Is Marketing Automation Still Relevant?

Is Marketing Automation Still Relevant?

January 2019 | Marketing Operations

The success of Eloqua and Marketo has been built on email but the evolving tech landscape and changing marketing mix pose a threat to marketing automation.

It is no secret that the success of Marketing Automation has been built on email marketing. For many marketers, sending emails is still the primary use case for Marketo, Eloqua or Pardot. Email capabilities were the initial hook that persuaded many businesses to adopt the technology in the first place. Marketers found that traditional email service providers were simply too limited for B2B use cases so switched to Marketing Automation as an email marketing solution that was more optimised for a business managing the typical sales cycle. Many B2C companies adopted MA too, but over time this usage has become limited to high ticket product segments or specific sectors such as sports where customer loyalty is a priority.

The Perception Problem

Having used their email marketing capabilities to get customers through the door, marketing automation platforms have spent years trying to move their user base beyond basic batch and blast email campaigns with mixed results. Whilst marketing operations teams have a clear knowledge of what Marketing Automation can do there are many field marketers who still lack this understanding. There is a lingering perception in some quarters as a platform for email campaigns rather than the complete cycle of lead generation and demand marketing.

Perhaps the biggest symptom of this is the common misunderstanding about what a nurture campaign actually is. Too many marketers still use the term nurture to refer to a content based email campaign. If an email campaign has multiple touch points it often gets called a nurture, even if the emails are time-limited and only intended to be sent as a one-off on a specific date. These campaigns are still drip campaigns, regardless of whether the campaign uses more sophisticated tactics like acceleration, auto-responder emails or dynamic content. There is a tendency to refer to any drip campaign that uses automation or advanced tactics as a nurture, regardless of any other factor. This is done because 'nurture' is seen as good, while drip campaigns are seen as bad after the efforts of the marketing automation industry to promote nurturing. The problem is that 'nurture' and 'drip' are not contradictory tactics, it is perfectly possible for a campaign to be both. In fact, most genuine email nurtures are drip campaigns. In this context, drip refers to the pre-scheduled series of emails that the prospect will receive once they enter the campaign. The fact these emails are scheduled relatively based on the date of the previous email rather than on fixed dates does not change the terminology.

Diverging Strategies

Much like ABM, the solution is to stop thinking of nurture as a 'campaign'. Nurture is a strategy for building relationships and developing engagement over an extended period of time. Nurturing is a recognition that buying cycles occur on the buyers' schedule rather than the sellers, so companies need to keep leads warm until they are ready to progress through the funnel. This naturally requires a regular schedule of touches over an extended timeframe to ensure that your brand remains top of mind, and your solution doesn't get forgotten when the prospect is finally ready to engage. This doesn't have to happen over email, its just that historically email has had the highest ROI of any tactic when used as part of a nurture strategy. That's because email campaigns are cheaper and easier than many alternative tactics, and are less intrusive than telemarketing. GDPR has changed the balance, and there is now more investment in online nurturing strategies using web and social channels as the primary communication channel. There is a place for all channels when designing a nurture sequence, given that effective results now require a multi-channel approach. The problem that marketing automation vendors have is that their tools are rarely used for the online components of a nurture campaign.

Regardless of the channels used, automation is still an essential part of any nurturing strategy. It is possible to run a nurture campaign manually, but the resources and effort required to run the email component of any nurture on a batch and blast basis are prohibitive for all but the deepest pockets. This is the problem that marketing automation is intended to solve, and it is still where it works best. Far too many marketing ops teams focus on the email and lead management capabilities of marketing automation and overlook the ability of the leading MAP tools to integrate deeply with additional channels such as web, social or SMS. Part of this is the fault of the vendors themselves as the social capabilities usually involve add-ons rather than being out of the box. The internal structures of marketing automation users are also a factor, with different channels being operated by different teams in the business. Email gets delegated to marketing ops because it is executed through the marketing automation platform, so Ops teams privilege it even when other tactics would work better. The relative ease of reporting on email campaigns compared to many other channels reinforces this trend.

Converging Capabilities

For now, marketing automation has been able to get away with the perception that it is an email-centric platform. Its place in the tech stack has been guaranteed by its central role in managing the funnel and passing leads to Sales. No other technology has been able to match those capabilities. This is beginning to change though, as ABM platforms gain additional functionality. Unlike marketing automation the campaign execution capabilities of these platforms tend to be based around digital advertising, which complements the relative weakness of marketing automation in this area. However, there is no particular reason why these platforms can't gain the complex integration and nurture workflow capabilities that marketing automation already has. Currently, ABM platforms choose to leave lead based marketing and lead based activities to marketing automation, but some observers are beginning to question this decision.

ABM is not a binary choice. Marketers can and do run account based and lead based marketing in parallel, frequently to the same individuals. It is generally advised to execute campaigns and manage the funnel at both lead and account level, but existing tools don't allow marketers to do this in one place. It makes sense to run these capabilities through the same platforms, it is just that currently there are no platforms capable of doing so. Marketo comes closest. They have all the relevant capabilities at a basic level, but their ABM module has fundamental limitations that limit its utility. It's probably only a matter of time before Oracle and Salesforce open their chequebooks to buy one of the ABM platform vendors so they can integrate them into their CRM and Marketing Automation platforms. This would hopefully eliminate the complete inability of their existing marketing products to manage account relations properly. If the likes of Engagio or Demandbase do remain independent though they could eventually supplant Marketo or Eloqua in some organisations, by deepening their existing CRM integrations to a level which allows them to manage the entire funnel. This may be some time away, but it is a possibility that vendors and marketing automation users need to be aware of.

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