Our industry’s shift towards greater marketing integration sees many of us reflecting on, and refining, the systems, structure and service we are providing our merchant clients.  As our world becomes even more connected and the multi-screen revolution brings even greater cross-device, cross-channel, any time, any place buying journeys, we’re equally compelled to ensure our marketing approach is not only hard working but entirely relevant and inspiring to generate valuable sales and leads.   

Over the last few years, thoughts on how we can sharpen this omni-channel delivery have given rise to a plethora of new strategies and approaches from integrated marketing and click attribution to connected strategies and many more. All buzz words for different ways of packaging our services, yet all highly relevant to our digital world. 

However, the bottom line is that merchants are continually striving for broad-reaching yet highly cost-effective acquisition strategies that quickly identify hot prospects and swiftly eliminate low value users.  We’re all fully aware that digital marketing provides the powerful tracking of engagement and activity levels, and that it has an acute ability to craft truly brilliant, highly-targeted campaigns; but it’s the ultimate strategy behind this delivery that will drive the business that clients are rightfully demanding.

The emergence of marketing automation is therefore interesting.  Taking the US by storm (global market intelligence firm IDC has predicted that the total market for marketing automation will grow to $4.8 billion by 2015), it’s already hitting UK shores with a bang. The technology provides true ‘closed loop marketing’ (there goes another buzz word) to not only pinpoint, but also nurture and transform prospects, with the end result being a significant increase in customer value.

Arguably, the initial mining of ‘prospects’ is hardly new. Over the years, advertisers have become much more attuned to managing the wealth of data they already have at their fingertips. Our internet reliance, coupled with constant technological developments, has equally allowed the industry to discover lots of new ways to follow customer browsing interactions. As a result, merchants now routinely know who buys their products, for how much, where and when. This 1st party data has become invaluable, and technological advancement in 3rd party data construction has equally given us an even greater understanding of how and when to talk to customers; making data management gold dust for marketing to truly achieve ROI and build brand awareness.

With this audience knowledge already safely in the bag now, marketing automation takes its interpretation to another level and, if used correctly, is pure digital body language. It provides merchants with prospective consumer movement predictions, identifies consumer types and targets them accordingly across a variety of appropriate channels.  In essence, the technology promises to identify and move real prospects down the sales funnel through a series of triggered, nurturing communications based upon the body language they are giving off. 

But, is it all it’s cracked up to be? Is marketing automation going to replace existing activity and, more importantly, could it negate the need for an email partner, display partner, content partner? And, if so, could it take the pain and any inefficient costs out of a marketing plan?

But let’s take this thought process a stage further. If by removing this pain, will it inadvertently also remove the people? Will digital become, well, digital? And if so, where does that leave us as marketers? As agencies?

As the thinkers, the delivers, the innovators and the conductors, the role of the agency is continually changing. As technologies evolve, agencies must evolve with these new innovations.  But the great thing is that’s what we do day-in, day-out. We’re always looking for new ways to engage, to track, to connect, to click and to convert customers.

In my mind marketing automation is therefore not the be-all and end-all solution to marketing departments.  And it’s certainly not a simple implementation that replaces marketing teams with automated robots.  Undoubtedly it will be useful in replacing, or at least improving, disconnected strategies. It will also efficiently connect siloed agency teams who are heavily focused on one channel and one channel alone.

However, what it won’t do is replace the need for creativity, positioning, content, innovation and, most importantly, that overarching strategy. Like with anything in this world, marketing automation will only be as good as the person steering it.

Equally, its ‘fostering’ of prospects is based on valuable and timely interaction, usually in the form of engaging content that’s of interest to these customers and inspires them to proceed to purchase. Marketing automation effectively supplies targeted one-to-one dialogue with each individual customer, but it’s the content that is the rich glue that holds the whole process together.

And it’s this wealth of content that also requires the human touch; the ability to stimulate and grab attention. Content will be key to any organisation, irrespective of whether they implement automated tools or not.  A smart mix of automation, data insight, asset management and content, strategically brought together as clever multi-channel campaigns, will be the winning combination to marketing success for the future.