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

image for nd3000 / Getty Images
nd3000 / Getty Images

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. Marketing automation software not only makes it easier to reach potential customers and generate leads but also helps to narrow the search to the most likely and most lucrative customers. Read on to learn how to choose the best marketing automation platform for your business.

Marketing automation software achieves more than simple email campaigns and click-through reports. These platforms also work with social media marketing efforts, website-visit data and digital advertisements, and oftentimes, they integrate with customer relationship management software 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 efforts, company website or social media accounts.

The right marketing automation platform can save your business time and money while increasing your conversion rates. Read on to better understand the benefits of marketing automation software and to learn how to choose the marketing automation 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 unique customer journeys toward becoming buyers and then re-engaging them to encourage repeat business.

Jenay Sellers, director of marketing for Brandfolder, said marketing automation tools work by helping you identify patterns in behavior that lead to purchases. You can set up workflows to nurture clients who are at the buying, onboarding or renewing stages of their customer journey. For example, Sellers said, one of Brandfolder's automated sequences executes an email campaign that targets prospects who download two or more pieces of the company's content. Then, the marketing automation tool takes over and executes a preconfigured workflow to encourage the prospective customer to take the next step closer to purchasing.

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

In addition to email automation and lead management, marketing automation software has the following benefits:

Calls to action are an important part of the marketing automation process. These include things such as getting people to like and share your social media content, having them sign up for email lists and even encouraging them to make 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 form of inbound marketing to guide these customers toward the final goal: a purchase.

Obtaining information from leads, especially email addresses, is a crucial marketing strategy. 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 better lead management through 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. Retaining loyal customers is just as important to a marketing campaign as attracting new ones, and automation platforms are especially effective at staying in touch.

When you opt for email automation, you stay in touch with longtime and potential new customers without having to think about doing so. In this way, email automation cuts back on customer acquisition costs. Instead of hiring a whole team of full-time marketing and sales employees, you can rely on your marketing automation software to automatically reach out to customers when certain actions are taken – for example, an item is left unpurchased in a cart, a website visit lasts an especially long time or a customer looks at several of your product listings. With email automation, you streamline your inbound marketing strategy.

You don't need to spend hours and days devising, executing and analyzing complex marketing campaigns. Instead, let your software do the work, and keep your marketing team free for more creative, in-depth marketing efforts that can't be automated, such as devising new campaigns or engaging in rebranding plans.

We've already mentioned that certain customer actions can trigger your automation software to reach out. You can use this automation to bolster your content marketing strategy. Namely, if your customer reads a blog post on your website, you can program your marketing automation platform to email the customer sometime after they close the page. In that email, you can encourage the customer to read another one of your blog posts, and if they do, then you've easily engaged the customer with your company once again.

 

Editor's note: Trying to choose an online marketing solution? Use the questionnaire below to have receive information from a variety of vendors for free:

Most people won't be prepared to purchase your products or services on first contact. Some won't even be aware of your company or what 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 the following features:

Email addresses provide a stable, long-term point of contact for potential customers, but excessive email blasts can turn customers 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.]

Social media automation helps to build brands and maintain brand-to-consumer relationships. For example, marketing automation can generate targeted advertisements and make it easy for customers to fill out forms on your website. [Learn how to better leverage social media for your business.]

Marketing automation excels at slowly nurturing leads, gradually moving potential customers through the sales funnel. Once you have developed a customer's buyer persona enough to convert this lead into a customer, you can easily maintain the relationship with personalized advertisements and emails, as well as social engagement across multiple channels.

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. It also assists with managing a key resource: your team. That's because marketing automation software frees up your marketing staff to focus on other key tasks that you can't automate.

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 for you to further tweak your strategy and set yourself up for long-term success.

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. Follow these steps to learn how to choose the best marketing automation platform for your company:

The best approach is to sit back and brainstorm first. Before you even get your eyes on 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 skill set 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 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.

Marketing automation platforms vary widely, and it's important to choose the one that best serves 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 comprehensive software that can automate a vast process that reaches 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 it's important to know what you want to get out of the software.

The vast array of marketing automation platforms may seem overwhelming, so narrow down the options by comparing the features of each service and evaluating how they meet your needs. When comparing and contrasting marketing automation platforms, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the software user-friendly?
  • How well does the software integrate?
  • How much customer support is offered?
  • Does the platform offer educational tools for times when the customer support team is inaccessible?
  • Which industries and what kinds of businesses use this platform?
  • How well reviewed is this product?
  • Is the pricing fair and affordable?
  • How easy is it to set up the software and begin using it?

With this information in hand, you're ready to move on to the next step.

Calling sales representatives and asking detailed questions about pricing, features and customizability can give you a feel for not only what the software offers but also what interaction with the vendor will be like. Companies should be forthcoming (do your research on the product before calling), 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 services offer a free trial, so take advantage of these opportunities. Give your marketing team some time to test the technology before you commit to it. Choosing the wrong solution could end up hindering, rather than helping, your marketing campaigns.

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

 

Editor's note: Trying to choose an online marketing solution? Use the questionnaire below to receive information from a variety of vendors for free:

Adam Uzialko contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Max Freedman

Max Freedman is a freelance writer who covers best business practices for business.com and culture for publications including The A.V. Club, MTV, Paste, FLOOD, and Bandcamp. He lives in Philly and doesn't miss his native New York.