4 Tips for Choosing a Marketing Automation Tool

The selection of a marketing automation tool is not an easy process. There are a ton of factors to consider — from integration to process to workflow and much more.

For the past few months, I’ve had the chance to work with several companies on either improving their marketing automation processes or defining the need for a marketing automation tool. From those conversations, here’s four key tips for walking through the marketing automation tool selection process.

Tip #1: It Starts with You

Like many technologies, there is a clear buzz in the market around the rollout of marketing automation tools in the media sector. That buzz makes it easy to say, “I need this to solve my problems.”

But, the question publishers must ask first is, “What problems am I trying to solve?”

Like any other technology rollout, the successful rollout of a marketing automation tool starts with first defining your needs. It’s easy to say, “I need drip marketing capabilities” or “I need a marketing automation tool to improve subscription renewals.” But, if you’re going to succeed, you need to be a lot more specific up front. Take the time to walk through the areas where you see marketing automation as an option and walk through potential workflows. For example, if you’re sending an email promotion to generate event attendee registration, there are several flows to consider:

  1. A user opens, clicks, and registers
  2. A user opens, clicks, but doesn’t register
  3. A user opens, but doesn’t click
  4. A user doesn’t open

In each case here, you can set a different workflow and a different messaging scheme.

In the case of a subscription renewals, you may want to set up a process where a user receives a special pop-up message to re-subscribe if their subscription is up or to subscribe if they are not one already.

These are both solutions where marketing automation can help. But, they may only be a few of the scenarios you have. So, to the best of your ability, identify the different use cases. You can then use these use cases to set up proof of concept campaigns with vendors during the RFP selection process.

Tip #2: Easy Workflow Set Up

One way in which today’s marketing automation tool vendors excel is in the breadth of features they offer in their product. But, that large feature set is a blessing and a curse. Just like many analytics tools, it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed by the amount of capabilities found in today’s modern marketing automation products.

But, no matter what tool you use, one feature stands out more than most — the ability to easily set up workflows. Workflows lie at the heart of the marketing automation tool and are the keys to building a successful automation campaign. When looking at tools, search for one that offers a visual experience where workflows can be created or adapted by dragging and dropping blocks. This makes the workflow process more intuitive to a user and quicker to implement.

Most modern tools offer this capability. If you’re looking at a tool that doesn’t, you may want to look at additional options.

Tip #3: Get a Dedicated IP Address

Here’s the number one mistake some publishers, especially smaller ones, make when selecting a marketing automation tool. Marketing automation tool providers will push for all emails to go out through the tool. They have good reason for it. If you’re going to truly automate marketing efforts, then it’s critical to understand how users are interacting with all emails.

However, this is where some publishers have made a big mistake. To save on cost, some publishers are leveraging one of the shared IP addresses from the tool provider. That means that your emails are traveling on the same channels as other marketing partners that may not be following the same best email practices you are. So, if they do something wrong, it can have a direct impact on your marketing efforts. And, when you add in a higher-value email product like a newsletter to the mix, then you are opening yourself up for potential issues from both an editorial and business perspective.

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.

The ‘A’ Word—Learn It, Love It, Live It!

I attended a seminar earlier in January held by the Direct Marketing Club of New York titled “Annual Outlook: What to Expect in Direct & Digital Marketing in 2012.” The main speaker at the event was Bruce Biegel, managing director at the Winterberry Group, a strategic consulting firm that focuses on advertising and marketing.

I attended a seminar earlier in January held by the Direct Marketing Club of New York titled “Annual Outlook: What to Expect in Direct & Digital Marketing in 2012.” The main speaker at the event was Bruce Biegel, managing director at the Winterberry Group, a strategic consulting firm that focuses on advertising and marketing.

For those of you who have never before attended an event where Biegel presents, I highly recommend attending one if you get a chance. He’s a highly engaging speaker with many interesting insights gleaned from years of experience in the field, and backed by the research and analytics of the Winterberry Group.

The focus of the presentation was a review of the marketing and advertising world of 2011, along with some predictions for 2012. According to Biegel, 2011 was the year in which many firms intensified their focus on reporting and analytics tools. For 2012, he predicted many marketers will finally begin to pursue true multichannel integration across their firms, driven by data, analytics and the quest for cross-channel attribution. He touched on the term attribution repeatedly, referring to it as the “Holy Grail” of multichannel marketing.

In a marketing sense, I define attribution—or the “A-word” for the purposes of this blog post—as the act of determining what marketing channel or budget was responsible for generating a particular action: be it a click, lead, order, etc. As a direct marketer, I just love this word. And you should, too. Attribution is where the rubber meets the road. Attribution is what separates the men from the boys, the measurable from the immeasurable, direct response from … well, branding. Not to disparage brand marketing, but I think I can speak for most—if not all—colleagues in the industry when I say that demonstrable attribution is really what has always separated direct response marketing from branding—analytics that essentially give us the ability to calculate the actual ROI of every precious marketing dollar we spend. Enough said.

But, let’s face it, there’s a dirty little secret in the direct response community that those outside of it might not necessarily be aware of. The fact is that attribution has not been all it’s cracked up to be over the past 10 years—and a far cry from an exact science, to say the least. We have the Internet to thank for that. To elaborate, let’s take a moment and turn back the clock around 15 to 20 years, and think back to a time in which the Web did not play such a prominent role in our lives. Back then, most direct response marketing was done via direct mail, catalogs and inserts, as well as DRTV. In this relatively simplistic world, customers could only really place orders using the return mailer or by calling a toll-free number. That was it. Since each piece was stamped with a keycode, attribution was as easy as: “Could you please tell me the five-digit code on the bottom right-hand corner of the order form” … and we knew with certainty why the sale originated.

Then along came the Web—and, with it, an entirely new channel for consumers to interact with their brands. And this is when things got confusing. Let’s say, for example, a consumer received a postcard or catalog from a company. In place of calling the toll-free number, he could instead go to Google and search for the website, find it, locate the products he’s interested in and place an order. Now who gets the credit for the sale? The direct mail team? The search engine marketing team? The catalog team? The email team? All of them? None of them? The fact is, there was really no scientific way to tell for sure. The gears of attribution broke down, creating a vast gray area of uncertainty where the worlds of traditional and new media converged. This was the direct marketer’s dirty little secret in the age of Web 1.0.

To deal with this mess, new techniques and technologies invariably emerged to bring some order to the chaos. Before long, many marketers turned to the concept of campaign-specific landing pages to send their cross-media (or cross-channel) customers to. At least this bypassed the regular website and kept and sales or leads it made in one bucket, separate from the home page and other Web traffic. This was a huge improvement.

Then other technologies like personalized URLs, or PURLS, entered the mix. Gimmicks aside, PURLs work because they are a tool for attribution—not because they give someone a link made out of their name. Sure, giving someone a personalized link is nice … but that’s only window dressing and obfuscates the real value of this cross-media technology. PURLs help marketers attribute activity to the direct mail channel. That’s it in a nutshell. Now of course, there are additional benefits, such as improved Web traffic rates resulting from personalized content, and higher website conversion rates due to a simplified workflow on a landing page that’s been optimized for this purpose alone. But the real value of this technology is attribution—and don’t ever let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Similarly, across other channels useful cross-media technologies emerged like QR Codes, which really solve in mobile the same issue marketers face on desktop Web browsers—namely, the inability to properly track and attribute cross-media actions resulting from their offline campaigns. When push comes to shove, sending individuals to purpose-built, mobile-optimized landing pages, personalized or not, enables precise tracking and measurement, not to mention a better overall user experience and, presumably, a higher conversion rate, too.

Looking forward, the next stage in attribution will most certainly need to deal with the advent of Web 2.0 and the world of social media. Seeing as firms are now making investments in social media strategy, CMOs are going to want to attach some kind of ROI calculation to the mix. Now, of course, you could pretty easily argue that it’s absurd to try to assign any type of ROI to social media in the first place. In that vein, Scott Stratten has a great blog post called “Things We Should Ask The ROI Question About Before Social Media” on UnMarketing that does just that pretty convincingly. But that’s an argument for another time and place. Regardless of whether you feel it’s a smart policy, I think it’s safe to say that where the marketing dollars go, pressure will ultimately follow to show value (ROI).

At the same time, regardless of what dollars are being spent and how these expenditures make CFOs hyperventilate, social media can and do generate sales for organizations. This is an indisputable fact and should not be up for debate anymore. What is in question is the ability of firms to track what happens in social media and attribute the activity to this emerging channel. As we speak, we’re starting to see the introduction of the first generation of effective tools (SocialCRM) that track social media interactions among pools of prospects or leads, and make them available to marketing teams for actionable analysis and follow up. Very cool stuff. But, of course, social media data are only one piece of a much larger puzzle, named “Big Data.” I briefly touched on Big Data in a previous post titled “Deciphering Big Data Is Key to Understanding Buyer’s Journey.”

Actually, on that note, I think this is a good place for me to call it a day. Not only am I running out of space for this post, but that last thought will make a great segue to my next post, which will address the amazing transformation that is taking place within many firms as they deal with the endless volumes of unstructured data (Big Data) they are tracking and storing every day. This wholesale repurposing aims not only to make sense out of this trove of data, but also to break down the walls separating the various silos where the data are stored, such as CRM/SocialCRM platforms, social media websites, marketing automation tools, email software, Web servers and more. Stay tuned next time for more on this topic.

Until then, I welcome any questions, comments or feedback.

Deciphering Big Data Is Key to Understanding Buyer’s Journey

Long before a sale is won or lost, customers and prospects embark on what can be called the “buyer’s journey.” This journey is a complex evolution spanning the entire lifecycle of the customer-vendor relationship, beginning with identification of the underlying business issue or need, and culminating in vendor selection.

Long before a sale is won or lost, customers and prospects embark on what can be called the “buyer’s journey.” This journey is a complex evolution spanning the entire lifecycle of the customer-vendor relationship, beginning with identification of the underlying business issue or need, and culminating in vendor selection.

Along the way, the prospect engages in a wide breadth of activities. Some are internal, such as winning over key stakeholders, building internal consensus and acquiring the necessary budget; while others are externally facing. For example, market research, engaging with colleagues in similar firms to share experiences, and of course contacting salespeople for product demos and pricing negotiation.

I do not claim to have coined the term ‘buyer’s journey.’ For more information on it, you can check out a great article by Christine Crandell that appeared on Forbes.com earlier this month. Among other things, Crandell does a great job explaining how social media can be leveraged to better connect with and understand the buyer’s journey, particularly during times when prospects are not engaged with your sales team. What’s especially interesting about the concept of the buyer’s journey is that prospects are actually unengaged with your firm during the vast majority of this process. Engagement only begins when prospects start their market research and contact a salesperson—usually not before.

Now how does this relate to database marketing? Well, it does in two huge ways. On a strategic basis, any marketer worth his or her own salt knows that effective marketing depends getting your message in front of qualified prospects as inexpensively as possible. In order to do this effectively, identifying how prospects are researching the marketplace is key. Why? Because this is where your prospects are spending much of their time, this is where you need to have your brand appearing front and center. So, from a marketing spend point of view, without a doubt this is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.

Now, of course, this is far easier said than done. It’s going to take a ton of market research, including customer interviews, focus groups, industry insight and general analysis to identify how your customers researched the marketplace prior to making a purchase. Did they attend key industry trade shows or events? Do they belong to specific peer or networking groups? What publications do they subscribe to? Whatever the answers to these questions are … well this is where you need to be.

Another key to deciphering the buyer’s journey is understanding how the prospect is engaging with your firm across all Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). This understanding can only be arrived at through a deep analysis of every touchpoint between you are your customers. The best way to achieve this is to identify and extract customer and prospect data wherever it may reside. There are no shortcuts here. For large organizations, it can be located in an email broadcast tool, CRM, ERP, Marketing Automation Solution or purpose-built Master Data Management (MDM) Hub, among other places.

Now, of course, this means extracting and sifting through tons and tons of data—everything ranging from garden variety campaign analytics to purchasing history, from personal attributes to company insight, from demographic data to psychographic profile. Tracking, archiving and sorting out all this information is big business. In fact, many in the industry are now referring to this reality as ‘Big Data,’ as companies track and store vast troves of information that they need to make sense out of. In addition to the physical IT infrastructure required to capture and store the information, making sense out of it often requires technical expertise. Without wanting to veer off topic, if this sounds interesting then I suggest turning to NPR, where an interesting and in-depth story on Big Data aired on November 29, 2011.

As I was saying, once the data is extracted, you need to make sense out of it. Paramount to this task is the process of creating robust user profiles replete with detailed demographic, psychographic and, of course, (for B2B) firmographic information—in effect, multi-dimensional user profiles—and mapping it back to KPIs that help identify engagement patterns and behavior central to the buyer’s journey.

Once user profiles have been established, this is where the fun parts comes in, as marketers leverage this information to create compelling offers that speak to the various customer segments. The good news is that recent technological innovations have made this job much easier and more effective. Using marketing automation tools, it’s now possible to broadcast varying sophisticated drip marketing campaigns to various segments of your database—segments that can now easily be created using complex rules based on both list attributes and user engagement. What’s more, the marketing message itself—email creative, direct mail piece, landing page, and so on—can now be highly personalized based on profile data, resulting in higher response rates, reduced media costs and, of course, improved customer satisfaction.

I hope this all makes sense. Any comments or feedback are welcome.