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How to Choose Marketing Automation Software: A Buyer's Guide

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Marketing and advertising often make up a sizable chunk of a business's budget, but it's usually difficult to judge how effective each advertising dollar truly is at generating more business. Luckily, marketing automation platforms not only make the task of reaching potential customers and generating leads easier, but they help narrow the search to the most likely and most lucrative customers.

Marketing automation is more than simple email campaigns and click-through reports. These platforms also work with social media, website visits, digital advertisements and oftentimes integrate with CRMs to optimize your customer outreach and lead generation. The best services are highly customizable, allowing users to set automated functions depending on how the potential customer interacts with the initial marketing material, company website or social media accounts.

The right marketing automation platform can save your business time, money and increase your conversion rates. Our guide can help you better understand the benefits of marketing automation and how to choose the platform that best suits your business.

Marketing automation isn't just about making the sale; it's also about engaging potential customers on every step of their journey to becoming a buyer, then re-engaging them to encourage repeat business.

Jenay Sellers, director of marketing for Brandfolder, said marketing automation works by helping you identify patterns in behavior that lead to purchase. You can set up workflows to nurture clients who are making a buying decision, onboarding or renewing. For example, Sellers said, one of Brandfolder's automated sequences sends a targeted email to prospects who download two or more pieces of the company's content. Once this indication that the lead is interested in their services has been made, the software takes over and executes a preconfigured workflow to encourage the lead to take the next step closer to conversion.

Therein lies the key to marketing automation: It's all about nurturing leads and encouraging them to take a closer look. This can be done with targeted email campaigns like Brandfolder's, specific discount offers, social engagement and so on. Most marketing automation platforms give users a lot of latitude in determining exactly how they want to execute their strategies.

Editor's Note: Trying to choose a marketing automation solution? Use the questionnaire below to have our sister site BuyerZone provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

Most people won't be prepared to purchase your goods or services on first contact. Some won't even be aware of your company or what it is you do. Giving them an opportunity to become acquainted with your brand through a series of interactions first is better than shoving a blatant advertisement in their face. Marketing automation helps with this process by including:

  • Email marketing: Email addresses provide a stable, long-term point of contact for potential customers, but excessive email blasts can turn leads off. Marketing automation uses emails to gauge interest, and sends follow up contacts to people based on their open and click-through rates. [Check out some of the best email marketing tools of 2017.]
  • Social media: From making it easy for leads and customers to fill out forms on your website to generating targeted advertisements, social media automation helps build brands and maintains brand-to-consumer relationships in an even more surgical way than before. [Learn how to better leverage social media for your business.]
  • Lead nurturing: Marketing automation excels at slowly nurturing leads, gradually moving potential customers through the sales funnel. Once a lead is converted into a customer, you can easily maintain the relationship with personalized advertisements and emails as well as social engagement across multiple channels.
  • Resource management: Marketing automation helps your company connect with and then nurture the most interested leads, saving you money and, ideally, generating even more revenue at the same time.
  • Analytics: Marketing automation platforms generally provide reporting functions that enable you to review how you've spent your money and how effective your campaigns have been. These insights are essential to further tweaking your strategy to set yourself up for long-term success.

Calls to action are an important part of the marketing automation process. These include things like social media likes and shares, signing up for email lists and even making a purchase. Strategically placing calls to action in front of customers who have indicated they might be ready to take the next step in your relationship is an effective way to shepherd them along toward the final goal: the purchase.

Obtaining information from leads, especially email addresses, is a crucial tool in the marketer's toolbox. It also enables your marketing automation software to do more for you. For example, if a user links their social profile with your website, your marketing team now has access to information that can be used for more targeted advertisements and deals specific to that user's activities and interests. The ability to centrally gather this information and then automatically respond to it is what makes marketing automation so powerful.

A brand-to-consumer relationship doesn't end with conversion. Continuing efforts to reach out, offer deals and discounts and further cultivate the relationship you've established with existing customers is a wise way to retain them and gain repeat business. Loyal customers are just as important to a marketing campaign as attracting new ones, and automation platforms are especially effective at staying in touch.

There are hundreds of quality marketing automation options to choose from, and many leading vendors offer several pricing tiers, making their solutions suitable for businesses of all sizes and budgets. How can you know you're purchasing the right solution?

The best approach is to sit back and brainstorm first. Before you even get your eyes on any specific products, you'll need to do some internal soul-searching.

"The two major questions that should be asked internally are [about] the cost to implement and the time to maintain automation platforms," said Conrad Magalis, marketing manager for Advance Acceptance. "You must decide if your current marketing team is capable of spending the time to create content, along with having the technical skillset to deploy and maintain the application."

If your in-house team isn't up to the task, you can always outsource, Magalis said. However, outsourcing gets pricey quickly, so it's best to ensure you have a marketing department in place that can handle both the technical and content-creation aspects of marketing automation.

Once your team is in place, it's time to hammer out your tangible goals. Understanding where you are today, how to best streamline those processes and where you'd like to be in the future is important to making the right selection for your organization.

"Having a roadmap allows you to find a marketing automation product for the long haul, instead of a temporary solution," said Rob Sloan, digital marketing strategist at The Contemporary Agency.

Every marketing automation platform is different, and it's important to choose one that's best suited to your company and your marketing needs.

"There are services that offer the entire marketing automation pipeline as one package, while others are more a la carte," Sloan said. "The trick is to find what solution fits your marketing process instead of attempting to remake your workflow for a software package."

For small companies just looking to streamline marketing operations, there are a number of free automation options that do a considerable amount of work. On the other end of the spectrum, large enterprises might require a comprehensive piece of software that can automate a vast process that touches a sea of prospects and customers. In the crowded industry of marketing automation, there are solutions for companies of all shapes, sizes and circumstances, so knowing yourself and what you want to get out of this software is key.

Calling sales representatives and asking detailed questions about pricing, features and customizability can give you a feel for not only what the software has to offer, but what interacting with the vendor will be like. Companies should not only be forthcoming (Do your research on the product before calling!) but responsive, friendly and patient. Marketing automation can be complex; you need to partner with a vendor you can trust to support you.

Most marketing automation software offer a free trial, so take advantage of these opportunities. Marketing automation is only as good as it is useful to your marketing team, so give them some time to take the technology for a test drive before you buy. If they don't like it, you've only lost a couple of weeks' time instead of an actual investment. Besides, buying the wrong solution could actually end up hindering your marketing campaigns, rather than helping.

Ready to choose a marketing automation solution? Here's a breakdown of our complete coverage:

Editor's Note: Trying to choose a marketing automation solution? Use the questionnaire below to have our sister site BuyerZone provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:

Adam Uzialko

Freelance editor at business.com. Responsible for managing freelance budget, editing freelance and contributor content, and drafting original articles. Also creates product and service reviews to assist business.com readers in buying decisions for their businesses. VP and co-founder of CannaContent, a digital marketing company dedicated to the cannabis, hemp, and CBD industries. Focused specifically on the content marketing arm of the company, creating blogs, press releases, and website copy for clients spanning the entire supply chain. Avid fan and indispensable ally of the feline species. Music lover, middling guitarist, and unprompted vocalist. Miniature painter who loves sci-fi and fantasy. Armchair political philosopher with a tendency to read old books written by men with unusually large beards. Ask me about all things writing!