A laptop sitting on a table with marketing automation software open on screen

Editor's Note: This content has been updated to reflect changes in software and the digital marketing industry.

What is marketing automation? It’s the process of leveraging software to automate repetitive marketing tasks.

Marketing automation software saves marketing and sales teams time when following up on leads and guiding prospects through the conversion funnel. It also has a lot of bottom-line benefits. For every dollar spent on marketing automation, organizations earn an average return on investment of $5.44, with a payback period of under six months, according to Nucleus Research.

Marketing automation software often integrates with customer relationship management (CRM) and customer data platform (CDP) software. Marketers can use automation tools to schedule campaigns, automate common responses and personalize the messages or content prospects and customers see.

Now that we’ve covered the definition of marketing automation, let’s get into the tech’s various features, benefits, best practices and more.

Marketing Automation: A Growing Industry

Interest in marketing automation tools has increased over the last few years, and that trend looks set to continue.

The global marketing automation market, which was valued at more than $2.74 billion in 2021, is projected to reach $4.69 billion by 2028, with a compound annual growth rate of 7.9%. The rise of cloud computing and social media platforms has enabled this explosive growth.

Some of the most popular marketing automation platforms currently available include:

  • HubSpot: 29.3% market share
  • Adobe Experience Cloud: 11.9% market share
  • Oracle Marketing Cloud: 8.55% market share
  • Active Campaign: 8.02% market share
  • Salesforce Pardot: 4.89% market share
  • Marketo: 3.06% market share
  • Drawbridge: 2.34% market share
  • SharpSpring: 2.29% market share

Related Article: Turbocharge Your Marketing Strategy With Email Automation

How Do Companies Use Marketing Automation?

Let’s take a look at the marketing automation process in action.

A user visits a company website, looks at a specific product page and then navigates away. That behavior triggers an automated email to go out to the user — an action that was set up ahead of time by marketers within the marketing automation software.

Marketing automation typically works with “if” and “then” scenarios. If a user does X, then Y happens.

“You can remind a website visitor of items in their abandoned shopping cart, or send an automated email welcome series to subscribers,” said Nitai Aventaggiato, founder and CEO at Helpmonks. "Marketing automation helps companies to increase efficiency, sales and engage with customers in a more personal way and grow revenue faster."

Marketing automation tools can also send tailored messages based on past purchases. For instance, the platform could send out an email with a coupon code for ink cartridges to a customer who previously purchased a printer.  Or it could calculate when someone who bought nutritional supplements might run out and recommend new flavors.

Marketing Automation vs. Account-Based Marketing

Some vendors and analysts believe the next step in streamlining marketing is to combine account-based marketing (ABM) and marketing automation.

Many ABM software companies have added marketing automation-like capabilities to their products. Today, ABM can include native email, landing page and form functionality, engagement programs and native databases. Some also offer demand generation and prospecting use cases.

Account-based marketing software helps business-to-business (B2B) marketers identify and target accounts based on specific metrics, allowing better coordination with sales teams. This approach differs from business-to-consumer (B2C) strategies, where marketers target individuals.

The philosophy driving ABM is that accounts drive sales in the B2B world. Focusing on account behavior, engagement and activity can help marketers identify, attract, engage, convert, close and then measure progress against customers and prospects.

Handling the volumes of data processed by B2B marketers can be tricky, even with ABM tools. That's why ABMs are starting to include automation features, and vice-versa.

Marketing automation platforms have grown in their feature sets. “Especially after a couple of years of rapid evolution to accommodate ABM practices,” Forrester explained in its Tech Tide report.

“The technology has evolved from supporting the obsolete practices of fill-the-funnel campaigns and drip marketing on steroids to supporting contextual and personalized digital marketing," the report noted, adding that this is "an increasingly important customer engagement strategy in all industries."

Marketing Automation vs. Customer Relationship Management

Marketing automation and CRM work together but serve different functions.

Marketing automation follows top-of-funnel activities to drive qualified prospects to sales. CRM, on the other hand, stores information about the prospect and where they are in the sales cycle, according to Jasmine Chung, director of demand generation and revenue operations for Openprise.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between marketing automation and CRM, which means it’s critical to use a data orchestration solution or other tools to ensure only cleansed data flows between the marketing automation system and the CRM,” she said.

The Benefits of Marketing Automation Software

We’ve briefly covered the benefits of automated marketing — primarily increased return on investment and time efficiency. Let’s take a more in-depth look at the tech’s advantages that will speak directly to both your target audience and your in-house teams.

Understand Customers Better

Today’s customers want to be seen as a person, not a number. In fact, according to a Salesforce report, 66% of consumers expect brands to understand their unique needs and expectations.

Further, a Statista survey revealed that 90% of US consumers find messages from companies that are not personally relevant annoying.

Marketing automation helps businesses, even small ones, provide those desired customized experiences. It allows them to tap into and cater to user behaviors without straining marketing or sales teams. The result is deeper insights and higher customer satisfaction.

Engage More Efficiently

Marketing automation tools streamline the process of lead management and make marketing activities more scalable, helping brands increase their revenue, explained Andrea Lechner-Becker, head of marketing at Toolio.

“That’s the definition and that’s what it's supposed to do,” said Lechner-Becker. “But it doesn't actually happen without proper training, strategy and implementation.”

Gain Qualified Leads

Qualified leads are helpful for marketing-sales collaboration. Having well-qualified leads helps fill sales funnels and makes life easier for marketing professionals.

According to Chung, marketing automation helps generate qualified leads in a number of ways:

  • Using a scoring model to track behavior and demographic/firmographic information
  • Creating landing pages that act and look like the main website
  • Utilizing dynamic content that focuses highly on personalization

Aventaggiato said sending the right messages to the right prospects at the right time is the key to generating leads. And marketing automation helps businesses send relevant messages to customers at the right moments.

“It helps them to connect with the prospects and existing customers on a deeper level,” said Aventaggiato.

Enhance Team Collaboration

Marketing automation software enhances sales and marketing alignment because it creates service level agreements — and processes in general — on what strategies you’re going to deploy, according to Lechner-Becker. “Marketing automation forces teams into consistency,” she said.

Marketing automation streamlines the sales funnel and makes it easier for the sales and marketing team to generate leads and turn them into current customers.

Marketing automation supports marketing and sales collaboration by ensuring both teams are aligned and “act like a baton in a relay race,” said Chung. “Passing the baton between marketing and sales is crucial and the timing is critical."

Chung explained that marketing alone is not enough. Marketing works to reach the right prospects and deliver qualified leads. However, if this information isn’t routed to the right representative, the opportunity goes stale.

Related Article: Getting Marketing Lead Generation Right

Marketing Automation Tools and Features

Automated digital marketing tools come with numerous features. Some key capabilities include:

Lead Nurturing

Automation allows teams to send automated emails to drive a lead through the sales funnel. These emails can offer information relevant to the consumer's interests and preferences.

A 2021 report from Databox highlights that lead nurturing is important for B2B organizations for five primary reasons, including:

  • Generating higher-quality leads
  • Increasing each customer's average order value
  • Reducing the average customer acquisition cost
  • Increasing customer loyalty
  • Establishing the brand as an authority

Lead Scoring

Lead scoring is an integral part of all marketing automation and email platforms. “Many of these more advanced solutions are moving beyond scoring as a result of activities (visits, opens, clicks, etc.) and scoring based on perceived intent and/or buying stage,” noted officials from Yield, a growth strategy firm.

Lead scoring improves the communication between the marketing and sales teams and helps everyone do a better job.

Lead Filtering and Management

Some marketing automation platforms serve as a landing spot for leads that don’t quite include enough information to pass on to sales, according to Yield.

“For an increasing number of B2B organizations, this is becoming less relevant. The abundance of data on a targeted market segment makes it possible to move to a ‘contacts only’ customer data structure. This brings every account and contact into the CRM.”

Personalized Email Marketing

Customers want personalization, and marketing automation tools can make that happen.

Personalized email allows businesses to develop better relationships with customers and drive satisfaction. It also increases customers’ lifetime value, spurring them to come back again and again. In fact, 90% of happy customers are more likely to make a repeat purchase.

On the other hand, the cost to acquire a new customer has increased by 60% within the last five years, according to research from SimplicityDX. Meaning, retaining existing customers is a much better value than attempting to recruit new ones.

Form and Page Creation

Forms and landing pages have been a mainstay in online marketing for a long time. They help brands capture information from prospects and then route it to various systems for storing and/or action.

Historically, creating landing pages was a more complex task completed by web developers. With marketing automation tools, however, sales and marketing teams can design multiple, highly targeted landing pages without coding knowledge. The result is reduced friction in the process of launching new products or campaigns.

Campaign Management

Companies run marketing campaigns to nurture leads along the sales cycle. Marketing campaign automation enables teams to send direct and personalized messages to a large number of people with minimal effort.

As the number of products an organization offers grows, running personalized campaigns becomes increasingly complicated. Combining metrics from past orders, abandoned carts and sign-up surveys helps marketers better target customers.

Social Media Management

An automated marketing system allows for the distribution of content across most major social media platforms from one interface. Marketers no longer have to manage each account individually. The result is saved time and increased security since social media account managers don’t need access to underlying login credentials — just access to the automation platform.

The use of social media management tools also helps maintain a consistent brand image across all social media platforms. Marketers can reuse images or content easily, tweaking them to suit the format of each platform but maintaining the integrity of the message.

CRM Integration

Integrating automation tools with an existing customer relationship management platform allows businesses to transfer lead information between marketing and sales teams. The result is a smoother experience for leads and customers, increasing overall satisfaction.

Marketing automation in CRM also saves marketing and sales worker time, allowing them to focus on more complex and creative tasks and improving productivity.

Common Marketing Automation Integrations

Marketing automation can integrate with potentially hundreds of other applications. On top of CRM, one of the most common integrations is with webinar applications to drive engagement, according to Chung.

Many webinar solutions offer an installed package that connects with the marketing automation platform. The automation platform can then access the webinar tool's engagement data. With this information, the software can generate valuable insights, since someone who stays throughout the webinar will have a higher engagement than someone that registered but did not attend.

It's also very common to integrate marketing automation with a chat platform, according to Lechner-Becker. API connectors can lead to several other integrations for marketing automation.

Bots and Data Connections Without the Need for Code

Chatbots are becoming increasingly popular with marketers who want to provide rapid responses to common queries. Colm O' Searcoid of GetJenny, a chatbot service, cited several case studies of brands that have benefited from bots.

Searcoid explained that chatbots can:

  • Generate and qualify leads
  • Save hours of work
  • Help brands maintain a consistent voice
  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Improve agent satisfaction
  • Automate processes
  • Provide self-service options for consumers
  • Reduce the impact of short-term surges in customer support requests

Not all organizations will make use of the same features. Some businesses rely heavily on social media, while others use email or their own ticketing systems. Having access to metrics from those tools and the ability to streamline their use is what makes marketing automation so useful.

In the past, integrating bots, designing forms and crafting landing pages was something only web developers could do.

Today, however, low-code and no-code solutions put the power in the hands of people with marketing expertise. Creating a bot that responds to simple queries is easier than ever before — a task a team can complete in just an afternoon.

Related Article: No-Code/Low-Code Solutions Could Be Answer to Better Customer Experience

Reporting Tools to Get Better Marketing Automation Insights

Whatever tools or platforms a brand uses to communicate with its prospects, it needs to understand the response those communications are getting.

Jessica Greene of Databox recommended marketers track their campaign performances using visualization tools.

These tools help marketers "instantly visualize your email engagement, including where any spikes or dropoffs occur," Greene explained. The insights offered can help with email segmentation, the selection of more relevant content and planning longer automated email sequences.

Effective marketing means sending communications that help the user, rather than simply trying to sell them something. Visualization tools for HubSpot, MailChimp, Marketo and other popular email automation tools make it possible for marketing teams to understand the effectiveness of their existing communications at a glance.a

Marketing Automation Best Practices

When used properly, automated digital marketing saves time and money and improves the overall experience people have with a brand. Used incorrectly, automation could hamper an organization or waste resources.

Lechner-Becker described a good example of using marketing automation in a workflow as:

  1. Tracking how someone first lands on your site (referral source).
  2. Tracking where they convert (the first form they fill out or engaging with your chatbot for example).
  3. Orchestrating how, when and with what messages marketing and sales continue to engage the buyer.
  4. Following the prospect all the way through that purchase.

Another important area in which these tools are used is reporting. Marketers can generate reports to find out which campaigns are generating the most impact. They can also see which referral sources bring in the most web traffic — whether those sources are ads or organic links.

“You can do that all manually,” said Lechner-Becker, “but marketing automation's entire purpose is to create scale and, as a result, efficiency and repeatability in such a way that the result is predictable.

“Before marketing automation, marketers were dependent on IT resources to code emails, build landing pages and actually deploy mass emails. Marketing automation gives marketers the power and therefore saves time and money.”

Good marketing automation will look like an organized space where it’s easy to find and locate the things you need, with orchestrated processes running smoothly, and holistically, in a refined database, said Chung.

“Marketing automation at its best should enhance every program and process, improving the lead lifecycle journey for the sales team to trust the data and every effort driven by marketing,” she added.

Marketing Automation Worst Practices

Marketing automation’s real value is in the data. Unfortunately, teams using a marketing automation process rarely get the training needed to effectively manage, manipulate and use data, according to Lechner-Becker.

“All the marketer’s training in school was mostly around learning price, product, promotion, place — the four Ps — and not data stewardship, field validation or privacy compliance concerns,” she said.

“All of marketing automation’s best features are data-related, but marketers rarely learn that. So if marketers don’t follow data best practices, they will eventually manage to mess up the whole process and do the opposite of what marketing automation is supposed to achieve.”

Poor marketing automation sabotages marketing efforts, Chung said, adding that these bad processes affect the data all critical marketing technologies depend on.

“It’s the proverbial ‘garbage in/garbage out’ problem,” Chung explained. “However, there are ways to minimize the impact of junk data entering the marketing automation system, including using progressive profiling to gather additional information iteratively and using a data orchestration solution to automate data hygiene processes.”

Marketing Automation Platform Pricing

Two common pricing models for an automated marketing system are:

  • Per month subscription plans
  • Per contact, per month subscription plans

Which type of plan is most suited to a business depends on its size and its goals for scaling. A smaller business with just a few hundred contacts may find a per contact plan is more than enough to accommodate their use case.

Bigger organizations, or ones with very large marketing databases, are more likely to benefit from paying a flat monthly fee per, with the predictability of this pricing a bonus.

Choosing a Marketing Automation Platform: B2B vs. B2C

The choice between marketing automation platforms often comes down to whether the organization is B2C versus B2B. Another consideration is how many emails you need to send on a daily/weekly basis and what the timelines for those emails need to be, according to Lechner-Becker.

“So, in the B2B world, most emails that we send don't really have a timeliness element to them, like a B2C email,” she said.

“For example, a lot of B2C companies typically send coupons that are going to expire in 24 hours, or some level of urgency to act. You need a system that deploys those 10 million emails quickly, or you're going to have really angry customers.”

In many cases, B2C marketing focuses on impulse buys and smaller purchases. While there are exceptions, such as for cars or holidays, many B2C emails are for consumables, experiences or goods that a person can purchase out of their discretionary budget. Capturing the customer at a time they're ready to buy is important.

Lechner-Becker explained, "The sending engine, and the back end of that, is primarily what differentiates B2C and B2B. A B2C company typically calls their marketing automation an ESP (email service provider) instead of a full marketing automation system.”

B2B brands tend to use marketing automation platforms like Pardot, HubSpot, Marketo or Eloqua. “Their sending engine is not as strong because they have more tools that incorporate more of the ways that B2B marketers go to market,” Lechner-Becker said. “So that's a main differentiator.”

There is also a big competitive advantage for certain platforms if you need to track the life cycle of your customer. For example, if you're trying to report on what campaigns influenced someone's conversion journey (attribution).

B2B marketing can often involve selling higher-value products than those advertised by B2C companies. However, this isn't always the case. In many cases, the person receiving a B2B marketing email isn't the person with final purchasing authority. Therefore, the journey from sign-up to conversion can take longer.

“B2B companies should opt for marketing automation tools with lead management, nurturing, and scoring features,” Aventaggiato said. “B2C businesses need tools that can manage a more extensive customer database. B2C companies also need analytics and segmentation tools to determine the target audience for better leads.”

Related Article: Are You Closely Reviewing Your Automated Email Campaigns?

Get Started With Your Marketing Automation Strategy

Now that you know the industry's marketing automation definition, the tech’s advantages, some best (and worse) practices and top platforms in use, it’s time to implement automated marketing in your organization.

Whether your brand is large, mid-size or small, automated marketing can generate and manage higher-quality leads, streamline processes and increase your campaigns’ returns. And your employees don’t have to work harder to see results.

If you're ready to take advantage of this tech, start researching some of the top platforms available to see which offers the tools most valuable to your business. You might even find that with well-rounded marketing automation software, you can eliminate a few other platforms from your monthly subscriptions.