This content is part of the Essential Guide: Customer experience affected by key touchpoints

Connecting the data dots in marketing automation systems

Marketing automation can alienate or anger customers if data is poorly integrated between marketing automation systems and other tools, such as CRM software.

Marketing automation is a great idea -- when it works. But too often, there is a disconnect between hype and reality. Lofty goals turn out to be beyond the scope and capabilities of the project or the necessary pieces and parts don't talk to each other. In short, marketing automation success depends on integration.

In practice, companies that try to use marketing automation (MA) -- the automated delivery of unsolicited email messages to customers, for example -- can generate hostility rather than engagement. And those that implement complicated automation programs without a reliable source of organic leads often find their investment has little impact on revenue. Thus, a key is integrating MA tools and functions with existing tools and functions, such as CRM, and figuring out how to make the results useful for companies.

According to Gerald Murray, IDC research manager, data has emerged as the most important source of insight on customer behavior. But marketers often lack visibility into the various enterprise systems that contain customer data. For example, marketing may know which messages have resonated with certain prospects, but it may not have a good handle on which prospects make the best customers in terms of sales cycles, revenue and profitability because that data resides in sales, finance, product, service and support systems. But bringing that information together in a coherent way can help an organization to be smart, effectively targeting customers, cross-selling and maximizing the effectiveness of all their activities -- and that requires integration.

While marketing automation efforts typically start with a pain point between marketing and sales, the roadmap needs to be designed for marketing systems to be an integral part of the overall enterprise infrastructure, he explained.

Murray said the integration between MA and CRM can be relatively straightforward. A lot depends on the type and volume of data involved, as well as the specific characteristics of other applications. "Companies are now trying to keep customizations to a minimum and take advantage of standard data mapping capabilities," he said.

Bringing order to chaos

Stuck with a complicated marketing situation and traditional processes that couldn't meet the challenge, Bio-Rad Laboratories, a life sciences company, recently sought a solution by implementing marketing automation, said Marketing Operations Director Renaud Bizet. According to Bizet, his company has a huge number of products, making it difficult for sales personnel to muster the right expertise or even grasp what to sell to a given customer, which frustrates efforts to develop effective marketing programs. "We have 10,000 SKUs and price points ranging from 6 [dollars] to six figures. Our promotional efforts and follow-up were strictly spray and pray," he explained in characterizing the marketing department's lack of a targeted approach.

To bring order to chaos, the company implemented Marketo to control and target efforts more effectively. Marketo brought together lead generation and offers on the company's website with the company's CRM system, eliminating most cold calls and improving preparatory work.

Bizet said that today, after about a year, the company is working on data cleansing and business intelligence to better understand customers and their behavior, and to improve cross-selling. In fact, he noted, the biggest challenge has been sales itself, where people are unaccustomed to the follow-up the system requires (such as ensuring data is correct or staying on a project schedule).

Complexity of marketing increases

The complexity of marketing has substantially increased with omnichannel marketing, where companies now have several outlets for brand exposure and promotion, from their websites to social media platforms, to email and other channels, said consultant Peter Perera, president of the Perera Group. "So, in addition to traditional MA functionality such as lead scoring and nurturing, MA now assists with orchestrating a mix of marketing approaches and associated workflows," he added.

According to Perera, this means marketing automation has become more complex and large-scale, and will entail data and process integration-synchronization challenges.

"It always seems when selecting software, no one vendor has just the [right] mix to meet exact needs," Perera said. As with the selection of enterprise software, companies will largely be selecting among MA software to find the best mix of capabilities for their needs, which involves settling for subpar capabilities, Perera added.

While MA can be a standalone application, it is designed to work in concert with CRM applications, he said. These are usually described as CRM-driven marketing automation and include companies such as Marketo, Eloqua, ExactTarget, Pardot and others. "Other forms of MA, such as, say, Hubspot, are not necessarily CRM-dependent," Perera noted.

Understanding the data

Of course, everything boils down to successful data integration, and that begins with understanding the data. "The provision of a data audit is an important component to consider before integrating MA with a CRM,” said Jay Famico, practice director of technology at SiriusDecisions, a global B2B marketing research and advisory firm.

Data sources, for example, should be carefully examined if customer information obtained through marketing and sales efforts is added into a CRM system. In addition, he noted, you should determine which information resides outside the CRM system (such as products purchased, contact lists, event registrations) and initiate a project to make this information available within the CRM system.

It is also important to assess CRM data quality by evaluating contact duplication and fields used for personalization -- such as first name and title -- and segmentation by industry or specific product interests. Data then needs to be normalized, Famico said. At that point, you can address discrepancies with a project to add CRM fields and provide a process by which this data will be maintained moving forward. Should bad data be found, a data cleansing effort must be initiated.

Finally, Famico said, it is important to examine sales objectives relative to the contacts in the CRM system to determine whether there's a suitable population of the right contacts to support the objectives. "If an appropriate number of contacts does not exist, initiate a list-building exercise through campaign outreach and list acquisition," he said.

The role of people

IDC's Murray agreed that while integration is important, equally important challenges are "people, process and data-related," Murray said.

In fact, Murray noted, the skills needed to run a modern automated marketing infrastructure are largely new. They include not only the systems and database administration and vendor management traditionally performed by IT, but also the expertise to operate complex marketing campaigns across multiple audiences, media and regions.

Analytics is another area where new skills are required, he said. "Every marketing system includes its own performance metrics that are essential to optimizing activities within them. But the data needs to be rolled up and evaluated among systems to better understand how they influence each other, and with respect to pipeline and revenue performance," Murray explained.

Further, he noted, from a process perspective, technology makes it possible to break down the traditional silos of each channel -- email, Web, social and advertising. These activities need to be coordinated in horizontal campaign workflows, he said.

In short, automation and integration isn't just a matter of connecting systems, it is building understanding and developing a strategy. "Marketers need to understand how all these different customer touchpoints interact and influence buyer behavior. They need to be managed as a cohesive system, not a collection of separate activities," Murray added.

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