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Buyer's Handbook:

How to choose marketing automation software

Evaluate Weigh the pros and cons of technologies, products and projects you are considering.

Assess priorities before purchasing a marketing automation platform

The promise of marketing automation is exciting, but the proliferation of tools can be intimidating. Learn how to dispel the confusion when buying a marketing automation product.

Marketing automation can positively impact a company's sales and marketing performance -- and, with it, the bottom line. But its impact on processes and personnel can change the way things are done in both areas and significantly alter the roles of managers and employees throughout the organization.

A marketing automation platform offers numerous benefits, including the ability to reconcile disparate customer data siloed in different systems, automate campaign infrastructure, strengthen the sales funnel, raise customer awareness and increase social media campaign ROI. Any one of these benefits can be a boon to a marketing operation, and when properly implemented, all are high-yield improvements. But not all organizations have the same marketing needs, and not all marketing organizations need improvements in all of these areas.

Before you purchase a marketing automation platform, it's essential to carefully examine where and how this type of software could and should be applied within your enterprise. This important front-end step is critical to making the best buying decision.

How will you be using marketing automation?

Sorting through the key criteria and prioritizing the resulting list will lead to a wiser, more effective buying decision. Here are some important marketing automation platform features and functions.

Campaign management. Do you want automated campaign management? The tasks associated with marketing campaigns, such as creating campaign-dedicated online infrastructure, management of marketing emails, audience targeting and market segmentation, are time-consuming and detailed. Automating these tasks can increase their efficiency, while freeing up considerable resources.

Before you purchase a marketing automation platform, it's essential to carefully examine where and how this type of software could and should be applied within your enterprise.

Managing leads. Lead management is an art form in itself. Does your team need help with this? From identifying leads to nurturing them to conversion, marketing automation not only delivers more potential leads and assists in their maturation; it can identify higher-quality leads via analytics. A marketing automation platform can be used to monitor those leads that might be losing interest, producing an opportunity to keep them in the game.

Account-based marketing. This aggressive, highly focused marketing strategy seeks out a small handful of target customer companies in a particular market and then zeroes in on key decision-makers and influencers within those companies to secure a B2B partnership. It's labor-intensive and requires a great deal of data mining, personalization of messaging and customized journeys. The results, of course, can make it worthwhile, but the sheer cost of entry in terms of time and effort may be prohibitive. If this strategy appeals to your company, marketing automation can take much of the time and effort out of the process.

Inbound marketing. Have you considered inbound marketing as a strategy for attracting new business? It exploits the now-ubiquitous tendency of those seeking products and services to go to the internet to assess the availability of whatever it is they need. It can be a winning approach for some companies, but it's highly labor-intensive, as it involves deploying webpages and other digital artifacts specifically tailored to those searches. Marketing automation can make it happen, however, as many platforms can generate those pages and artifacts automatically.

Editor's note

Using extensive research into the marketing automation market, TechTarget editors focused this article series on marketing automation vendors with leading market share. Our research included internal reports, as well as material from other respected research firms, including Gartner and Forrester.

Customer targeting and segmentation. Audience segmentation and subsequent targeting of customer subgroups are now standard for most serious marketing efforts. However, they lean heavily on analytics, which isn't a given expertise for the average enterprise. And customizing for specific audiences and market conditions complicates it further. Marketing automation can simplify that effort, while improving its accuracy, by mining social media data to ensure that the audience segmentation is more accurate and the targeting more personal.

Social marketing. An important subset of customer segmentation, social marketing focuses on customers engaged in social media. These customers are having conversations on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and other platforms that might contain useful marketing data, and they might be engaged as potential leads, influencers or even brand ambassadors. While much of the work of mining and exploiting this data and engaging these customers is already automated in conventional packages, a marketing automation platform can integrate it tightly with other functionality, including campaign management.

GDPR compliance. The General Data Protection Regulation put forth by the EU is spreading rapidly, forcing compliance in matters of personal data privacy. It's especially stringent when it comes to the new rules regarding consent for leads to receive your emails. What happens when a potential customer opts out? If this is a concern, it's important to examine any prospective marketing automation platform to see what features it offers as a fallback.

Marketing ROI. All of this functionality is justified by measuring ROI, which is extremely important in marketing efforts that contain so many variables. Fine-tuning marketing for maximum impact with minimal dollars is always the goal, but it's generally hard to measure with so many things going on. If keeping marketing costs under control and having a reliable sense of impact are priorities, it's wise to assess any prospective marketing automation software's ability to track ROI.

Other considerations before buying marketing automation tools

Beyond functionality, as well as process and performance improvements, there are other considerations involved in making a marketing automation software purchase. These items have more to do with the cost and scope of the change being considered.

Are you buying for the first time or ripping and replacing existing tools? Each has its challenges. On the one hand, if you're new to marketing automation, you're in for a major overhaul in institutional thinking, to say nothing of a radical revision of processes and roles. It may be best to begin simply and allow marketing automation to grow in the enterprise over time.

If, on the other hand, you're already using marketing automation, you may be leaving one vendor for another to exploit new functionality, or perhaps you're moving into marketing areas you've never explored before. Your previous package integrated with other systems in complicated ways; the new marketing automation system you select will possibly integrate quite differently.

An important consideration emerges here. The other systems that marketing automation will be integrating with are often referred to as the marketing technology stack, or martech stack. This obviously includes the CRM platform but can also include a content management system, search engine marketing and optimization, all or part of the enterprise email system, and customer experience tools.

How do you typically interact with customers? Your established customer channels will matter greatly when selecting the right marketing automation software. Most companies are strong on email, so that's a given. But are you exploiting social media? If so, survey what your sales, marketing and even your support desk might already be doing in social media monitoring. This is necessary to ensure compatibility with your new marketing automation plans or at least to fully understand how you might need to adapt.

What vertical markets are you in? Vertical industries each have their specific marketing practices and processes. Marketing people sometimes wanly describe them as "a mile deep and an inch wide." If your company caters to verticals, then you're more interested in customizations for your target industry than you are in broad feature sets in a marketing automation platform. You will need to start with a thorough list of what those customizations have traditionally been, which new ones are growing in importance and which marketing automation vendors can deliver.

What's the size of the staff that will be using the new marketing automation platform? How many have experience with marketing automation? Are new people being brought in? How much training will be needed? These questions require some input from HR, as well as research into what users of the various marketing automation packages are saying online about their training and support experience. The marketing automation transition isn't likely to be a smooth ride, even under the best of circumstances, so choosing a marketing automation platform that provides the training and support options best suited to your in-house challenges is critical.

How much are you willing to spend? Budget is always a major consideration. But it's hard to calculate exactly what the dollar number associated with a particular marketing automation software purchase might be, beyond the sticker price. As we've discussed, ROI is tricky and so is cost of ownership. Remember that both people and processes will change with the adoption of marketing automation, to say nothing of the time that will be required to make it happen.

That said, there are marketing automation products to fit companies of all sizes and shapes. With diligent research and transparent participation by all stakeholders, a realistic budget number can be found.

How do you measure success? What metrics and performance indicators spell success to your organization? Is a win based on converted leads, ROI, better campaigns or some combination? Any marketing automation package you might buy will have some reporting features that measure marketing automation results, but it's up to you to ensure the available metrics measure the items your organization thinks are important.

Now that you understand what marketing automation can do and know what goes into choosing a marketing automation software vendor, it's time to examine the leading industry offerings.

Editor's note

TechTarget offers account-based marketing and project intelligence data, tools and services.

This was last published in December 2018

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