It’s the ultimate marketing weapon. No wonder we have a guilty conscience.

To past generations of marketers, marketing automation is the equivalent of a lunar landing. Imagine a JFK Jr. CMO speaking at a marketing convention ca. 2005:

“Within a decade, we shall be able to determine exactly who does what with our web-page, our on-site and off-site content and our email campaigns. We shall be able to track our prospects’ activity, and bring them back safely to valuable content and propositions that suit their specific needs and experiences. Then measure our impact on the bottom line”.

Well, we’re there. It’s called marketing automation.

It is the rocket science of 21st century B2B marketing. It is the one true path to personalised, data-driven marketing. All this, and few marketers use it. Fewer still use it well.

Marketing automation is more than marketing’s deliverance. It’s our bad conscience.

Is it our fault? Or is it theirs?

Marketing automation companies are ballooning. Marketo, Eloqua and Hubspot – the three biggies – are all growing their revenues by 100%+ year-on-year. The fourth-runner, Pardot, was snapped up by ExactTarget for nearly $95.5m. The market’s romping.

However, there’s another side to the story. Only a fraction of the companies that should have marketing automation, have bought it and a fraction of those who have bought it are using it to anywhere near its full potential.

At a recent event, our managing director asked the several hundred attendees (mostly B2B tech companies) how many used marketing automation: A handful.

One of Europe’s first full-scale adopters of marketing automation technology, John Watton, wondered whether the early majority were failing to see the point of marketing automation. That is, most people still see this moonshot as NASA-level work. “Not for the likes of you and me”.

And they may be right. Among the number of companies that have started down the road of marketing automation, there’s a disappointing number of wrecks and abandonments. It’s an open secret that a fair number of marketing automation licenses are not renewed.

It’s very much like the early days of CRM: the hype, the rapid uptake, the disillusionment, the backlash and, finally, mass market adoption. And we’re moving from hype to disillusionment.

The pain before the gain

There’s a sense that Prometheus has brought fire to marketers, and marketers are grabbing it by the bright and shiny end. It’s no wonder they drop it.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy undergrowth of consultants and advisors who are getting better and better at teaching businesses how to apply marketing automation.

Further, events like next week’s Funnel are bringing both the heat and light of marketing automation to broader audiences. At a glance, something like 17 of the 24 sessions are either directly about marketing automation or relate closely to it.

Econsultancy itself will advise on choosing a marketing automation partner. (And our own MD Stan Woods will share an intriguing content marketing and marketing automation case study with Canonical).

What’s tougher than listening to a bunch of experts share expertise is earning that expertise yourself. Put simply, doing the stuff that makes marketing automation something greater than just a Google Analytics or email blast tool is exactly the stuff that takes a while to learn. You can tell those who’ve done the time by their scars.

The five things to get a grip on

Like wise zen masters, those savvy to the intricacies of marketing automation systems chuckle wisely when one tries to identify rules of thumb for running a system. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

Here are five issues that marketing automation is immediately going to drop in your lap:

1. What does your database look like?

Thanks to over a decade of outbound marketing, many marketing organizations have already got a database of prospects. Unfortunately, after years of willy-nilly email campaigns, that data’s pretty much scorched earth. Pumping tens of thousands of scruffy leads into a marketing automation that charges by the lead (as some do) feels like a rookie mistake.

Weed out that list by segmenting, cleaning and applying filters to the data (region, title, dead addresses, etc.). Then do as one client did: send an opt-out to your whole database. If they ask out, strike them.

2. Sales hand-off

So the whole purpose of this exercise is to groom undifferentiated prospects into great sales leads. Doyens of marketing automation have been saying this for years and it bears repeating: you need to work out with sales what a sales-ready lead looks like for your business. Your sales people will know

Once you’ve worked that out, you’ll have a much better idea of how to score your leads (see next point) and what to do with prospects that return to the leads pool.

On the technical side, marketing automation will need to be integrated with a CRM (at least if you want to be able to map eventual sales and revenue back to marketing activities – and who doesn’t want that?).

3. Scoring

The whole nurturing aspect of marketing automation systems is facilitated by applying a scoring system to different actions that relate to prospect demographics and most importantly, behaviour – across your site, emails, content, social channels, events and beyond.

Obviously, you can’t manage scores of thousands of leads by hand; you’ll need good rules.

At first blush, you’ll want to start giving people points for everything. But it might not make sense – the guy who comes to your site daily may not be much of a sales prospect. Every point you score should ideally indicate significant progression to a buy. (And this may also differ by demographic – another scoring dimension).

In our own experience – for Velocity and for clients – a nurtured lead converts 5-10 times better than a cold one.

4. The flows

Every single campaign within a marketing automation system requires a flow, or multiple flows. There are two very time-consuming parts to this: 1) Understanding what logic you want to apply to your flows (what happens to who, when?) and 2) Building those flows.

For all their efforts to make their tools simple, complex actions are complex. I’ve built the kinds of simple flows that draw the veil to one side – this sucker gets very, very complex in a big hurry.

Our own experience states that you want only to automate and create a flow where automation is called for. Look at your existing marketing and sales processes. Try to simply speed up or improve what you’re already doing to begin with. Too many companies that start with marketing automation set up flows and processes for their own sake, because they can.

5. Mapped content

There’s content that draws in new leads (stuff that’s good enough to get an unknown to fill out a form), there’s content that gives a known lead greater understanding of your story or value proposition, there’s content that quashes those niggling doubts in the hearts of someone close to buying, and all kinds of content in between.

Marketing automation’s a hungry content beast, as an expert on the topic wrote recently. There’s a pretty linear relationship between the sophistication/complexity of your marketing automation system, the amount of content you need to incorporate in it and the beauty of what comes out.

Conclusion

Right now, getting marketing automation’s a bit like winning an Oscar or an Emmy. You’ve been hungering for it for a long time, and when you finally get it it sits there on the shelf looking nice and you wonder what you’re going to do with it.

My advice: The first 30 days are critical (we’re developing a “First 30 Days” program now). So roll up your sleeves. The hard work, and stellar returns, have only just begun.

FUNNEL, Econsultancy’s B2B marketing conference takes place at Emirates Stadium, 13 November 2012. FUNNEL was created to help bring together sales and marketing teams to define better ways of turning awareness into interest and interest into revenue – while tracking the entire cycle.

Find out how you can align your marketing and sales efforts at FUNNEL.