5 Data-Driven Strategies to Feed Your Customer Obsession

The digitization of our culture and marketplace has made it even more important for marketers to be customer advocates. Every bit of content we create, every retargeting campaign we develop and every customer journey we attempt to map … all this must be tied to superior and engaging customer experiences. It’s the only reason marketing exists.

The digitization of our culture and marketplace has made it even more important for marketers to be customer advocates. Every bit of content we create, every retargeting campaign we develop and every customer journey we attempt to map … all this must be tied to superior and engaging customer experiences. It’s the only reason marketing exists.

This Forrester Research recently claimed that companies obsessed with customer experience are more profitable and see higher growth. Consider Amazon, Nike or Mercedes Benz, where innovation is part of the culture. Consider how an obsession with innovation at Apple and Google translates to customer delight in their products. For the rest of us, it may be harder without that kind of a culture behind us, but frankly, there is no longer a choice for marketers: Each of us must adopt an attitude of obsession with customer satisfaction. Then, we need to employ a systematic approach to optimizing everything we do toward customer value. The key question to ask at every point in your day, “Is what I’m doing adding real value to a large number of high-value customers?” If not, change it or dump it.

Like any change, in life or business, it starts with attitude. If you don’t work for a customer-obsessed company, can you successfully meet the demands of your market and rise above the competition? At a minimum, companies must embrace that digital and customer experience is everyone’s business—great ideas and the seeds of change can come from anywhere, regardless of title, but do need to be cross-functional and valued to blossom.

It’s time to make this transformation personal. Consider how you can use the technology you have to adapt the customer experiences that you do control, and demonstrate success to the rest of the organization. This proof of concept approach is a great way to get more budget, too. Incremental change is great—improvements to a campaign for next time or an adjustment to the timing for a triggered message are good starting points. However, more is needed.

We must re-think the customer experience across an ecosystem, and not just a set of interactions with owned media or branded touchpoints. Collaborate with other suppliers and influencers to focus on digital efficiency so that you can react in “right time.” Right time is an alternate to “real time” that recognizes that immediacy is not the most effective reaction in all situations. This is especially true since the customer journey is non-linear.

Thinking differently can be difficult inside an organization—especially if you are successful. Often, good ideas are limited because of the way we ask questions about our customers or our marketing programs. A research experiment with third graders provides some proof of why creativity goes beyond tactical application of cleverness or humor. (The video is about two minutes long.)

The project gave two groups of third graders the same assignment—to make a picture out of a triangle. When the assignment was narrowly defined, the pictures came out nicely, but not that different from each other. When the assignment was not defined, the pictures came out wildly different—and much more creative!

Don’t just wait for disruption to come to your industry—learn to disrupt your own business. Truly aim to understand whatever is blocking your path to innovation and customer connection. Consider some of these strategic elements that can help you break free of legacy patterns and test new ideas.

1. Use the Data You Have to Zero-in on Key Segments. Use microtargeting to really get to know your customers. Dig deep into customization and personalization opportunities to find the small, yet potentially profitable subsets of your market and niche offerings.

2. Separate the Signal From the Noise. Being able to do so is a powerful intoxicant: If I can just repeatedly do that one perfect thing that will really drive our business forward, I’d dominate our market and be a hero. Problem is, identifying that one perfect thing is very hard. Marketing analytic models may be more accessible than you think—and perhaps are no longer a luxury, but an imperative for understanding the customer needs—and predicting future behavior. Bring these practices closer to the campaign management and segmentation strategy—and give your analytics teams a seat at the table. Consider some of these key questions that analytics models can answer:

a. What dynamic forces are affecting my customer and how effectively am I changing to meet these changes?
b. Are there new market opportunities developing that I can take advantage of and become the industry leader?
c. Would this new product be interesting to our current customers? What must be true for customers to feel pain? Who are our most valuable customers, and over time? What outside factors impact customer loyalty and retention?
d. What are the characteristics of our best prospects?
e. Which marketing messages and campaigns are contributing, and when do they contribute during the lifecycle?

3. Marketing Automation Tools Are Slowly Evolving to Help You Manage These Changes, but you may need to bolt together point solutions in the meantime (especially if a big upgrade is not in your budget this year). Look to consolidate applications into a platform with data and process level integration to improve efficiency and effectiveness; work to integrate marketing technology with the enterprise infrastructure to reveal deeper insights into customers, partners and market opportunities. Here is a good reason to establish inter-disciplinary teams with IT and sales and customer service and legal to improve marketing contribution, vendor management, due diligence and governance practices.

4. Paid Placements (Native Advertising) Are Here to Stay. Spend your money on the right content and platform and understand which digital properties are performing best. Build budgets and relationships around content placement, sponsorship opportunities, syndication services and content recommendation platforms. Content marketing can’t be limited to owned and earned media if you need to reach larger and broader audiences.

5. Focus on Quality Content; we are all publishers now. Mobile will continue to dominate, so master its impact on your content and targeting. All our writing has to be compelling and adaptable across platforms, and written to the tastes of narrowly targeted personas. Automation tools help to make sure your content is repurposed with panache and context.

Clearly there’s lots of opportunity for growth in many areas of marketing success, particularly as we align our investments in areas where vendors have incentives to innovate. Scouring your budget for “past success” might be a good place to start: Given the advances in technology, will what worked in 2010 or even in 2014 work now in 2015? Please share your own tips and challenges for creating a customer-obsessed culture in your organization in the comments section below.

3 Success Factors to Insights-Driven Automation

Most marketers do not have a technology problem. In fact, we’ve crossed the chasm of a few years ago, when technology could not keep up with marketers’ vision of customer engagement. Now, we have so much technology, we can’t utilize it strategically and we struggle to integrate it.

Most marketers do not have a technology problem. In fact, we’ve crossed the chasm of a few years ago when, technology could not keep up with marketers’ vision of customer engagement. Now, we have so much technology we can’t utilize it strategically, and we struggle to integrate it.

At the same time, marketers do not have a data problem. There is more data than we can manage or use wisely.

Marketers do have an optimization problem when it comes to using their technology and data to generate meaningful insights. Many of us struggle with how to prioritize our integrated marketing technology, practices and teams in order to generate the kinds of insights (a key output of many of our technology and data solutions) which will move the needle for the business.

There are three factors to this challenge.

  1. Analytics must be integrated with campaign management.
  2. Content must be created to solve problems.
  3. Insights must be scored and prioritized.

First, We Have to Get the Analytics Closer to Our Outbound Messaging. Personalization is the key to successfully creating relevance for each customer, so the analytics can’t happen off to the side. It has to be integrated with our IMM/campaign management solution so that each customer and prospect will be connected with content that is important, and available at a time that will resonate.

We can pretty easily automate our marketing response to insights. Programmatic buying has been around for many years and is expanding beyond search to Web display, ad re-targeting and campaign management (outbound) solutions. The rise of the DMP (or DSP)—platforms which allow utilization of consumer data across websites—provides great benefit to marketers looking to serve customers and prospects as they interact with any combination of owned, earned and paid media. This is helping us identify the anonymous and known people in our marketplace. Yet, the insights from interactions with branded messages across the ecosystem are not yet accessible fast enough or completely enough to allow marketers to be nimble in serving customers. We have to get these programmatic insights back to the main IMM “hub” and the campaign messaging platforms.

We need automation to also serve the process. Marketing operations efficiencies like workflow and social CRM require these insights at scale. While truly integrated IMM on a single platform is nirvana, the marketing technology landscape is huge. Real engagement often requires a few tools that will work together.

Second, Our Content Creation Machines Have to Focus More on What Sells and Our Brand Purpose. Too much content is created simply because it’s interesting. That is not a high enough bar. If your product is water, then the content needs to be all about fire. Content has to create need and speak to the “Why” of what you do, not the “What.” Why brands produce a product is usually about vision, value, need and satisfaction. Look at those heartwarming Super Bowl ads—do Dove products make you a better dad? No. But the brand is about being true to yourself and to celebrating your own personal values. So the advertising content worked.

If 2015 has a theme in marketing, it’s got to be personalization. Of course that means something different now than it did 10 years ago, when we first started really considering what is possible with custom-branded experiences. Effective personalization now means curating the content that will resonate with each customer’s individual needs. Automation technology makes this possible through content blocks and integrated native advertising units.

Third, We Need More Discipline About the Types of Insights That Will Help Us Do More Effective Marketing. I’ve always found in marketing analysis that certain demographics have clear preferences in tone, pace and language when interacting with a sales rep or brand. We can capitalize on these preferences to increase sales and connect the right rep with the right type of customer.

One way to solidify the discipline is to have some sort of mantra or brand promise that is very clear, and so all analytics work can strive to generate insights that are true to that brand promise. Remember the Coca-Cola’s Content 2020 Manifesto? Auditing your landscape of opportunity and focusing on the areas that have the most impact on revenue and market share will help you identify the kinds of insights that are most meaningful for your business.

Granted, this task is complicated by the fact that much of our data is channel-specific and measures the effectiveness of campaigns against previous campaigns. We need more insights around the impact and engagement of individual customers. Silos are still present, and organizational structure can severely limit marketers’ ability to learn about the customer-level engagement. One way to bring the team together is to score insights as they are applied to the business (much as we score leads). Did this move the needle? Have we improved our reach or response? Are key audiences engaged? It’s not just a volume game, but an engagement game with priority, high-value customers.

With these three success factors in mind, marketers can use the technology they have in a test and learn methodology to help better understand how automated insights can grow the business. Once the key drivers are identified, we can start to also assess current technology and pare down the options for improving the integration and efficiency of your organization.

Are you automating the use of insights that help personalize the customer experience? Please share your success factors in the space below.

3 IMM Trends to Watch in 2015

Happy New Year! As we look ahead this year with confidence in our ability to reach those aggressive goals and objectives, it seems that all the great marketing will be done by organizations who are customer-centric, nimble across channels, purposeful in messaging and timing, well-organized and collaborative and, perhaps as an underlying imperative to all of those … in control of their technology. CRM and Integrated Marketing Management (IMM) are core areas of marketing technology investment and opportunity for all of us. I summarize the (near) future of IMM with three words: Data, content and automation.

Happy New Year! As we look ahead this year with confidence in our ability to reach those aggressive goals and objectives, it seems that all the great marketing will be done by organizations who are customer-centric, nimble across channels, purposeful in messaging and timing, well-organized and collaborative and, perhaps as an underlying imperative to all of those … in control of their technology. CRM and Integrated Marketing Management (IMM) are core areas of marketing technology investment and opportunity for all of us. I summarize the (near) future of IMM with three words: Data, content and automation.

1. Data. A recent Oracle study projects that big data will be a $50 billion business by 2017. This continued understanding and utility of big data means bigger budgets for analytics, which grew significantly in 2014 and many analysts expect will continue to grow across industries in 2015. Getting big data and marketing analytics right is the No. 1 imperative for companies who wish to lead their markets. Bad or “dirty” data across businesses and the government will cost the U.S. economy $600 billion dollars a year, and many companies are realizing the opportunity cost of not collecting, owning and analyzing their data.

For IMM strategies, using big data is all about connections. Good IMM solutions will help marketers connect business lines, cross-channel customers, loyal brand advocates and dispersed employee bases.

2. Content. We’ve seen social and content come together in 2014 to begin to build an integrated marketing strategy for many marketers. Brands ramped up their content marketing efforts in a big way, and so 2015 investment will add analytics to the mix and focus on ROI to quantify and benchmark these efforts. Good IMM technology and practices helps to operationalize all that content, matching it with lifecycle stage, real-time advertising and insights from analytics and the budget. The result should be higher quality content that is unique to customer and channel. Repurposed content across social networks is not going to cut it any more.

“Know thy customer” will be the mantra of CRM and IMM for 2015. Companies that succeed will be nimble—not only with content that integrates and personalizes campaigns, but also in the resource management and planning process. We are big fans of strategic planning here at TopRight, but budgeting needs to be flexible and responsive to market, customer and competitive change. Managing dynamic programs in ever-changing ecosystems is at the heart of a great IMM approach. Hot areas of investment will include mobility, social media and technologies, Web analytics and e-commerce.

3. Automation. People don’t want “Brand experiences.” They want “My experiences.” IMM and CRM are critical to understanding each customer as a unique person, with interests and demands that are very personal to each. Automation is what lets marketers act on a lot of those opportunities, provided the data is protected and governed and the risk-mitigated for engines to make social gaffes or predictive blunders. Buzzwords like predictive analytics, pre-targeting and iBeacons have made marketers’ roles more complex, but also more powerful, proactive and measurable. Automation will appear this coming year as part of ad placement and retargeting, programmatic buying and campaign management and optimization.

Are you ready for the challenges that 2015 will bring? Your customer connections won’t occur and repeat without wise investments in your IMM and marketing automation technology. It’s a good time of year to assess your prowess in not just owning, but actually using your marketing technology.

Mastering the Complexities of Multichannel Digital Marketing

Integration is like the Holy Grail of marketing. Connecting the dots at the customer level, across channels, devices and owned and non-owned properties is hard, but not impossible. Multichannel marketers must commit to meeting the customer along a matrixed journey. In a session I led at DMA2014 in San Diego last month, we discussed the types of lifecycle marketing, automation and buyer-centric programs that are most effective for drawing marketers out of silos and into a collaborative multichannel approach.

Integration is like the Holy Grail of marketing. Connecting the dots at the customer level, across channels, devices and owned and non-owned properties is hard, but not impossible. Multichannel marketers must commit to meeting the customer along a matrixed journey.

In a session I led at DMA2014 in San Diego last month, we discussed the types of lifecycle marketing, automation and buyer-centric programs that are most effective for drawing marketers out of silos and into a collaborative multichannel approach.

Andrew “Drew” Bailey, marketing principal at FedEx, said that the most important thing is to have a roadmap that is blessed by the executive team. “We’re mapping out a 3-year roadmap for our strategic objectives, now branded ‘Purple Journey’ (color selected from the brand logo). We try not to be paralyzed by our own processes. We still have to keep the lights on while we move things forward.”

Customers don’t think about channels, so why are marketers still clinging to our silos? Silos occur for a very valid, if not a very good reason, said Staples Director of Analytics and Customer Insight James (Jim) Foreman. “You solve a single need, and then new needs are solved by bolting on something to the original solution and you end up with a lot of things duct-taped together,” he said. “To emerge out of the rut, you need to prioritize with people, upgrade your specifications and budget based on the benefits you will earn from the change.”

There is certainly a people-process-technology synergy that has to happen for great customer experience. “It’s a three-legged stool,” Jim said, “But the glue and power comes from data.” Technology has surpassed our ability to use it well, so a key aspect of your IMM and CRM planning has to be that terrible “P” word that all marketers hate because we really want to do it all, “Prioritization.”

“The purpose of marketing has not changed, but the technology has changed,” Jim said. “Now that we are smarter about—and faster to respond to—the customer, the key is to make sure that we still listen to customers and synchronize touchpoints to recognize people across channels. We’ve learned a lot by combing through the data, inserting touchpoints at conversion points (a video watch, certain session length, repeat purchase, email behaviors, change of address, etc.) and encourage customers to engage with us across a richer journey. We greet you at each new interaction, informed with data from the past—which customizes the experience as much as possible.

“That translates to higher share of wallet, as Staples becomes important to both business and personal needs (customer need), both office and technology needs (product offering), and offline and online (multichannel).”

Not all customers are created equal, and a huge benefit of CRM-driven marketing is to treat all customers well, but some customers better/differently. This allows more personal and custom experience, and builds brand loyalty—especially in competitive, price-driven markets.

“We deliver packages really well,” Drew said. “But when there are concerns, customers can be pretty vocal via social media, so you have to do a good job of addressing the needs of all customers, even when you mess up.”

One approach Drew shared: “We encourage all our team members to be patient, passionate and persistent. With a ‘Good, better, best’ approach, we can help employees be the champions of our customers.

“Change happens from the work of champions,” he continued.

The data that matters to us most is our own delivery performance data—we need the ops teams to play well with the marketing team, Drew said. Staples starts with basic Web behavior—views, clicks, purchases—but quickly augments with demographic data from online accounts and the loyalty program. “We find that a mix of data is most helpful to understanding the next-best offer,” Jim said.

Successful multichannel marketing is in large part due to the way each interaction is met and tackled by the various people and machines that make up your company’s front line. Focus on those that move the needle for your business, stick to an endorsed plan of action, and be nimble and open to changing as your customer and market demand.

Moving Upstream on Cart Abandonment

After speaking at a conference on the topic of email automation for your online store, I was approached by more than a dozen people with the same question: “If someone abandons their cart, how can the store stay in touch with the shopper?” It’s impossible to contact anonymous visitors—their anonymity means you’ve not yet collected their email addresses and thus you have no way to reach them

After speaking at the WooCommerce Conference on the topic of email automation for your online store, I was approached by more than a dozen people with the same question: If someone abandons their cart, how can the store stay in touch with the shopper?

It’s impossible to contact anonymous visitors—their anonymity means you’ve not yet collected their email addresses and thus you have no way to reach them. Perhaps they were just price shopping or researching. Perhaps they were distracted before completing their purchase. Perhaps they didn’t like your site’s shopping cart experience. Whatever the reason, they’ve slipped away, and you’ve been left with the promise of a sale that’s not yet complete.

According to Business Insider, this is the case with 68 percent of shoppers—those who leave their carts before checking out—and about $4 billion in abandoned carts the world over. The good news is they also estimate up to 62 percent or $2.52 billion is recoverable with automated marketing. Does that mean you simply need to give up hope of reaching those wallets and focus on the known visitors? Well, no. It simply means you need to develop a strategy for teasing away those email addresses. It means you need to move your request upstream.

There are myriad possible tactics of this strategy, but the path you choose depends upon your business, your product and the tools you have for implementing your ideas. No matter which path you choose, be prepared to A/B test like a madwoman until you’ve found the top three triggers and use all three. Don’t settle for just one approach. Meet your potential customers with the sign-up tool of choice—which means giving them options. Let’s look at some ideas. I’m going to call these interrupters, but I’m pretty sure I’ve borrowed the phrase from someone brilliant:

Interrupters can be any sort of dialogue, window, link or button interrupting the user’s shopping excursion and redirecting them to a simple (usually pop-up) form collecting only their email addresses, for instance:

  • Interrupt the product-browsing session with a tool enabling them to upload a photo of a room they are decorating in which they can drag and drop their selected item into place. It doesn’t have to be a perfect UX, just provide them with a rough idea of how the Egyptian vase they added to their cart might look next to their lime-green sofa.
  • After the first product has been added to the cart, interrupt with a message such as, “Wow! That’s a great find! We can save it in your cart for as long as you like. Let’s give your cart a name. Please type your email address.” You could extend this process with a dialogue after each product, displaying different messaging or, go for funny, and provide humorous commentary. Be sure to also provide a checkbox for prevent the message from displaying again.
  • Provide an online calculator allowing them to figure out how much of a product to buy. Let them use the calculator and then offer to save their work using just their email address. You could also offer to email their calculations or illustrations to the address they provide. We used this approach on our personal profiler – they can use the profiler online all day long, but if they would like to print their profiles, we will send the PDFs to their inbox.
  • Offer to send them links to download the installation instructions, case study, or watch a video.
  • Offer to save their cart when they click the browser’s close button.

Be sure you are interrupting your shopper with something of value. Popping up a subscriber window might be a bit annoying on its own, but a subscriber window with an offer of free shipping on the order they are building is going to win some favor.

According to a CouponCabin.com survey, 73 percent of U.S. adults are more likely to shop online where free shipping is offered, and, further, 93 percent of online shoppers said they would spend more if free shipping were offered.

Resist the temptation to interrupt visitors with a long form, or even your regular check out form, or you risk adding to your abandonment rate. Also, be sure to pass the information you collect directly into their account page—don’t make them provide you with their email address again if they continue the checkout process.

Interrupters can easily become annoying, so go slowly and don’t get greedy. You want to be able to capture as many anonymous visitors as possible, but there’s also great potential to drive shoppers away at the same time. It’s a delicate balance, but well worth the effort. Remember, there’s $4 billion dollars out there, and some of that can be yours.

When All Hell Breaks Loose

With automation comes risk. In the course of drafting, testing and deploying automated programs, many of us have suffered through the terrible realization our automation didn’t work exactly as expected. Do you send yet another email and risk alienating our clients further?

With automation comes risk. In the course of drafting, testing and deploying automated programs, many of us have suffered through the terrible realization our automation didn’t work exactly as expected.

After auto-sending many emails to clients in the span of a few hours, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma. Do you send yet another email and risk alienating our clients further? Do you stop all communication until the recipients have been given enough time to forget you spammed their inboxes? Do you remove them all from your list entirely? Do you respond to the dozens or hundreds of hate emails? Lastly, what do you do to salvage unsubscribes?

Many of my peers believe you should always apologize when you make a mistake in your automated program—be that a simple typo, an unfortunate parallel (when your marketing message inadvertently aligns with an unfavorable situation, e.g. “Retailer Apologizes For ‘Unfortunate Timing’ Of Isis Lingerie Line”), or, as in this instance, when your automated program goes haywire and sends your subscribers 37 emails in the span of 14.6 minutes (or something like that).

If this happens to you, remember to keep the gravity of the error in perspective. Panicking will not help you, but this checklist may.

  1. Evaluate the extent of the damage: For most errors of this type, you can get a feel for how angry your constituents are by reading the reply emails. As you do this, keep in mind not everyone feels the same way. Don’t let a vocal few represent the entire list, but do give these responses careful consideration and use them as a guide to gauge the overall impact. Take a look too at opens, clicks and unsubscribes. Though irritated, your list may have actually engaged with the content to an acceptable level and this should help you to decide next steps.
  2. Choose an appropriate response: With a clear understanding (and some best guesses) at the level of damage, think next about what you would say to these recipients. Don’t draft a response to the most annoyed and most vocal, deal with those persons individually and separately in more personal emails if the group is small enough to do so. Your response should instead target the group just below the most angry; those who are smoldering in silence. Pick up the phone and dial one or two of your best customers and ask how they felt about receiving three dozen emails and in what way could you best show your concern for the event and desire to lessen the impact. For best results, act quickly, be frank and forthright about what happened, do not make excuses, and do apologize.
  3. Choose a response method: You may learn sending another email would only worsen the situation, but everyone has likely been the recipient of more than just your wayward program. A simply apology with an offer designed especially for them may do the trick. If you’re not retail, perhaps a small gift card at a local coffee shop or Amazon.com (which typically has a very low redemption rate) might be in order. Find a vendor that charges you only for gift cards redeemed. If another email is not recommended, try reaching out through social media or direct mail. Admit your mistake, take it in the chops, and perhaps add in a bit of self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood as you extend the olive branch.
  4. Distill the analytics. Go beyond opens/clicks/unsubscribes and look at visits to the landing page, form completions and more. This is a golden opportunity to learn something, so don’t consider the entire event a disaster. Even tornadoes leave a trail useful for educating storm chasers about patterns and other types of data, which can influence prevention and protection.

You are not alone. Even software/hardware giant HP apparently experienced issues with its automated program and sent a few too many emails to subscribers. HP sent an email apology with oops in the subject line and title. As a side note, this is the subject line I receive most often, and for me it’s effective. Short and sweet, and though I don’t have statistics to support this, my guess is it elicits good open rates—even when tempered by the influence of the multiple emails preceding it.

If you choose to promote your oops in social media, know that some people who did not receive the multiple emails will also use the discount code, but that’s probably a good way to turn a bad situation into a redeemable fiasco. That’s not such an awful thing—is it?

It’s Time to Move On

Until now, you’ve been happy with your email-automation vendor, but lately you feel as though perhaps something is missing … Email automation is a wondrous thing and I’d be lost without it—as would all of my clients—but like most relationships, both parties must maintain dialogue, work together and compromise when necessary or you may find you’ll drift apart. What may have started out as your dream partner, over the months or years has become less ideal

Until now, you’ve been happy with your email-automation vendor, but lately you feel as though perhaps something is missing …

Email automation is a wondrous thing and I’d be lost without it—as would all of my clients—but like most relationships, both parties must maintain dialogue, work together and compromise when necessary or you may find you’ll drift apart.

What may have started out as your dream partner, over the months or years has become less ideal. And because you dread restarting the vendor search, you continue to work with a solution that no longer meets your needs and thus hinders your progress.

Customers and vendors should be fired when the relationship no longer brings the same value to the table it did when the engagement began. Not every company is a great fit for your business, be that one who buys from you or one who sells to you.

Many of us started out with the bare minimum—iContact, Constant Contact, or the like—but as our companies grow, so must our software. Sometimes the software company will continue to develop new features, but those are not released at the speed your demand develops, or the features they release are not in the direction you need. It’s okay to want for more, and when working with email automation, we all want more.

Spider Trainers recently outgrew our email-automation application. We had been with our vendor since they were a mere upstart, and we watched them grow to become a fine solution and start challenging the industry leaders, but they weren’t developing the features we needed. So, despite the gargantuan effort it would take to convert all of our lead-capture forms, update all of our inbound content, port our lists, and recreate our campaign workflows, in the end, we felt those efforts would be worth what we would gain in features that aligned more closely with our needs.

When I say gargantuan, it truly was—and a month in, we’re still nowhere near finished making the transition. What’s more, as an agency, it’s not just our content and assets, it’s also that of the clients we have moved with us.

Today, marketers have hundreds (yes, it really is hundreds) of vendors from whom to choose and features numbering in nothing less than thousands. It’s not likely you would be looking for a vendor having the most features, just the vendor offering the features on which you place the most importance. That’s why hundreds of options can exist; each of us has our own set of priorities. Companies aligned with your priorities narrow the field substantially, and companies aligned with your budget narrow it even more.

Our most important feature requirements might mean less to you, but we needed a solution providing more in-depth visibility pre-engagement, engagement depth (how were our prospects and leads using our website and content), and post-engagement. In order to get these things, we had to give up some things, and that’s the relationship compromise.

Although we vetted more than a dozen new vendors, we did finally make a choice and one that I’m happy with. I’ve had a few fearful moments, but the new software is—for the moment—what we need, and one with a roadmap aligned with our planned growth. I know there’s a good chance someday I may need to move on from this relationship too, but as in life, I’m going to get while the getting’s good.

Oh, and because I know you’re wondering, our new vendor is SharpSpring.

Are Autoresponders Killing Email Marketing?

Two events in the same week have triggered an email unsubscribe flurry on my behalf. First, a change in my spam provider is permitting more unwanted emails than usual to leak through. And second, a conversation with a long-time colleague and regular reader of my blog, where she wondered if marketing automation software is being abused to a point where we’re drowning

Two events in the same week have triggered an email unsubscribe flurry on my behalf. First, a change in my spam provider is permitting more unwanted emails than usual to leak through. And second, a conversation with a long-time colleague and regular reader of my blog, where she wondered if marketing automation software is being abused to a point where we’re drowning in email and ignoring it more than before.

A smart strategy used by many direct marketers is the invitation to opt-in for emails. Often there is a carrot dangled in front of prospects to opt-in, such as a few dollars off an order, a free report, the promise of being the first to be informed, or because they’ve made a purchase transaction. Of course, legit direct marketers always assure privacy and provide a link in their emails to unsubscribe.

As an outcome of this strategy, marketing automation software companies report impressive stats about autoresponder welcome email performance:

  • The average open rate for welcome emails is a whopping 50 percent, making them significantly more effective than email newsletters.
  • Welcome messages typically have four times the open rate and five times the clickthrough rate of other bulk mailings.
  • Subscribers who receive a welcome email show more long-term engagement with a brand.

What these stats don’t reveal is the long-term effect after time of high frequency marketing automation software autoresponder emails.

Of course, opens, clicks and unsubscribe rates are good early warnings if you’re emailing too much. If your unsubscribe rate is 0.5 percent, according to various email deployment firms, you’re performance is great. Even 1 percent is good. Some email providers suggest industry unsubscribe norms are acceptable at 2 percent.

But I wonder how many of us have given up on the step to unsubscribe and simply delete. Is there a tipping point where enough is enough?

One day last week I made an inquiry for a direct mail list from the automated website of a mailing list organization. I gave them my email (a fair trade for quickly accessing counts). Obviously, the organization’s automated system knew I had run some counts. I didn’t order that day, but suggested to a client that they place an order. An hour later, an autoresponder asked if I needed help with my unfulfilled order.

Smart, I thought.

But then the next day, another autoresponder email arrived. While a bit annoyed with seeing still another email not even a full 24 hours later after I didn’t purchase, they presented me an offer of 15 percent off my order.

Smarter, I thought.

Until I realized that, had I ordered the day before, I would have paid full price (and would never have known because no doubt the marketing automation software would have placed me in a totally different sequence of follow-up messages). Such is a marketers’ challenge with autoresponders. Annoy me by sending them repeatedly, or too soon; surprise me with a 15 percent discount, but tick me off when I realize I could have paid more than needed had I ordered on the spot. Oh, and embarrass me when I contact the client to say “hold off on ordering!” And we wonder why shopping carts go abandoned. Marketers have trained people not to order on the spot because, if we wait, there may be a better deal.

Poor email content, little purpose and too high frequency of emails isn’t the fault of marketing automation software. It’s the fault of the marketers who are abusing a program that regularly, and systematically, automates the email marketing contact cycle.

What do you think? Too many email autoresponders? Poor email content and reason to email? Or are marketers sending email at what seems to be a reasonable pace?

Monitoring clicks, opens and unsubscribes reveals the true answer to these questions. But sometimes one wonders if the relatively inexpensive cost of email marketing is encouraging some marketers to abuse sending email, and that they’re not paying attention to their email marketing metrics.

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.