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The fundamentals of marketing automation for SMEs

7 min

Marketing automation is a hot trend in the industry, and has been for some time (see the graph of marketing automation search volumes below). It opens up massive opportunities for businesses of all shapes and sizes, but the ones capitalising on it most effectively have mostly been larger organisations with the resources to implement big projects. Often, smaller businesses get left behind, by either only doing very basic marketing automation or not doing it at all.

Marketing automation in Google Trends

Marketing automation is a complex subject, and hard to get right, but that doesn’t mean smaller businesses shouldn’t be doing it, far from it. In fact it is all the more important they utilise marketing automation techniques so they can compete with the larger players.

Marketing automation also lets you boost your effectiveness as a smaller business, because as the term implies, much of it is ‘automatic’. This means as a small team you can save time, reach more customers and minimize the cost of interacting with customers.

So we’ve established that SMEs should be engaging in at least some form of marketing automation, but if you don’t know what that means for your business, we wanted to lay down some fundamental principles of marketing automation for smaller businesses. This should let you better understand the processes you’ll need to put in place and the results you can expect from an effecting marketing automation system.

What marketing automation isn’t

This may be obvious for some, but I frequently see confusion around the term ’marketing automation’, as there are plenty of tools that automate certain processes that aren’t really anything to do with the kind of marketing automation we’re talking about here. Some smaller businesses might think they’re doing marketing automation, only to find they aren’t engaged in any of the activities outlined later in the post. Therefore it makes sense to state early on what doesn’t constitute marketing automation:

  • Using scheduling tools like Buffer or Hootsuite to schedule posts on social media.
  • Using apps like IFTTT to do certain things ‘automatically’ – like publishing all Facebook posts on LinkedIn & Twitter or similar.
  • Using tools to automatically share new blog articles when they’re published.

These are very basic techniques that may save time, but are totally different from the kind of capabilities that proper marketing automation offers.


So what is marketing automation?

Marketing automation allows you to engage in processes you would not otherwise be able to by leveraging data and technology.

Some key marketing automation capabilities for you to consider:

  • Automatically building marketing lists using landing pages offering content assets to profile subscribers.
  • Automatically welcoming prospects with relevant email messages – that is messages that are personalised to the attributes of the individual.
  • Automatically reviewing interactions with emails and on-site content and then segmenting intent to purchase based on lead scoring, then automatically serving ads or offers based on this information.
  • Automatically following up prospects with nurturing messages to boost intent to purchase.
  • Automatically qualifying leads against preconfigured metrics and passing to sales without human interaction (this capability is only really relevant to B2B).
  • Automatically sending on-going personalised messages delivering promotions and content based off the persons attributes, in order to encourage customer loyalty.

So now you know what capabilities you can look to build via marketing automation, and what marketing automation isn’t, I’ll try to introduce some guiding principles to help you through the process of selecting a marketing automation provider and then building up your marketing automation capabilities.

Read more: Marketing Automation for Beginners

The 5 key principles of marketing automation

1. Personalisation is a spectrum

Personalisation is complex and can involve a huge number of different aspects. Personalisation based on 1 very simple data point like say gender, age, or visiting 1 particular page is very different to a personalisation program which suggests products or content based off multiple data points and a person’s activity across multiple different pages, as well as other disclosed interests. Expect results to vary based off the level of personalisation, and don’t think that just because your emails start with your customer’s name, you’re ‘doing personalisation’ and don’t need to invest in other more complex techniques.

2. Consider what you want to achieve before selecting a marketing automation provider

There are plenty of different automation software providers out there, with big variations in functionalities and costs. The key is picking one that fits with your business, and also will be able to grow with you – switching providers is a big headache thanks the amount of data that will need to be transferred between systems that are not always compatible.

Think where you want your business to be in 1, 3, and 5 years’ time. Will the providers you are considering be able to support the processes you want to have in place in 5 years? Do their systems scale effectively? Is a solution that seems cheaper now going to be more expensive when you’re sending 100,000 emails because you’ve massively expanded your capabilities and customer base?

Similarly, don’t buy the expensive solutions that come with all the bells and whistles if you’re business has no plan to utilise those features. The answer to which is the ‘best’ marketing automation provider depends on what kind of business you are. So look at features through the lens of what you want to achieve, rather than just selecting the one that has the most.


3. B2C and B2B are totally different kettles of fish

If you’re reading about best practice advice for marketing automation, don’t apply B2B to B2C or vice versa. For B2B organisations, marketing automation is all about lead scoring and lead nurturing. The key is using content to get people interested, and then automatically evaluating and following up on those leads to keep them warm and ready to talk to someone in your sales team. Think sending whitepapers based on the field a company works for to show your expertise in the area.

For B2C marketing automation is generally all about engaging customers to keep your brand in their minds so they consider you for repeat business. Think a clothing store sending personalised messages showcasing the new arrivals of items similar to items that the customer has viewed in the past. B2C is more about showing products, B2B should be more about demonstrating knowledge.

4. Your automation is only as good as your data

An army marches on its stomach. A marketing automation program marches on data. How well you can personalise email or content comes down to what data you have on your leads or customers. It’s that simple. Consider how you will gather your data, and then think about the legal implications. You have to meet certain criteria around the safekeeping of people data and not misusing it. Don’t fall foul of any regulation.

Also important is making sure your existing data is of high quality. If parts of your database could contain information that is likely incorrect, then it’s not going to do any good using it for personalisation.

5. Integration saves time – even when it’s a massive headache

In the short term integrating different systems is always a headache. However much the automation provider might tell you that it’s super easy to integrate with various systems, Murphy’s law means invariably they’ll be a problem somewhere. But don’t let that stop you.

A good automation system has to integrate with any point of sale software to be valuable for B2C. For B2B, if you don’t use point of sale software, then it should at least integrate with whatever system the sales team use to send them qualified leads automatically and ideally with automated invoicing.

In the long run this will save huge amounts of time, because if you aren’t linking your systems into your automation software, then it will invariably require you to constantly be manually feeding it information or manually acting on results. Only with integration can you achieve genuine automation that saves time in the long run.

If you’re the leader of an SME or in charge of developing a marketing automation system for a smaller business, make sure to bare in mind these 5 fundamental principles. Before you embark on anything, make sure you know exactly what you want to achieve from marketing automation, and what resources both in terms and talent and data you can draw on.

Dave Chaffey
Dave Chaffey
Dr Dave Chaffey is CEO and co-founder of digital marketing advice site Smart Insights. He has been recognised as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have shaped the future of Marketing by the Chartered Institute of Marketing and in 2015 was rated as the top UK influencer on social media for Marketing and Advertising in a top 50 compilation by