Automation is a critical component of modern marketing that enables timely, relevant, and personalized customer communications at scale.
It is so ubiquitous that many marketers see it as a tool or tactic that helps bring their campaigns to life, rather than a strategy itself. This may not cause any near-term headaches when marketing automation is being used sparingly. But as you increase the number and complexity of campaigns and your customer base expands, marketing automation without strategic direction can negatively impact the customer experience, and your bottom line.
In this article, we’re getting out of the weeds and looking high-level to demonstrate the merits of a marketing automation strategy, show you how to develop one, and how it can inform existing and new campaigns or tactics.
What is a marketing automation strategy?
Most businesses have an array of automated marketing campaigns running at any given time. Some of these will be essential communications like welcome emails or payment reminders. Others will be more advanced and specific, like post-webinar lead nurture sequences or product activation journeys.
A marketing automation strategy is an overarching action plan inclusive of rules, guidelines, and goals. It takes your ideal customer profile and complete customer journey into account to create a matrix of automated campaigns that, together, drive better business outcomes.
Channels, tactics, and campaign types will be taken into account in a marketing automation strategy to set communication guidelines (for example, frequency of emails) and audience rules (for example, when to sunset a contact), but the overall strategy will not go into detail on specific journeys or campaigns.
Benefits of a marketing automation strategy
Developing and maintaining a marketing automation strategy can benefit customer experience, business metrics, and daily workflows.
1. Deliver a better customer experience
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. In any given week, they could receive five automated emails, one SMS, three pop-up or in-app notifications, and an undetermined number of advertisements.
This might seem like a lot, but volume is unlikely to be received negatively if the content is relevant, personalized, and in line with the preferences they’ve given your business. In short, customers care more about quality than quantity.
A marketing automation strategy will set guidelines around personalization and rules around communication that ensure customers receive relevant content at the right time, and on the right channel.
This is especially important in industries where trust is paramount. Azi Azimi, COO and Head of Marketing at CanXida shares, “Building trust is super important in healthcare. We want patients to feel comfortable and confident in us. So we need to be honest and open, and provide them with accurate information. That way, we can build strong relationships and help them feel taken care of.”
She continues, “Things like artificial intelligence and data analytics can give us insights into patient behavior and help us personalize their experiences. Plus, with telemedicine and remote healthcare on the rise, we'll have even more ways to connect with patients.”
2. Gain control over the customer journey
You can think of your marketing automation strategy as a set of directions that get your customers from one part of your customer journey map to the next. There may be a few different routes: Some will get customers to the destination faster while others may take a more scenic route, giving the customer more surprise and delight moments along the way.
Consider the expansion phase in SaaS — your customer has completed their onboarding, reached value realization, and is actively using your product. During your customer journey mapping exercise, you may have identified how many customer success interactions customers with the highest MRR have.
It may not be possible to scale that number of one-to-one customer success interactions with your current headcount, but with marketing automation, you can send personalized messages from customer success at scale.
In this example, your marketing automation strategy would include a few things:
The ideal number of customer success touchpoints in the expansion phase of the journey
A S.M.A.R.T goal for expansion. E.g. MRR increase over a specific period of time
Which communication channels to prioritize in this phase of the journey
Rules around audience segmentation and when audience members should be exited, redirected, or sent to success for direct outreach
This strategic, data-led direction will result in a more successful automated retention campaign, and can guide any changes or additions down the track.
3. Improve team cohesion
In many businesses, automated marketing campaigns will be set up by marketing, sales, customer success, and finance teams. Without a marketing automation strategy to guide them, there’s a good chance you’ll run into campaign overlap, data silos or discrepancies, and team goals being prioritized over business goals.
When all teams across the organization are aligned on the overall marketing automation goals and guidelines, you can improve team cohesion and create a culture of accountability.
This can be especially important if you are using a new marketing automation platform or re-assessing existing campaigns. Clear strategic direction gives each team and individual a place to start, helping to build momentum.
Steps for building a marketing automation strategy
A marketing automation strategy makes much of the strategic work you’ve already done — like developing an ideal customer profile (ICP) and building your customer journey map — actionable and measurable. So, before you start, ensure that all the relevant stakeholders have signed off on these documents and that you are working with the most recent iteration.
Step one: Identify what to automate
Look at your customer journey map and ask: what is already automated, what should be automated, and what should not be automated.
At this stage, you don’t need to think about channels or campaigns, the goal is to identify where communication should come from an individual, most likely a sales or success representative.
For example, you could identify that hot leads should be routed directly to sales for outreach, rather than entered into an automated nurture campaign.
Jared Bauman, Co-Founder of 201 Creative and host of Niche Pursuits, stresses the importance of using segmentation to circumvent automation in some instances. “Segmenting B2B databases based on company, industry, product usage, and engagement enables hyper-targeted messaging. We craft coordinated journeys matching content and offers to prospects' and customers' interests and needs. This 1:1 personalization increases relevance and response rates, but relationships still require a human touch. With the right mix, technology amplifies B2B marketing success.”
Step two: Map touchpoints and goals across the customer journey
Take your customer journey map and plug in the ideal number and type of touchpoints in each phase, along with a clear, measurable micro goal. It could look something like this:
In the lead nurturing phase, customers who sign up for a free trial have submitted a form via an on-site pop-up and engaged with five nurture emails.
This gives you your ideal output (one pop-up, five emails) and a micro goal (engagement with five emails). Achieve this, and you are more likely to increase the macro goal of conversions.
Step three: Identify audience segments and trigger points
Start with clean, consolidated, and reliable data that can be easily segmented. If you need to go back to a data team every time you’re building a new segment or editing an old one, you’re going to hit a lot of roadblocks.
Next, identify the audience segments and triggers for each phase of the customer journey. For example, if you’re an insurance company, you may want to start with three clear audience segments in your lead nurture journey: One for property and contents insurance, one for health and life insurance, and one for auto.
For the first segment, the following actions could trigger your lead to enter the property and contents insurance audience segment and nurture journey:
Lead completes a pop-up notification on a property or contents insurance product page
Lead downloads an eBook on property and contents insurance
Lead completes an enquiry form a comparison page for property or contents insurance
By mapping this out in your overall strategy, you will be better placed to create personalized journeys with consistent, relevant messaging across the entire customer lifecycle. In other words, your customer is more likely to feel like you are developing a one-to-one relationship with them.
Step four: Set communication rules around essential campaigns
Next, have each team identify which campaigns are essential to doing business. For example, onboarding journeys or payment reminders.
In many cases, there will be existing audience rules or even specific days these campaigns are sent. The goal here is to map these out so other teams can decide when new campaigns should be sent, and who they should be sent to.
Audience rules may come into play here, too. Take the example of hot leads from step one. If you already have product-led lead scoring set up, it could be a matter of ‘hot leads have an ICP score of 4+ and an engagement score of 3+’. If not, you will want to get specific about the data points to ensure the right leads are sent to the right place.
“Changing consumer privacy and data restrictions are currently the biggest marketing challenge,” Kurt Uhlir, CMO at Kurtuhlir, shared. “Campaigns that are targeted and personalized are impacted by stricter regulations on data collecting and usage, such as GDPR and CCPA. Marketers need to figure out how to protect consumer privacy while still producing valuable content when these restrictions are expanded.”
Step six: Build your reports and dashboards
Good news; you’ve already identified your goals in step two and, since you used the data that came out of customer journey mapping, those goals are already measurable and achievable.
Now you want to build out reports and dashboards for your marketing automation efforts. How you do this is up to you: In some cases, you will have a smaller number of automated campaigns, and creating individual dashboards for each of them will be possible.
In other cases, you will have a large business, with a huge number of automated campaigns, and you will be better placed creating dashboards by team or by stage of the customer journey.
However you choose to report, ensure there’s team alignment. If the marketing team has dashboards for each stage of the customer journey they are responsible for, but the success team is working with one central dashboard for all automated campaigns, key stakeholders and leaders in the business will struggle to get a clear picture of success.
These resources and Ortto templates will help get you started:
Now that you have your strategy, you are ready to start building your campaigns. In this section, we’re going to share three of the top-performing automated email campaigns and how your overarching strategy would be utilized as they are built.
Welcome emails are some of the most-opened emails a business sends. Your customer is newly engaged and likely to see it as an essential communication.
Let’s take the insurance example from above. If your strategy outlines three clear paths for leads, you will want to follow through with three clear welcome emails. After all, the lead who has spent the last month engaging with your content about auto insurance will feel a little let down to receive a completely generic welcome message.
Instead, you can build a welcome journey that funnels new customers into a specific path, based on the lead nurture journey they received. This welcome email would include information specific to their category initially, with later communications sharing more about the other services you offer.
Customer feedback journey
Most businesses have some kind of customer feedback mechanism in place, whether it’s an email or a pop-up survey that appears when a customer reaches a certain activation milestone.
This can be enhanced by creating a journey where promoters are asked to leave a positive review on public sites and detractors are asked if they would like to schedule a call with someone from your support team.
If the goal is to generate more positive reviews, your marketing automation strategy will help your team identify the optimal send date.
A straightforward example: In step four of your strategy, a monthly payment reminder, sent on the last Monday of each month, was flagged as essential by your finance team. With this information in hand, your success team can set rules to ensure the pop-up or email is sent at least a week before the payment reminder email. This will mean:
You are not asking the customer to do two things at once
Your survey reaches customers when they are thinking about the product or service itself, not just how much they pay for it
In this example, two pieces of information from your marketing automation strategy become important:
From step two: What is the key goal around adoption and retention? It is likely this goal will be centered around the adoption of a specific product, feature, or service that is proven to drive expansion
From step five: How and where are we measuring adoption of that feature?
Here we see the goal is driving adoption of the cable and cell phone plan comparison feature. The success of this email will then be measured in a report that shows click-throughs on the unit and, ultimately, adoption of that feature as a result of seeing this email.
Upfront strategy work can often be neglected in favor of execution, simply due to a lack of time and resources, or prioritizing output and results over foundational work. Initially, this may not pose a major problem. But as the number of automated campaigns increases, a strategy will become an essential part of delivering an exceptional customer experience.
Over time, especially as headcount increases or changes, the up-front strategy work will save your team time. Rather than having to dig around to find out the optimal dates, how or why certain audiences were built, or how a metric is measured, they can refer to the strategy document and get on with building the campaign.