At Leader, we really appreciate the huge value that modern marketing automation tools deliver.

Used well they can help you establish new contacts, nurture prospects and maximise valuable customer relationships.

But as these technologies and processes are sold into an ever-widening circle of marketing situations, there is real concern that not enough people understand – or are prepared to admit – their limitations, nor the very real risks of using them badly.

So can automation ever really be a considered a marketing magic bullet, or is it time to shift at least some of the focus back to the importance of the human touch?

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Understanding automation

When we talk about marketing automation, we are essentially referring to software that follows pre-programmed rules with the aim of delivering the right marketing materials to the right people at the right time.

At its most basic, if someone downloads a whitepaper or e-guide from a website having been asked to first submit their contact details (also known as ‘gating content’), then automation software can be used to:

• store this information
• recognise what content was downloaded, and then
• send a further sequence of relevant information based on the responses or actions of the recipient

Further visits to the website (or engagement with any further email or online resources) can be identified and responded to in a similar manner, not just with emailed content but with personalised web pages for example.

And as return visits build, more and more data can be collected for an ever richer picture of the prospect and their requirements.

Is it the right thing to do?

It’s hardly surprising that this technology and the ‘in-bound marketing’ approach it supports has taken the marketing industry by storm over recent years. With its promises of increased productivity, personalised messaging, customer engagement and revenue growth, it hits all of the sector’s hottest buttons.

And when it works well it can indeed deliver outstanding results. In many respects it has become the workhorse in our own lead generation programmes, delivering carefully chosen content to our clients’ prospects in order to encourage and support them along the customer journey to an eventual purchase.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s right for every marketing situation. And sadly, we hear more and more examples of automation being sold as a wonder solution is circumstances where it should never have been considered.

These cases tend to fall into three broad categories:

1. It’s not right for the company.

In-bound marketing, and particularly the content which is needed to fuel it, can be a big commitment, especially for a small company or team. If the budget and resources aren’t there to meet this need, then in-bound and automation is likely to do much more harm than good.

2. The sales resources aren’t in place (or aren’t fully committed) to follow through on nurtured customer interest.

A timely and considered handover from nurtured marketing lead to sales qualified lead is an essential step in the majority of automation campaigns (particularly in business-to-business markets), and any fumble at this stage could see results dwindle to nothing.

3. It’s not right for that particular product, service or market sector.

At one end of the scale, all that extra content and engagement may not add enough value when the customer is looking to make a relatively simple e-Commerce purchasing decision. At the other end it might not be able to reach the contacts and build the engagement needed to make an effective contribution to complex multi-stakeholder purchase decisions.

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And are you doing it right?

So clearly marketing automation is a powerful toolkit, and one we are more than happy to recommend and use in the right circumstances. But that doesn’t mean we’re content to just set it up and let it run.

Although the software (and the claims made on its behalf) grow more sophisticated every year, our approach remains to ensure a healthy dose of human judgement and manual intervention throughout the process.

Why? Well, consider the viral spread of a recent blog post in which the author describes putting their details into a form to gain access to a whitepaper, only to be overwhelmed less than a day later with a series of automated responses which included an email, a phone call, an invitation to a webinar, a newsletter, another newsletter… you get the idea.

Smart, sophisticated or proportionate this clearly wasn’t – and the writer didn’t keep his thoughts private. He shared them widely, naming the company involved and making clear his frustration. I doubt that the writer – or many of the people who read his blog – will in future be quite as keen to engage with the company that besieged him.

The fact is you usually only get one chance to get things right.

Automation can do a lot of legwork for you, but it can also make catastrophic errors:

• Responses that sound like they were sent by a machine (because they were).
• Sending too much (or too little material), or sending it at the wrong time.
• Automatic ‘lead scoring’ systems which fail to recognise the difference between a Sixth Form student researching her business studies project and a serious prospect at the early stages of the buying process.

These are all hallmarks of too much automation and not enough human intervention.

Magic bullet?

Used properly and in the right circumstances, marketing automation is undoubtedly a powerful and useful toolkit.

But it is certainly no magic marketing bullet, nor a substitute for human judgement.

Artificial intelligence and the rise of the robots might be dominating today’s headlines but, for the time being at least, we wouldn’t want to be completely reliant on a fully automated system for anything other than the most functional of commercial transactions.

So while automation will continue to feature in some Leader campaigns, the human touch will continue to feature in all of them.

You can read more about our blended and bespoke business growth solutions here, or simply give us a call to chat through your business growth requirements.