Marketing Automation Is Not Marketing Strategy

Too often these days, I hear B-to-B marketers mouth claims like, “We got this new [fill in the brand] automation tool, so now we can reduce headcount.” Or, “Once this automation system is installed, it will take our marketing to the next level.” This worries me. Marketers sometimes see automation as a silver bullet. But it’s only a tool

Too often these days, I hear B-to-B marketers mouth claims like, “We got this new [fill in the brand] automation tool, so now we can reduce headcount.” Or, “Once this automation system is installed, it will take our marketing to the next level.” This worries me. Marketers sometimes see automation as a silver bullet. But it’s only a tool. Marketing automation doesn’t identify your best target audiences. It can’t develop value propositions. No way will it make the tough decisions among competing investment options. I’m reminded of Mike Moran’s great book title, Do It Wrong, Quickly. In other words, marketing automation doesn’t work without strategy.

Remember ten years ago, when CRM came along? Déjà vu all over again, to echo Yogi Berra. Marketers thought that the new CRM software would solve their customer service and customer retention problems. Expectations dashed. Not only was it a nightmare to get up and running, the software served only to automate the processes—good or bad—that companies already had in place.

Even the marketing automation software vendors themselves recognize the importance of strategy, for their own success, as well as that of their clients. Think about it: If their clients can’t get the value from the software, their revenues are going to be impacted.

So education campaigns are underway. Marketo, for example, sponsored a compelling study by Sirius Decisions that explains the importance of a strong process in driving results when using marketing automation software. Their data shows that companies using automation combined with a reasonable lead management process—inquiry generation, qualification, nurturing and hand off to sales—produced four times the sales volume of companies with automation but with weaker processes.

Eloqua, too, makes a strong case for strategy in its guide, “6 Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Marketing Automation Journey,” which contains the important reminder to avoid putting “too much focus on technology, and not enough focus on buyers.”

So, what should we be doing with automation, to ensure its success? Three things come to mind.

  1. Be realistic about what it can and can’t do. Automation is not a silver bullet that you can set and forget. So make sure real humans are thinking through the essential tasks of identifying your key audiences, understanding their needs, scoping out their buying processes and developing contact strategies to move them along, in your direction.
  2. Clean up your database. By now it’s clear that the database is the single most important success factor in B-to-B marketing communications. So don’t be automating messages that can’t or won’t be delivered to the right targets.
  3. Train up your team. Too many marketing groups are leaving the campaign automation system to a set of junior staffers who interface with the tools, deploy campaigns and report results. I am not saying the marketing VPs should be executing campaigns, but to get the right mix of strategy and tools, we need better integration. Senior marketers should be deeply aware of the capabilities of the software. And junior staffers need training in strategic marketing thinking.

Are there other success factors in B-to-B marketing automation you can share?

A version of this article appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Author: Ruth P. Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and teaches marketing at companies and business schools around the world. She is past chair of the DMA Business-to-Business Council, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain's BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She is the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, and Trade Show and Event Marketing. Ruth serves as a director of Edmund Optics, Inc. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM and holds an MBA from Columbia University.

Ruth is a guest blogger at Biznology, the digital marketing blog. Email Ruth at, follow her on Twitter at @RuthPStevens, or visit her website,

8 thoughts on “Marketing Automation Is Not Marketing Strategy”

  1. Agreed 110%. It’s really easy to buy into the promise of MA and view technology as the strategy. Unfortunately, that’s completely backwards. MA will only make a bad process, or lack thereof, worse. Build the strategy, get the right people, plan for content needs, take care of the data, and find the platform helps engage customers the right way.

    Brian Hansford

  2. Great post! I believe that marketing automation is a misnomer as it implies a set-it and forget-it mentality. Nothing can be further from the truth. It takes a solid strategy based on a thorough understanding of the purchase process….and lots of awesome marketing content.

  3. This was a great, on-point read. Software is never a substitute for strategic marketing thinking, planning, and execution. Rather, it’s a tool that supports strategy. Nice done!

    Jeff Barela

  4. Good point, Ruth. Far too often people confuse tactics and strategy. And marketing automation is no exception. I find that too many tool providers are oversimplifying how easy and quick it is to get ROI on marketing automation, when in fact it does require a solid strategy and a longer term perspective.

  5. Incorrectly used, marketing automation makes it possible to get more, poorly qualified, leads to sales faster than ever before.

  6. Thanks, friends, for the comments. I can’t really blame the tool suppliers for trying to make their products sound easy to use… But I agree that "automation" does suggest it’s easier than it really is. Gotta try to come up with another term for these systems.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with Ruth’s argument about the dangers in relying on technology tools to achieve your goals, especially if they falsely bypass the human factors and experience for yielding successful outcomes. Just as giving someone a copy of PowerPoint doesn’t automatically make them into an effective communicator, there’s a lot of planning that needs to be done before you create slide 1. It takes a real understanding of how to connect and engage with your audience, so they’ll to want to hear what you have to say. About every marketing tactic that has some automation component to it from email marketing to webinars, must be balanced with business drivers and human factors before booting up the program.

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