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If you're considering a suite of marketing automation software tools for your business, you might not find a lot of support in your search. That's because the marketing field and the software tools that go with it have only recently come into their own.
The marketing role has existed for some times, but the means of measuring its effectiveness did not. So, the broader CRM market is still catching up. This article is intended to frame the major issues during your search for marketing automation tools.
Why marketing automation functionality is important
If you've heard the saying "Half of my marketing budget is wasted; the only problem is I don't know which half," you may already know that it sums up the need for marketing automation -- attaching numbers to marketing efforts in the age of the Internet, mobile and social marketing.
If you design a marketing campaign, you need to know about its performance. Twenty years ago, you'd launch a marketing campaign and wait to see whether business picked up. Clever marketers would survey a few customers to find out whether they'd been influenced by the campaign. All the business generated would come in through the same portal (the front door, because the concept of marketing portals didn't exist yet), and sales would be won or lost based on the skill of salespeople.
This kind of behavior won't fly today. We have the technology and the mind-set to make marketing a surgical tool of sorts. You don't design one campaign; you design two or three (or more) interrelated campaigns and launch them to different segments of your addressable audience. You track everything: which cohorts respond best to each campaign, when they are most likely to respond, whether they share the marketing materials with others, and -- most importantly -- which marketing leads convert to sales. Those responses can be directed to their own landing pages to maintain the context of the campaign, and to emphasize the specifics that brought the customer there.
Marketing automation enables you to manage all these aspects so you can attach reasonable goals and predictions to your efforts. Beyond that, marketing automation can just improve your business: It can be a sales department's best friend.
Marketing automation features
The building blocks of selling are leads, and marketing provides those blocks. The more and better information contained in those leads, the better chance salespeople have at closing the deal. Automating repetitive tasks alone means you can bring in a greater volume of leads, but that's just a start.
Interact with customers where they are. The control and insight available with marketing automation software tools illustrates how prospects interact with your brand -- not just through one, but through every channel. Tailor your message to those who want to see a newspaper ad but get more info online or to those who respond best on Facebook regardless of where they first hear of you. Some suites let you track who opens your communications, and whether they forward them to others.
Two-way exchange of information. Marketing automation enables two-way exchange of information as well. Not only do your prospects get the message you want them to have, but they also can be prompted to provide qualifying data (address, demographic, business type, etc.) in exchange for greater access to your product or service. You will provide your salespeople with volumes of accurate data on prospects who have indicated an interest in going further.
Lead nurturing and the long tail. Finally, you can maintain those prospect records and keep them fresh indefinitely. Not every lead converts to a sale, but marketing automation includes lead nurturing -- staying in touch with prospects, steering them toward a potential buying decision or recommending you to colleagues.
Not every vendor provides every function, of course, but those that don't will typically have partners or value-added resellers, or VARs,) who do. Customization is important to the vendors as well as to you, so be sure to ask about specifics.
The marketing automation software field
The marketing automation software (sometimes referred to as MA software) market is in flux, so any static document will become inaccurate in short order. The acronym MA also stands for mergers and acquisitions, and during the past year or two there have been plenty. That said, the top-performing marketing automation systems are still distinct whether or not they've stepped under somebody else's umbrella.
Enterprise players. As far as larger enterprise customers are concerned, the co-leaders have been Eloqua (recently acquired by Oracle) and Marketo. Both offer a variety of functions that can serve a variety of businesses, not just the biggest ones. Both companies have crept upmarket over the years but are a strong starting place regardless. They give a sense of what's possible. Others in the category include Aprimo, Unica (owned by IBM), Teradata and SAS Institute, all of which are more firmly focused on the midmarket and larger companies.
SMBs. Many of the market competitors operate in the small and medium-sized (SMB) segment. Here, you will find two major types of vendors: those that provide a CRM product that includes marketing functions and those that are pure-play marketing specialists. This is not a hard-and-fast divide, and the nature of cloud computing means integration and cherry-picking are always options for the customer.
The first place you're likely to look among the suite vendors is Salesforce.com, ironically because it has excellent marketing of its own. It's not a bad idea to check out Salesforce: Between its acquisitions and its app-vendor partners, there's plenty of functionality in there somewhere. Among established users, there's a tendency to integrate another vendor's technology tools. There's no need to stop there: SAP and Microsoft offer marketing automation in their respective suites as well, with (arguably) better native capabilities. SAP skews toward larger businesses, which may put it beyond the range of some.
Niche providers. Specialist marketing automation vendors can be the best choice for a company that knows what it wants. However, this means that companies instituting their first major marketing software must do their homework, or they'll find themselves at sea. Know your needs and your limitations. These vendors want you to be happy with your license or subscription, and the services they provide alongside the software should include making it work for you, as well as indicating early on if they're not a good fit.
While not a marketing specialist, Silverpop has generated buzz over the past year. Its sweet spot is business-to-commerce businesses that rely on mobile and social campaigns. It has strong competition from companies that include Neolane (from Adobe) and ExactTarget.
Tips for buyers
All this sounds great on paper, but companies need to fit tools to users' needs. Here are some considerations to assess whether a tool is a good fit.
Complexity. First, if the product looks complicated, it probably is. Don't underestimate the time it will take to get it running and integrated with existing technology, and don't underestimate the learning curve for users. If the vendor offers training services, take advantage of them. A user community can offer support and advice as well.
Change management. Onboarding isn't just about turning on the technology and using it. There may be resistance to change in your organization. This needs to be dealt with sooner or later, and sooner is always better. If you can get people interested in and excited about the new tools before you put them into their hands, you will have won a major battle. Involve stakeholders at all levels in the decision process, so no one feels burdened with unwanted technology or business processes.
For more on marketing automation software:
Marketing automation software: The business case
Ten best practices for implementing automation software
Use the technology. Don't pay for something you're not going to use. If you need something for only email marketing in a 50-person business, don't buy into a huge omni-channel suite intended for companies with hundreds of employees in multiple locations. But the converse is true as well: If you pay for it, use it. Marketing automation isn't just an email blast. Explore the possibilities, and don't be afraid to experiment or ask for advice.
Admit you need help. It's not enough to say you've managed without marketing automation so far. You're probably wrong, and don't even realize what you've missed.
Consider what you have. Your CRM system may have marketing capabilities you're not using. There's no sense spending money twice. If you don't have the right components, your provider should be all too happy to work with you or through a partner.
Ask your experts. If you have a separate marketing department, get its input. Marketers can tell you what they need. They also may have tried out tools without you.
Do your research. Knowing what you need will guide you to the right solution better than any overview article can. If email marketing is useless to you, for instance, don't choose a company that specializes in it.
Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting. He speaks, advises and writes articles about the CRM industry. Contact him at email@example.com or http://wwww.twitter.com/Lager.