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Marketing automation: our take on a meaningless category

When you approach Benoît De Nayer, one of our founders, and Jonathan Wuurman, our evangelist, to talk about the state of marketing automation, you are on a treasure hunt that will definitely leave you with some gems to ponder on.


A meaningless category?

Looking at the figures of the marketing automation business, it seems we’ve only scratched the surface. B2B marketing automation alone makes up for over 14 billion dollars of revenue in 2020, showing a growth rate of 20% per year (source: Sharpspring, Investor presentation).

Every marketer needs, wants or uses marketing automation today. The reason for that is not only that it has a lot of advantages, but also the fact that the category of marketing automation has become so broad and meaningless that you probably already have a tool that would fit the description. The same ambiguity also prevents marketers to truly find what they need to increase revenue.   

Technology is a medium, designed to solve a problem, like customer retention, lead generation or increase up-selling. If finding the right technology already requires a tremendous effort, you risk forgetting the actual problem instead. Getting carried away by shiny objects could leave you with a big investment without even getting to a break-even.

A marketer’s automation challenges are too complex to put into one single category. Indeed, we are proud to be in Scott Brinker’s Martech landscape, or Frans Riemersma’s overview of European Martech providers, but we see VW Polos being put next to Ferraris and tractors.   

We’re also reluctant to “best marketing automation solution” lists because of that. Said lists often put €10/month tools on top, while 100k/year tools land somewhere halfway. Things would be very easy if that were true, but it's not. While the intention might be well meant, these lists won’t help you find the right solution for that one big problem that keeps you from delighting customers and making more money.  

Here are some aspects you should consider when facing problems that are typically solved with marketing automation. Focus on the “why” first, that will already rule out 80% of the tools out there.

If you want to find the right tool for the job, consider these criteria:  


Do you speak B2B or B2C?

Probably one of the biggest differences already is the divide between B2B and B2C tools. B2B marketing automation software such as SalesForce Pardot or Marketo are meant to target entire organizations and often come with features that are connected to typical B2B marketing processes: sales automation, lead nurturing and lead scoring...

This group is the greater part of the marketing automation category, with a big focus on attracting new customers. They close the gap between marketing and sales and are structured into pipelines and different contacts in the same company. Once the deal is sealed, you move on the next prospect.

B2C tools are focused on customer relationships with individual people. Where the acquisition flow of a B2B customer is straight-forward and well-defined, the B2C customer journey is whimsical and unpredictable.

You will find that a B2C marketing automation platform has a more complex database, aimed at deep personalization and the kind of customer experience that makes your audience want to tattoo your logo on their arms. They make sure that you maximize every touchpoint with a customer to improve and prolong their loyalty to your brand, to the point where they become your ambassadors.


Inbound marketing vs customer activation

Attract new customers or nurture existing ones: most tools made the wise decision to choose their battles. Companies like Hubspot have mastered the art of inbound marketing, the attraction and conversion of new leads. They are the sprinters that make sure you get the deal before the others. On the other side of the track, you have those that run the marathons, focused on keeping customers as long as possible, with a maximum of return on those relationships: these are the customer activation specialists.

Make sure that you too know what you want to achieve. People can easily be tempted to go for the shiny features built to attract new customers, when it’s often wiser to work on your existing customer base.

Note that acquiring a new customer already costs you five times more than retaining an existing one. The GAFA companies alone (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) regularly crank up ad costs, because they know how valuable their data is to you. When you attract new customers, GAFA practically make you pay taxes on your profits, and if you don’t offer a decent customer experience and people leave after only one transaction, your brand will lose more money than it gains in the long run.

Therefore, when it comes to priorities, you should consider starting with up-selling, customer retention, a decent welcome program... It’s the quickest and cheapest way to gain more revenue from your existing customers. Once you have set up a solid customer journey and you made sure that you seize every opportunity throughout the customer lifecycle, you’re ready to work on acquisition. Quality over quantity, right?

Need a hand to map out your marketing plan? These e-books will definitely come in handy.

"Acquiring a new customer is like blind dating, whereas Activation is offering flowers every week for a lifetime to your true love."
Benoît De Nayer - co-CEO

One channel to rule them all?

E-mail is not dead, but content is King and he rules many lands. It’s true that email marketing offers great possibilities, but customers are not confined to their inboxes, and neither should you. Again, the term “marketing automation” doesn’t tell you if you’re looking at single-channel solutions (like Sendinblue or Flexmail) or multi-channel tools.

Single channels are great for smaller companies who only use social media or email, but almost any dedicated marketing department has a set of channels at their disposal to stay in touch with their audience. However, running email campaigns with links to forms that are barely connected to your database, which is a mash of reportings coming from 4-5 different platforms, is probably not what you had in mind when hearing multi-channel marketing. As a brand, your message needs to be univocal, regardless of the channel you use.

It’s a whole different world when you can orchestrate campaigns from one central platform, with your channels organized around one central database. That’s what you would use Actito for, for example.

Data: compression or integration?

This gets a bit more into the technical stuff, but no worries, we crafted an infographic to make it more digestible to you. Bottom line is that a flat data model, which is basically one big Excel file (often referred to as a list in tools like ActiveCampaign) limits the amount of data you can store about customers.

That’s okay if you don’t need a lot of customer insights and personalization. However, if you want a single, dedicated and centralized marketing database for deep personalization, based on behavior over time (like RFM segmentation), then a relational data model is what you’re looking for. It's not a one size fits all, but it's always best to have both options next to each other to see how both types can bring value to your marketing plan. 


So now what?

Map out what type of marketing automation strategy your business requires. It will easily rule out most of the available tools, so you can focus on the providers that really fit your needs. 

About the author


Bryan Van Hauwaert

Product Marketer

"Hmmmm, I wonder what this button does." While I've had my fair share of stupid incidents for the sake of curiosity, it also resulted in me having the job of my life: Product Marketer. I get to bend and break things from time to time, so that I can show people the buttons that can change their (professional) lives. And which ones they'd better leave untouched.

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