I often get asked to explain what marketing automation is. I can still recall the great excitement I felt when I first discovered marketing automation, having immediately grasped its enormous potential for myself and for my clients. Unfortunately, that initial rush of enthusiasm turned to tongue-tied frustration the very first time that I tried to explain to somebody what marketing automation actually is and what it does. Looking back, I know that I became frustrated because I tried to explain the whole thing – much too quickly – without first putting some basic foundations in place.
I’m hoping that this article will provide some cut-through for the many people whom I know are confused by marketing automation, but who also might benefit the most by utilising it.
Salesforce describes marketing automation as “…technology that manages marketing processes and multifunctional campaigns, across multiple channels, automatically.”That’s actually quite a concise and informative definition – if you happen to be fully across all of the possibilities (including the technologies) that might drive “…multifunctional campaigns, across multiple channels”. Absent that knowledge and that very clear description provided by Salesforce becomes little more than meaningless geek-speak. That’s a shame.
After a lot of years of working with marketing automation platforms and the many tools that integrate with them, I now think of marketing automation as anything that you implement which reduces or eradicates the necessity for human intervention in a marketing process. A simple example of this would be implementing an automated email that goes to a visitor when they submit an inquiry form via your website. If prior to that, initial responses were manually handled by a person, you’ve just automated a single process. Automate enough of those single processes in an organised and coordinated manner and you have marketing automation at work.
I’m going to provide you with a glimpse of the big picture before I swoop down to let you look at some of the moving parts in marketing automation and explain how they all work together. In an ideal world, your marketing automation stack and/or platform will do a number of things very well. Without going into any substantive detail about how it all bolts together or does all of those things, I’ll bullet point the basics.
· You’ll need a landing page builder and/or integration with your landing pages
· You’ll need a form builder that integrates with your landing pages
· You’ll need a basic CRM to capture, classify, segment and manage your leads
· You’ll need a way to automate email for inquiries submitted via your landing pages
· You’ll need a way to track unidentified visitation to your landing pages and/or website
· You’ll need a way to track identified users of your landing pages and/or website
· You’ll need a system to “point score” identified users of your landing pages and /or website
There is a whole lot more stuff that a marketing automation stack or platform might be able to do for you, but for now, I’m going to stick with the more basic functions.
You’ll hear the words “stack” and “platform” bandied around quite a lot with marketing automation. Fortunately, this one isn’t complicated.
A stack is just a bunch of standalone tools that play nicely together in order to automate your selected processes. For example, you might have a Joomla! website, use Unbounce to manage your landing pages and forms, Mailchimp to manage your automated email responses and Zoho to manage your leads. What you have here is a stack.
Platforms tend to offer a variety of fully integrated tools. A single platform may offer a CRM, landing page builder, form builder, email campaign builder, tracking integration with your website, etc. Platforms can offer some clear advantages over using a stack – not the least of which is virtually assured compatibility between the various tools you’ll be using.
There are literally tens of thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of both free and commercially available tools that you can use within a stack. I’m not even going to begin to go there with that. Suffice to say that unless you have some intermediate to advanced geek skills, a stack might not be the way to go for you. In almost all case you’ll probably be a whole lot better off using a platform. Most of this article will focus on platforms.
NB: Be aware that even the best platforms will need additional tools to complete your stack. An example of this would be your website, which in most cases will be built and managed on a completely separate platform, like WordPress or Wix and be located on an entirely different server to your marketing automation tools. All good quality marketing automation platforms can be easily integrated with your website and other commonly used marketing tools, generally by using off-the-shelf API’s.
Marketing automation platforms provide users with a variety of tools that help them automate single processes (like the automated email I already mentioned) – plus a whole lot more. It’s the “whole lot more” part where people tend to get bogged-down and outright confused. You may have heard of or even tried one or more marketing automation platforms in the past like Hubspot, ActiveCampaign, Drip or Mautic (my personal favourite). There really are a ton of choices out there. We’ll now take a brief look at some of the moving parts within a marketing automation platform.
Virtually all marketing automation platforms provide a CRM (Customer Relations Management) system of sorts. Some are extremely basic, whilst several of the bigger platforms (such as Salesforce) provide an enterprise-level CRM as part of their offering. Many marketing automation CRM’s offer easy integration (usually via an API) that will allow you to push information captured via your marketing automation platform directly to the CRM that you are already using in your business.
The truth is that many (or most) smaller businesses don’t have a CRM of any description and those that do often have little idea about how to maximise its potential. I’m firmly committed to taking a minimalist approach with marketing (and most things in life) and your marketing CRM is no different. Even if you have an existing CRM you may find there is a strong business case for utilising separate CRM’s for your marketing and the rest of your business – but more on that subject another time! For now, here is an overview of what I see as the basic things you’ll need in a CRM, for marketing automation purposes.
Contact information fields is a no-brainer. What you’ll need there will depend upon your individual needs. First name, Last name, Email and Telephone would generally be the bare minimum. You may require more information such as delivery or postal addresses, business names, etc. Most decent platforms will also provide for the simple creation of custom fields. Generally, the email address will be the key record that identifies individuals.
Once you get into the swing of using a marketing automation platform your appetite for more information is likely to grow. I’d recommend using a platform with some degree of social media integration, where possible. At the very least you’ll want some fields for social network URL’s like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. If you’re dealing in a B2B environment you’ll want fields for websites and maybe items like business registration numbers, etc. Again, the ability to create custom fields is gold.
You’ll want to be able to categorise the people and/or companies in your CRM. Categories (often called segments) are how you group your list members at the top level. For example, if you deal with accountants and lawyers, you might want to create a category or segment for each of those groups. Maybe you’d like to sort by gender, or revenue source. Categories can do that. Some systems will also allow you to create tags. Tags might be something like Lead, Customer, Former Customer, Do Not Contact, etc. Using Categories (or Segments) together with tags allows you to sort your data in multiple, highly useful ways.
You may need to upload or download your data for a wide variety of reasons. Some CRM’s do not make this easy – possibly to try and keep you “locked-in” to using the product. Make sure that data upload and download can be performed quickly and easily – preferably in a .csv format (meaning that Microsoft Excel or a simple .txt file can read it).
All marketing automation platforms will offer a form builder. In fact, they’d be fairly useless without one. Form builders provide the mechanism to capture inquiries and push them to your CRM. They do this by “mapping” form fields to the matching fields in your CRM. For example, if your form has four fields, First Name, Last Name, Email and Phone that information will be pushed to the matching fields in your CRM – and they’ll have the tools to make mapping super easy. Many of the better-developed marketing automation platforms will also offer API’s that allow you to map your CRM fields to several of the most popular website form builders like Contact Form 7 or Gravity Forms.
Landing pages are like regular website pages, but with a primary focus on capturing leads, rather than just delivering information. Good landing pages will contain a clear call to action – usually a request to complete the form – which is why you’ll need a form builder. Good landing page builders will generally offer a variety of landing page templates, drag and drop functionality and WYSIWYG editing capability. One of the beauties of using a platform is the ease with which you can add platform generated forms in the sure knowledge that they’ll be compatible with your landing page. Again, many platforms will offer a high degree of compatibility with commercial page builders like Unbounce or LeadPages, as well as integrations for commercial Themes like Thrive Leads and Divi.
This is where marketing automation starts to get exciting. Have you ever entered your contact details on a website and started to get regular emails about whatever it was that you inquired about? Chances are that the website was using marketing automation. An email campaign builder allows you to create an email campaign based upon the interactions of your email recipients. For example, an email goes to a newly captured lead. The recipient opens the email – which your platform is tracking – which triggers another email to be sent to them 24 hours later. Another person enters their details on the same landing page but does not open your email – which triggers a second email to go to them after 3 days. This is decision and action based marketing at work.
Most email campaign builders will offer good looking email templates which can be customised via a WYSIWYG editor. They’ll also offer drag and drop functionality that will make building your email campaigns relatively simple – although it’ll probably take you a while to get your head around exactly how it all works and master the necessary skills.
The possibilities with email campaign builders are endless and go way beyond warming up new prospects. Using your CRM and email campaign builder in tandem, you’ll be able to generate and send emails to your customers, create customer onboarding sequences, create and manage newsletters – and do a whole lot of other things. The value of a tool like this goes way beyond what you initially see.
How would you like to know who’s visited your website, what pages they’ve been to, how long they stayed and how often they’ve returned? Marketing automation platforms can help you to discover all of that and more. All well-developed marketing automation platforms will offer simple integrations for websites built on the most popular CMS platforms like WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal – meaning you’ll be able to track visitation to your pages. Without getting too technical, tracking is achieved by using cookies, which you might want to Google if you don’t know much about them.
Again, without getting too technical, anonymous visitors (i.e. people not yet registered in your system) are identified by their IP address. Their visitation to your website is tracked anonymously, but when your system identifies them (i.e. when they submit a form via one of your landing pages) their earlier visitation to your website will be attributed to them. In other words, you’ll be able to see a complete history of the pages they visited from their logged IP address in the days or weeks leading up to when they finally gave up their contact information to you!
Now we’re moving into really exciting territory, once again. Once your marketing automation platform has identified a visitor, you’ll be able to go into super stalker (and marketer) mode – and you can automate a heap of that. I’ll cover both of these topics in more detail, but you’ll be able to automatically switch visitors to new campaigns based upon their behaviour on your website, as well as “point score” their state of preparedness to become a customer. More often than not that information is displayed in an easy to understand, graphic form via your marketing automation interface.
Point scoring is one of the most awesome features of marketing automation. It’s also one of the more difficult things to get right, but that’s certainly a topic for another day. Right now, you just need to know what point scoring is.
Imagine a prospect opens your first automated email after they submit a form on your landing page – and you give them one point for doing that. They then click a link from that email and visit a blog post that’s all about what they’ve expressed interest in – so you give them another point for that. They then click onto a related blog post – so you give them another point. They then download a white paper about your product – so you give them another two points. That is point scoring and it can provide you with a lot of valuable information, especially if you have an elongated sales cycle.
The general idea behind point scoring is to put some objectivity into determining the right moment to reach out to a prospect, which is usually when they are warm enough to buy. Marketing automation can track many more behaviours than what I’ve mentioned here, which you can also point score, but you’ll get the point (pardon the pun). Point scoring is all about knowing when the right moment is to reach out to a new prospect and marketing automation can make you look like a pro at this.
Although I don’t consider this to be an essential feature of marketing automation, it can be killer for some businesses. Campaign switching allows you to automatically switch known visitors to your website from one kind of campaign to another.
Let’s say that you sell refrigerators and a visitor initially indicated interest in a small bar fridge and gave up their contact details to you. They are getting regular emails from you (and maybe seeing remarketing campaigns) about bar fridges. Suddenly, their main refrigerator breaks down and they are now spending all of their time on your website looking at two-door fridge-freezers. Set up correctly, your marketing automation platform can detect that shift in interest and will automatically switch them to your fridge-freezer campaign.
Campaign switching is an advanced feature of marketing automation and it’ll take a bit of practice to know how to use it – but it’s clearly got potential for many types of businesses.
By now, you should have a clearer picture of the various components (or tools) that make up a marketing automation stack or platform and have some idea of what they do. In isolation, each one of these tools can be extremely powerful and will make an incredible difference to your marketing. Make these tools talk to each other and work together towards a set of desired outcomes and the whole is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Marketing automation isn’t one technology. It’s a variety of technologies working in unison.
I know from experience that most people who start using marketing automation give up and walk away. In most cases, that’s because they are trying to do far too much at once. Marketing automation isn’t easy to master. You’ll need a variety of skills to get it working for you and you’ll need to invest quite a bit of time in understanding and mastering the various tools. I’ve talked about those skills in depth, in a variety of other articles. Don’t try to do it all at once or you’ll get frustrated and you’ll walk away too! Master the tools one at a time, use them in the real world, then move on to the next.
For those with the tenacity to stick with it or the resources to pay an expert to help them, marketing automation can be a major game-changer. If you’re using marketing automation now, or plan to in the near future comment below and tell me about your experiences.
I know. It’s confusing. I’m telling you to invest less in marketing when everyone around you is telling you that you should invest more. As one of those self-interested marketing types, why would I tell you to invest less in marketing when you investing more is how I make my rather questionable living? Doesn’t that go against everything that us narcissistic marketing types are supposed to say to unsuspecting business owners? Um, yep. But I guess that’s what happens when you throw an accountant into the deep end and they’re forced to learn a thing or two about marketing – but that’s a story for another day.
Over the past 10 years marketing has changed more than it has in the 50 years prior to that. Every day sees the introduction of some new strategy, tactic, system, algorithm, platform, method or metric that’s supposed to help business people become better marketers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Most business owners just get MORE confused as they try to go up the digital learning curve. The more they learn the less they feel that they know. I know exactly how that feels.
I’ve been “doing digital” for more than 15 years now and have personally mastered (and excelled) at a wide variety of digital tactics. I can build pretty awesome websites. I can write decent copy. I’ve truly slammed it at SEO. I’ve built and managed profitable Google Ads campaigns. I can retarget successfully across multiple platforms. I’ve mastered cold email. I’m ranked amongst the world’s top 10 influencers for the Mautic marketing automation platform. I have a social media footprint running into the tens of thousands. I have anything up to 40 staff doing all this stuff for me and my clients – and yet…
I sometimes feel that I know less now than I ever did! That’s the fast-paced nature of digital.
In essence, minimalist marketing is marketing that’s guided by strategy, rather than the anarchy of standalone or disjointed tactics. You might wonder what I mean by that, so let me illustrate by explaining how many businesses arrive in that dark, unprofitable place.
John and Sarah start a business. They “know” that they need a website and get their neighbours cousin (a uni student studying graphic design) to build them one, really, really cheap. It has great pictures of John and Sarah on the website and their Mum’s are super proud of both of them. John and Sarahs’ friends all express their admiration for their new website, as well as the really snazzy purple, green and orange logo designed by Sarah. That thing really pops!
As the months and years roll by, John and Sarah find that they need more marketing collateral. Initially, Sarah designs some brochures using MS Word, but eventually, they hire a local graphic designer to “fix things up a bit”. The new brochures look great but don’t quite match the website or their business cards, as Sarah has changed their logo “just a bit” quite a few times now. In fact, the orange has gone and it’s now a bright shade of yellow. And it has some blue stripes. Ah well, it’ll all be OK…
Meanwhile, one of Johns’ golf buddies tells him that he knows someone in his industry who’s killing it with Facebook ads. John knows that their 22-year-old receptionist, Emilee, uses Facebook every day and is a regular Wizz on the computer. He instructs Emilee to create a Facebook page for the business and run some Facebook ads. How hard can that possibly be, right? He gets Emilee to write some blog post too, because – ya know – everyone needs blog posts and Emilee has plenty of free time to do that – in spite of her “solid C student” prowess at English.
Next, Sarah gets a random phone call from a phone number in India. David Smith (really?) is an SEO guru who can get their website ranking at the top of Google search results with his “Miracle 999 SEO Booster Bundle”. Sarah tells John all about the thousands of new customers from around the globe who could soon be visiting their locally focused website and buying from them. They jump right in for some of that amazing SEO.
Then Sarah meets somebody at the kids’ school who knows this awesome Google Ads guy – and you can guess the rest. Before long, John and Sarah are on the road to a digital marketing disaster. Sun Tzu said it best, long before the internet was ever even thought of: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” John and Sarah are now hearing the noise before defeat. Loud. And. Clear.
John and Sarah could have avoided the situation I’ve outlined by having a clear strategy and a solid tactical plan for their marketing. Instead, they decided to chase every bright shiny object that offered even a glimmer of hope for their marketing. They knew no better. I’ve done it myself. Repeatedly. You’ve probably done it too. These days, I think I spend as much (or more) time reminding clients to STOP chasing bright shiny objects as I do persuading them to stick to their strategy and just implement their existing plans. Staying focused and disciplined is hard. It also sits at the core of minimalist marketing, right along with Strategy.
Write this across your forehead: Strategy comes first.
Don’t even think about tactics (what marketing you’ll actually do) until you get this sorted or you’re headed for certain disaster. I’ll give you my iron-clad guarantee on that.
To be a successful minimalist marketer you’ll need to focus on the quality of your marketing, rather than the quantity. If you’re going to have a website, make damned sure that it’s a high-quality website – good design, customer-facing, selling a clear value proposition and encouraging visitors to engage with you. If you’re going to write blog posts and distribute them via social media, make them informative and worth the time that readers might invest. If you decide to engage in SEO make sure your focus is on the kind of keyword sets where you can easily add value for visitors to your pages.
The days when you could just push out worthless content on the internet and still manage to have it discovered by search engines are long over. You are now competing with the (literally) millions of pages published each month on the internet for the attention of search engines and the eyeballs of prospects and customers. You’d better make damned sure that your content is worthwhile or you won’t attract either.
There are almost endless options when it comes to marketing tactics and you don’t have the time, money or skills to engage in all of them. I mentioned strategy as the first principle of minimalist marketing. The individual tactics you choose (like SEO, or PPC, or blogging) need to feed your strategy and those tactics will hopefully feed off one and other. For example, you might write a high-quality, keyword-rich blog post which you use to attract organic traffic to your website (SEO). You might also post that same blog to your social media pages, drive paid traffic to it (Google Ads, maybe), or use it in a newsletter to customers. One high-quality marketing piece can be used over and over and/or be repurposed. Again, quality is the key ingredient.
The biggest challenge with the essentials might be deselecting certain things that you are doing now in order to become more focused on the most essential tactics that feed your strategy. Making those choices can be more difficult than it looks, but they are essential if you want to become a minimalist marketer. Choose the things that are the best fit and the most likely to work. Drop the non-essential completely.
Minimalist marketing relies more upon systems and less upon people. Don’t get me wrong, people still have an extremely important role to play, especially in any service-based business, but even the people need to work within your system for minimalist marketing to be effective. You’ll find too that most of your people will love working within clearly defined systems because the part they have to play within that system should be quite clear to them. People generally love predictability and routine. You’ll be appreciated more than you know.
Software plays a major part in minimalist marketing too, reducing or eliminating the variables (or outright mistakes) associated with normal human behaviour, as well as eliminating the need for people to perform repetitive and often mundane tasks. Like the Terminator, a marketing automation platform just keeps pursuing its programmed objectives. It never sleeps. It doesn’t experience bad days when it doesn’t feel like emailing prospects. It doesn’t go on holidays or need any sick leave. Marketing automation might just become your new best friend.
For example, when a lead comes in via your website, could it automatically be pushed to your CRM? Could a series of emails and/or text messages be initiated that are designed to “warm-up” your newly acquired prospect? Can the right people in your organisation be notified automatically when your new lead engages in certain behaviours on your website? The answer to all of that is yes, thanks to the wonders of marketing automation.
Developing systems takes time and effort. The exciting thing is that you do it just once, then allow the processes you’ve developed and the tools you’ve employed to drive it. The long-term benefits of robust systems are profound. It’s not marketing specific, but I can highly recommend Michael Gerbers’ excellent book about developing systems, The E-Myth. Frankly, it’s the best book on business that I’ve ever read. Period. Just get it.
An ideal system will be end-to-end and outcome-focused. It will be sequential, leading each new prospect along a pre-defined journey to becoming your customer – all with as little human intervention as possible. Put another way, minimalist marketing requires you to think backwards from the desired result (i.e. the sale) and plan each of the steps that your prospect will take from the point of first contact through to when you finally take their money and beyond.
Taking this ultra-organised approach allows you to do some things that more randomised, standalone tactics just don’t lend themselves to. Here are what I see as the two greatest benefits.
1. Visibility Over the Journey
Have you ever wondered where a prospect is at in the sales process? Are they warmed up enough that they’re ready to buy your product or service yet? Is now the right time to reach out to them and offer more information, or should you wait a little while longer? Systems (notably marketing automation) provide you with a high degree of visibility over where your prospect is at in their sales journey, right down to letting you know what pages they’ve visited on your website, when and how often, etc. If you want to go to the trouble, you can even develop a point scoring system that puts objectivity into when the right time is to reach out and speak to a prospect. You need marketing automation in your life.
2. Identify & Resolve Weakness in Your System
One of the main benefits of being organised and having a system is that it permits you to measure the effectiveness of each step in your process and make changes, as required. For example, if you have a nine-step marketing process and you are losing a heap of prospects at step six, maybe you have a problem right there, which you can now address by taking (and measuring) an alternative approach. A less organised process wouldn’t permit you to even identify the problem, let alone experiment with possible solutions. A problem correctly identified is half the problem solved. The right systems and tools make the correct identification of problems 1,000 times easier!
What does every marketer want from their marketing? A solid return on investment.
I often meet people who are obsessed with measuring fairly meaningless metrics. Where their website ranks on Google for a certain keyword set. How many likes a particular post on Facebook gets. How many followers they have on their Instagram page. All of that stuff is interesting and you certainly should know about it. The problem is that none of it tells you anything much about your return on investment from marketing spend.
Minimalist marketers focus less on meaningless metrics and keep their eyes firmly on the ball of ROI. One of the keys to all effective marketing (minimalist or otherwise) is to measure your return on investment from particular marketing activities. How much do you make as a result of SEO, PPC, social media posting, or sending gifts to customers? You’ll be able to measure all or most of this stuff – and you should. Over time, you’ll know with a high degree of certainty what works best, leaving you free to spend more on your most effective marketing and drop less profitable marketing altogether. It might even leave you with some budget to experiment with some of those bright shiny objects!
It took me a long time to accept that less really could add up to more, that quality beats quantity and that NOT trying new things all the time could lead to a far more effective and profitable marketing program. Since I embraced minimalist marketing as a personal mantra, my business has never been quite the same. It takes a LOT of effort to get yourself organised as a minimalist marketer, but in my personal experience, it’s been 100% worth the time and effort required. Give it a go. Comment below to let me know how minimalist marketing is working out for you.