In today's tough financial climate it is more important than ever for marketers to engage on a more personal basis with their prospects and customers, according to a white paper from marketing automation firm Emarsys. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

In any economic downturn, marketing budgets are among the first to feel the squeeze and the drive to deliver a higher return on investment becomes paramount to survival. This dilemma is familiar to thousands of marketers who face it on a daily basis, with the expectation to do more with less: a holy grail which many fail to achieve.

Email marketing has long been seen as a low-cost, easy-to-implement solution, but one which is in danger of becoming a double-edged sword as recipients are oversaturated with content. The recipients in their turn have become much more selective in what they choose to receive, and through which channel they receive it. The trick for marketers now is to make their content relevant enough to make it past all this filtering, and the answer to this is marketing automation.

However, for small and medium-sized businesses, and even larger B2C companies, a first foray into marketing automation can be quite daunting. A simple Google search will bring up primarily high-end, expensive solutions which all seem to focus above all on lead scoring: converting interest into a first sale. For the thousands of online businesses looking to exploit new customers after that first sale, this looks like it's missing the point. But it's not; it only seems that way.

This bias toward the low-volume/high margin B2B model is easy enough to understand when you look at how marketing automation evolved. In its white paper the company set out to help marketers see past the "sales speak" and find out how marketing automation can actually contribute to the business of selling.

In the beginning
In the classic B2B business model, potential customers spend a lot of time looking into the products they wish to purchase and conduct in-depth research, sometimes over long periods. Suppliers, competing in a restricted space and with fewer clear opportunities for differentiation, began to look for ways to give them an edge in the hunt for sales.

The new technologies available to online retailing, especially using cookies to monitor website behaviour and tracking opens and clicks on emails, soon gave rise to software that could track prospects and leads and score them in terms of their likelihood to make a purchase. Given the typically high cost of products, the complex sales proposals and long gestation periods, B2B customers are only really interesting between the points where they enter the zone of high interest and when the purchase is complete.

The new technologies could therefore enable businesses to focus their marketing efforts appropriately, using low-cost automated techniques such as email and content-driven marketing to instigate and nurture interest, while concentrating the 'expensive' sales teams on potential purchasers who have expressed the right degree of interest.

By having only 'sales ready leads' in the pipeline, the improvements in success rates and ROI were felt immediately, and Marketing Automation was born.

The came the internet
The internet has also changed the way B2C works, with customers browsing extensively online, looking for recommendations from people they have never met and displaying little or no loyalty toward the retailer before the purchase. (An exception this might be some of the higher value markets such as cars and antiques). Their buying cycle can be extremely short and purchases are often made on impulse.

These factors, combined with the smaller margin on most sales, meant that trying to capture the profiles of prospective buyers before their first purchase was for B2C businesses both ineffectual and expensive. More than that, it was seen as a barrier: an obstacle to the surfer which stood between them and the articles they were looking for.

Furthermore, despite the freedom of choice the internet provides, it was clear that online shoppers were still receptive to the personal relationships that shop assistants provided. As high street retail stores fought back with loyalty schemes and free gifts ('get your tenth coffee for free' is a classic example), so the online world began to look for ways in which they, too, could nurture new customers to become repeat buyers through cross- and up-selling and loyalty programmes.

The result was that, rather than subscribe to the established, B2B-oriented marketing automation solutions, B2C retailers turned this model on its head and began to work out for themselves how to harness technology to exploit low sales costs and high volumes of traffic to counter small profit margins with increased turnover.

A new action plan
The company's recommendations, therefore, include the following steps:

  1. Understand the marketing lifecycle
    To ensure that you make the best use of marketing automation, you really need to understand the marketing life cycle. This is the path a prospect follows over the course of time and what types of interaction you should use to engage.
  2. Marketing Automation can be just automated marketing
    Given the availability of website tracking engines and the ease with which customer data can be stored and accessed there is no excuse for any online business, of any type or size, not to automate much (if not all) of its customer interaction. This can range in sophistication from a simple chain of emails tracking a purchase event to predictive behaviour models which anticipate what a customer might want or do.
  3. Think big, but start small
    Where most people shy away from implementing marketing automation is trying to work out when to implement which processes. Initial setup efforts can appear large and the return on investment can be hard to measure in financial terms, especially at the beginning. If you think that this might be the case, then don't start out with increased revenue as your goal - you can instead begin by automating some of the processes which would otherwise be performed manually.
  4. Look beyond the Marketing Workflow
    When you do start to plan your automated marketing campaigns, there is still nothing like a good, old-fashioned brainstorming session with colleagues around a whiteboard. Plot your ideal marketing workflow and then work out all the things that can go wrong with it.
  5. Learn from B2B marketing automation
    While improving your customer experience and driving incremental sales are reasons enough to implement marketing automation, it can also assist in your prospecting activities too. Without the high requirements of a B2B solution, a number of B2C solutions offer some elements of the lead lifecycle: they can offer 'web2lead' forms that trigger engagement opportunities, track web behaviour to capture information that builds prospect profiles, and some can even present special offers and recommendations based on browsing history.
  6. Think about more than just sales
    Loyalty schemes, reminders to renew expired warranty, satisfaction surveys; these are just a few of the many customer service initiatives that lend themselves to automation. You can also identify inactive customers and bring them back into the fold or, failing that improve your deliverability by purging them from your database.

Marketing automation, or automated marketing, whichever way you look at it, is a win-win situation. And it can work very well for B2C companies. You improve productivity, reduce the amount of repetitive tasks you or your team have to perform, improve customer experience and even increase your ROI. You may over time increase sales too. The white paper, entitled 'Does Marketing Automation work for B2C?', can be requested from the Emarsys web site.