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Which Comes First: Content or Marketing Automation Software?

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For most software purchases, you identify a business process that could be accomplished more efficiently with the help of technology. Then you buy it. Then you use it. Then your life becomes easier.

For marketers, however, it's not that simple. (Of course not, we're marketers!)

Though marketing automation software can help you communicate more efficiently and effectively with your prospects, you still need a human to produce the content to engage with those prospects. Likewise, you need the content to pique the interest of your prospective customers, but you need marketing automation (MA) to deliver that content to them.

And by content, I mean everything from email copy to whitepapers, tweets, and blog posts.

So that raises the question, What should come first: The content or the software?

Finally, an Answer to the Classic Chicken and Egg Dilemma...

Fortunately, this one is easier to figure out than the origins of life. You will need some content before you buy marketing automation software, as well as a plan for what content you'll need to create after you buy. But you shouldn't wait to buy MA while you finish ALL of your content.

Building a robust library of content is an ongoing process, and it's something that can and should continue long after you've purchased marketing automation software. In fact, the MA's functionality can actually inspire new forms and uses for your content that you'd never thought of before.

But how do you know when you have enough content to take the leap? Follow this five-step process to prepare yourself for a marketing automation purchase.

Step 1: Define Your Target Audience

The first step in any marketing plan is to understand your audience. You might have already figured this out years ago when you first started your job, but it helps to go through this definition process again if you're considering marketing automation. Answer these questions:

  • Who are the typical buyers of your product or service?
  • What are their job titles? What industries are they in? Are they male or female? Young or old? Domestic or international?
  • How do your audience members digest content? Do they prefer emails or direct mail? Are they more likely to read your blog or an industry magazine? Do they search on Google for your site or find it from a business card? Are they usually on a mobile device or are they more often desktop people? PC or Mac?
  • How would you define a qualified or Sales-ready lead? What criteria do you currently use to determine whether a lead is good or bad?

Step 2: Understand Your Audience's Pain Points

Now that you've done that quick audience refresher, dig a little deeper into your audience's collective psyche. The key to a great marketing automation program is to focus your content on the buyer, not on your product or your company. And to do that, you need to understand what content your audience really wants:

  • What problems are your prospects facing that make them consider your product or service?
  • What are the typical steps to the buying cycle for your product or industry?
  • What are the common questions buyers have at each step of the cycle?

Step 3: Take Inventory of Your Content

As you go through steps 1 and 2, you'll likely realize that you've already written answers to these questions in the past because you've been producing content for your company for a while now. That's great! Now is a great time to sort through all that old content:

  • Determine whether the content you have is good or bad for nurturing prospects using marketing automation:

    Good content includes educational articles, blog posts, e-books, instructional videos, non-promotional webinars.

    Bad content includes press releases, product specs & pamphlets, technical whitepapers, sales presentations.
  • Does your content help answer the buying cycle questions and pain points identified in Step 2? If so, at which steps in the buying cycle?
  • Are you currently working with any content creators (either internal or external to your company)? What are they working on right now? Will that content help answer anything from Step 2?

Step 4: Create a Marketing Automation Content Road Map

Now that you've mapped out the buying cycle and the problems related to each step, determine what content you will deliver to prospects at each step to address their questions and pain points:

  • Think about who, specifically, would receive each piece of content: How would you identify whether a person is at this stage in the buying cycle and create a distribution list?
  • What channel would you use to deliver this content? (search, email promotion, newsletter, display advertising, social media?)

For the steps for which you don't have ready content, ask yourself:

  • Will our nurturing efforts make sense if we don't have this piece of the puzzle in place before we implement marketing automation?
  • How long will it take to create that content?
  • Can we still send campaigns to one segment of our prospects now, but allow other campaigns to wait until the content is complete?

Content Road Map Template:

Step 5: Buy Marketing Automation Software

With your content road map in place, you'll be able to figure out what you need in a marketing automation software program. If too many spaces in your content road map are still blank, then make a plan for how you will fill them once you have marketing automation or whether you can start producing that content now.

When you're ready to start shopping...

  • Evaluate marketing automation software to determine which system would best allow you to deliver this content and information to your prospects.
  • Decide which features and functionality are must-haves. Remember that some marketing automation solutions have social media functionality and others don't. Some have more robust email capabilities than others. Refer back to your content road map to help you define your product requirements.

Keep in Mind...

So it seems like a pretty simple, five-step process, right? Sure. But preparing to buy marketing automation software can take several months, even up to a year.

As you're preparing for this big purchase, remember the following:

  • Don't rush to create content in order to speed up your marketing automation implementation; if you do, neither will work well!
  • Poorly written content may beget a large number of leads, but they'll generally be of poor quality (which is the opposite of what marketing automation is trying to accomplish). Take your time to write quality content to get quality leads.
  • Go deep with your content. Becoming an expert in your field and being respected as a thought leader in the industry will get ultimately you the best leads. But that doesn't happen overnight!

If you're a marketer who's already taken the plunge into marketing automation, how much content did you have before you felt comfortable making the investment in MA software?

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Katie Hollar is the marketing manager at Capterra, a free service that helps people find and compare business software. She blogs about B2B marketing and recently bought marketing automation software for Capterra and chronicled the process at

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  • by Julian Poulter Wed Jul 31, 2013 via web

    I think thats a fair assessment of when you should acquire Marketing Automation software and a good answer to the chicken and egg question! The process outlined is also clear and simple.
    Julian Poulter

  • by Randy Wed Jul 31, 2013 via web

    there would be nothing to automate without content!

  • by Brent White Wed Jul 31, 2013 via web

    Great information and love the format it's presented in. Very informative and educational for even the first time marketer.
    Brent White

  • by Gracious Store Wed Jul 31, 2013 via web

    Content and automation software are two faces of a coin, bott are necessary and should go hand in hand

  • by Tamar Thu Aug 1, 2013 via web

    Hi Katie, fantastic post and elaboration on problems that arise when considering marketing automation. Here's a contribution to your 4th point for the top funnel: Our customers have seen success in our mapping the digital customer decision journey by identifying location, organization, and digital behavior. I'm looking forward to reading your blog on marketing automation too!

  • by Tony Yang Mon Oct 14, 2013 via web

    Good post Katie. From my perspective, I think the key is to understand what gaps you need to fill in your lead nurturing funnel and then find ways to repurpose content in various formats to fully take advantage of content you already have.

    I wrote more about this in our post...would love to hear how other B2B marketers are approaching this!

  • by Mary Wallace Mon Nov 11, 2013 via web

    Hi Katie - What a great way to say content can't get to the audience without marketing automation, and marketing automation can't deliver on its value without the content. Clearly content is the gemstone marketing cant live without ( Together content and marketing automation are changing the face of marketing.

    Mary Wallace

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