Marketing automation is a beast. Rare is the marketing executive who can clearly articulate what marketing automation is or how it works. Executives will budget for the monthly software fee without understanding that the software is the easy part.

But without content—reports, webinars, and follow-up emails—that expensive marketing automation software will be a big flop. Content is the fuel that makes any marketing automation system run.

From Stranger to Customer: Your Content's Purpose

Like it or not, marketing and sales is a self-service operation today. Buyers get an estimated 80% of the information they need online, well before they speak with a salesperson.

That information is what we loosely call "content," and it's the foundation of content marketing.

For marketers, the real purpose of content is to convert a complete stranger into a customer. Thus, the content you create follows the basic sales cycle.

Your content moves with prospects through the sales cycle. As people consume a piece of content, you use marketing automation software to simulate a person-to-person sale. You'll gain prospects' trust, determine their specific needs or interests, feed them the information they need to make an intelligent decision, and hand them the ideal solution on a silver platter.

Matching Content to the Sales Cycle and Marketing Automation

Your content doesn't simply consist of reports, articles, or webinars. Each content piece has a specific purpose that aligns with its place in the sales cycle, and that content will help you attract leads, capture leads, nurture leads, and segment and score leads.

1. Attract leads

A prospect may start as a complete stranger, or she may know of you or about your products. Either way, she's still a stranger until you can get her in your door. For lead generation, content can consist of the following:

  • Advertisements (online or offline)
  • Direct mail postcards and letters
  • Online articles
  • Trade magazine articles
  • Press releases

The purpose of this type of content is to alert potential customers that you might have something they want or need. Whether you're simply trying to get some brand recognition or make some sales, you've got to get people's attention first.

2. Capture leads

Attracting a lead isn't the same as capturing a lead. You capture a lead when she willingly gives you her contact information. In marketing automation terms, that lead capture occurs when the prospect completes your Web form, providing you with her name and email address at a minimum.

Lead capture is an exchange. You give leads something they want or need, and they give you permission to stay in touch. If the value of your offer isn't higher than the cost of leads relinquishing their contact information, then you lose.

Lead capture has specific types of content:

  • Special reports or whitepapers
  • Webinars
  • Videos
  • PowerPoint (or other) slide decks
  • Email or video tutorials
  • Calculators (such as an ROI calculator)
  • Online assessments

3. Nurture leads

Lead nurturing is the process of moving a lead through the sales cycle (or, even better, the process of following a lead through the buying process). Lead nurturing is the stage in which you build trust and gain credibility. Leads come to know you, trust you, and believe that what you say is true.

The types of content you'll create to nurture leads include the same types of content you'd use for lead capture, with the important addition of email tips and blog articles. You might also throw in a live event if you're launching a new product.

The difference between the content for capturing leads and the content for nurturing leads is how the pieces of content flow and interconnect:

  1. Lead-capturing content gets people to raise their hands and say they're interested.
  2. Initial lead-nurturing content simultaneously builds trust and gauges leads' interest in specific topics.
  3. The next level of content builds credibility and intensifies leads' desire for a solution to their problems.
  4. As their desire builds, you drive home the idea that your solution is precisely what will solve their problem.
  5. More content drives leads toward the inevitable conclusion to buy.

4. Segment and score leads

The real difference between a true marketing automation system and a simple email autoresponder system is the ability to segment leads based on specific actions taken, and then to score those actions. Ideally, the system is tied to a customer relationship management (CRM) or sales force system, in which each lead is assigned to a salesperson or sales team. When a lead reaches a designated score, the salesperson will be alerted about the prospect's "sales readiness."

Content can be created specifically for lead segmentation and scoring. For example, to distinguish between prospects who prefer green widgets over red widgets, you can create an email, report, or webinar about green widgets. Prospects will self-select into your designated segments.

Likewise, you can create an article that would be of value only to someone on the verge of buying. Those who don't read the article might lose points, while those who read it will be bumped to a higher lead score.

* * *

The old axiom of "garbage in, garbage out" couldn't be truer for marketing automation. Your strategy needn't be overly complex, but it should at least take into account the specific purpose of each piece of content with regard to the sales cycle.

The bottom line is that if you're not budgeting for content, you may as well cut your losses and get out of the marketing automation business.

This article is an excerpt from the Leader's Guide to Marketing Automation.

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Content: Fuel for the Marketing Automation Engine

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Sid Smith is lead copywriter and marketing automation specialist for Albertson Performance Group. Sid has written on topics ranging from flex circuits to motherhood, but gets a real kick out of putting together the puzzle pieces of complex marketing automation strategies. Reach him via