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You've likely received the e-mails – the spam disguised as genuine personal interaction. They're often casual and friendly and might refer to an item you recently purchased or content you downloaded. They usually address you by name. But they're not sent by a friend – or even a human, for that matter. They're the product of marketing automation software designed to replicate the human touch. And to some degree, they're every marketer's dream.

Automation tools are the darling of today's marketing mix. They simplify one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of marketing – lead nurturing – so that content distribution and lead conversion happen with minimal intervention. In other words: you can connect with prospects and move them along the sales funnel with nary a cold call. It's understandably desirable.

But the reality of marketing automation is a lot less dreamy, even for businesses that spend a lot of time creating and publishing content for use in their marketing and lead-generation efforts. Most businesses we work with could surely benefit from solutions to make their jobs easier. But we inevitably recommend against marketing automation. Here's why.

Marketing automation is a misnomer

There's really nothing automated about setting up a marketing automation system that functions optimally, and it takes a lot of ongoing work to keep it churning. So while parts of the job are automated, just as many are very hands-on, including:

  • Choosing the right system: There are dozens of marketing automation systems on the market. Your web development and marketing team will need to work together to research and select a system that meets your needs and can work in tandem with your content-management system.
  • Feeding it with leads: Do you have an existing list of leads to start with? No? Isn’t that what a marketing automation system is for? Well, no, actually. A marketing automation system takes existing leads and helps you nurture them. Getting those leads in the first place is a separate job.
  • Setting up workflows: You’ll need to create lead-nurturing workflows corresponding to your customer profiles – a series of e-mails, social media posts, newsletters, or otherwise. Then you’ll have to determine how you’ll implement lead scores. Does a lead get a point for opening an e-mail or for replying to it? Your workflow and lead scoring is going to depend on a strategy that matches specific customer profiles to targeted actions.
  • Matching content to workflows: You’ll have to create the actual content for each workflow – blog posts, newsletter stories, and so on.
  • Setting up metrics tracking: What open rate are you aiming for on your e-mails? What click-through would you like to achieve on your calls to action? And what percentage of respondents would you like to convert into paying customers? You’ll want to plug these goals into the system so you can analyze how well your efforts are working.
  • Analyzing the data and implementing changes: If you do all the other steps well, you’ll generate a lot of data that will give you actionable insights into what’s working and what needs to change. Then you’ll want to tweak your campaigns to ensure they’re converting as many leads as possible.

For an automated system, that's a lot of labour-intensive work. In fact, many companies find themselves in need of training and even additional staff due to the increased workload.

And then there's the cost

The upfront and ongoing workload isn't the only issue with marketing automation systems. They also carry a big price tag.

Our clients typically don't have the resources a system like this requires. And according to the stats, they're not alone. Although companies spend more now on marketing automation systems than they do on advertising, 37 per cent of marketers say budget constraints prevent them from implementing an efficient marketing automation strategy.

The fact is, high-touch marketing works

Despite our work building websites that make digital processes more efficient, we believe there is value in the human touch. We believe in picking up the phone (or at least firing up a Google Hangout) to talk to clients and prospects.

A recent campaign by eZ Systems, makers of the content-management system eZ Publish / eZ Platform, illustrated how well-targeted high-touch campaigns can work, even on a very small scale. After investing in contact lists that weren't yielding results, the marketing team decided to try a high-touch approach. "We wanted to do something different and we had a hunch this might work," said Roderick Thomas, partner success manager at eZ Systems.

The campaign targeted 40 people at digital agencies: five prospects in each of eight selected companies. Over the course of four weeks, eZ sent a series of personal e-mails, themed gifts, and postcards to their targets. Every delivery was followed by a phone call. Some of the packages were even hand-delivered.

The campaign infused technical sales copy with fun pop-culture references. "These are real people, after all, so we were not afraid to be as creative as possible," Mr. Thomas said.

In the end, it resulted in two meetings, an outcome Mr. Thomas was happy with, particularly because one meeting was the product of a delivery he made personally.

Doug Plant is Mugo Web's client engagement manager. He likes working on web projects because the return on investment is so easy to recognize, working with eZ Publish because it is so efficient to deliver on, and working with the Mugo Web team to deliver great tools to clients.

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