will resonate with their customers, says Bob Buch, CEO of marketing automation firm Manifest (formerly known as SocialWire). A rookie mistake is to deliver generic content to your customers, especially if you invested in a marketing automation solution.

Instead of throwing all your products at a customer, think strategically about content that's relevant for each person. "Every retailer should know what their top products are and curate them for their customers," Buch says. "Manual curation is time-consuming though, which is where data insights can help marketers make smarter decisions when they know which products are trending and selling better than others."

Indeed, many marketers panic when "they think they have to make a lot of new content for marketing automation to work," notes Mike Sharkey, CEO of Autopilot, a marketing automation platform. "It's just a matter of being smart about the way you use your content. For example, maybe you have a blog post that would work well in an email campaign as well."

Use Checkpoints
While numerous parts of a marketing campaign can be automated, it's important to have an approval process in place to keep track of the campaigns and troubleshoot problems, notes Kristin Naragon, director of email solutions at Adobe. "We've seen a lot of growth in campaign management and the marketing automation space, but you still need human checkpoints, Naragon says. "Someone should often review the contact lists and segments for instance, and make sure customers are getting the right content. Some marketers think they can just implement [the marketing automation tool] and walk away but having an approval process built in is still very important."

Human input will always be necessary, particularly at the strategic level, Sharkey maintains. Automation frees people up to think more innovatively and strategically about how they want to engage customers. "Robots can do a lot of things," he notes, "But it's the marketer who decides what's important right now and what strategic advantages do they have against their competitors. I don't see that going away anytime soon."

Build Sustainable Strategies
While it's easy to capture the low-hanging fruit of marketing automation, such as driving leads, companies must also develop a long-term strategy for driving continued growth. "What I find in speaking with the first wave of 'veterans' of B2B marketing automation (we call themlead-to-revenue management(L2RM) pioneers)is that after bagging impressive early wins, theyfind it hard to sustain ongoing improvement," Forrester's Wizdo says.

"Our findings indicate that many B2B marketing professionals launched their L2RM initiative by simply scaling and standardizing their legacy marketing practices. They have not undertaken the fundamental changes needed to transform the lead-to-revenue process to deal with today's digitally empowered buyer."

Many marketing automation early adopters failed to build a sustainable strategy due to a number of factors, Lizdo notes. One problem is focusing only on improving certain parts of the marketing strategy, such as driving more inbound leads, without having the necessary bandwidth to handle the increase in leads. "These marketers quickly find this approach is a bit like playing whack-a-mole at the amusement park: As soon as you fix a glaring problem in one part of the process, an equally incandescent problem pops up elsewhere," Lizdo says.

Set a Realistic Budget
Another issue is failing to consider the true costs required to effectively implement a marketing automation strategy. L2RM pioneers reported several unexpected costs, including the use of external service providers, training, and the purchase of ancillary technologies.

"That correlates with findings from a recent survey, where interviewees told us that they end up spending two to three times the initial startup cost designing and managing the L2RM implementation," Wizdo notes. "Many marketing leaders find that, not having set the expectation about investment levels, they are unable to secure the necessary budget to make the investments that they realize, too late, are necessary."

Align your Marketing Strategy to the Business Strategy
Using marketing automation to increase revenue or improvethe return on marketing investmentsis a good thing, but it also constrains marketing automation's potential impact on the business. Marketers need to consider and explain how their efforts can affect other corporate goals, such as shifting revenue from low-margin product lines to higher margin lines or accelerating the launch of a new business line, Wizdo advises. "Never lose sight of the fact that L2RM yields customer insights that, when shared across the company, help systematically win, serve, and retain increasingly empowered customers," Wizdo says.

Marketing automation can make a marketer's life much easier by automating tasks, rapidly scaling campaigns, and more. But these advantages are only possible with strategic planning and a sustainable strategy that will enable marketers drive continuing growth and deepen their engagement with customers.