5 Ways Marketing Automation Can Go Terribly Wrong

Do you know that when Arnold Schwarzenegger won his first Mr. Universe title in 1967, based on his body mass index (BMI), he was clinically obese? Not even overweight but obese!

Athletes all over the world know that BMI is a bogus index and it has nothing to do with reality, but the medical profession was obsessed with it then and still is today.

Hot diggity, what an impressive-sounding buzzword.

Today, marketing automation is a similar buzzword.

It’s not bogus per se, but is highly misunderstood and misapplied.

Yes, there are plenty of b2b marketing automation specialists out there, but something is missing.

Because the phrase has “automation” in it, and since automation is technology, in many organizations, IT people with little or no marketing knowledge, dictate to marketers how to use it “properly”.

In 2014, Ascend2 reported that marketing automation will be a $1.9 billion industry by 2020. It’s growing faster than greased lightning because lots of companies have been pumping lots of money into it.

Yet, only 25% of marketers feel marketing automation helps them to achieve their objectives.

One of the reason for this low level of success is that many business owners mistake marketing automation with sending time-scheduled emails.

So, in this literary masterpiece, we take a closer look at five mistakes that can make marketing automation initiatives, in Ozzy Osbourne’s words, go off the rails like a crazy train (even if Ozzy drives the engine).

Problem #1: It’s Transformation, Not Automation

Well, just because the mouse lives in the cookie jar, it’s not necessarily a cookie.

Just because we automate a certain process, it may or may not be marketing automation.

First of all, marketing automation requires a huge transformation of perspectives on business development.

Ideally, marketing automation supports farming type business development, not hunting type.

Hunting type business development has so many unpredictable moving parts that automation becomes virtually impossible.

In farming type business development, you set the initial criteria and they define the types of prospects you attract.

Sadly, what often goes down as marketing automation is really email blasts of idiotic sales pitches.

Imagine sending this message out to your full list…

Hi Business Owner,

By now, you’re most probably ready to buy our brand new incredibly amazing,

supercalifragilisticexpialidocious widget.

So, if you give us an offer, we’ll cut you a nice deal.

The reality is that before you automate your marketing, you have to check and, most probably, change a few things.

When you automate your email sales pitch sequence, that can get really ugly.

It’s not only no one buys from you but you really tick your prospects off.

So, before you automate…

  • Re-assess your company’s business development mindset: Is it based on the magnetic attraction or the maniacal pursuit of prospects?
  • Make sure your people’s compensation is based on attraction not pursuit.
  • Map out your customer journey from the point of entering your funnel to the point of becoming customers.
  • Map out what content you provide at which points of the three funnel sections (Awareness, consideration, decision).
  • Map out the timing between content pieces and program it into your marketing automation software.

Problem #2: Email To A Segmented List Is Not Marketing Automation

Once upon a time, marketers used to email almost random messages to every Tom, Dick and Harry. And when they didn’t respond, they started sending more still pretty random messages.

After all, it didn’t cost a bean to send email messages. And as the volume increased, spam was born.

Sellers became like many hospital patients. If X amount of medication helps, then 10X amount helps 10-times as fast. And those patients end up under the horse chestnut tree six feet under in the boneyard, conveniently located – for the boundless joy and abundant delight of prematurely departed patients – just behind the hospital, saving them the bumpy hearse ride. This is not an indictment of professional healthcare marketing practices either, by the way.

I remember this guy I was burying in London in the early 90s… Oh, hell, I’ll tell you later. It was hilarious.

The key is to match the segment and the content that you send out.

  • Recipients segmented by buyer persona – persona-content match
  • Recipients segmented by position in the sales funnel – position-content match

Now look at the funnel…

  • Awareness stage: Open the readers’ eyes to a potential problem
  • Consideration stage: Educate the reader on why to solve the problem.
  • Decision stage: Inspire the reader to get the problem solved either by herself or by hiring an expert. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, the content’s creator.

If you mismatch the persona and the content, you run the risk of losing the reader’s interest and she may well quit your funnel altogether.

If you mismatch the funnel position and the content, you can end up with a reader who keeps consuming the same kind of content without making progress towards the next stage inside the funnel. Every piece of content should nudge readers to take a small step inside the funnel towards the next stage.

Problem #3: Lack Of Automatable Content

This is all about believing that a pile of random articles can make up the backbone of a marketing automation system.

As an engineer, I can imagine that the reason why the Omega Speedmaster ($10,100) is such a legendary watch is because it has very high-quality components. But when you use, cheap Chinese Rolex cogwheels on the inside, the outside of the watch is irrelevant.

If all you have is some cheap content from some literary sewer-grade content mills that churn out truckloads of hastily written, non-researched, borderline plagiarized content for table scraps, then you have nothing to automate. Not a sausage.

You need automatable content.

In fact, the content has to be so good that people should overlook the fact that the content is handed to them by a machine.

What is automatable content?

Well, it’s …

  • One of a kind. Unique both in content and style; not widely available. I know there is nothing new under the sun, but everything can be presented differently.

From the biological perspective, a squirrel is just a glorified rodent, like a rat, but with much better marketing.

  • Super relevant. It goes beyond general rhetoric of “How to grow a business?” What does “grow” and “business” mean more specifically?

The narrower your target market is, the more relevant your content can be. “How to double email-generated sales leads for your multi-clinic dental business in the southern regions of Seychelles” is pretty specific.

  • It actually helps readers to solve their problems. By the time readers finish reading your piece, they should know either how to solve the discussed problem or how to hire the right expert to solve it.
  • Of great experience. It’s easy and enjoyable to consume it on a broad range of devices.

Once upon a time, the students in creative writing class was asked to write a concise essay about religion, royalty, sex, and mystery. The winner had one sentence: “Oh my god – said the Queen. I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it.” Your readers want useful information presented in an entertaining manner. Don’t be as dry as an academic textbook.

Problem #4: Using One Single Channel: Email

It’s no secret that it’s getting harder and harder to connect with people via email.

Spam filters are getting more sophisticated, and people set them more tightly. They are more willing to run the risk of losing some important emails than receiving unwanted emails by the dozens or hundreds.

It’s fine to use email, but it’s also important to discover the good ol’ snail mail. Yes, many people have written it off as a blast from the past, but, just as LP records and mechanical watches are making their glorious returns, so is snail mail.

Also consider that while people receive dozens or even hundreds of emails a day, they receive snail mail only once in a blue moon, and even that is not some tasty German Cambozola blue cheese, but some utility bills. It’s about as exciting as burning grandma’s wig.

What are your alternatives?

  • Flat mail. Pedestrian, plain half letter-sized hand-addressed envelope with normal stamp.
  • Short message on postcard can invite recipients to a specific website to read the content piece.
  • Lumpy mail. The letter is packed into a jiffy envelope accompanied with some lumpy stuff. You can enclose various bits and bobs. Over the years, I’ve used packs of cards with the ace of spades on the top, playing dice, rubber chicken feet, burial shoes or even some Swann-Morton autopsy scalpels. Yes, they raise both eyebrows and curiosity. And that’s good. And you match your message to the items you send.
  • Shock ‘n’ Awe box. This package goes to buyers who are close to making their decisions and represent good value as clients.

Yes, snail mail costs a tad more to get delivered, but there is no competition. Receiving a curiosity-raising lumpy mail with together with some bills is not much competition and it will get my attention. I open it and take a close look.

Why? It’s human nature.

Problem #5: Ill-Fitting MA Pieces Fail To Communicate

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. N’ I don’t like it any more than you men.” ~ Strother Martin in the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967)

In many cases, what goes down under the aegis of marketing automation is a pile of ill-fitting bits and bobs held together by duct tape, bailing wire and Zapier or other app connecting tools (E.g. IFTTT, Tasker or Microsoft Flow).

Yes, we all need some connectors in our operation, but there are certain functions that should be integrated not merely patched together.

When you use two different software from two different manufacturers, the probability is pretty high that they can’t be properly connected together with a Zapier script.

It’s like trying to install a Mercedes S-Class Coupe engine into an Audi R8 V10 Coupe chassis. Yes, technically, you can MacGyver a Merc engine into the Audi body, but I’m sure the performance will suffer pretty badly.

So, how to shop for a marketing automation (MA) program?

  • List all the programs that you want to link with your MA software (CRM, task manager, project manager, etc.)
  • In a process diagram, map out what is linked to what.
  • Rank every link in terms of importance.
  • For the most important links, check if software is available that integrates the linked functions.
  • For each link, design the conditions. If program A triggers program B with X, then program B does Y.
  • Now implement the link and start testing them stage by stage. Make sure triggers consistently invoke the same responses. This gives consistency to the system.

Yes, this is a time-consuming process, but it will save you lots of time and headache down the road.


I’m about to commit heresy here.

Although our topic here is marketing automation, if you want to automate, you need something that can be automated.

And that’s content.

One option is that you have great content and, in the absence of automation, you send it out manually. No big deal because your prospects receive it, and they can enter your funnel.

And prospects don’t really care about what method you’ve used to send out content pieces. Marketing automation is really for making your life easier. It doesn’t make a dickybird of difference to the recipients.

But imagine that you have a state-of-the-art marketing automation system but no content. There is nothing to send out.

Think of a car. The engine is the automation system and the passenger is the content that has to be delivered from point A to point B.

No matter how good the engine is, without the passenger, it’s useless.

But without the engine, the passenger can turn on the Flintstone drive and reach his destination.

Technically, it may be called marketing automation, but it’s really a content dispensing system.

So, I’d like to encourage you to focus on generating great content first and start distributing it manually.

Then you can start automating your process step by step, making sure every stage of automation works perfectly before automating the next stage.

In the meantime, also read How to Generate Content for Every Stage of the Buyer’s Journey on our blog. That will help you to synchronise content with the various stages of marketing automation.

Picture of Todd Mumford

Todd Mumford