Why Marketing Automation Can Fail and How to Ensure it Doesn’t

Summary

This article examines some common causes of failed marketing automation implementations and presents solutions to help mitigate these risks.

The Problem

Over the past few years I’ve read many articles about the high rate of marketing automation failure.  I’ve also witnessed some failures first hand.  Failure can come in the form of low ROI or a new platform failing to reach its intended goal.  On the other hand I’ve also witnessed some great success with marketing automation.  So if success can be had, the problem must not be with marketing automation itself.  So what are the causes?  I’ve grouped my experiences into three categories with the exception of a couple outliers.

Cause #1: Failure to Support

There are two parts to this issue; lack of executive buy in and lack of marketing and sales alignment.

Executive Buy In

Marketing executives are usually concerned with providing resources to procure new systems – in this case marketing automation.  Typically they will take part in the purchase of a platform then hand it off to a subordinate to implement.  Once this handoff occurs their focus turns to results.  Unfortunately, marketing automation can take some time to become fully functional.  When results don’t appear immediately after a purchase or the CEO raises revenue targets, the marketing executive may pull much needed resources from implementation in favor of other revenue generating activities such as campaign execution.  This multiplies the problem because, not only are there no resources available to build the marketing automation system, now all resources are managing campaigns in a less than efficient (sometimes unusable) automation system which will slow them down even more than not using an automation system at all.  This is a slippery slope that I’ve seen far too often.

Solution

To ensure executives fully support a full marketing automation project it is important that they are in it for the right reasons.  They need to understand all of the required inputs, time lines, and potential results in detail.  Since marketing automation vendors are competing for your business they may not be upfront as to how long it will take or how much you must invest beyond the initial cost.  It’s your job to make sure the executive understands this.  This is a good time to under-promise and over-deliver.

Marketing & Sales Alignment

I know what you’re thinking – here we go again with the alignment story.  I’ll keep this short.  Sales is a necessary stakeholder in marketing automation implementation.  They must provide feedback on lead scoring, share their view on required information for leads, and many other things.  Since marketing and sales often work toward different goals (one generates leads, the other closing deals) and they both tend to speak different languages, the process is often slowed due to poor communication and political games.

Solution

To help obtain solid alignment with Sales you need to frame the outputs of marketing automation as benefits to sales.  They don’t care how much time it will save you by automating your webinar invite process – what they care about is that you can send newsletters to their contacts with their signature, provide them with fewer leads but of higher quality, show them a contacts activity history instead of just their contact information, and notify them when someone from their account is online.  You also need to be honest about what you require from them.  If you need their input on a lead scoring program make sure they commit to spending the time with you.  If you don’t already have scheduled meetings with them now is a good time to start.

Cause #2: Failure to Plan & Focus

Proper planning and execution of your project are obviously crucial to success.  Unfortunately, they are not always done well when it comes to marketing automation.  Here are a few areas to watch out for.

Lack of Process

Many people see marketing automation as a knight in shining armor that makes a marketer’s job easier, enhances productivity, and boosts revenue through more efficient demand generation.  While this may be true, marketing automation is really meant to do one thing – automate marketing processes.  It’s designed to work with these processes – not replace them.  More than 40% of respondents to a 2010 Frost & Sullivan study stated lack of process was preventing them from getting value from their automation solution.  Simply put; you can’t automate what you don’t have.

Solution

To ensure that you have proper processes to automate it’s a good idea to document them in detail prior to implementing a marketing automation system.  I would argue it best to do this before you even begin selecting a vendor.  Documenting your revenue engine allows you to define exactly what needs to be automated, how it can be automated, and what features you need in an automation platform.  The exercise of documenting your revenue process may also help you identify weak areas that can be improved.  Make sure to include all revenue stakeholders and get their sign off.  This ensures there are no surprises down the road.

Lack of Goals

Remember when you were a teenager and you jumped in your friend’s car and just started driving with no destination?  It was a lot of fun to experience that freedom – that rush of not knowing what was coming, who you’d meet, or where you’d end up.  As fun as that was, it’s probably not the type of journey you want to take your marketing budget on.  Without goals in mind for marketing automation you have no direction as to how it needs to be built, who it needs to help, or why it’s even being implemented in the first place.  Marketing Automation offers endless possibilities and it requires goals to help you focus on the possibilities you’d like to take advantage of most.

Solution

If you have properly documented your revenue process it should be easy to identify the goals for your marketing automation system.  This can include areas with scarce resources that you need to automate, points of low conversion that can be improved, or inadequate information that needs to be improved.  Once your goals are set you can focus on achieving them and track your progress toward them.

Boiling the Ocean

As stated above marketing automation has a lot of offer.  If you don’t have goals or if you’re easily distracted by shiny things you may find yourself trying to take advantage of everything your new system has to offer all at the same time.  You may want lead nurturing, lead scoring, dynamic content driven newsletters, progressive profiling on your forms, and advanced integration with custom objects in your CRM; the list goes on and on.  As you can imagine, trying to implement all of these at once is about as difficult as boiling the ocean.

Solution

To avoid building everything at once it’s best to develop a roadmap for your marketing automation system.  Using your documented revenue process and the goals you have setup out for system you should be able to list the features you need to build into the system in order to reach these goals.  Following this you can prioritize them which will give you a well organized roadmap.  By matching the features to your goals you avoid investing development resources in features that may not provide you with any value even though they may be popular or trendy.  Your roadmap defines what needs to be built, in what order, and why it should be built.  It also allows you to monitor your progress and help show stakeholders progress on your project.  If you use an agile marketing model it is easy to break each feature you plan to implement into a sprint.  This model also allows you to change direction quickly if you need to make adjustments to the plan while minimizing sunken development.

Cause #3: Failure to Allocate Resources Properly

Flawed resource allocation will absolutely destroy any ROI you hope to see from your marketing automation system.  In my experience this is the #1 cause of marketing automation failure.  The good news it is also the easiest to avoid.

Lack of Skills and Resources

Marketing automation systems interface with many other systems; website, CRM, contact data marts, online meeting tools, etc.  Because of this the implementation process can be complicated and require a unique skill set.  Those involved need to learn the new marketing automation system and understand all of the other systems and protocols involved.  Learning on the fly is an option but it can seriously slow implementation speed because you’re tied up studying systems and likely fixing mistakes.  Beyond the knowledge required to implement a system, it takes time and a lot of work to fully implement marketing automation.  Anyone walking into marketing automation with the assumption that you flick a switch and it works is in for a rude awaking.  If you don’t have sufficient resources to dedicate to the implementation and management of the system it can quickly fall apart and end in failure.

Solution

There are two simple options to ensure you have proper resources to implement your system.  One is to hire or train internal staff.  Hiring is usually the better option because you’re getting someone who has already danced the dance and can hit the grown running.  On the other hand training someone may be costly but the major benefit is you’ll end up with someone who is already familiar with your processes.  The main point is you need to have someone with sufficient knowledge of the systems to implement them properly.  The second option is to hire an outside agency.  This is the most costly option but will provide the best results since the agency is very familiar with all of your systems, has likely already carried out many similar projects, understands tactics you may not have even thought of, and can finish the project quickly.

Lack of Realistic Timeframe

As I mentioned above marketing automation does not start working at the flick of a switch.  It takes some setup to get going and will always remain a dynamic, growing system that you will constantly enhance.  Those who try to rush the build process will only hurt themselves.  This results in a sloppy and incomplete system that will slow down your marketing processes instead of helping them.  To make things worse each problem will likely cause other problems to start.  For example, you may decide to quickly implement a pick-list field without doing a proper audit to match values to your CRM.  Later, when you upload a list of contacts you will find that you can’t import that field because the values don’t exist.  Additionally, you will not be able to sync the field to your CRM due to mismatched values.  If you do manage to import the contacts your data quality will suffer because of non-standard values.

Solution

Be realistic about what resources are available to you and what they can accomplish in a given time period.  If you only have a part time resource you need to account for that and stretch your implementation time or cut features.  Set expectations with stakeholders so they know what to expect and the project doesn’t appear to me moving slower than it should.  This is another great opportunity to under-promise and over-deliver.

Pulling Resources

When you have limited resources tied up implementing a system that offers long-term benefit it is easy to lose focus and transfer the resources to other projects that deliver short-term results.  As mentioned above, the most common scenario is pulling an implementation team member off the marketing automation project and moving them to campaign execution.  This sacrifice may make sense now but be assured it will have a negative impact on your productivity in the long-run.  You are trading the results generated by one campaign for the ability to run all future campaign much more efficiently.  This may also cause you to build a flawed system that actually slows down all future campaigns.  At some point, usually sooner than later, the benefit curves will cross and you’re in the red.

Solution

It is best to have a resource that is dedicated to owning the marketing automation system.  This person should not be responsible for running campaigns or any other project unless it adds value to your processes.  This ensures that they are always focused on building and maintaining your marketing infrastructure so other marketers can run campaigns with maximum effectiveness.  Ownership of the marketing automation platform often sits in a group such as Marketing Operations while campaign execution falls on Field Marketing.

Other Issues

Aside from the groups of pitfalls mentioned above there are other issues that marketing automation faces that can have a major impact on your success.

Content Strategy

Richard Hill from Quarry Integrated Communications said it best; “content is the fuel for marketing automation”.  Without content you have nothing to attract prospects and nothing to offer them via programs such as lead nurturing.  To ensure that you will have content available you should develop a content strategy.  This strategy should include who is responsible for generating content, when and how much should be generated, what form it takes, and what topics it covers.

Data Quality

If your contact and account data is inaccurate or incomplete it impairs your ability to properly segment when running programs.  Prospect facing communications can also be damaged if email personalization or email signatures are incorrect.  Features like personalization and the ability to deliver the right content at the right time cannot be realized with dirty data and ultimately lower the value you receive from a marketing automation system.  Be sure to define your data structures and cleanse your data prior to implementing a marketing automation system.  This includes removing duplicate records, standardizing pick-list values, ensuring names are capitalized, formatting phone numbers and removing bogus records such as “asdf” and “Mickey Mouse”.  You may also want to look at building a contact washing machine which can help to keep clean any new data entering the system.  For a great article on data quality and contact washing machines see The Cost of Bad Data and take a look at Mike MacFarlane’s presentation.

Launch When it’s Ready

It’s usually a good idea to wait until you’ve built your marketing automation to a point where it can function properly before you launch it.  This may seem like common sense but it is not always the case.  Executives like due dates and sometimes they don’t take “no” for an answer.  As I’ve witnessed firsthand a premature launch comes with a long list of potential technical problems such as forms that submit to nowhere, incomplete workflows, flawed CRM integration, inconsistent branding on landing pages, incorrectly mapped fields, and poor subscription management.  These issues tend to snowball and soon you’ll end up spending all of your resources troubleshooting instead of building the system.  It’s better to launch a functional system late than jam a wrench into the gears of your marketing department ‘on time’.

Training

To ensure that you can keep up on the latest methods to run your system effectively it’s good to continuously train yourself on what is available.  You don’t need to become an expert on every feature but you should know what those features are and when to use them.  When a business need arises you can quickly identify a feature that fits the need then research it in detail.  LinkedIn offers many groups that can help keep you up-to-date on the latest news.  If you’re an Eloqua user you can access Eloqua University for PowerHour presentations, Customer Central for articles, and their social community for marketers called Topliners.

Conclusion

Marketing Automation requires a long-term focus and a change in the way your marketing organization operates.  To ensure you get maximum ROI from your system you need to properly plan, communicate and resource your project.  Fail to do any one of these and you will almost certainly waste your investment.  However, if you’re willing to truly adopt marketing automation you’re set to take your marketing to the next level and drive great results.