What is marketing automation ?

In short, is ordering your pizza online a result of the restaurant augmenting or just automating the sales process?
Structured, rule-based processes can be performed by robots.
Complex unstructured marketing processes that may result in different or unique outcomes are difficult to automate.
To illustrate, bento lunch boxes in Japan contain little portions of rice, fish, meat, pickles and other delicacies packed in plastic box. These items are extremely hard to grasp, thus automation is a challenge.
Here are the three answers marketers must answer soon to stay ahead of the pack.

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1. What is automation?

Doswell made a distinction in 1983 in his book “Office Automation” between tool and machine. In its basic form, a pencil is a tool. It cannot be used without the human writing or drawing with it. A typewriter is a machine that requires a human to use it, even if it is electric: a IBM Selectric typewriter.

Doswell defined a word processor as a programmable machine. The fact that it can function in part without a human working it results in automation.

In 1992, I wrote that the effective use of technology requires adjustments in an organisation’s structure, processes and workflows.

Today, we talk about automation, while we actually mean augmentation of services or tasks with the help of software code. We code certain steps or decisions that may result in algorithms that perform routine, rules-based processes. Of critical importance is that the outcome results in one single correct answer (i.e. a deterministic outcome).

But this situation often fails to apply. If I have a book’s ISBN number, I can soon tell my device at home to order this at my favorite bookseller. However, as soon as I enter an incorrect number, the outcome is no longer clear cut. For instance, the system could suggest the correct number, or else show me the name of the most likely author, title and so forth and I can decide if the book I want is listed.

Interesting readDoswell, Andrew (1983). Office automation (see p. 123). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Takeaway: Automation is a not a dichotomy but a continuum

Our understanding of what automation means is a constantly moving target.

In early 2016, Facebook used human editors to develop trending news lists. Some claimed these editors introduced a political bias. In turn, Facebook decided to automate this task and left the job to algorithms.

Later in the year Facebook discovered that algorithms cannot tell a real story from a hoax (i.e. fake news)… Facebook trended fake news.

2. Augmenting marketing services

The above illustrates that automating services is not easy. More often than not, only single tasks end up getting automated. Once things get complex, or several outcomes are possible, automation is very difficult to accomplish.

Automatic marketing services could fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations. The latter may be a tricky situation where various skillful responses may prevent a total disaster or only one specific response can, such as a pilot preventing a plane crash or a powerplant operator preventing a nuclear disaster like Fukushima or Chernobyl (see Tim Harford, 2016-10-11).

Neil Patel and Ritika Puri offer this definition of marketing automation:

[It] connects multiple touch points and marketing channels including social media, email marketing, and content marketing…
Marketing automation makes it easier to send personalized, 1:1 targeted messages. In other words, [it] makes communication stronger…
…Different marketing automation platforms are designed for different types of businesses… Act-On… comes with email, website visitor tracking, lead management, social media, CRM, reporting and analytics. A core value proposition is that business owners can execute their marketing from one place to (1) generate high quality leads and (2) transform those leads into sales…

The above definitions are all important, but they describe mechanisation of marketing processes. The results are what is called single outcome situations or deterministic outcomes.

For instance, you subscribe to a newsletter and get an opt-in email. In turn, you click on the link provided to confirm your signing up for the newsletter. This in turn triggers a thank-you note and so forth. Thereafter you are on the subscriber list and will receive the next published newsletter.

When using a chat box on a website, the operator or system may provide you with standardised replies for those questions that were previously listed in an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).

But instead of following these various definitions, it is better to focus on the characteristics of the marketing services that these tools are supposed to automate.

Takeaway: Augmentation still beats automation

By using machine learning we can improve industrial processes, marketing and customer experience.

Augmenting marketing processes is a far more common way to leverage technology than automation.

Interesting read: Lacity, M. C. & Willcocks, Leslie P. (Fall 2016). A new approach to automating services. MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 58(1), pp. 41-49. Retrieved 2017-07-31 from http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/a-new-approach-to-automating-services/

Marketing automation at its best? "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping" | Copyright: Death to Stock
Marketing automation at its best? “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping” | Copyright: Death to Stock

3. The next five years in marketing automation

So where will we be five years down the road? How will automation of marketing services look?

Today, it is primarily defined using simple deterministic processes to define the term, such as:

Marketing automation involves a software platform that can be used to deliver content based on specific rules set by users.

Järvinen, Joel & Taiminen, Heini (2016). Harnessing marketing automation for B2B content marketing. Industrial Marketing Management, 54, 164-175. doi:10.1016/j.indmarman.2015.07.002. Retrieved 2017-08-08 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280875581_Harnessing_marketing_automation_for_B2B_content_marketing

Interesting read: National Science and Technology Council. Networking and Information Technology. Research and Development Subcommittee (October 13, 2016). The national artificial intelligence research and development strategic plan. Retrieved 2017-08-07 from https://www.nitrd.gov/PUBS/national_ai_rd_strategic_plan.pdf

This is the beginning. Algorithms in marketing may be alluring, but as Spotify’s music recommendations illustrate to us users, algorithms do not necessarily have our best interests at heart. They optimise things to enable the company to sell you more music – and so, make more money (see Brian Whitmann, former principal scientist at Spotify, December 11, 2012).

Takeaway: Manage your risk

Algorithms will get better but how much things will change nobody knows. Amazon’s two divisions – advertising and cloud-computing – have relied on self-service portals to attract new clients. New sales staff hires at these Amazon divisions in the second quarter of 2017 are the primary reason for the increase in the company’s headcount (from 351,000 to 382,400 at the start of quarter three).

Larger companies want personalised service. Their needs are too complex to be met by a self-service portal Amazon offers. The result is that staff has been hired to service large firms. When things get too complex, augmentation of services is the first step but automation is not always feasible.

Marketing automation vs. marketing augmentation: 3 critical questions to be answered
1.  Is there a single correct answer?

Yes, the customer wants to download a white paper or a checklist.

Or, the individual passes a security check and may therefore enter the secure area, etc.

2.  Can we develop a set of likely answers?

In many situations there could be more than one answer as outlined in point 1 above (the ISBN – maybe the client switched two numbers). This means the answer is a no, but what if…

For instance, based on the user’s past order history, the system knows that this could be a book addressing marketing issues. Going through the database, two options come up where everything is correct as typed in by the client, except for the two switched numbers in the ISBN.

So the system responds in some way and shows the person the two possibilities including author, summary of book and cover. The client can then say yes to one or no to both options of books as presented by the system. A ‘No’ answer could then trigger two or three more options, and so on, hopefully resulting in the person ordering one or two products.

3.  What degree of agility is required for performing / automating this marketing task?

One outcome may be a less than optimal recommendation list of possible songs on a client’s playlist.

In the case of advertising business, adding sales teams will help Amazon attract bigger clients. The latter do not appreciate the self-service currently offered; their service demands are too complex, requiring humans to consult.

As factory robotics has taught us, robots lack the agility of humans. It makes little sense to have a self-driving truck, if it needs a driver to unload the contents with a forklift on arrival.

If we have a box with 3 products, pens, pencils, fountain pens, the robot needs to distinguish between them. Until robots are able to do such work, Amazon will continue to use humans to pick up products in its warehouses.

Getting things organised - marketing autmentation | Copyright: Death to Stock Photo Workshop 8
Getting things organised – marketing autmentation | Copyright: Death to Stock Photo Workshop 8

4. Have your say – join the conversation

Organisations can use marketing automation to generate multiple business benefits. Cost savings, better customer experience and better quality can be the result of such work.

But where agility is needed, automation becomes a challenge. Unless we can train robots in an intuitive way, rather than program each possible step, move and outcome (if x then do A or ask for B…), marketing automation is more likely to be marketing augmentation.

What is marketing automation? THE definition

Sales focuses on the seller’s need to convert the product into cash.

Marketing focuses on satisfying the needs or solving the problems the client may have.

Content, affiliate, dialogue, permission and other marketing activities are just different parts of what marketing entails.

In turn, marketing automation tries to adjust an organisation’s structure, processes and workflows to optimise various activities such as content, affiliate, dialogue and permission marketing.

Going down memory lane, let us not forget

However, mechanising part of marketing does not mean with have done a terrific job.
Just think about direct marketing and software companies like Hubspot and the unnecessary things you receive daily in your letter mailbox or e-mail in-box.

As soon as things get complex, automation becomes tricky

In the early 1980s we talked about office automation. Today we have ever more people working at some kind of office. Even though things have been digitised we use as much paper as then to print…. and many things still need to be optimised further to reach an automation level that allows us to send staff to the beach.
We are still ways off having humanoid robots stand at our office door to take on our tasks.

But what do you think?

Source: What is marketing automation?

What is your opinion?

  • Do you think AI (artificial intelligence) will revolutionise marketing automation?
  • Do you have examples of great marketing automation with the possibility of multiple outcomes (probabilities)?

The author declares that he had no conflict of interest with respect to the content, authorship or publication of this blog entry (i.e. I neither got a freebie from any of the mentioned companies nor are they our clients to the best of my knowledge).

Urs E. Gattiker

Professor Urs E. Gattiker - DrKPI is corporate Europe's leading social media metrics expert (see his books). He continues to work with start-ups. Urs is CEO of CyTRAP Labs GmbH and President of the Marketing Club Lago, a member of the German Marketing Association (DMV).

2 thoughts on “What is marketing automation ?

  • 10. August 2017 at 7:25
    Permalink

    Dear Urs

    Your readers may be interested in this London based development.

    The NHS started a new ambulatory approach under the “Dean Street” brand. Unusual but appealing design and automation – a total new patient-centered approach for the health area of sexual health testing.

    Innovation for hospitals.

    ===> to the blog article: The sexual health testing design clinic

    My best, Maurice

    Reply
    • 10. August 2017 at 11:19
      Permalink

      Dear Maurice
      Thanks so much for your pointing out of this blog entry.

      I see it as a way toward service automation. The possible patient can, with the help of a software robot, get an improved experience. At least on how to get an appointment at the clinic.

      What surprised me is the fact that once I go for my appointment, I still need to show the SMS or text-message on my phone to the clerk or receptionist.
      There should be a bar code reader or other means permitting these people self-check in…

      Of course, if the NHS has then the digital medical records of the person available as well, certain pre-checks can be done. For instance, the system can check the records and determine the likelihood of the person having a certain ailment and so forth.

      There is fine line between automation, mechanisation and privacy intrusion of course. Data protection is key but I am sure with the cost explosion we will have to find a solution to improve service while curtailing cost rises as much as possible.

      I think your sample illustrates the difference between augmentation (improve the service, make it easier for patients) versus automation nicely. Getting the service of securing an appointment spot for a patient smoothened is an important start for further improving administrative processes.

      Cordially
      Urs

      Reply

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