Marketing Automation Software Overview

What is Marketing Automation Software?

Marketing Automation software helps to automate and scale repetitive marketing tasks and the subsequent analysis of those efforts. Leads in the marketing database can be nurtured through the buying process by providing them with relevant, personalized content until they are ready to purchase. Digital campaigns can be designed, triggered and executed automatically; once a campaign has run its course, a range of analytic tools can measure its performance to understand what worked well and what did not. 

Marketing Automation Features & Capabilities

Historically marketing automation software focused mainly on email, but today websites, mobile and social media are all integral to successful marketing efforts. Most Marketing Automation software products revolve around a core set of marketing tasks:
  • Email Marketing & Email Management
  • Landing Page Creation & Customization
  • Lead Management & Lead Scoring
  • Reporting & Analytics
Beyond these core marketing automation functions, software vendors tend to differentiate themselves on breadth or depth of offering, especially as you move from small business solutions to enterprise-level marketing automation platforms. For example, some higher-end marketing automation platforms may also include: 
  • CRM Integration
  • Social Media Marketing & Management
  • Web Conferencing
  • Dynamic Website / Progressive Profiling
  • Marketing Resource Management (MRM)

Features & Functions of Marketing Automation Software

The feature sets included in today's marketing automation software can vary from one vendor to the next, but there are some basic features that are common to most of them. More powerful and advanced features are usually found in Enterprise-level marketing automation platforms and are broadly covered here, as well.
Marketing automation features and capabilities can be generally grouped as follows:

  • Email & Online Marketing
  • Lead Management
  • Reporting & Analytics
  • Social Marketing

Email & Online Marketing Features

Email Management
Automation makes things faster and easier, which saves you both time and money. Most vendors offer email automation for opt-in, unsubscribe and bounce processing, but it varies across platforms. Premium offerings usually include a dedicated IP address and link validation.

Landing Pages
Directing a click to a unique, relevant page is a key component to any online marketing campaign. A variety of tools exist across platforms to customize pages for a better end-user experience, which is well-known to increase conversion rates. 

Triggered Email
Send real-time, personalized emails based on customer actions. You can automatically send the appropriate email when, for example, a prospect clicks a designated link or a sales rep makes a call. 

Common among marketing automation platforms, a registration form is usually used to capture the prospective customer’s data and add it to the database. The flexibility of allowing a visitor to use one of their social media accounts to sign in has become very common. Higher-end platforms take it a step further with “smart forms,” which can recognize a known visitor and ask more specific questions, expanding the depth of a prospect’s profile over time.

Dynamic Content
Larger enterprise buyers are more inclined to look for the ability to further customize emails and landing pages based on industry, location or even job title. The ability to compartmentalize expansive prospect lists and create unique online experiences is a powerful and necessary feature for many larger companies.

We all spend more time on our smart phones and tablets than we like to think about – and so do your prospects. Emails and landing pages that are optimized for mobile devices are fast becoming a true need for many businesses. Mobile-optimized features are fairly common in most marketing automation platforms today, but the extent of functionality will vary from vendor to vendor.

Lead Management Features

Lead Database
This vast repositories of your leads and prospects are the brains of the operation. Much more robust than a CRM system, the marketing automation database archives actions between your company and individual prospects. These can include email clicks, website visits, scoring changes (see below for more information) and updates to profile or history.

Behavior Tracking
You can tailor your sales pitch by knowing and understanding your prospect – the websites they visit, social networks they participate in, keywords they search with, emails they open - all of these can help you greatly in determining your prospect's interests and place in the buying process. 

Lead Nurturing
Based on a prospect's behavior, lead nurturing allows relevant emails to be triggered based on a predetermined campaign, and in a sequence that aligns with the customer's journey. Most leads aren't sales-ready right from the start; lead nurturing promises a more successful sale by giving a potential customer more information as you go along. This feature may be especially helpful for B2B and Enterprise buyers who normally work with a much longer sales cycle.

Automated Sales Tasks
You'll be able to move a prospect through the sales cycle more efficiently by automatically adding names to an email list based on specific behavior, or sending a follow-up message - all while alerting sales staff of new action.

Advanced Lead Management Features

Enterprise buyers may need more robust lead management features to manage their huge databases of information, such as the following:

These are tools that allow for defining and selecting very specific data, such as visitors to your website that have not clicked in the last seven days, or a list of past buyers from your top two product lines. Filters can be set up for demographics (title, company size, etc.) as well as behavior-based segmentation (people who registered for an upcoming e-learning presentation from the technology industry). For enterprise buyers who boast huge numbers of customers and prospects, this type of functionality is essential.

Workflow Automation
You will need tight integration with your CRM and a complex series of rules, but you can essentially automate everything that supports the efficiency of your internal marketing process. Examples include budgeting, planning, calendar and digital asset creation, as well as extending collaboration between marketing and sales departments with triggered task assignments.

Scheduling Flexibility
Schedule your entire campaign in advance based on your organization's capabilities and your customer's availability. For example, you may want to spread out an email delivery if the call-to-action is an inbound phone call and you don't want your phone lines or call handlers swamped all at once, or if data delivery to a large database has the potential to create a high volume of traffic to your web servers. You can also control the time of delivery based on each customer's geographic location (if you have that information, of course). More sophisticated marketing automation software can also make it easier to "gate" and prioritize messages so recipients aren't overwhelmed with a high volume of automated messages.

Lead Scoring
This feature enables you to identify the best lead for a campaign or tactic. It sounds easy, but in reality, it's a complex task that includes "weighting" behaviors both important and undesirable; this assists you in identifying which prospects are most suitable for upcoming campaigns. More sophisticated platforms support a variety of scoring models that separate scores for different product lines and divisions, or even demographics.

Data Quality
The effectiveness of your marketing campaign is directly affected by the quality of your data. This feature is especially important for enterprise buyers who may have millions of records in their database. Marketing automation software can help you clean "dirty" data by merging duplicate leads and contacts, identifying missing or incomplete information like phone numbers or industries, and standardizing data like titles or company names.

Common Reporting and Analytics Features

More and more modern marketers rely on traceable metrics to impact performance and improve marketing strategies. Every marketing automation software package comes with some measurement tools. Some vendors partner with analytics vendors for advanced functionality, or sell advanced analytics packages for an additional price. Common characteristics shared across platforms include: 

Basic Reporting
A summary of how well emails and landing pages performed or an individual campaign’s success rate by month is generated with built-in dashboards and other reporting tools. If your business requires more complicated measurements, custom queries or metrics, you will need to research carefully, as depth of functionality varies by vendor.

Program ROI Analytics
These tools give you visibility into how well your marketing efforts performed. Reports are created comparing revenue performance against individual campaigns or channels, giving greater exposure to what worked and what didn’t. The detail and flexibility of ROI analytics will very between marketing automation platforms.

Advanced Reporting and Analytic Features

More advanced analytic capabilities vary by vendor and may include:

SEO & Keyword Tracking
The ability to track the strength of your website’s keywords on major search engines, and to compare its performance with competitors. 

Multi-touch Revenue Attribution
This is a detailed accounting of campaign success by allotting credit to each program’s activity along the sales funnel. Typically, many touches - emails, phone calls, trade shows, webinars, etc. - take place before a purchase is made. Multi-touch solutions credit every campaign touch point before the sale, giving greater visibility to each campaign tactic and performance.

Some marketing automation platforms allow for A/B testing or even multivariate testing; these capabilities may be native to the platform or supported by robust integration with 3rd party testing tools. The most advanced systems allow not only testing of email subject line and message content, but also of targeted and personalized web content and landing pages.

Web Analytics
The answers to which pages of your website are most popular with your prospects, the most common paths taken through the site and how often visitors return are all found within web analytic tools. You can learn a lot about the effectiveness of your website as a marketing tool, along with a prospective lead’s level of qualification, by digging in to this data.

Social Marketing Features

Marketing automation vendors have increasingly been adding social features to their platforms, sometimes through new development but, more often, by either acquisitions or partnerships. Among the primary social features are:

Social Campaigns
You can cross-sell your content and track your success with tools that send automated posts across channels. You can then quantify their success with comments, replies and tweets.

Social Listening
Monitor what is being said about your company and products across the social sphere to understand sentiment and use insights gathered to segment prospects and sharpen campaign messaging.

Social Sharing
Incorporating smart share buttons into your campaign messages not only helps spread the message but also provides data about who shares which content and what drives social

Social Engagement
You can increase audience engagement with the inclusion of polls or referral programs. Look for tools that easily allow you to incorporate apps into your Facebook page, email or website.

Social Analytics
Improving your social conversion rates can increase your revenue. By adding tracking to the applications and sharing tools utilized in social media campaigns, you achieve better visibility into the effectiveness of your content and campaigns.

Before looking in detail at specific marketing automation software solutions, it's important to do a needs assessment to better understand the type of tool you might need based on your specific use case and the marketing challenges you are trying to solve.

You can also download a free copy of our Buyer's Guide to Marketing Automation Software. The guide will help you identify the best marketing automation software as rated by users within each market segment - small businesses, mid-size companies and large enterprises.

Assessing Your Marketing Automation Needs

Before looking in detail at specific marketing automation software solutions, it's important to do a needs assessment to better understand the type of tool you might need based on your specific use case and the marketing challenges you are trying to solve.

B2B vs. B2C Marketing

Selling to other businesses rather than consumers generally means that purchases are very considered with typically higher price points and a longer sales cycle. Marketing automation used to be primarily concerned with B2B selling cycles, but there are a few vendors focused on B2C prospects, and some of the B2B-oriented vendors are adding more B2C features.

So what are the differences? B2B marketing automation is all about building a relationship with the buyer through education and what are called "nurture" programs. The goal is to build interest in the product being sold by helping prospects understand the value through a multi-touch process and over a period of time. The important things here are having relevant content to share, and building drip email and other campaigns to incrementally build interest until the prospect is qualified and ready to buy.

Selling directly to consumers generally means a much larger prospect pool, and a much shorter sales cycle. Here, brand and product are much more important than relationship. B2C marketing automation products are less concerned with nurture and engagement, and more concerned with e-commerce factors like shopping cart abandonment rate, bulk email campaign deliverability and open rate, segmentation, and targeted offers. For some B2C-oriented vendors the combination of a powerful email system with a CRM and e-commerce platform may make marketing automation unnecessary.

Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing

The distinction between inbound and outbound marketing is related to the traditional marketing funnel:

Inbound marketing is all about getting new leads into the funnel. The typical tactics employed include publishing educational content to draw people in (through blog posts, for example), optimizing web pages for search and using social media to build awareness.

Outbound marketing is concerned with nurturing and closing the leads that you already have in the funnel. Tactics include more product-specific content, webinars, calls to action, sending leads to personalized landing pages, etc. The goal is to deepen the relationship to the point where leads are qualified enough to hand over to sales.

Marketing automation products tend to have an emphasis on either one or the other. Some products designed for SMBs try to cover both inbound and outbound and are sometimes called "All-in-One" tools.

The relevant question to ask yourself should be, "Is my marketing challenge acquiring new leads, or is it closing the leads I already have?"

Marketing Automation Integration

CRM Integration
Most marketing automation buyers already have a CRM system, and integration between the two systems is a primary consideration. Bi-directional functionality is essential for making the most of your CRM software and your automated marketing platform.  For example, if your website's registration form is integrated with your marketing automation software, the information submitted by the new registrant is duplicated in your CRM system. Or maybe an individual's job title changes - when the sales rep updates the information in the CRM it should be synchronized with your marketing automation platform so that individual is addressed appropriately in upcoming marketing collateral. Data consistency is crucial when performing lead nurturing, lead scoring and other database segmentation tasks.
There are varying degrees of integration with CRM platforms:
  • The fields may be mapped automatically or require manual mapping
  • Some marketing automation platforms sync in real-time and others less frequently
  • Which fields you're given access to varies by provider (lead and contact information is common)
Some systems have integration strengths with specific CRMs, and the CRM system you are running can be a crucial decision factor in selecting the right marketing automation system.

Webinar platform integration
For many outbound-focused users, webinars are a key tactic for qualifying leads. Tight integration between the marketing and webinar platforms means that data moves automatically from one system to the other. Since webinar data flows automatically into the marketing automation system, it's much easier to perform fast and targeted follow-up to attendees based, for example, on how long they attended.

SMB vs. Mid-Market vs. Enterprise Marketing Automation Software

For marketing automation to be successful, the selected software needs to fit the corporate environment. The range of products available is quite broad - from a few hundred dollars a months to more sophisticated marketing automation platforms costing several thousand dollars a month.

SMB and Mid-Market Marketing Automation
Products targeted at SMB and mid-sized customers often have a range of capabilities beyond pure-play outbound marketing. For smaller organizations the appeal of a set of simple but fully integrated marketing tools is attractive. These marketing tools are typically easy to learn and do not require specialized skills.

Enterprise Marketing Automation
The same dynamic of offering a range of capabilities beyond traditional marketing automation is also apparent at the enterprise level. The large enterprise software companies like IBM, Oracle, Salesforce, and Adobe have all made acquisitions of Marketing Automation as part of a larger vision to create enterprise marketing cloud offerings, including marketing tools such as web analytics, A/B testing, social listening, publishing & analytics and ad management.