What is Marketing Automation, Really?

We often think of automation as something we “set and forget”. In reality, automation for most companies is something that is essentially a human process. We add “automation” to our efforts to allow us to reliably repeat things with less human work, but humans are still involved in inventing, designing and implementing the process we’re automating. Marketing automation is essentially that concept in action: marketers finding ways to create repeatable actions or campaigns that allow them to reach and convert more customers with less effort. 

Today this works primarily through repeated personalization of ads, landing pages, emails, social media, websites and any other forms of digital content. Marketing automation is a powerful practice, but current forms personalized marketing only personalization along a handful of guidelines, and none of the engagements a consumer gets are one-to-one or in real-time. In the future, it will change radically: not just because of the channels and expectations consumers have, but also because of technology that will be able to automate more aspects of human-to-brand interaction than ever before. 

What is Marketing Automation Today?

When you interact with a brand’s digital marketing content, it’s not just between you and the website. Marketers are constantly trying to optimize outcomes by influencing your interactions and conditioning responses that get you to take a desired action. As marketers, we know this, but our interactions with marketing automation tools generally falls short of the expectations we have as consumers today.

Marketing automation creates personalization by offering bucketed customer journeys that are meant to be more relevant to different groups of consumers. The term “personalization” can often connote a sense of “one-to-one” or individualized connection with a brand, but most solutions that actually use this term can’t really approach that “ideal” outcome. This means that, in B2B, your marketing automation process might be bucketed based on whether you asked for a demo, downloaded a white paper or submitted a request for a quote. In B2C and eCommerce scenarios, your funnel might get kicked off by looking at a product page on a website or request email updates and special offers.

On all these cases, the customer is pushed towards a final purchase through incremental, informative or promotional messages that are meant to encourage them to buy. When consumers disengage, they are usually taken out of an automation sequence and dumped into a remarketing pool for later targeting. The thing is, even if you’re targeting a smaller segment of customers (say 10 or 20% of a given email pool at a time), you’re still not going to actually offer most of them something that feels truly personalized, and the sequence of messages you provide usually won’t respond to their real needs. Over time, this can lead to less relevant marketing and higher disengagement from your brand. 

In ecommerce, the state of things is a little better because of the SKU approach and other tools that provide “self service” personalization. Features like “related products” and user-generated content offer greater dynamism and relevance as users interact with a brand online. However, when they’re actively considering a purchase, brands have few ways to engage them directly, find out what is motivating their interest and provide the perfect products for them. 

This means that, much of the time, consumers simply aren’t getting relevant experiences no matter how hard brands try. What modern marketing automation offers is still more effective than not offering any form of personalization. When marketers simply run the same predictable playbook over and over, however, they end up ignoring the opportunity to use new technologies that encourage customers to buy in a more holistic and personalized way.

This is where the “target-by-SKU-only” approach can also fall flat. Brands generally target, retarget and automate marketing on the basis of SKUs. While consumers demonstrate interest in particular products may look at related products and explore different options, just resorting to constantly pushing SKUs doesn’t really speak to the consumer’s motivation. Traditional interfaces can occasionally surface what people want, but they rarely surface why people want something, nor do they allow you to sell more by knowing that critical piece of information in a reliable way.

In What Ways Is Marketing Automation Ineffective Today?

The information available in modern marketing automation processes is limited, and it’s still used to present the same canned messages to each consumer. Sometimes, these messages can actually harm a business – they provide the consumer nothing of value except to let them know they’re being watched. The personalized experiences provided through marketing automation might offer a reminder of why we were looking at a website or clicked through an email, but if we’re already following up with another engagement, is it likely that we’ve really forgotten our intent?

This isn’t all bad – if an opportunity is incrementally personalized, there are plenty of occasions where the customer will have less work to do to convert. However, this is also where a lack of interactivity really cripples the capabilities of marketing automation today. Interfaces where we can’t respond and instead only choose to engage or move on (like a website or mass email) don’t allow people to state their real concerns and get useful information that helps them buy. In order for this interactivity to work, the technology needs to be responsive and understand meanings and intents of a variety of statements. This requires real-life data, state of the art AI, and an open mind to the processes that actually encourage customers to buy. 

The difference here is that, when we bucket consumers or target them on SKUs, we end up making a lot of inferences instead of presenting incremental interactions that can drive users to a desired action. There’s plenty of science that indicates we’re not good at making inferences. Even where assisted by machines, it simply doesn’t work as well as taking interactions on a one-to-one basis and using intuition (or technology that can provide a facsimile of it). That’s why 3-4 buckets are too little and targeting on every SKU (which is sometimes in the hundreds) is too much. To automate marketing in the most effective and personalized way, you need to have a conversation with your customer. 

What Is Marketing Automation in the Future?

The marketing automation of the future is conversational. This is a concept that puts interactivity at the core of the consumer decision journey. It gives them the opportunity to influence consumers in a more effective and enjoyable way, while also interpreting consumer feedback and tailoring messaging in a way that encourages consumers to buy.

It’s not as if no two conversations will be alike (this is certainly never the case in sales), but it is much closer to the type of personalization that actually satisfies a consumers need to “mull it over” before they buy. For example, more consumers are using chatbots. 15% have already made a purchase through one, and 80% who have made a purchase through a chatbot would do it again. AI assistants are growing in popularity, but solutions like virtual sales advisors can offer conversations that learn about a consumer. This doesn’t involve only their product interests, but what they want and what motivates them, which in the end makes product recommendation and consultation far more effective, precise and likely to convert. 

Conversational Marketing Automation” isn’t the only way to think about what consumers are coming to expect, but it’s probably the best way. Conversations are instinctively what we use to find new information in a precise and personalized way when we simply want an answer now. Up until now brands have only been able to do this with actual people, but chatbots powered by conversational AI can fundamentally overcome this limitation, making it easier for consumers to make the right purchase and ultimately buy more. 

Interactions are the basis of everything you know about your consumer. Creating opportunities to converse with them and following through with guidance, recommendations and advice are what you need to not only offer a seamless experience, but to provide them with the products and services that they’ll actually love and care about. 

How to Take Advantage of Future Changes in Marketing Automation

You have no choice but to start thinking about the quality of experience your marketing automation provides. According to Salesforce, 54% of high-performance marketing teams are leading customer experience initiatives across their organizations, with moderate and underperforming teams doing so at substantially lower rates. 

On a UX, UI and customer acquisition level, you need to start incorporating conversational dynamics into your customer decision journey. Even if you don’t go straight for a chatbot, thinking about a few ways to create variety in your marketing automation buckets could reveal responses that allow you to focus your message and perform better. If you’re able to implement conversational AI, the choice is all the more effective – you can respond to a broader range of consumers, increase conversion and see more satisfaction from the interactions you provide. 

What’s even better with conversational AI: you don’t have to spend your time making broad inferences anymore. This is the worst position for a marketer to be in – always guessing, never really knowing. Sure, we trust our gut, we go on intuition, but when we’re queasy about a decision, when we feel like we could know our customer better, data is the real answer. When you can provide more dynamic experiences that actually engage and convert consumers better, you actually put yourself in the driver’s seat of your own marketing-automated future. 

Still have questions?  We’re fired up to help as many brands as possible to raise the bar of user and customer experience in eCommerce.  If you need help implementing website engagement tools for your brand or want to talk further about any of the tactics in this article, we should talk ASAP!

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