What is Marketing Automation?

In the vast and vibrant ocean of digital marketing buzz-phrases, the term “marketing automation” is quite a big fish. Meaning, if you’re a marketer who’s just hearing about it for the first time, then you may be living under a rock…only kidding! After all, the purpose of this guide is to help you understand what marketing automation means and why it is so important for any digital marketing team.

As its name suggests–and what most tend to understand about it–marketing automation does in fact refer to the software that automates tasks such as email sends, social posts, or even changing the status of a lead based on their behavior. However, most fail to understand that its purpose represents so much more than that.

At JeremySaid, we define marketing automation as any automated effort, no matter how big or small, that deals with guiding leads down a unique marketing funnel in a dynamic, personalized, and data-driven way. 

From attracting new visitors, to earning their trust, and finally converting them to loyal and influencing customers, the methods and principles of marketing automation exist in every step of your potential customer’s journey. Understanding what these methods look like and how to properly implement marketing automation tools in each stage of the funnel is the key to increasing your qualified leads and ultimately converting them into happy customers.

Before we can look at the actual nuts and bolts of marketing automation (we’ll use the abbreviation “MA”), it’s first important to understand the idea of “Inbound Marketing”.


Introduction to Inbound Marketing

Once again we are faced with a trendy buzz-phrase that most of us have probably heard of…”Inbound Marketing”. If this one is also new to you then so sorry, but you are most definitely living under a rock. A mountain perhaps! Don’t worry, we’re here to help.

Inbound Marketing is a term first coined by Hubspot, a CRM application that has grown into a full suite of marketing and sales tools. When developing their own approach, Hubspot’s idea was to steer away from the traditional outbound practices of the past such as pushing a product or service through advertising, telemarketing, or other interruptive means. Instead, they sought to create a methodology that focused on being an educational resource for anyone in need, using a prospect’s online behavior to feed them helpful content relevant to the problem they are trying to solve.

Through this educational journey, prospects would eventually come to them to buy, not the other way around. THIS is Inbound Marketing, the idea that customers can be won, not through convincing them, but rather nurturing them with relevant content that gives a brand a high level of subject-matter authority, and thus builds trust with its prospects before they decide to buy.

Check out this Hubspot graphic that shows the stages of Inbound and the channels typically associated with each stage:

As you can see, Inbound Marketing is characterized by carefully guiding leads through a marketing funnel, utilizing various methods at each stage of attract, convert, close, and delight. If you’re thinking all this sounds similar to our definition of MA above, then you’re exactly right. But while Inbound Marketing represents more of the general approach or thought process that spans an entire marketing strategy, MA deals with the actual tools and methods used to automate much of that Inbound journey.

The other missing piece here, and the one underlying fuel that drives this inbound engine, is content. It’s extremely important and worth expanding on in order to understand how marketing automation methods are actually implemented into your campaigns. And yes, prepare yourself for another cliche buzz-phrase.

Content is King!

Ok that’s the last one, we promise (maybe). But as many times as you’ll hear that phrase, you’ll also hear others affirm its message. It’s true, content is king, and it might arguably be the single most important input for a business with a digital presence.

Inbound marketing content must be relevant to the recipient where it finds them in their search for whatever it is they want to buy or learn. It must inspire them to investigate this particular answer further, and it ultimately must build trust with your brand. MA can ensure that marketing content reaches the intended prospects with the message specified for them, but that content must be able to do its job once delivered.

But which type of content is best for the various funnel stages? Remember attract, convert, close and delight in the infographic above? Well here is a similar infographic from Hubspot showing different types of content for the 3 stages of the buyer’s journey which mirror the 4 stages of inbound:

To echo another Hubspot adage, content in a marketing automation program must provide the “right information, to the right individual, through the right channel, at the right time, every time.”

Now that inbound marketing and the importance of content have been explained, its time to get into the finer details of marketing automation.


10 Core Elements of Marketing Automation

Once you have set up your marketing automation tool–there’s many out there, but we use hubspot–executing various campaigns will require a repeated cycle that includes:

  • Developing an inbound content marketing strategy
  • Developing or re-purposing content in keeping with the content marketing strategy
  • Lead development and nurturing
  • Transferring responsibility for lead nurturing and follow up to Sales (depending on business type and sales cycle)
  • Studying analytics, or measuring each campaign element’s contribution to conversions and revenue.

Once you measure the results of one campaign, this information helps you hone your strategy for the next campaign, and so on.

Your MA campaigns will involve working with most of these core elements of a marketing automation program:

Customer Personas

We discussed customer personas above as part of developing a content marketing strategy. Personas are core elements to any marketing you do, and are part and parcel of segmenting your audience to create messages that are relevant to individual portions of your customer base.

Creating customer personas can be a time consuming process but is necessary. It requires collecting quantitative data from multiple sources, and qualitative data from interviewing and observing your customers.


Marketing automation more or less began with email campaigns, and email still does the bulk of the work in many current MA programs. There’s not a better way to market directly to individual leads than through email. The better you know your leads (i.e., through customer personas), the more you can personalize email messages to answer their questions or take advantage of their interests and biases.

An email with a strong subject line and message can drive a prospect to any point on your website you choose.

Social Media

Social media run a close second to email for having a direct line to leads. If someone is a member of your social media community, it is by choice. You can expect them to welcome and pay attention to your posts. But social media give back, too.

Once you’re connected, you have access to information about your customers through their social media accounts. This is why many sites process their initial lead-capture by allowing prospects to sign in through Facebook, Twitter, etc. Monitoring social media for what customers do and don’t like, are or are not interested in, and where else they shop is smart marketing research.

Landing Pages

Landing pages serve as the gateway to the purchase funnel. Your SEO and PPC marketing will be keyed to landing page content. Most landing pages will include a call to action (CTA) that prompts submission of contact information, which converts a site visitor into a sales lead.

It is crucial that landing pages are immediately recognizable as relevant to the site visitor. Their content should be congruent with the premise of the search query, PPC ad, blog post, social media post, etc., that brought the visitor to the page. Then the page’s contents must clearly and quickly give visitors a reason to remain interested enough to respond to the CTA.


Though social media has become another means of registering site visitors, for the most part, you will capture contact information with a form. Because most sites will use multiple forms for various purposes (e.g., checkout), it is best to use progressive forms, which many MA platforms provide.

Progressive forms store information already provided, and can be programmed to ask different questions according to the user’s activity. This keeps you from annoying a potential customer by requiring information they have already provided, and can instead allow you to obtain additional data about your leads.

Blog Posts

Blogging allows you to say many different things about your product – from announcements of new products to how-to explanations or explorations of new or unique uses, narratives about satisfied users, you name it. You can also write about your company, outstanding personnel, or anything else connected to your business or industry. Your MA program can alert leads and customers to new articles of interest to them, and the blog post can provide one or more links to landing pages or other relevant points in the funnel.

A very real bonus to blogging is its SEO value. Google loves to see new content on websites, and every time you blog you make your site look refreshed to the search engine giant.

Lead Nurturing

Blog posts and other inbound marketing content are also used to nurture sales leads. Lead nurturing guides prospective customers through the purchase funnel, and continues to market to them after a purchase.

At logical touchpoints of behavior on the site, or at certain intervals of time, the MA platform presents content to the lead or customer that is designed to answer questions or allay fears, and keep them interested and moving toward a purchase.

Lead Scoring

Many MA programs include a lead scoring matrix, which helps to determine which leads are worthy of a concentrated marketing effort or, depending on the company, should be turned over to Sales to close a deal. Leads are assigned scores based primarily on actions taken on your website, like completing a form or visiting a certain number of pages. Points may also be assigned for other attributes, such as position or job title (e.g., more points for a purchasing director than an operations analyst).

Once a system is set, it is automated and the MA platform identifies sales qualified leads (SQLs), who may be deserving of contact to set up a meeting. Such a scoring program can separate strong prospects from weak ones, and raise the efficiency of a sales department that has more leads than resources available to serve them.

A/B Testing

Any real effort to optimize a marketing program or website requires A/B testing, and many marketing automation tools have A/B testing components built in. A/B, or “split,” tests run two iterations of the same feature, such as an email subject line, to see which one is more successful, leading to more opened emails in this case.

Done correctly, A/B tests are more complex than they sound. An MA platform that can run valid tests will provide insight that leads to more user engagement, conversions and sales.


Life Cycle Management

Once a customer has bought from you, you have a good opportunity to sell to them again. The post-purchase stages of a customer life cycle include being a product user, a loyal customer and, in the best circumstances, an advocate for the product and/or company. With an MA program, you can continue to nurture buyers throughout their expected customer life cycle. And with analytics data, you can measure how long such efforts are worthwhile for all or segments of your customers, and adjust accordingly.

And there they are, the 10 core elements of marketing automation. Now, lets see how these core elements fit into each stage of the inbound marketing methodology.


Marketing Automation and the Four Stages of Inbound

Inbound marketing content is used to nurture leads. Once a site visitor qualifies as a sales lead, various forms of content should satisfy that potential customer’s questions and needs, and alleviate their anxiety so they’ll keep moving through the funnel. Content may be triggered and sent to a lead according to their actions on the website or according to a timeframe.

While the number of touchpoints or lengths of sales funnels vary, inbound marketing has four stages, or responsibilities. Let’s see how the various elements of marketing automation fit within these stages:

Attract: While attracting initial visitors to a site often relies on means outside of MA like SEO, pay-per-click (PPC), or display ad campaigns, some elements still come into play here. After all, this stage is a user’s first impression of your site and content, so it is vastly important. Some examples of MA at work here include your CRM capturing any initial contact info or behavior info, engaging a retargeting campaign based on what the visitor viewed, or enrolling the contact in a welcome series email campaign if they left their email and opted in to marketing messages. 

Convert: Any action a user takes on a website that is intended by and useful to the site owner can be considered a conversion. But for inbound marketing purposes, the first conversion sought is the conversion from site visitor to sales lead. A lead is a visitor for whom you have contact information, which lets you market directly to them. Your landing pages must ensure the capture of contact information, particularly an email address. This requires asking for it through some call to action (learn more, sign up, download, etc.) and a form. The effort is more likely to be successful if there is an exchange, such as a newsletter, an ebook, a white paper, a coupon, etc., that represents some value to the potential lead.

Close: Once you have a sales lead, the objective is to close the sale and convert the lead into a customer. This is not usually a one-step process, and for large-scale B2B or expensive consumer sales, the process may not be confined to the website or online marketing. But much of it, if not all, will be done with digital content. Beyond the landing page, which may include a “buy” CTA, your content aimed at closing the sale may include email that links to a deeper discussion of the product’s many uses and value, or to a series of satisfied customers’ testimonials. An FAQs page featured prominently later in the funnel may provide information welcomed at that point of the purchase consideration. If you’ve segmented your leads and customized content accordingly, email can speak directly to customers’ needs and likely concerns, and help to close the sale.

Delight: The responsibilities of inbound marketing content do not end when a sale is made. The next step is to convert customers into loyal customers and advocates. Stay in contact with your customers to show you care about them receiving and enjoying what they bought, and that you value the prospect of an ongoing relationship. Sending a thank-you email after a purchase almost goes without saying but, beyond thanks, you should confirm receipt of the purchase and its details, including delivery information. A while after the product’s delivery, inquire about the customer’s satisfaction, and ask for a testimonial or suggest a product review. Send your customers coupons or invitations to webinars or in-store events. Ask them to join your social network to stay abreast of sales, new products and other news. Show customers that there continues to be value in your relationship, and they will tell others about you.


Are You Ready for Marketing Automation?

Marketing automation (MA) does the legwork of dispersing your message across the myriad online channels to attract site visitors and turn them into leads. MA software also compiles data about prospective customers’ engagement with your marketing content and their activity on your website, and calculates ROI for your inbound marketing program.

The marketing automation software you choose might also integrate with your existing CRM system, providing even more efficiency.

That is a great tool if you need it and are ready to use it correctly.

The thing is, many marketing teams don’t need MA and aren’t ready to run such a program.

Many marketing teams have adopted MA and been dissatisfied, or have quickly found that higher-ups were dissatisfied. It is not uncommon to have unrealistic expectations for what MA can do, and what it costs to get it done.

One West Coast marketing firm says just under half of all businesses in the U.S. don’t use a marketing automation tool, and half of those that do find they need more than one tool to get the results they need.

Marketing teams also need to be realistic about the costs of an MA program. This includes not only the price of the tool, but the cost of people to run it. There’s also the time (which is money) required to learn to use the tool, as well as to develop content that, while beneficial to the marketing effort, is likely to be more than you’d create otherwise.

Vantive Media CEO and blogger Chuck Schaeffer says the most common challenges and frustrations with adopting marketing software that he has identified in his research include setups that took longer and cost more than expected, software that required more technical skills and resources than anticipated, and software that required more people to operate than anticipated.

In addition, according to Schaeffer:

Marketing automation software needs remarkable content to advance leads through a buy-cycle funnel of awareness to consideration (and) to purchase. But feeding the content beast is a full-time job, creating remarkable content is rare, and few marketers apply a solid content strategy to their content marketing program.

The Ascend2 Marketing Automation Trends Survey from February 2016 says the most significant barriers to marketing automation success are:

  • Lack of an effective strategy (52%)
  • Complexity of the system (42%)
  • Inadequate contact data quality (38%)
  • Lack of employee skills (32%)
  • Lack of relevant content (31%)
  • Marketing and sales alignment (30%)
  • Budget constraints (27%).

Marketing automation helps marketing teams manage large lead generation and nurturing workloads. If you aren’t having trouble generating and reaching out to sales leads, you may not need marketing automation.

Is a CRM Tool What You Really Need?

Managing and analyze customer interactions throughout the customer lifecycle to drive sales and customer retention has traditionally been the role of customer relations management (CRM).

Whereas marketing automation is about generating new leads who become customers, CRM focuses more on existing customers,

As CRM, like everything else, has moved to software and then to the cloud, automated CRM tools have increasingly provided more data collection and analysis capability.

CRM tools crunch the numbers and alert users to the need for follow-up action, such as sending an email or making a phone call to schedule a meeting. In a B2B environment, for example, a CRM tool might use purchase history and other data about a customer to determine that they should be running low on some kind of disposable product you sell them. It would alert you to touch base.

As you can see, CRM is more about traditional sales than it is about marketing. But there is always some overlap between marketing and sales, which is in part why CRM modules are often a part of MA platforms.

Especially in companies where marketing and sales are integrated and/or share resources, the consideration of a marketing automation platform should include the value of its CRM module, if it has one. As suggested above, you might be better off with separate tools for CRM and MA.

Meanwhile, mature companies that derive a greater part of their revenue from servicing existing customers might focus on a CRM tool instead of marketing automation.

Do Your Marketing and Sales Teams Communicate?

There was a comment made in a podcast in the summer of 2015 that has stuck with us. Claudine Bianchi, now chief marketing officer of ClickSoftware, was speaking with Greg Alexander of Sales Benchmark Index. She said:

I gave a talk a couple of months ago. I asked the marketers at the room, when was the last time that they talked to their VP of sales or to a sales rep. Everyone was looking at me like I had two heads.

I said, ‘Therein lies the problem. You guys don’t even know who your VP of sales are.’ You have to have that engagement with the sales guys. They’re in the front lines every day, and I think by having those conversations, you can be much more in line, and lined not only with them and the messages that they’re giving, but really what your prospects and those personas want to be hearing.

Would you have been nodding your head along with Bianchi or looking at her with bemusement?

Marketing automation and lead generation are as much about sales as it is marketing.

Every day, the sales department interacts with the people who the marketing department is trying to reach. Your sales reps know which parts of the purchase funnel they regularly have to answer questions about, or which step in the checkout process they have to defend as necessary. They know what attracts leads, delights customers and makes it easier or harder to close sales.

Developing customer personas, content marketing strategy and content maps that follow and assist with the customer journey relies in part on sales information.

Your company’s sales personnel should be involved in every discussion, consideration and plan made in preparation for adopting marketing automation and the associated inbound marketing program. By not including them you are unnecessarily disregarding a valuable in-house resource.

Marketing Automation – This is The End

Nothing said above is meant to dissuade you from adopting a marketing automation program if you believe it can be beneficial to your organization. Used correctly, marketing automation increases efficiency and ensures more stable sales lead and customer management.

But your MA program is the end of the process of lead generation and nurturing, not the beginning. The true start of the marketing automation portion of your overall marketing effort is creating inbound marketing content.

You have to have something to go in those emails, blogs, social media posts, videos, etc.

You also need to have a reason for that content to exist, as we discussed in the Content Marketing Strategy chapter above.

Even HubSpot says, “marketing automation does not do marketing and lead generation for you.” It’s only a tool.

Further, according to HubSpot:

The first step is building a pipeline of good-fit leads by generating relevant, optimized content that speaks to your prospect’s needs and challenges. This is where inbound marketing becomes the building blocks of your marketing funnel.

You have to have a content marketing strategy, a message, and inbound marketing content to spread your message before a marketing automation program can help you. To know what your message should be, you need to understand your product’s unique value proposition and your customer personas.

You also need to have evidence that your inbound marketing content and strategy do in fact generate leads at a volume that supports further investment in how sales leads are managed.

Don’t dive into marketing automation until the rest of your marketing program will allow you to take advantage of all that this powerful tool can provide.


Strengthen Your Program with the Flexibility of MA Tools

In addition to lead generation and nurturing, marketing automation programs can assist with other chores that require executing certain tasks on a timely basis. For instance, an MA program can be used to increase renewal rates, such as for SaaS applications.

Drip campaigns managed with MA can keep you in contact with customers throughout the life cycle of onboarding, continued engagement, and renewal. Onboarding emails to multiple users of a newly purchased program could include links to downloadable operations manuals and training videos or webinars.

Continued engagement could include automated content updates (ebooks, webinars, etc.), needs surveys (add-on products, refresher training, etc.), and periodic follow-ups to see whether the customers are satisfied with how well the product is performing. The campaign for each cycle would culminate with notices to decision makers of approaching renewal dates.

At renewal time, the MA platform could also automatically determine whether the client had already renewed, and not send additional notices that are unnecessary – and unappreciated.

The additional benefit of using an MA platform vs. a CRM is the level of detail MA gives you about marketing with these types of drip campaigns.

MA tools provide tracking data to tell you which emails are opened and read, which content engages users best, which surveys are completed more often, etc. CRM programs lack this depth.

Marketing automation can provide insight into prospects’ interests, behaviors, and intentions that marketing and sales professionals have never had before, and which can enable teams to really hone their processes.

Marketing automation is also a relatively young and evolving field. MA platforms will grow and change, with innovations coming from their users as well as their providers. Like any tool, it is those who use it day in and day out who will realize its full potential.