For today’s marketing teams, it’s nearly impossible to do your work and stay agile without marketing automation. In fact, teams that don’t adopt automation and AI-powered software throughout their tech stack risk falling behind.
There has never been more customer, competitor or industry data available to marketing teams. And yet, with shrinking bandwidths, having the time to uncover insights from that vast sea of data is becoming less realistic.
At its core, automation cuts out redundant, time-consuming tasks so your team can focus on strategy. But with the right tools and processes, automation also breaks down silos and makes your whole business a well-oiled, data-driven machine. And while you’re likely already using email automation, the capabilities of marketing automation extend to every discipline under the marketing umbrella.
In this article, we’ll walk through what marketing automation is, how and why to use it and examples of tools.
Feel free to jump ahead:
- What is marketing automation?
- What’s the difference between email marketing and marketing automation?
- Why use marketing automation?
- Bringing the marketing automation process into your team
- How does marketing automation work?
- Examples of marketing automation
- The role of AI in automation
- What are marketing automation tools?
What is marketing automation?
Marketing automation is the process of speeding up repetitive, time-consuming and complex tasks with the power of automation software.
Automation tools are popular in marketing departments. They empower teams to uncover insights or connect with customers in a faster, smarter way—all while offloading time-consuming tasks. Think: sending customer emails, SMS communications, scheduling social media posts, running digital ads and more.
As our Senior Manager of Marketing Operations Cam Conrad puts it, “Marketing automation allows you to execute your marketing campaigns at scale. It gives you the ability to build repeatable processes and templates for things like emails, landing pages and webforms.”
What’s the difference between email marketing and marketing automation?
Email marketing falls under the umbrella of marketing automation. But marketing automation is a lot broader and aims to streamline every corner of a marketing team. It includes automation strategies across marketing, including social media, digital advertising, segmentation, analytics and data measurement and yes, email marketing.
Why use marketing automation?
With automation tools, companies can target a larger range of customers and prospects across a range of channels. Many marketing teams rely on automation strategies to save their employees valuable time, improve workflows and enhance customer experience.
Automation also breaks down silos and smooths out collaboration within your team, and beyond. As Cam explains, “By centralizing all campaigns inside a marketing automation platform you can increase visibility across the marketing team.”
Marketing automation tools also assist with lead scoring, generation and nurturing, as well as measuring the ROI of campaigns.
Benefits of these automated tools include:
- Better customer experience: Setting up alerts and automating elements of customer care means users don’t have to wait as long for support.
- Increased scope and scale of campaigns: Companies can run campaigns on multiple social media channels at once without requiring additional manpower.
- Enhanced ROI on staff costs: Employees spend more time on critical business tasks rather than repetitive work.
- Maintain brand consistency: Automated tools can maintain consistency around brand assets, email send times and content scheduling even when employees have a busy workload.
- Better campaign measurements: Marketing automation tools often come with inbuilt ways to test the efficacy of your strategies.
Automation also empowers you to create marketing materials that are more personalized—like targeting leads based on how warm they are, or based on a person’s previous interactions with your brand.
And the ability to personalize marketing materials will only become more important. According to McKinsey, 71% of consumers expect personalized interactions. And the majority of consumers are more likely to purchase from brands that use personalized communications.
Bringing the marketing automation process into your team
You already know marketing is not just one discipline. It’s a combination of many key business operations and processes that impact and feed entire orgs.
Adding a marketing automation process to each of these moving pieces helps your marketing team, and teams beyond, make better decisions with improved workflows. Let’s explore how:
How does marketing automation work?
Automation in marketing works by applying technology to perform (and often expedite) routine processes with minimal human intervention.
Let’s look at a very basic breakdown of how the marketing automation process works, from start to finish:
Understand and meet sales team needs
Different customers have different needs depending on what stage of the funnel they’re in. And when you have a lot of customers—current or prospective—keeping track of who falls into which category is nearly impossible.
Automation software streamlines the complex process of lead scoring, tracking customer touchpoints and determining where in the funnel customers fall.
This empowers your sales team to identify how to approach certain customers and helps marketing teams design more personalized, tailored messaging for the right audience segments.
Define your customer segments
Segmentation categorizes your target audience into groups and lists based on specific factors, like job title, industry, buying intent and past interactions. Identifying these segments means you can create more personalized content and messaging at every touchpoint of the customer journey to warm up leads, re-engage with customers and more.
This could include identifying what industries your customers fall into and what tools they have in their tech stack. A small business segment will have different needs than mid-market or enterprise. And customers who use tools that integrate seamlessly with your product will respond to different messaging than those who don’t already have integration-friendly products.
Customer segments can also be based on past interactions with your brand. Like whether someone has purchased from you, how engaged they are with your emails or past interactions with your customer care agents.
Set up a strategy for success
Once you’ve determined which customer segments to target, you can shape your strategy to determine how you want to reach your audience at different touchpoints—while using automation to help you do so.
This is where you identify what type of outreach to conduct at every touchpoint of the customer journey—and where automation fits in along the way.
Consider the ads, social posts, emails and their triggers that will speak to each customer segment. From there, you can decide what content to create for each step of the customer journey.
Choose the right content
Different segments will require and respond to different messages and materials.
One way automation can help you is through A/B testing. For emails, this can identify what subject lines result in more clicks. For ads, A/B testing narrows down the best creative or copy to use.
Automating dynamic customer experiences can also personalize a customer journey. A tool like Uberflip creates custom web “journeys” to show visitors content customized to their needs and industry.
Use analytics and reporting to measure, test and improve strategies
Automation is a true game-changer here. It turns large data sets into actionable insights in seconds—work that can be impossible to calculate manually.
This is crucial to improving your strategies. Here, automation helps you set data-driven SMART goals for your strategy. And, thanks to the speed of automation, you can measure, test and improve those strategies faster to stay agile.
Automation tools also break down silos by enabling cross-team data visibility. For example, after sifting through billions of social data points in seconds, Sprout’s automation packages those insights in shareable reports to keep stakeholders looped in.
What are examples of marketing automation?
Marketing automation can take on many forms. You may use email, social media, audience analysis, workflow, analytics or advertising automation, or a combination of all of these.
Let’s see these automated processes in action throughout a marketing org and, hopefully, spark inspiration for your own team.
When we talk about automation, I’m willing to bet that email marketing automation comes to mind first.
As your email list grows, so does the need for sophisticated software that manages complex lists and personalizes your communications by segment.
Email automation makes it easy to A/B test subject lines, segment your audience to reach the right people with the right messages, keep them engaged and measure your efforts.
Here are some examples of email marketing automation:
- Welcome emails that automatically launch when a new subscriber signs up for your email list.
- Email newsletters that regularly send to customers.
- Win-back emails to recapture customers who haven’t engaged with your emails in a while.
- Abandoned cart emails to encourage potential customers to complete a purchase.
- Nurture campaigns to send to audiences based on whether they click on previous communications.
- Transactional emails such as order confirmation emails, shipping notifications and requests for product reviews after a product is received.
Social media automation
Bandwidth is one of the top challenges for social teams, according to The Sprout Social Index™. And that bandwidth is only getting thinner.
Social media automation software takes repetitive, time-consuming tasks off social team members’ plates so they can focus on strategy. This helps you stay more agile and proactive, minimizing monotonous tasks.
Social media automation software also saves time by empowering SMMs to manage all of their social accounts, content and data in one hub. For example, Sprout scales social media efforts, across your strategy—from social customer care to scheduling and publishing content.
Here are a few examples of what social media automation can do:
- Schedule content to publish automatically.
- Funnel comments and messages from all of your social channels into a centralized hub.
- Social analytics and reporting tools that allow you to measure and iterate on your strategy.
- Track brand mentions from people who tag your brand, and even people who don’t directly tag you.
- Customer service chatbots that answer common questions received on social for you and remove the task from your plate.
Audience analysis automation
We’ve all been served an ad or email that doesn’t match our interests. Audience analysis helps prevent this.
Audience analysis automation helps sort customers into the segments we mentioned earlier. These segments group customers based on past actions they have, or haven’t, taken.
Here are some examples of audience analysis automation:
- Sorting leads based on how warm they are.
- Segmenting email audiences based on how they interact with emails.
- Targeting ad audiences based on their past interactions with your brand, and how close to a purchase they are.
- Demographics of your audience on social media like age and location.
All automation improves day-to-day processes. But there are automation tools and features specifically built to streamline team and individual workflows.
“Marketing automation allows you to build workflows that span across different teams’ domains.” Cam explains. “For example, you can build a lead scoring model that will surface prospects that have been qualified by the marketing team to be passed to the sales team for follow up. These types of workflows and processes create a shared framework that marketing and sales strategies can be built around.”
This can be as small scale as alerting team members when tasks have been completed in a project, or as large scale as ensuring top team efficiency.
Here are some examples of workflow automation:
- Project management tools that automatically alert team members when projects have been updated, completed or added.
- Social media content tools, like Sprout’s Message Approval Workflows, that aid team collaboration and content approvals.
- Social media management tools that provide visibility into messages that have been responded to, or automatically send messages to the people and teams who need to see them, like Sprout’s Tasks.
Every organization should be data-driven. And more businesses are starting to warm up to this. According to The 2023 State of Social Media Report, over half of marketing leaders say that social media data and insights consistently inform their company’s business strategy.
There has simply never been a time where we’ve had so much data at the palm of our hands. But more data and touchpoints means larger data sets that can take hours or weeks to analyze.
Analytics automation does the heavy-lifting for you. It examines your digital data points and packages them in easy-to-read presentations, data visualizations and spreadsheets. AI-powered software can even make recommendations for you.
Here are some examples of analytics automation:
- Dynamic data dashboards in software like Tableau.
- Analytics tools that calculate large data sets in seconds.
- Automated reports that create data visualizations and make insights easy-to-understand.
- Email open rates and bounce rates in your email automation tool.
- Calculated ROI and click-through-rates for your ad campaigns.
You no doubt have some kind of digital ad in the mix—from social media ads, to Google shopping ads.
Advertising automation involves processes that automatically serve your ads to the right audience, test copy and content and allocate your budget to the ads with the strongest return.
Here are a few examples of advertising automation:
- Retargeting campaigns that pull leads and segment audiences based on previous actions.
- Personalizing shopping ads that appear for website visitors, or shoppers who have abandoned their cart.
- Budget optimization where digital ads (think: Facebook ads) automatically allocate more budget to the top-performing ads to maximize your spend.
- Budget caps that stop ads once your budget has been exceeded.
- A/B testing ad creative to simultaneously run two versions of one ad to test which ads work.
- SMS messages automated to send to customers during a promo or sale.
- Search ads that display when certain keywords or search terms are used in search engines.
- Location-targeted ads that only display to those in a specific location.
The role of AI in automation
Automation is often confused for AI. And while the two make a powerful duo when used side-by-side, and often have crossover, they are different.
So let’s get into the role of AI in marketing automation, and what makes AI and automation a dynamic duo.
How is AI used in automation
Automation is meant to help marketers make better decisions by doing monotonous tasks for them, faster. But AI relies on algorithms and massive amounts of data to help marketers solve problems, make more informed decisions and predict potential outcomes.
When combined, AI-powered automation can offload some of your tasks, while also making data-informed suggestions or decisions for you. This combination further streamlines your work and helps you make smarter decisions.
Let’s look at social media publishing, for example. Automation enables you to schedule posts to automatically publish. But AI tools can help you further optimize that scheduled content. Sprout’s Optimal Send Times uses data science to analyze your posting times, then suggests seven ideal times to post for optimal engagement.
An AI-powered tool can also accelerate your content creation process. Sprout’s upcoming feature, Suggestions by AI Assist, will help social media managers break through writer’s block and inspire new ideas with social copy recommendations.
What are marketing automation tools?
We’ve talked about what automation can do for you, your team and your business. But to start using automation, you need the right tools. Marketing automation tools are types of software that conduct automation processes for you. Examples include Sprout Social, Hubspot, Adobe Marketo Engage, Salesforce Marketing Cloud Account Engagement and Zapier.
When it comes to choosing the tools that are right for you, Cam suggests having a clear idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish with it. “There is a wide set of features available across different tools. Knowing your primary objectives will help you select the best fit. And bring stakeholders from other teams into the evaluation process—especially the team that owns CRM. Having their input from the jump saves a lot of headaches when you get to the implementation stage.”
Let’s go through some of the stand-out tools out there, and highlights from each of them.
1. Sprout Social
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention our very own automation and AI-powered platform. Sprout Social is a social media management platform that uses automation to streamline your social media publishing and scheduling, and it helps you make more data-driven decisions with powerful analytics tools.
Sprout’s Social Listening makes it easy to identify market trend shifts, track competitors to stay ahead and monitor brand health through sentiment analysis.
Sprout also enables smooth cross-team collaboration. Assign tickets to your customer care or sales team to ensure they nurture leads and customers stay satisfied. Create custom workflows to ensure stakeholders are looped into content creation when needed. And with integrations to business intelligence tools like Salesforce and Tableau, become a better collaborator.
Finally, Sprout’s AI capabilities are on the rise. Our upcoming AI Assist tools make it easier for you to create smarter listening queries and brainstorm content with AI-generated copy suggestions.
Interested? Try Sprout free for 30 days to see how our automation and AI capabilities will streamline your process and break down silos. And reach out to us about a personalized social listening demo.
HubSpot streamlines many of the moving parts across marketing, and even sales, into one hub (no pun intended.) HubSpot has a full suite of software—from sales to marketing and support—that integrates smoothly with their CRM platform, easing your process and cutting out back-and-forth. Campaigns can even be extended to SMS, right from HubSpot.
HubSpot also helps break down silos between marketing and sales with automated lead scoring and the ability to send leads to sales. Triggered notifications appear within the platform when someone in your contact list takes a specific action, so you can stay up to date with your leads. And automated task reminders in your CRM keep you and your teams on track.
And HubSpot also offers a slew of support and educational content through HubSpot Academy as you learn how to get the most out of your tool.
3. Adobe Marketo Engage
Adobe Marketo Engage boasts the title of “world’s largest marketing automation platform.”
Marketo Engage offers a powerful array of account-based marketing, lead management and email marketing tools that all empower a more personalized, cross-channel experience for customers.
One of the most stand-out elements of Marketo Engage is the AI capabilities they offer alongside their automation tools—from predictive audiences and segments to generative chat powered by AI.
4. Salesforce Marketing Cloud Account Engagement
Salesforce is a giant when it comes to marketing and sales automation tools and platforms.
The Salesforce Marketing Cloud automates and scales marketing on the B2B level and is mostly meant for enterprise-level teams and businesses.
Marketing Cloud features a full spread of features that streamline marketing from end to end. From dynamic marketing materials like email and website pages, to providing visibility for sales reps into prospects and AI-powered lead scoring. And all of this connects to Salesforce’s CRM capabilities, too.
Zapier offers high-sophistication streamlining with a clean and simple interface.
Their marketing automation software focuses on streamlining lead management and customer communication for a personalized experience. And, they offer robust data analytics tools to help you make decisions, faster.
One stand-out element that Zapier highlights is their 5,000+ app integrations to seamlessly include their platform within your current workflow. They also boast a connection to Google Forms and automatically create Trello cards from Google Form responses, cutting out manual form response gathering.
Get your marketing automation process started today
Automation and AI are here to stay. And they’ve changed how marketing teams work—as a team, and with other teams—making them better.
Even if you’re already using marketing automation in your day-to-day processes, it’s time to consider what other gaps you can fill.
Automating social media processes alone can have team- and org-wide impact. If you’re curious about how to get started, check out our article about social media automation tools that you can add to your marketing stack to empower your team.
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