Marketing automation is a topic a surprising number of SMBs don't even know exists. This is good news for those who already utilize marketing automation tools because the more aware a prospect is that your process is automated, the less effective it ends up being. I receive a lot of marketing materials that are probably far more effective on others than they are on me because I know how the sausage is made. That's not to say they're not effective, a well designed campaign works just fine even when someone knows it's automated. They key is making sure each touch point is well written and brings value to the recipient.

That means this post a bit of a double-edged sword because we utilize marketing automation tools on a regular basis here at Searles Graphics, so I'm giving away a bit of an inside secret with this article. But, when we embarked on this content initiative over six months ago now, I promised to be completely honest and provide the most helpful information I could to those of you who take the time to read and interact with my stuff, so here you go!

At it's core, marketing automation involves the creation and distribution of a series of automated communications with customers or prospects. While these interactions can occur over a number of different media options, more often than not the preferred method is email because it offers the benefits of providing immediate feedback on whether or not your recipient performed the action you wanted them to. When done right, the recipient has no idea they're receiving an automated communication.

Marketing automation, like anything else, has its advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, you can reach a large number of prospects with highly targeted, well-timed communications that adapt to a prospect's actions and level of engagement. Using marketing automation tools effectively means developing, testing, and refining the steps in your process to minimize the time your staff spends on tasks that can easily be automated, as well as the time spent chasing down unqualified leads.

A good example of marketing automation tools in action would be the inclusion of a form on your website to download a whitepaper or request more information or a quote from your company. Once that form is submitted, the prospect's information is automatically captured in your CRM and added to your sales pipeline. They're also sent a personalized email from you with the information (or a link to the information) they requested. Based on how they respond to that email, the system would either continue to send prospecting material, or assign a sales rep to follow up with the prospect to try to close the sale.

Businesses who sell low cost products that don't normally justify the expense of a personal sales touch can use marketing automation effectively too. Such companies can utilize marketing automation tools to provide prospects with what appears to be a very personalized experience without the need for a large sales force.

Of course I don't want to forget about our non-profit friends. Anybody who knows me knows I lump non-profits in with SMBs because I believe they should be run the same way, so all of this applies to you too! Think about the great ways you could use marketing automation to communicate with and engage donors.

The downsides of marketing automation manifest themselves when it's not used properly. All-too-often SMBs see marketing automation as a way to replace a human being, rather than as a tool to help those individuals be more effective. The second example above is a great way to add a lot of value to a business selling a low cost product. But products and services over a certain price point need a personal touch. In these instances, the wrong approach is to try to replace part of your sales and marketing team with an automated system. The right approach is to utilize the tool to generate more leads and qualify those leads before turning them over to sales. This allows the same staff increase both the number of leads generated and their conversion rates.

Marketing automation tools come from a number of vendors, the primary ones coming from companies like Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot, and Infusionsoft (among others). Each tool offers it's own unique take on the implemenation of marketing automation (with a fair amount of crossover), at a variety of price points. Our choice here at Searles Graphics is Infusionsoft because the features offered met (most of) our needs at a good price point and complemented our core skill-set well. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend a different alternative (I have) based on your individual needs. Both Marketo and HubSpot offer quality products that are worth looking into. And while I'm generally happy with Infusionsoft, it's far from a perfect piece of software.

As always, feel free to reach out to me via Twitter, Instagram, or my website for more help or information!

Chris Searles is President of Searles Media and specializes in helping small businesses maximize their available resources to market themselves effectively using a wide variety of media. Visit Website

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