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Marketing automation is not marketing strategy

Too often, these days, I am hearing B2B marketers mouth claims like “We got this new [fill in the brand] automation tool, so now we can reduce headcount.”  Or, “Once this automation system is installed, it will take our marketing to the next level.”  This worries me.  Marketers sometimes see automation as a silver bullet.  But it’s only a tool.  Marketing automation doesn’t identify your best target audiences.  It can’t develop value propositions.  No way will it make the tough decisions among competing investment options.  I’m reminded of Mike Moran’s great book title, Do It Wrong, Quickly.  In other words, marketing automation doesn’t work without strategy.

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Remember ten years ago, when CRM came along?  Déjà vu all over again, to echo Yogi Berra.  Marketers thought that the new CRM software would solve their customer service and customer retention problems. Expectations were dashed.  Not only was it a nightmare to get up and running, the software served only to automate the processes—good or bad—that companies already had in place.

Even the marketing automation software vendors themselves recognize the importance of strategy for their own success, as well as that of their clients.  Think about it: if their clients can’t get the value from the software, their revenues are going to be impacted.

So education campaigns are underway.  Marketo, for example, sponsored a compelling study done by Sirius Decisions that explains the importance of a strong process in driving results when using marketing automation software.  Their data shows that companies using automation combined with a reasonable lead management process—inquiry generation, qualification, nurturing and hand off to sales—produced four times the sales volume of companies with automation but with weaker processes.

Eloqua, too, makes a strong case for strategy in its guide, “6 Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Marketing Automation Journey,”  which contains the important reminder to avoid putting “too much focus on technology, and not enough focus on buyers.”

So, what should we be doing with automation, to ensure its success?  Three things come to mind.

  1. Be realistic about what it can and can’t do.  Automation is not a silver bullet that you can set and forget.  So make sure real humans are thinking through the essential tasks of identifying your key audiences, understanding their needs, scoping out their buying processes and developing contact strategies to move them along, in your direction.
  2. Clean up your database.  By now it’s clear that the database is the single most important success factor in B2B marketing communications.  So don’t be automating messages that can’t or won’t be delivered to the right targets.
  3. Train up your team.  Too many marketing groups are leaving the campaign automation system to a set of junior staffers who interface with the tools, deploy campaigns, and report results.  I am not saying the marketing VPs should be executing campaigns.  But to get the right mix of strategy and tools, we need better integration.  Senior marketers should be deeply aware of the capabilities of the software.  And junior staffers need training in strategic marketing thinking.

Are there other success factors in B2B marketing automation you can share?

Ruth Stevens

Ruth Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, for both consumer and business-to-business clients. Ruth serves on the boards of directors of the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. She is a trustee of Princeton-In-Asia, past chair of the Business-to-Business Council of the DMA, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain’s BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She serves as a mentor to fledgling companies at the ERA business accelerator in New York City. Ruth is a guest blogger at AdAge,, and Target Marketing Magazine. Her newest book is B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results. She is also the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, Trade Show and Event Marketing, and co-author of the white paper series “B-to-B Database Marketing.” Ruth is a sought-after speaker and trainer, and has presented to audiences and business schools in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM. She studied marketing management at Harvard Business School, and holds an MBA from Columbia University. Learn more at

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  1. Avatar Steve MacAlpine

    Spot on Ruth! Too often we are seeing companies invest in new technology and then never use what they have to it’s full potential.
    I’d suggest that ‘Brand Stories’ are what drive interactions with our customers ..
    1. What is the story telling my target customer?
    2. Why does my target customer care about this story?
    3. What sort of emotions does my story evoke?
    4. How does my story connect to the emotional needs of my target customer?
    5. How will that story incite action on behalf of my brand, product, and service?
    …bottom line is that your audience doesn’t care about which technology you use, they only care about what’s in it for them.

    1. Ruth Stevens Ruth Stevens

      Thanks for these good ideas, Steve. You’re right, it’s all about the customer!

  2. […] A version of this article appeared in Biznology […]

  3. Avatar Peter Strohkorb

    Hello Ruth,

    It is so funny how I have just written something very similar for my upcoming book. I completely agree with your sentiments here and have happily tweeted a link to your article.

    Peter Strohkorb
    Sales+Marketing Collaboration Consultant

    1. Ruth Stevens Ruth Stevens

      Thanks, Peter. Collaboration between sales and marketing is an essential concept in this entire discussion–and often neglected. Thanks for bringing it up.

  4. Avatar Todd Lebo

    Research that we fielded at Ascend2 in July 2014 validates your point that without an effective marketing strategy, achieving success is difficult at best. In our Marketing Automation Benchmark Survey we asked “What are the MOST CHALLENGING OBSTACLES to marketing automation success?” The number one response, at 45%, was “lack of an effective strategy”. Thanks for the article.

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