Marketing automation software is both simpler and more complicated than ever before. On the one hand, building a lengthy series of automated messages based on customer data and behavior is easier than we ever could have imagined. On the other, conversations about data privacy, sky-high expectations around personalization, and artificial intelligence’s potential uses demand a lot from our software, and the people using it.
This rapidly changing landscape begs the question: What matters in marketing automation software today?
In this guide, we’ll explore just that with a refreshed look at how your business can benefit, avoiding common automation pitfalls, and how to find software that will serve you now and into the future.
Introduction to marketing automation software
Marketing automation dates back to the 90s when businesses started using email to communicate with their customers and needed a way to automate the process. To say it’s evolved since then is a massive understatement — the software itself is infinitely more sophisticated, marketers can automate across a huge number of different marketing channels, and, thanks to advances in and adoption of artificial intelligence, we are in the midst of yet another transformation; one where automated messages can truly feel one-to-one and marketers will be able to predict their customer's behavior.
What kinds of marketing automation software are there?
Email marketing was where marketing automation software got its start, but today's marketer can automate a huge number of marketing tasks across different channels including social media, paid search, SMS marketing, landing pages, account-based marketing, push notifications, live chat, lead scoring, and sales funnel communications.
While email is still the most commonly used automation tool, marketing decision-makers are flocking to automation for a variety of tasks — often all in one platform. According to a 2023 global survey published on Statista, 50% use automation for social media management, and 40% use automation for paid ads.
Automation has become such a crucial part of marketing that, at this stage, it can be assumed that when new marketing channels emerge, new automation software or additions to existing software will follow.
What are the features of marketing automation software?
Getting familiar with the features of marketing automation software can help marketers get more out of the platform they’re using, and their marketing in general.
Some of the common features and functions include:
Lead management, including capture, scoring, and nurturing
Customer lifecycle management
Campaign management including SMS, email, and pop-ups or notifications
Social media marketing
Integrations e.g. customer relationship management (CRM) and customer data platform (CDP) integration
Privacy and security controls
Customer support and success
Analytics and reporting
The more you can consolidate your tech stack, the more clearly you can see the end-to-end customer journey, report on results, and optimize based on data-driven insights.
Why you should use integrations in marketing automation software
Toggling between different software and applications is frustrating, and can lead to problems like data silos, inconsistent customer experiences, and a lack of visibility on the customer journey. Integrations solve the problem, giving you the ability to add connections to third-party applications to your software.
In a simple example, let’s say you have a CRM integrated with your marketing automation software. If the two are integrated, any change in a lead’s status — for example, moving from lead to free trial user — will be reflected in your marketing automation platform to ensure the free trial user is targeted with relevant marketing messages.
Without the integration, a customer-facing team member would need to manually update the customer’s record in your CRM and your marketing automation platform. Since they are less likely to be living in the marketing automation platform, this step could be missed or delayed. This simple human error would result in the free trial user continuing to receive sales messages intended for leads, rather than onboarding materials that get them closer to conversion.
With the integration, human error is avoided, the customer-facing team member gains valuable time back, and the customer has a seamless experience with your business.
What can marketing programs integrate with?
There are a wide range of integration categories, including:
Advertising platforms, like Meta and Google
Analytics and data platforms, like Segment
Integration platforms, like Zapier
Workflow platforms, like Slack or Asana
Customer service platforms, like ZenDesk or HelpScout
Ecommerce platforms, like Shopify
CRMs, like Salesforce
Event and webinar platforms, like Livestorm and Hopin
Landing page integrations, like Unbounce
Social platforms, like Facebook and LinkedIn
How do I set up an integration?
Integrations are largely built on application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow for the flow of information to and from apps and devices in real time. Most marketing automation software will have a set number of low- and no-code integrations, and anything outside of that can be built with a custom API or by using an integrations platform like Zapier
What can marketing automation software do for your business?
The most obvious benefit of marketing automation software is that it allows you to communicate with your customers at scale efficiently. Instead of manually sending emails or posting on social platforms, markers can automate the process and free up time for big-picture thinking, campaign creation or optimizations, or developing data-driven insights from reporting.
As Atul Jakhar, Growth Specialist at Hopstack, puts it, “the most compelling benefit of a marketing automation software is to automate and streamline the repetitive marketing workflows efficiently with a much short span of time that otherwise would take a long time to build, execute, and continue. This makes a holistic impact on the effectiveness, efficiency, management, and growth of the marketing function.”
As monumental as this benefit is, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Marketing automation software will help your business to:
Align company goals and efforts
When your marketing, finance, sales, support, and product teams are working together in one platform, everyone is optimizing towards the same goals, working with the same ideal customer profile and lead scoring methodology, and building campaigns based on the same data.
Marketing automation software is a crucial part of eliminating silos and fostering cross-department collaboration, to deliver a better customer experience and reach business goals faster.
Deliver a highly personalized customer experience
The customer journey is more complicated than ever before, and yet there is an expectation that every message you send as a brand will be personalized and delivered with full context.
This has immediate business implications: McKinsey & Company report that companies that grow faster drive 40 percent more of their revenue from personalization than their slower-growing counterparts.
Marketing automation software allows marketers to deliver on this expectation.
Firstly by putting every customer interaction in one place. As Forbes report, “By unlocking data silos internally and across organizations, everyone is equipped with the same comprehensive view of journey progress and can collaborate and communicate together more effectively to guide their shared customers to success.”
And secondly, by allowing businesses to leverage customer data to optimize journey stages and steps, and send personalized messages at scale.
McKinsey & Company say outperformers organize their business around personalization and point to the importance of identifying fit-for-purpose martech and data to serve specific customer outcomes and use cases. Outperformers, “align organizational resources around these use cases and work back from the desired outcomes to build the data and martech road map and identify the enablers and investments needed to deliver.”
Learn what works and scale it instantly
Most marketing automation software has built-in reporting and analytics and tools for testing. When these features live together, you can build an agile operating model where data informs optimizations that happen in real-time.
Once you land on a winning strategy, you will want to scale that fast. Marketing automation software ensures that the processes you build are instantly scalable.
4 potential issues with marketing automation software
One of the biggest pitfalls with marketing automation software is operating at a campaign level, rather than thinking about your marketing automation strategy at large. By getting out of the weeds and looking at your overarching strategy, you can get ahead of many of the potential issues marketers face, including:
1. Assuming everyone is on board
Once you've used marketing automation software in a role, it's hard to remember life without it. But if you're joining a new organization or team, you might need to think a little more about how you'll get buy-in from stakeholders and the team using the tool every day.
Steven Male, Marketing Director at Sunobi Solar, shared, "It still surprises me how many incredibly successful companies have sales & marketing departments that rely on tools like Google Sheets to manage all their customer data.
It’s easy for me to be like ‘aha marketing automation software will be a huge win for the sales & marketing team’. But the reality is, for these tools to be effective, there needs to be genuine buy-in from the outset.
Laying down the right foundations has felt more and more important as technology gets even better, especially with AI entering the mix. I’m finding if the sales and marketing teams aren't on the same page regarding their direction and key KPIs at the start, being more productive but unaligned can send an org hurtling in completely different directions."
2. Having a ‘set and forget’ attitude
To get the most out of your automated marketing campaigns, you need to proactively monitor performance, make optimization decisions, update messaging, and tweak workflows.
Atul Jakhar, Growth Specialist at Hopstack, learned this lesson early, “One of the biggest mistakes we made early on was setting up a lengthy email sequence without regularly reviewing and updating the workflow. Over time, we realized that newer product updates came into existence. Additionally, a few bits of important information from the workflow became outdated. Yet, the automated workflow led to sending out information which wasn't relevant at that time.”
Add a section on updates to your overarching automation strategy. For example, nurture sequence updates could be a built-in part of the process for all major product updates or feature releases, and always-on campaigns should undergo a top-to-tail review at least every six months.
3. Building inaccurate audience segments
“Inaccurate segmentation is a critical point of failure. When segmentation goes wrong, the entire automated workflow becomes irrelevant, Suraj Nair Digital Marketer at SocialPilot, cautions. “For instance, if the targeting is off, the messages may be excellent, but the metrics - including open rates, click-through rates, and conversions - will show a noticeable decline. Moreover, when automated responses lack context or understanding, recipients can become frustrated, undermining the user experience.”
Jessica Roelots, Marketing Manager at My Wealth Solutions, agrees, “You need to be most wary of your customer segments. Writing automated emails can fall over quickest when the customer is getting emails or text messages that don't really apply to them or are out of sync with their stage in the journey or their other interactions with your staff.”
Getting it right starts with having good data hygiene practices (for example, duplicate person or organization records can cause major headaches) and taking the time to understand the filtering features and functionalities in your software. Once you identify your audience rules and segments, include this in your overarching strategy.
4. Neglecting the data story
Starting at the end may seem counterintuitive, but thinking about the data story you want to tell before you build can be the difference between success and failure.
On a micro level, getting a clear understanding of the story you want to tell when a campaign is over or a lead-scoring model is implemented, will help ensure that everything you build is set up with that goal in mind and that you can accurately report on it. This will give you a far better chance of proving the value of the platform, your team, and the campaign or initiative to leaders across the business.
On a macro level, considering the data story early on could play a role in securing funding down the track.
In an episode of the Grow with It podcast, Sean Whitney, Principal at Craft Ventures, was asked how startups should prepare for future funding rounds or acquisitions before they’re even ready to pitch. His answer? Get the data right; “...focus on have tracking figured out. Put yourself in a position to be able to tell a strong data story. Without knowing what's going on in your tool, you're kind of screwed, right? So have it figured out, be able to constantly build, be able to learn as early as possible, build that dashboard that shows you signups and the other raw table stakes stuff. But also, where's drop-off happening? Where's usage happening? What features are being used versus not? How are they being used? Just focus on tracking!”
As a follow-up, he stressed the importance of finding a way to summarize that data and create a universal source of truth. This will allow your teams to utilize the data for experiments, optimizations, and for your entire go-to-market strategy.
Learn how to operationalize data and grow your startup
For many businesses, choosing the right marketing automation software is about balance. You want something that is capable of achieving complex workflows, but also intuitive and user-friendly enough that anyone in your organization can utilize it.
Naturally, you also want to ensure that the platform you’re choosing has the features and functions you need. Many platforms today are multi-use and give businesses the opportunity to consolidate their tech to spend less and avoid silos.
Beyond the basics, it’s worth asking how your tool will help future-proof your business. In other words, how do you select a tool that will serve you in a constantly changing marketing landscape? We asked marketers just that, and three key areas of importance emerged: AI power, robust security features, and integrations.
On future-proofing with a powerful AI: Atul Jakhar, Growth Specialist at Hopstack, shared, “It is becoming increasingly essential. AI can offer predictive analytics, better integrations, more personalized experiences, forecasting capabilities, and fast-moving action items. Choosing a marketing automation software that already integrates AI features or is in the process of integrating AI is now a necessity and not a choice. Ignoring AI means missing out on better innovation opportunities, optimization capabilities, performance growth, maximum efficiency, and overall success of the campaigns.”
Enhance your marketing with AI: Real-world examples and best practices
On robust privacy and security features: Matt Little, Director and Owner at Festoon House shared, “Given the mounting concerns regarding data privacy, email marketing software must adapt to more stringent regulations. Expect to witness improved data protection features and more effective consent management tools.”
Today, Matt says they are focused on strictly adhering to all relevant data protection laws, and utilizing, “robust encryption protocols to protect sensitive data during transmission and storage. Moreover, our email marketing software incorporates a double opt-in process, requiring users to confirm their subscription, thereby enhancing the validity of consent.”
Simon Bacher CEO and Co-founder, Ling App, agreed, advising “look for a platform with robust security features to protect sensitive marketing data.” With remote work on the rise, he adds mobile accessibility can be helpful. Where a mobile version is available it’s important to, “verify that the mobile version or app offers the same functionality as the desktop version.”
On the importance of integrations: Atul Jakhar, Growth Specialist at Hopstack, “As a digital business we use numerous tools and software for different purposes and functions. Therefore it is important for these software to be able to integrate with each other. Software integration makes it easier for the team to improve workflow efficiency and execution.”
Alister Wood, Owner at VisitUs, shared how important this is for generative AI tools, too, “With the tools we use like Regie.AI, we value the fact that we can use our collected buyer data from our current sales software to get relevant prompts on the AI platform. It is also important that we can customize the platform for our needs without needing to put in too much effort. Price only becomes a factor if we do not see results. In general, the automation software needs to integrate well with our current systems and solves an issue without creating new ones.”
Marketing automation software has gone through substantial changes since its advent, but the next five to ten years could see the biggest shift to date thanks to improvements in AI and stricter security and privacy laws. Adopting software that is built with these two things in mind is a crucial step in future-proofing your business and staying ahead of the competition.