Don't Panic: Avoiding Marketing Automation Errors

Don't Panic: Avoiding Marketing Automation Errors

It's a fact of life. Every marketing automation user has sent an email to the wrong list at some point. There is no quick fix to stop it from reoccurring.

It's the nightmare scenario for any marketing automation user. You've just pressed the send button on a beautifully designed email with engaging copy and a tempting call to action, only to realise that you've made the wrong audience selection. It's happened to all of us, but few marketing operations teams make much effort to mitigate the risk until after they've incorrectly sent multiple emails to their entire marketing database.

We all understand that data and marketing automation workflows don't come naturally to many marketers, nor to many of the developers that are responsible for coding marketing emails. Even those who are proficient in the logic of segments, campaign canvases and smart campaigns still make mistakes. It is very easy to choose the wrong value in a filter or select the wrong list when building your audience for a campaign.

It's tempting to see technology as the solution to this problem, but it really isn't. Most global enterprises react to persistent audience selection errors by introducing restrictions on which contacts users can see in the marketing automation platform. Marketo also has the ability to set a maximum batch size using their smart campaign limit feature. This deals with the most high profile concern, namely sending an email meant for one country to the entire marketing database of every country. It does little to prevent smaller scale errors, such as sending an email meant for one country to a different country in the same region. Few marketing automation systems implement data separation down to the country level. At best, data access restrictions are implemented at a regional level - blocking APJ and EMEA users from touching contacts in each other's regions as well as ring-fencing them from the North American business generally run along very different lines.

Some marketing teams with a strong channel component to their business model will also split their partner contacts into a separate partition or even into a totally separate instance. Partner communications are often commercially sensitive, and can't be sent to customers for legal reasons, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they have to be blocked off from other teams. For one thing, many channel partners will be interested in customer or prospect campaigns, particularly when it comes to webinars and other events. This makes it difficult to totally ring-fence partners unless you're willing to recreate campaigns in two different places with two different audience segments. Some businesses with particularly sizeable partner marketing programs are prepared to do this, but smaller firms often aren't willing to send out different partner communications for every campaign because of the extra overhead and resource this requires.

Instead, many marketing departments need to improve the governance of their marketing automation systems, if they're going to eliminate errors in email campaigns. No amount of technical controls can replace extensive training and rigorous QA procedures. It is possible to go overboard with training and testing – it's a balance I've struggled with in previous roles building emails campaigns – but many teams don't go far enough, often due to lack of resource rather than lack of expertise. This is particularly true for smaller teams both in midsize businesses or among regional marketing teams in enterprise organisations, where there simply aren't enough expert marketing automation users on staff to ensure proper training is carried out. Many regional teams only have 1 person on their team responsible for building all campaigns, with only a limited amount of basic training given before other users are let loose in complex systems such as Eloqua, Marketo or Pardot, leaving them to figure out the rest themselves. It is no wonder mistakes happen.

Better training is only part of the answer. No amount of classroom learning can make up for day to day real-world experience. If marketers aren't using marketing automation on a regular basis, then the skills required to use it will atrophy and mistakes will creep back in. Fundamentally, many marketers don't need to use marketing automation that often, because the campaigns they're running don't require it. For many field marketers, events are the most common use for the technology and it simply isn't possible to run an event every day.

Clear usage guidelines are therefore essential to make up for this skills gap. Template as much as possible, and make sure that the usage of templates is documented as much as they can be in the system itself. Use descriptions and in-system note capabilities to provide pointers and instructions. Above all, make it clear what sections of a segment or workflow template are there for compliance reasons to avoid mistakes that could cost the business in financial terms. So long as it is abundantly clear what each template is for, there is rarely such a thing as too many templates. Having lots of templates does make marketing operations' job harder, but equally, it reduces mistakes as well, so long as unnecessary duplication is avoided.

At the end of the day, no amount of training or templates can replace proper QA. Whilst it is preferable for the people reviewing campaign set up to be marketing automation experts, this doesn't have to be the case. Technical knowledge is not required to test the links, content and rendering of a marketing email. If anything, it is preferable for a creative-minded marketer to be reviewing and testing email or web content because they'll provide more relevant feedback. Data and workflow are different because many marketers don't understand them. This should not be a barrier to effective testing. It simply means that someone with the right expertise needs to talk through the campaign setup, explaining how it works and the decisions made when setting it up. This is an approach I've used for years in my day job at CRMT, and it's surprising how well it works and how many mistakes it catches.

Ultimately, there is no magic bullet that can stop all marketing automation errors. Technical controls can only do so much, training is only effective if the trainee remembers what they are taught and templates only work if they're used correctly. Thorough QA helps minimise the risk, testers are as fallible as anyone else. It is only by combining all these different approaches that some guarantee against errors can be achieved. Even then, be prepared for something to slip through despite best efforts. Mistakes will be missed, as with all walks of life, the key is to own up and learn from them.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.