The Hidden Benefits (and Costs) of Marketing Automation

Ah the benefits of marketing automation. This is a topic that I see twisted in all kinds of ways. There is a lot you can do with automation. There is also significant work to get it up and running. 

In this article, I’ll cover the true benefits of automation, the disadvantages, and best practices when designing your workflows. 

I’ll say this over and over again but I do believe the overall value of automation is a net positive. However, we do have to read the fine print to fully understand what we’re buying.

The True Benefits of Marketing Automation

Marketing automation can seem like the greatest thing since sliced bread. I agree with this statement but I’m always skeptical when I hear things that are being positioned as a panacea. 

Let me tell you what benefits you can realistically expect. In the next section, I’ll share the disadvantages of marketing automation. Overall, the benefits of marketing automation are positive.

First, you can do more with fewer resources. It’s fascinating to me how much time marketing teams spend simply setting up their campaigns. This includes finding the list of recipients, designing the campaign itself, figuring out technical details, and measuring the impact.

Marketing automation could help you take these campaigns and run them automatically forever (in theory). The right technical setup could also make targeting and delivery easier. 

This brings me to my second point. Automation could help your people focus more on creative tasks. Coming up with new campaigns, better designs, and tackling those things that keep falling off your to-do list like customer research.

One of those big wins comes from doing less technical work and having software that does the heavy lifting for you. Most of the tools you’ll come across have a drag and drop interface where you can define triggers, filters, and more in just a few clicks. This work can take days or weeks at some companies if you don’t have the right tools. Building a modular marketing stack will help here as well.

The third benefit of marketing automation is the consistency. You may have several campaigns that need to sent every week or month but you may miss a few here and there. Software can ensure that you’re consistent and that you’re sending the same messages at an exact time and day. 

Finally, you can achieve personalization at scale. This means that you can design a sequence that feels quite unique to the user but you did it for millions of users. This is I think one of the most interesting promises of marketing automation. Instead of blasting everyone with the same message, we tailor it to what they care about. Simple idea but quite impactful.

It’s not all good news though. There are several things you need to know and understand before you embark on this path. Let’s look at that next.

Disadvantages of Marketing Automation

Software providers might make it seem like there are no downsides to automation. You’re one step away from all the benefits I listed above. All you need is to sign up and enter your credit card. This is just one of the many decisions that you will need to make.

In my client work, I constantly come across companies who are struggling to get marketing automation going. They may have the right tools but they aren’t using them properly. Maybe they even have all the pieces but the puzzle isn’t coming together.

The first barrier that you will need to overcome is technical resources. To get the most out of automation, you will need technical help. Even the best tools will require someone to learn it and you will need someone to help with the data collection (see my next point). 

Custom implementations and connections are quite common. If you go down the Salesforce route, for example, you will most certainly need expertise around this world. Whether you hire it internally or bring it externally, that’s up to you.

The second barrier is getting good data into your tools. Automation depends on knowing what users are doing and not doing. This means that we need data on when the user signed up, when they uploaded a photo, when they made a purchase, and more. This is classic product usage data.

This data needs to come into the right format which might vary from tool to tool. Either way, you need to go through the initial setup of a tracking plan and then maintain that data. If the data breaks, your automation workflows will break too.

Thirdly, you need people to operate this machine. Marketing automation is like getting a sports car. You need to be able to operate it at speed and you need special maintenance for it. Ensuring that the implementation doesn’t break, data doesn’t stop flowing and debugging issues can be a full-time job.

Once you have workflows with thousands and millions of users, you will need the help. It’s a powerful machine but you need humans to ensure it is operating properly.

Fourthly, personalization can be lost. This is the opposite of the last benefit I mentioned. While personalization could be done at scale using automation, you could also end up with less personalization. This is especially true if you don’t have the right data and you simply end up blasting everyone with the same message.

As I said before, the benefits of marketing automation are net positive. The realities of maintaining these workflows can be harsh though. Let’s now look at the best practices for designing automation workflows.

Best Automation Practices to Keep in Mind

Now that you know what to expect, let’s talk about the best practices around automation. These are the principles that underpin any kind of design.

Human-First Design

It’s easy to lose track of the people aspect in your automation. You’re only going to see data points, tallies, and conversion rates. Yet people are receiving all of this. This means that your automation has to focus on helping them. Obvious, but I have seen companies get swayed by the technology.

What will help your users or customers that most? How you can accomplish that? What’s most convenient for the user? The answers to these questions will shape how you design your automation.

You also need to keep in mind that you don’t want to overwhelm the user and you don’t want to underwhelm them. There will be times where they should receive multiple messages in a week and times where they should be spaced out.

Design Once, Run Forever

Automation workflows will usually require more design thinking upfront. This is because you need to think about all the different situations and issues that could arise. What if users don’t do a specific step? What if we add them through a different method? What if users convert faster than we expect?

Your flows need to reflect these possibilities. You won’t catch them all in the beginning but optimizations will eventually fix them. Nonetheless, this design work is reusable. Once everything is set up, the workflow could run forever (in theory again). 

Scalable from 1 to a Million

Automation workflows can also scale from 1 person to a million. Some technical upgrades will be needed in that transition but that’s the beauty of workflows. You also don’t have to sacrifice personalization in this transition.

Making this transition smoother will require good design, good data, and good operations. These are things we have talked about in previous sections but it is worth mentioning them again.

Take Them from Point A to Point B

If you’re struggling to deal with all the possibilities that you could take users through, don’t fret. While workflows could be infinitely complex, you simply need to focus on taking users from point A to point B. That’s it. Figure out what they need to know and then design around that.

Data Privacy FYIs

Finally, you should take some time to think about data privacy. Workflows require data which means you will be collecting quite a bit of user information to make all of this work. You should be thinking about how to protect your data and limiting access to it.

Make it easy for people to opt-out. I’m always surprised when I receive a marketing email that doesn’t have a clear unsubscribe link. You don’t want those people on your list anyway. You want high engagement and that doesn’t come from locking people into receiving messages. 

You should also check regulations that could apply to you. GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California are two of the most important ones but these laws are starting to pop up quickly. The requirements for each law is slightly different but they boil down to being transparent about what you’re tracking, getting people’s consent for tracking them, and providing a process for deleting data.

After all this, I hope that the benefits of marketing automation are still a net positive for you. Even if that changed, at least your expectations have been shifted. There’s lots of potential in this work but it requires investment in specific areas.

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

All companies are sitting on a goldmine of data that they haven't fully explored. It's not about technology or capturing more data. The key is to learn how to make the most of your current data and convert it into actionable insights. This is the main idea behind my first book, The Data Miage: Why Companies Fail to Actually Use Their Data

I'm excited to announce the release of the book through all major retailers. If you're interested, you can download the first chapter for free using the form below. You'll learn what the best data-driven companies do differently and how to make sure you're playing the right data game.