Once you’ve defined your target prospects, and created the content to help move them through the buying process, you need a way to track which prospects read what and score them accordingly. That’s where marketing automation software comes in.

These applications, most of which are offered as software as a service over the Web, automate (as the name implies) the “mass qualification” of leads through a series of automated interactions with a prospect.  It automates the sending of relevant information to prospects (most often via e-mail), monitors what actions specific prospects take (such as clicking to specific webpages or downloading specific white papers) and then triggers follow-up actions based on a prospect’s behavior.

By monitoring which prospects download or click through to which content, marketers can determine which basic segment a specific prospect fits into. For example, if a reader clicks on an introductory story (like this one!) they are a potential lead who is still learning about a product category. If they click through to a story about what’s the payoff from marketing automation software they are interested in the product category but not sure they want to buy. If they click through to a story about how to choose marketing automation software they are probably closer to a purchase decision.

For those who are still learning about a product category, you may want to send more educational material. For those uncertain about its value, offer them content that explains when such a product does and doesn’t deliver value. And for those who are ready to buy, give them detailed information about the pros and cons of different products.

You can do the content delivery, and some level of readership analysis, with just about any basic marketing automation package. Most also provide the ability to create rules or triggers so that you don’t have to manually determine which prospects took which actions and decide what follow-up actions to take with them. Other packages provide the ability to manage other types of content besides e-mails, such as blogs and websites. Another valuable feature is the ability to automatically transmit the name of a lead to a customer relationship management system once they have reached a predetermined threshold that makes them eligible for a sales call or other action.

Higher-priced packages generally give you more flexibility and ease in creating the “look and feel” of the e-mails, blogs or other content you create for your prospects. Some do a more complete job of tracking information about visitors to your Web site, and to correlate that with information about readership of your emails. Some automate the process of “scoring” leads based on criteria you set or even include capabilities for search engine optimization (SEO), such as automatically suggesting terms to use in your blog posts that will rank highest on search engines to help draw new prospects to you.

Prices range from zero (for free trials) to $2,500 per month. The market is still young so there are a bewildering number of options. When choosing among them, be sure to look out for:

  • Whether, and how easily, the marketing automation platform can share prospect information with your CRM system, even if such sharing isn’t a requirement up front,
  • How well the automation platform will scale as the number of prospects or campaigns grow, as well as what will do to your costs, and
  • How easy it is to learn and use, especially if you plan to make it available to more internal users over time.

And above all, remember that without thinking through a marketing automation process, no marketing automation tool can really help you. Knowing the scope of what you want to do (just email? Email and Web site?) is indispensable to choosing the right automation tool.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.