What is Marketing Automation?

marketing automation in a B2C context

What is marketing automation? Broadly defined as systems designed to help marketers capture leads, nurture them in the funnel and analyze lead behavior and campaign performance, marketing automation in this context is more closely associated with B2B marketing. This traditional definition holds that marketing automation software – from the “classical marketing” sense – is designed to manage leads or prospects and make nurture marketing work better.

Marketing Automation in a B2C Context – a Personalized CX

If the B2B context is definition 1A in Webster’s, an evolving 1B definition will recognize the growing importance of marketing automation for B2C marketers, where marketing automation in this context extends beyond the classic use case to include providing customers with hyper-personalized experiences at scale. This big tent view of marketing automation elevates marketing to a mission-critical line of business, recognizing that a personalized customer experience (CX) is a critical revenue driver. In a 2019 Harris Poll sponsored by Redpoint, for instance, 37 percent of consumers surveyed said they will not do business with a company that fails to offer personalization. And 62 percent said that a personalized CX is part of the standard service they expect.

In this light, marketing automation software that serves B2C use cases becomes as important as traditional B2B use cases. General-purpose lead nurturing marketing software that facilitates drip email campaigns, in other words, might be a good start, but in today’s world, basic marketing automation is table stakes. Because it is now vital to keep up with a dynamic customer journey and deliver consistent relevance, in real time, with every interaction across channels, marketing automation must also provide for omnichannel orchestration and the ability to manage every detail of the customer record.

Marketing Automation is One Piece of the Martech Puzzle

Additional confirmation that the traditional understanding of marketing automation is evolving comes from the fact that some of the biggest standalone marketing automation platforms have, in recent years, been acquired by marketing cloud vendors and incorporated into their broader martech tool sets. This further clouds the distinction between classic B2B marketing automation and marketing automation software intended to improve customer engagement – customer data platforms, multichannel marketing, marketing hubs, marketing clouds, etc.

A discussion of marketing automation in the context of the broader martech environment may also lead to rethinking what problems marketing automation intends to solve — its overall importance or overarching benefits. This blog will attempt to answer some of these questions in light of marketing automation’s role in providing a relevant, personalized CX throughout an omnichannel journey.

Marketing Automation Needs a Broader Set of Tools

Marketing automation tools were designed to help with basic linear, single-channel marketing campaigns including, for example, automating more timely and effective emails, generating leads, managing pipeline, email analytics, and shortening the sales cycle with CRM integration.

Automating individual tasks and channels is a worthy goal, but marketing teams must ask at what cost. Does the complexity of a growing martech stack warrant adding more and more point solutions to achieve incremental improvements to channel-centric campaigns?

Effective and timely emails, while important, do not by themselves generate deep insight into customer behavior. A more fruitful approach to marketing automation considers a customer journey as a holistic experience across channels, necessitating tools that intelligently orchestrate omnichannel interactions.

Taking a step beyond the traditional realm of marketing automation to gain those deep customer insights requires instead generating a complete unified customer profile, to make smarter decisions at scale using automated machine learning and orchestrating those decisions far beyond the email world.

The difference between what today’s always-on, connected consumer expects in terms of a personalized experience and the one delivered by most brands is the customer experience gap. Some of the chasm results from the limitations of lead nurturing marketing automation tools compared with a platform able to generate and act on the deep customer insights that deliver relevant and timely personalization.

Marketing Automation vs. a CDP

In the Harris Poll, for instance, consumers are 2.5X more likely than marketers to say their expectations for a personalized CX are not being met – and they rank omnichannel consistency twice as high as marketers in terms of importance to the overall experience. Asked what prevents them from closing the gap, marketers list the complexity of technology solutions (39 percent), a lack of cross-functional commitment to strategy (34 percent) and an inability to integrate new capabilities to existing processes or technology (33 percent) as the top three challenges.

The core assets required for marketing automation are a marketing database to track leads, an email service provider to drive drip campaigns, and a basic analytics platform to track campaign effectiveness. Together, these basic core assets generally fail to solve for the challenges that prevent marketers from closing the CX gap.

To achieve omnichannel orchestration, these core assets need to be augmented with a CDP that brings all customer data together across both the marketing automation platform and other martech and adtech systems.

The growing importance of providing a personalized CX across an omnichannel customer journey does not lessen the importance of marketing automation. Instead, it positions marketing automation as one step along the path to orchestrating the entire customer experience rather than just automating individual pieces of a journey.

Frequently Asked Questions

There is significant overlap, particularly with the fact that both marketing automation and customer relationship management (CRM) require a basic customer database, and that both are intended to allow for tracking leads, accounts and some details of interactions. A key difference is that CRM is generally tied to multiple points of interaction like a call center, ecommerce site, and ad tech, whereas marketing automation has a generally narrower focus – an ESP and a basic analytics platform.

Digital marketing is a much broader category than marketing automation; it encompasses the variety of touchpoints and channels that customers use today such as social, mobile apps, SMS, websites, and ecommerce sites. Automating such a wide range of touchpoints requires more than what a traditional marketing automation platform provides – more in terms of connectivity, real-time capabilities, identity resolution, and data management among them. The automation of digital marketing also requires more in the way of decision making and orchestration to account for the shift to true customer engagement rather than simple single-point, responsive reactive campaigns.

Marketing automation is a great way to start to build a basic understanding of the customer, and to extend that understanding to basic interactions. It’s the seed idea for a broad range of martech capabilities today; a digital experience platform, a multichannel marketing hub, a digital personalization engine, journey orchestration, journey management engines, AI and machine learning – all have their inception in the idea that there is purpose to keeping track of customers and looking closely into methods of engagement. They all expand on the original marketing automation concept, each along a specific direction. The distinction we make here is that marketing automation falls short in solving the customer data problem as the foundation for deeper, broader marketing efforts.

One big obstacle to basic marketing automation is that, for many marketing organizations, people and processes are in place that – technology aside – create barriers to a single customer view. Channel-specific marketing teams, for example, where there’s an ad team, a web team, an ecommerce team and an email team, create siloes of information, processes and engagement. Even basic marketing automation will require a careful look at people and process structures, with an eye to the value (and trade-offs) attacking the silo problem. Is the goal marketing automation, or if you’re dismantling the barriers is it then worthwhile to go beyond basic marketing automation to fully solve for the customer data problem?

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