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Inbound Marketing

What is a 'Marketing Automation' Platform?

Your marketing automation platform should connect easily with your target audience and keep all of your data and brand touchpoints organized. Learn more.

11 mins read time
Bridget Deutz
Bridget Deutz

Jan 14, 2020

Modern B2B service providers or software as a service (SaaS) platforms throw around a lot of terms nowadays to target potential sales, and one of those SaaS buzzwords is "marketing automation." But what is marketing automation, is it different from email service providers (ESPs) and customer relationship management (CRM) tools, and how many services claiming to fulfill the marketing automation role actually deliver on their claims?

As a founder or marketing leader, you should be looking for cost-effective, intelligent automation that connects with your target audience efficiently and keeps all of your data and brand touchpoints in one place. Deploying email marketing is one way to engage your audience, and taking advantage of email marketing platforms can be an enticing way to automate the process. Tracking your customers in a CRM can help your sales team and build a foundational understanding of customer touchpoint. Peeking at your website analytics help you understand how people are finding your brand online and what content they're consuming. Automating your marketing and connecting the dots between your ESP and CRM and marketing team can grow your business and create a better understanding of who you're targeting, who your customers are, and how/why they convert on your product.

However, when services like Zoho Campaign claim to be a marketing automation platform, it can be easy to think you’ll receive a full suite of tools to help you reach customers. But can these tools really substantiate their claims?

To answer this question, we need to define what marketing automation is. And what it isn’t.

What is Marketing Automation?

It’s no secret that quality, targeted marketing is difficult to execute. Your marketing team could spend hundreds of hours crafting copy, honing your brand’s message and engaging with leads online. And they won't know when your customer service or sales teams talked to them, or what emails they've opened and messages they've clicked on, or even how they found your brand. That’s why marketing automation platforms like HubSpot, Marketo, ActiveCampaign and Pardot (the four most well-known industry leaders) are such game-changers. Because they combine all of this information in one place. 

While nothing in our digital tech stack is ever truly automated from start to finish, a marketing automation platform assists brands with the following key elements:

  • Integration with internal company databases, so the marketing team has access to all customer purchases and info they've provided during online signup processes, allowing marketing to communicate with customers appropriately

  • Website analytics and lead tracking from start to finish

  • Lifecycle stage tracking

  • Social media posts and engagement

  • Landing page creation

  • Forms to capture information, including progressive profiling

  • Content downloads

  • Ad campaigns through social media

  • Lead nurturing through chat, pop-ups

  • Email marketing automation

  • Lead scoring

  • Dynamic, personalized content

  • Workflow automation to change lifecycle stage, status, etc.

  • Tying all of the above information to one contact and analyzing their holistic journey with your brand

Take note that email automation is included within the services that a true marketing automation platform offers; however, not all email automation on its own qualifies as true marketing automation if it doesn't include all of the other capabilities listed above. That’s because email marketing on its own will not help you nurture leads, build content landing pages with forms to download, create relationships with loyal customers and analyze how a lot of marketing works hand-in-hand with your email marketing.

Marketing automation platforms are all-inclusive suites that allow you to truly integrate into all channels of your brand and carry out the marketing tasks to build an online revenue-producing machine.

Functions of Email Service Providers

Inbound marketing is all about reaching your customer base in an organic way. The goal is to connect online through the channels your customers already use in their daily lives and give them solutions to their problems when they're looking for them. Email is undeniably integrated into everything we do, from checking in with the office to following a discount code to purchase our next pair of shoes to keeping up with family members while traveling. Email is not 'going away' anytime soon like some have predicted in the past. 

That’s why email service provider (ESP) platforms can be a much-needed element in any brand’s marketing success. Services like Zoho Campaign and MailChimp allow you to curate a collection of emails with copy that’s tailored to specific leads, customers and brand announcements. You can create email marketing campaigns, release schedules and even tie specific customer actions on your eCommerce store to trigger a follow-up email. With email marketing platforms you get:

  • A way to capture contacts, usually through an embed subscribe form

  • Contact list management and segmentation of all of your contacts

  • Upload bulk data lists that you downloaded from your company central database of contacts

  • Email templates to build welcome emails, newsletters, etc.

  • SPAM controls so you stay compliant and out of the SPAM folder

  • A/B testing of email subject lines or content

  • Sending tools like timezone sends, etc. 

  • Bulk emailing of your email message to all of your contacts

  • Send simple email blasts like welcome emails, onboarding campaigns, newsletters, birthday or special sale announcements

It's very important to have an email marketing tool. But, we don't ever recommend that a brand *only* sign-up for an ESP when you can get an ESP plus so much more in marketing automation platforms.

What Email Service Providers Can’t Do

ESPs like ZoHo Campaign, ConstantContact, iContact and more certainly have their place in a marketing tech stack if you're very lean and new. However, there are many limits to their features that require you to supplement their usage with additional tools. And once your brand grows, you're going to need a marketing automation platform to truly excel at your marketing. So, we always recommend starting out at the lower price point of a marketing automation tool, even if you're just using it for email marketing, and growing into more of the functionality capabilities when you're ready.

Let’s say your company has discovered the true fountain of youth. This legendary, coveted secret is something you’re actually bottling and selling. You know everyone will want a bottle, or a sample at the very least. You decide to invest in an ESP platform to send out email blasts to people based on an email list you purchased from a third party.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Will your email marketing platform allow you to:

  • Integrate with internal company data

  • Grow your lead list

  • Understand where your leads are coming from

  • Build additional content offers for your leads to open and read in your emails

  • Analyze what pages on your website your email contacts are visiting and reading

  • Analyze each touchpoint your email contact has with your brand and scoring how invested they are in purchasing

  • Understand if your contacts opening your emails have interacted with your social media posts

  • Understand what products your contacts have purchased or not purchased from your company already

  • Understand if your email contact has ever called in and spoken with your customer service team or sales team

  • Deeply segment lists of contacts to build an integrated, sophisticated email campaign (such as emailing customers who have also visited and read a blog post with the latest blog post or sending contacts who have visited your #1 product page an invite to talk to the sales team)

  • Build loyalty through consistent touchpoints that show your leads and customers that you understand their intent, their needs, their pain points and the solutions that will get them to a better place

Get Real Marketing Automation

Automating your email marketing is great, but it’s only one small part of a larger puzzle that your brand 100% needs to be moving toward. To be truly successful, automated email marketing needs to rely on additional tools for a holistic view of your contacts.

Before you decide to integrate an ESP into your marketing process, we recommend you shop around for services that automate more than one aspect of your efforts. You should look for marketing automation platforms that provide most of the services we listed above and then do a thorough analysis of each platform: meet with their sales reps, ask tough questions, ask for references of brands who are using their platform and brands who have moved on, decide what of the suite of tools is a must for your brand, and what can be added on later or perhaps skipped. And then when you find the right marketing automation tool, invest in a detailed integration process so that you make sure it's integrated with your internal data properly.

Or, if this is all very overwhelming for you — we can help you out with this process at First Page. We can either consult you during your marketing automation selection and integration process, or we can help you with the whole enchilada (all of your inbound marketing campaigns within your marketing automation platform). 


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Bridget Deutz

Bridget Deutz is an inbound marketing junkie. She has nearly ten years of experience in marketing and communications in both in-house and agency settings. Bridget has a Bachelor’s degree in Communication from The College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University. She is a digital marketing speaker sharing her expertise in content creation, marketing strategy, user experience, inbound marketing, and HubSpot software. In her free time, Bridget teaches piano and voice lessons, enjoys photography and hand lettering, digging in antique stores, musical theatre, and playing with her labradoodle Dolly. Above all else, Bridget cherishes time spent with her family and friends.

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