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Need to Engage and Connect With Prospects and Customers? Marketing Automation to the Rescue (Maybe)

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • How marketing automation can help you better connect with prospects and customers
  • How to configure and deploy your marketing automation system to get results

Today, a suitable marketing automation platform is available to meet just about any company's requirements and budget. These platforms often include systems for managing digital assets, allocating resources and tracking marketing expenditures, automating campaigns (online and offline), measuring marketing activity and demand generation , and managing Web content and leads.

Many companies invest in marketing automation platforms as a way to make their marketing organizations more efficient. Though marketing automation can achieve that objective, two key benefits of these systems is that they help you connect better with prospects and improve the opportunity to engage prospects and customers.

What Marketing Automation Isn't

Marketing automation isn't magic. Success requires taking a methodical and disciplined approach to segmenting, defining the customer-buying process, establishing agreed-upon definitions of stages, creating personas, establishing common metrics, and committing to faithfully using the system.

Marketing automation allows you to tailor your content and interactions to enhance how you connect with and engage prospects and customers. As a result, you can positively affect the conversion rate and sales cycle. And, in these tough times, who wouldn't want to see higher and faster conversions?


Take a Customer-Centric Approach to Configuration

Such benefits alone present a good business case for marketing automation. But for a system to "be all that it can be," it must be properly configured and deployed. Proper configuration and alignment require and enable stronger alignment between Sales and Marketing.

Many companies configure their systems around how they might sell and evaluate an opportunity (e.g., whether they've identified a budget, project, or need). However, before you deploy, take an outside-in view and configure the system around how your customer finds, evaluates, selects, and buys products in your category.

For your investment and that approach to pay off, Sales and Marketing need to agree on how the customer buys, the buying stages, and what constitutes a qualified opportunity, in terms of both fit (segment, budget, size, etc.) and buying behaviors. This approach allows you to use fit and behavior to create a lead-scoring schema.

Create and Measure Four Customer Interactions

Marketing and sales teams are typically proficient in connecting at the beginning and end of the conversation, but the real challenge is managing the middle of the conversation. The middle conversation is when prospects and customers are in the "in-between"—between initial contact and interest, on the one hand, and the short list and final selection, on the other.

A properly configured and deployed marketing automation system enables you to manage the middle. How? It makes it possible to cost-effectively sustain a dialogue with qualified opportunities until they are ready to buy while enabling you to monitor the interaction between those opportunities and your organization.

You'll want to set performance targets for these four kinds of interactions, and then use your marketing automation system to create, measure, and monitor them:

  • Connections
  • Conversations
  • Engagement
  • Consideration

Think of connections as those contacts with whom you have established communication and rapport and who have agreed to be "touched" by your organization. A connection doesn't necessarily result in a conversation. Connections are just that: two entities that have a link between them.

Think of how many people you may have in your LinkedIn network that you are connected with but don't necessarily have conversations with. Conversations suggest an exchange—the sharing of ideas, opinions, or observations. Consider how many people you "talk" with on a variety of topics on any given day. Though some of those people might be interesting, they may not necessarily be the right people—or they may not be ready to move the relationship forward.

Ultimately your marketing efforts aim to create engagement, and you want your marketing automation system to support those efforts. Engagement consists of interactions that indicate the strength of the relationship.

Finally, you want to produce and measure consideration because it is the precursor to conversion. Consideration simply refers to those prospects and customers who are actively "shopping" for the products and services you offer and are considering your offer among the options.

If You Build It, They Will Come

The premise of marketing automation is that it will help Marketing increase the number of business opportunities for your company, deliver sales-worthy and ready leads to Sales, improve your visibility into the pipeline, and enable your marketing organization to focus on efforts that will drive the highest conversion rate and the lowest cost.

The value proposition is that marketing automation will shorten your sales cycle and help improve your forecast accuracy.

And it's all possible with this one caveat: Marketing automation is only as good as the effort you make in using it. To use it properly and realize the kinds of results you want will likely require changing processes, addressing Marketing and Sales alignment, and improving skills.

Research suggests that when marketing and sales processes, skills, and systems are aligned, an organization can see a five-fold improvement in revenue. If you are willing to make the necessary investments, you can realize the benefits of implementing a marketing automation platform.


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Laura Patterson is president and founder of VisionEdge Marketing. For 20+ years, she has been helping CEOs and marketing executives at companies such as Cisco, Elsevier, ING, Intel, Kennametal, and Southwest Airlines prove and improve the value of marketing. Her most recent book is Metrics in Action: Creating a Performance-Driven Marketing Organization.

Twitter: @LauraVEM

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  • by Beth Harte Tue Jun 21, 2011 via web

    Hi Laura,

    I was happy to see you discussing customer-centric marketing when it comes to marketing automation. Unfortunately, many companies are very far off from understanding being customer-centric (i.e. Identifying Customer Needs %3E%3E Developing Solutions %3E%3E Generating Revenues) let alone reorganizing to become customer-centric.

    My question is because customer-centric business and marketing resides strongly in the retention camp, how are marketing automation systems allowing companies to take a step back from lead generation and nurturing (i.e. acquisition) to a more fundamental position of uncovering what their customers actually need to resolve a problem or get a job done? (i.e. retention)

    Cheers,
    Beth Harte
    @bethharte



  • by Beth Harte Tue Jun 21, 2011 via web

    Oops! Apparently my symbols didn't work...

    Customer-centric (outside-in) refers to: Identifying Customer Needs, then Developing Solutions, then Generating Revenue.

    Versus Product-Centric (inside-out): Products/Services Developed, then Revenue/Profit Goals Defined, then Finding Customers to Meet Revenue and Profit Goals.

  • by Prugh Roeser, The Devereux Group Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Hi Laura (and Beth),

    I agree that being customer-centric is key; in fact, I'd say it is the key. If an organization truly adopts that posture and internalizes it, I think Marketing and Sales alignment becomes much easier, and the whole organization stays on the same page.

    The interesting thing about customer-centricity, though, is that it's more than putting customers' needs first. Customers and products interact, and new products often change customer needs, so there is a necessary role for product-centricity.

    Rather than pitting these against each other, perhaps looking at customer-centricity as helping customers to do what they need to to meet their needs might lead to peaceful coexistence. I don't think organizations are going to let customers dictate how to meet their revenue responsibilities which is what a customer needs focus would lead to in the end.

    But I do think organizations would easily agree that helping customers figure out how to meet their needs -- and hopefully buy their products -- is certainly worth a trial to see if it's a more successful sales and marketing approach than what may be going on at present. This is where aligning marketing and sales with the customer buying process fits in. If it's done in as a veiled sales process, customers will pick that up and respond accordingly. If it's truly done from the customer's perspective, it's very effective.

  • by SpencerBroome Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Interesting take, Prugh.

  • by Beth Harte Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Hi Prugh,

    There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to being customer-centric and your comment spotlights the key fear that companies have when it comes to customer-centricity. That is, losing ‘so-called’ control of their revenue generation. They are not in control and never have been... that thinking is left over from the mass production, mass marketing era. Customers are in control of who, when, where and how they will spend their money. In this economy, they are not easily swayed by fancy ads and messaging. There is an inherent lack of trust that affects customer loyalty (i.e. customer retention) and companies who reciprocate trust will be the leaders. We already see that with customer-centric companies.

    That said, a customer-centric company does not turn over the keys to the revenue castle to customers. It collaborates with customers to understand their needs in order to meet them in a valuable manner. It is still *their* job to create the required products, services and solutions.

    Customer-centric companies like Target, Starbucks, Dell, IBM, Cisco, Lego, USAA, Zappos, Amazon, Lafarge have recognized that understanding and meeting as well as continuing to be agile enough to meet customer needs is the key to growth and success.

    Needs like date night shoes (Zappos); convenience, mystery or music (Amazon); global connections (Cisco).

    I haven’t seen a case for a product that has changed customer needs. If would be great to see an example. Product-centricity often says to a customer “we know what’s best for you and we are the innovators who will tell you what your needs are.” It’s a bit arrogant. There is much evidence to the contrary that collaborative innovation and mass customization is the key to future success.

    Ranjay Gulati found that “customer-driven companies were significantly more successful than shareholder-driven ones, providing a 36 percent advantage in shareholder returns, compared with their industry median; shareholder-aligned organizations provided only a 17 percent advantage.” (Reorganize for Resilience)

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I will opt for a larger advantage any day. ;-)

    [Sidebar: For naysayers who think that customers “don’t know what they need”, here is an excellent article from Lance Bettencourt that totally debunks that notion: http://www.marketingpower.com/ResourceLibrary/Publications/MarketingManagem...

    So, back to my original question. How does marketing automation help with all of these challenges?

    Cheers,
    Beth Harte
    @BethHarte
    www.theharteofmarketing.com

  • by Prugh Roeser Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Hi Beth,

    Thanks for your response.

    It's true that ultimately customers and only customers have the power over organizations' revenue generation. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. But I'm not sure the supremacy of customer-centricity is quite as clear as you suggest.

    Your point about products not changing customer needs is well-taken, and your response clarifies that what I was really talking about is how the interaction of products and customers influences customer behaviors. And it's those behaviors that go a long way to determining how customers will fulfill their needs.

    In this context, my earlier point about the necessary role of product-centricity would still apply even though the days of mass production and mass marketing are long gone. Without the stimulus of new product development and promotion, there wouldn't be any impetus for customers to change how they meet their needs, and the success of the companies you mentioned would never have happened.

    That doesn't mean that producers dictate to customers. That's not only arrogant; it's stupid. But I think it does mean that producers have to both lead and serve their customers, and the part about leading is where product-centricity comes in. As such, the role for marketing automation to help with these challenges seems pretty clear.

  • by Beth Harte Wed Jun 22, 2011 via web

    Hi Prugh,

    I am not suggesting that becoming customer-centric is easy. Far from it. Companies like IBM have even slipped from customer-centric back to product-centric only to realize it was a mistake (returning to customer-centric).

    We may need to agree to disagree. There isn't any clear evidence of product-centric companies being ultimately successful or driving the needs of customers. I know everyone likes to point to Apple as doing this, but the iPhone, iPad, iPod are examples of Apple listening to and watching their core and loyal customers and innovating.

    The companies I sited were able to grow not because they were product-centric, but because they listened to customer needs in a changing world in all aspects of their marketing: customer need, convenience, cost, and communications.

    Today's marketing automation only seems to focus on the communications aspect...not the whole.

  • by timo Thu Jun 23, 2011 via mobile

    engagement requires listening, and effective real-time listening is not automated

  • by Prugh Roeser, The Devereux Group Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Hi Beth,

    Actually, we may be using different words to talk about the same things. Apple would be a prime example of the kind of product-centricity I've been talking about, and at the same time it seems to be the same for the kind of customer-centricity you discuss. Bottom line, I think we both agree that products don't drive customer needs. The difference may be in whether we also both agree that products can drive customer behaviors which in turn fulfill those original needs.

    Regarding marketing automation, I agree that it currently focuses on the communications aspect, but I'm not sure it can do much more than address that and any other "process activities" in marketing. I think this is what Timo is getting at. Almost by definition, the creative process from inputs to synthesis to insightful result defies being automated. We can try to automate the gathering of inputs, perhaps, but the rest is beyond the logic that underlies all computer-based systems. It takes the "creative spark" however you define it, and I don't think there's any paradigm of logic that can replicate that.

  • by Beth Harte Tue Jul 19, 2011 via web

    Hi Prugh,

    I agree we are mostly referring to the same things. :) It will be interesting to see how/where marketing automation goes in the next few years.

    Cheers,
    Beth Harte

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