A Human-Friendly Guide to Marketing Automation

Tools & Trends Article
20 mins

What is marketing automation, how is it done and, how can you use it to the benefit of your business? Furthermore, could it one day replace your whole marketing department? Join us as we discuss what marketing automation could mean for you in 2018.

What is marketing automation?

In a nutshell, marketing automation means getting a piece of software to perform a task that would otherwise have been carried out by a person. It has already been used in various forms for a number of years, playing a role in processes such as:

  • Triggering welcome emails after signup
  • Sending reminder messages to customers after a designated time period (e.g. cart abandonment emails on Amazon)
  • Personalised product recommendations on ecommerce sites
  • Ad retargeting

So if marketing automation is nothing new, why has the noise around the subject increased in recent years?

We can think of several good reasons why interest in marketing automation is on the up. A particularly compelling one has been the increased output in AI and automation software from blue-chip tech brands – of which IBM Watson is a prime example. News reports telling us 1-in-5 jobs will be affected by automation by the 2030s are surely a key factor too.

But above all, we think there’s a simpler reason at the heart of the buzz around marketing automation: it’s becoming more accessible to the average digital marketer.

Affordable software is democratising digital marketing automation

One of the key developments of the last few years has been the emergence of affordable software that can tailor your marketing communications across multiple channels and in real-time, according to what you know or can infer about the customer on an individual-by-individual level.

These tools leverage what we call the single customer view (SCV) – which means all your data on an individual customer, accessible and actionable within a system – to deliver the right personalised marketing at just the right time.

If you think that sounds pretty technical, you’d be right. Until recently, this approach was mainly the preserve of larger brands with technical teams capable of supplying bespoke SCV systems.

But not anymore. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of software opening up cutting-edge automation to the marketing masses:


Autopilot enables you to “engage at just the right time with personalized email, in-app messages, SMS, and postcards.” To do this, the user plans out “customer journeys” (sequences of communications and marketing actions) using a clear, brightly-coloured, drag-and-drop interface. You can set variables in the customer journey, to equip your marketing to respond intelligently to real-time information on the customer and your relationship with them.

This tool is especially well suited to providing tailored marketing towards high-value B2B leads, thanks in particular to its in-depth, real-time customer information and eye-catching personalised postcard option.

An Example of Auto Pilot Workflow Screenshot

Autopilot incorporates multiple communication channels including email, website-based-messenger and Slack. For instance, take a look at the arrows coming off the octagonal “Check Email Status” symbol in the screenshot above. We can see that a further email is triggered if the customer has clicked a link in the email; whilst if they have simply opened the email, a contact form option is triggered.

You can also set a customer journey up to send notifications to your team when an action – such as a customer sign-up – has occurred.

There’s more to tell about this feature-rich tool than we can cover in this article but key highlights include:

  • Templates for multiple forms of communication (email, postcard, website-integrated messaging and SMS)
  • Single customer view (SCV) powered by cookies, forms and web/app data
  • Real-time user data which can be segmented
  • Campaign performance tracking with live or regular reporting
  • Online courses and resources to help users master the platform and the concepts that underpin it.

Basic Autopilot plans range in price from $20/month for up to 1,000 contacts, to $2,400/month for up to 500,000 contacts, with bespoke arrangements available for even-bigger clients. If you want to use more advanced features such as A/B testing and Salesforce CRM integration, you’ll need to get the costlier Business plan ($40 to $3600 per month).

Fresh Relevance

Fresh Relevance enables personalised, multi-channel B2C marketing for ecommerce websites, with a focus on delivering exactly the right content to fit the customer’s personal details, behaviour and stage in the journey from initial interest to long-term loyalty. In a nutshell, it can help your online shop to pull off some of the same tricks that have powered Amazon’s unprecedented success.

Fresh Relevance’s key content tools include SmartBlocks, social proof widgets, recommendations, reviews and dynamic pricing; and platform tools including slot rules, weather tools, geo tools, data tools (profiling engine), and a segment builder.

It features real-time browse- and cart-abandonment messaging, behavioural segmentation and targeting, and A/B testing for website and email content.

Web, mobile, email and social media personalisation are incorporated within a single platform that integrates with your marketing applications (including your e-commerce platform, email marketing client, CRM and call centre).

You can request pricing info here.

AutoPilot and Fresh Relevance give a good indication, with their respective B2B and B2C focuses, of the marketing automation technology becoming available to a growing proportion of marketers.

They are not, however, the be-all-and-end-all, with other prominent examples including ActiveCampaign, Infusionsoft, Ontraport, Marketo, Hubspot.

We would advise any marketing team considering using automation software to explore the options, draw up a short list, and arrange a call with sales agents from a selection of the providers which interest you the most. Pay attention to what other people are saying about the platforms on social media and in online reviews, weigh up the pros and cons, and ultimately make an informed choice on which tool to try out.

How to assimilate automated marketing into your team

Marketing automation isn’t capable of cutting humans out of the equation entirely – nor is it designed to do so.

It can be better described as a way to enable new insights and efficiencies, whilst freeing up human-hours which can be reallocated to other beneficial activities. The goal should be better marketing, not cheaper marketing.

As the global brand president of Zenith, Vittorio Bonori, put it in a roundtable discussion for Campaign, “You need to understand things to control them. It’s not enough to have access to 300 variables.”

If you consider the big picture of an automated marketing system and the communications it delivers, you’ll realise there’s a lot to be understood. These are just some of the thoughts that spring immediately to mind:

  • The brand’s business objectives and how marketing automation can support them
  • How and which machine-derived insights can be turned into future strategy
  • Knowledge of your chosen automated marketing platform
  • Capabilities and shortcomings of automated marketing in B2C communications
  • Customer expectations regarding when automated marketing can or should be used
  • How to build your brand (tone-of-voice, imagery, campaign content) into automated communications.

The fact we’ve summed these points up as a list belies the fact that each one is an expansive subject requiring knowledge, ongoing study – and in some cases, specialist human resources.

With this in mind, we would advise gradually rebalancing your team’s skill mix to achieve a greater readiness for on-boarding and managing automated processes. There may come a time when automation can cut your staffing requirements, but it’s probably not yet.

When marketing automation goes wrong

Marketing automation can have a positive influence on a brand’s marketing – so much so that many would now struggle to do without it. However, automation does sometimes lead to errors on a comparable scale to the efficiencies it is designed to create.

For instance, in 2014, Puma used an automated system to turn digital inputs from their customers into personalised printed postcards, which looked like this:

The cards combined Puma branding and photos of famous footballers with bespoke messages which were entered digitally by customers and printed in a handwritten style.

The only issue was the fact that Puma’s automated system couldn’t differentiate between customers with good intentions, and trolls. This resulted in a slew of custom Puma postcards bearing inappropriate messages. Whilst this may have been just a bit of fun for the users who manipulated the system, it was clearly not the sort of messaging Puma would want anywhere near their brand. If the same task had been handled by human agents, the issue would have been quickly and privately dealt with.

Some would say the extent to which this example can be considered a failure is up for debate. Yes, some embarrassingly off-brand messaging was created – but then again, the error also generated lots of coverage from major news providers.

In some other cases, the negative impact is indisputable. Perhaps the most infamous automated marketing failure of all took place in 2017, when YouTube had to reimburse brands including Marks and Spencer, L’Oreal and McDonald’s after it emerged their ads had been shown alongside extremist content on the platform.

We’re not telling you all this to put you off automated marketing. Rather, we want to make clear the needs for careful planning around the role it will play and close stewardship by responsible humans.

Key concepts of marketing automation in 2018

By this point we’ve seen what marketing automation can do for B2B and B2C businesses. We’ve touched on how it should be approached by marketing teams, and also on how it can go wrong through poor implementation.

However, none of that really matters unless you understand the key marketing concepts which underpin the most common uses of automation. To help you recap, here’s a list of the ideas we believe to be the most important, with links to further resources:

  • Single Customer View (SCV) – all your information on an individual customer, updated in real team. SCV on a customer can be viewed within a CRM and used to power automated marketing communications (further reading).
  • Cookies – the key mechanism for gathering behavioural data on your customers in the SCV – by placing a “cookie” in their browser (further reading).
  • Variables in customer behaviour – whether or not a customer fits a certain value or performs a certain action can tell you about their likelihood of making a purchase, responding well to certain types of marketing and more. Automated marketing can take these variables into account and use them to make appropriate decisions (see section on Autopilot, above).
  • Personalization – Marketing automation is widely used to personalise customer experience and B2C communications. This can range in complexity from personalised email subject lines to dynamically selected product recommendations on e-commerce websites (see section on Fresh Relevance, above).
  • Split testing – (sometimes known as A/B testing) is the process of sending marginally different variants of a marketing communication – such as an email – to randomly selected samples from your audience. The variant that performs best against your KPIs (such as click-through rate) is then typically delivered to the rest of your audience. Marketing automation can take a lot of the legwork out of the split testing process, and can be used to rapidly identify the best performing variants and implement them at scale (further reading).

If you’re amongst the 9% of marketers who consider automation your top priority in 2018, we wish you luck for the challenge ahead. Just remember to keep human skills and understanding at the heart of the process.

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