State of Marketing Automation Benchmarks for Success 2017

White Paper

Marketing automation refers to software applications designed to streamline repetitive marketing tasks. The technology has become ubiquitous across most industries.

But what marketing automation strategies are achieving success for best-in-class companies? To find out, Adestra in partnership with Ascend2 fielded the State of Marketing Automation Survey.

This report exclusively represents the 70 companies completing the survey that described their marketing automation strategy as very successful, or best-in-class, in comparison to their competitors. We thank them for sharing their valuable insights and we hope you can use them to assess your own automation portfolio to understand what works and what doesn’t.

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This survey was conducted online from a panel of marketing influencers and research subscribers. The following demographics are represented in this report:

Role in the Company

  • Owner/Partner/CXO (65%)
  • VP/Director/Manager (32%)
  • Non-Management (3%)

Primary Marketing Channel

  • B2B (46%)
  • B2C (28%)
  • B2B and B2C Equally

Number of Employees

  • More than 500 (43%)
  • 50 to 500 (45%)
  • Fewer than 50 (12%)

The State of Marketing Automation

Direct marketing, especially email marketing, is usually the center of the conversation with your customers. After all, we’re all trying to catch the attention of our all-important consumers. Yet most brands simply cannot provide enough resources for its function.

Sure, Amazon has 300-plus professionals on its email marketing team (including tech support), but chances are good that your team is much smaller. It’s likely you are even filling in the gaps with contract or freelance workers, and still feeling a bit of a pinch.

Marketing automation helps level the playing field for marketers on small teams, allowing them to accomplish more by reducing the time spent on repetitive tasks. In fact, 43% of our respondents agreed that optimizing productivity is the most important objective of marketing automation strategy.

In marketing automation, an event happens and it triggers an action automatically that is personalized and relevant to your customer. For example, the order confirmation message your brand most likely sends out is a form of marketing automation. Of course, all brands do at least this much. However, imagine if any action your customers took prompted an appropriate, personalized response.

This is the magic of marketing automation. It can enable your team to scale a personal response anytime they think it is appropriate. Imagine how much more data you can gather as your customers respond to these new personalized, relevant communications. Marketing automation also frees up your team to focus on the new information that comes out of that data, giving them greater insight into and connection with your audiences.

To get started, marketers need to look across marketing goals for opportunities to improve the conversation with customers.

Questions like these can get the planning process started:

  • When the customer interacts with our brand [at interaction A], what does the customer expect?
  • Which actions can we predict our customers will take?
  • Can we create and populate messages that respond to those actions?
  • How can we add campaigns that automate the path to purchase and create more qualified leads to send to sales?

Conversations, not messaging blasts

The goal for an automated program is to create messages across direct marketing channels that add to and advance the conversation with your customers.

Your B2C communications seek to bring customers back to purchase again and again, to join your loyalty program, to buy more often and in larger orders, and to buy from you first over your competition.

Your B2B communications use the drip model to move prospects gently but continuously through qualification and research, giving them ample opportunities to raise their hands for a sales contact

You aren't communicating just because you can communicate, but because your messages build on previous contacts and set the stage for another contact.

Reporting on Best-in-Class Success

This chart provides a good overview of what's happening in the market. It's encouraging to see that we have a sizable class of marketers who report that they are successfully implementing automation strategies for their brands.

Marketing automation has changed significantly over the last 10 years:

  • Marketers have greater access to data, not just in the numbers of customers giving it up, but the customer willingness to provide it.
  • More email service providers are setting up platforms that make automation easier to implement, especially with drag-and-drop editors.
  • More marketers understand the importance of automation in achieving company goals and objectives.

If you classify yourself among the 51% of marketers who say they are "somewhat successful," here are things you can do to move into the success class:

1. Identify the gaps in your own programs.

What's on your wish list of what you need to do?

2. Figure out what your competition is doing better than you.

Competitors are a great source for ideas. Don’t let yourself be too easily dazzled though. Evaluate whether your competitor’s cool idea will still be useful to you in the context of your customers, their behaviors, and your brand’s internal processes. You can't predict marketing-automation success from the outside looking in, and you need to tweak any great idea to make sure it works for your brand.

3. Assess whether automation is your best option at the time.

Instead of looking at your slew of ideas individually, compare them to determine which rise to the top as the best bets for the least amount of effort. Those are the ones you want to invest your marketing automation in first.

4. Progress through incremental innovation.

Lastly, if you're among the 16% of unsuccessful marketers, maybe the problem is that you're trying too many things at once or trying to launch a full-scale automation program all at once.

Incremental innovation, in which you focus on making one small improvement at a time and then building on that over and over, can help you make measurable progress even when you don't think you have the time or resources to make change happen.

How successful is your marketing automation strategy at achieving important objectives?

  • Very successful (33%)
  • Somewhat successful (51%)
  • Unsuccessful (16%)

Most Important Strategic Objectives

Pick a few key objectives. Not every key business objective has to be YOUR objective. Although each of the seven objectives listed in this chart are important, you're better off focusing on achieving two or three, not all seven.

Then, dial in on one of those three as the objective you'll drive this fiscal year. If you try to achieve too much, you'll scatter your energy all over and accomplish little or nothing.

Don't discount sales alignment.The only surprise in the ranking of these standard marketing objectives comes at the bottom: the chasm between the top six objectives, which are all within a few points of each other, and No. 7: "Aligning marketing and sales."

Only 24% of top marketers included alignment with sales as a priority for marketing automation. This is a potential miss.

Marketing automation is a great opportunity for marketing to bring sales professionals in so that they understand when their clients are contacted and with what materials. When marketing automation is integrated into the sales force automation toolset, sales professionals can have more meaningful conversations more often with both clients and prospects.

By providing the reason for very targeted and specific outreach, marketing automation can be a contributor to reducing the length of the sales cycle and helping to close sales and increase repeat business.

What are the most important objectives of a marketing automation strategy?

    Optimizing productivity (43%)
  • Increasing marketing ROI (41%)
  • Improving campaign management (40%)
  • Improving database quality (39%)
  • Acquiring more customers (39%)
  • Measuring performance (37%)
  • Aligning marketing and sales (24%)

Sales Cycle Encountered

Automation can take you only so far down the sales path, but it can be a strong asset to your complex sales cycle.

Aim for intent. A good drip campaign associated with a complex sale can take you to the point of intent, at which time it's probably better to encourage the prospect to talk to a human.

For these companies, you can automate to drive intent, and after that point, automation serves to keep your company or brands top of mind without getting in the sales team's way.

At the point of intent, you must look at each piece in the automation chain and pick where marketing is more effective. Given that 62% of top marketers say their sale cycle is a complex process, this indicates that these marketers have either thought through their entire sales process, or they haven't figured out how to shorten the cycle.

Shorten the cycle. If you have a long consideration set, where could you use automation to shorten the cycle, to show the benefit sooner or bring key partners in to the decision-making process faster and more smoothly?

We as marketers control some of this process, and some we don't. Look at the entire sales process and attempt to shorten it by making sure we drive intent and help build the case across the organization as early as possible.

Create personas.Also, in a complex sale with multiple decision-makers, marketing departments must develop personas or marketing directives for each level and function of decision-maker, from the front-line users to the various C-level executives. You need to drive a specific conversation for each audience.

Always ask, "Who is the intended audience and what is their unique problem? What do we need to solve for?" Your communications must always speak to that level of person and to their function within their organization.

Finally, ask on your lead-qualifying form two questions that help you understand role and function. First, find out not just their job title but their role in the process: decision-maker, user, advisor, etc. This doesn’t always equate to the title they carry. Then, make sure you understand what function they support: marketing, IT, finance, etc. Your job as marketer is to tailor your communications to those roles and functions that have a say in the buying process at that company.

Which best describes the type of sales cycle encountered most often?

  • Complex sale (long cycle, many influencers) 62%
  • Complex sale and direct sale qually 12%
  • Direct sale (short cycle, few influencers) 26%

Critical Challenges to Success

As you read over this chart, keep these ideas in mind:

1. ROI drives everything we do. Evaluate your ideas as a slate to pick the ones that rise to the top when you consider ROI and risk. And then, test those assumptions. Before you automate a program, test it manually and repeatedly to see if it works as you think it will.

The testing must be manual. That's how you know whether you want to use your technology resources and your time to create the automation.

2. ROI changes over time. Too many marketers buy into the "set it and forget it" myth about marketing automation. They assume the behavior they see when they launch a program is the behavior they will continue to see without watching the metrics of whether the program continues to deliver on its promise.

With automation, it's essential to optimize for changes to be sure you're doing the right thing based on the consumer's ever-evolving attitudes and behavior.

3. Make marketing and sales alignment a priority. For complex sales that require sales involvement, it is absolutely necessary to integrate sales into marketing automation. Sales could give you the best automation ideas that drive the biggest ROI improvements. Marketers need to be inclusive and ask.

What are the most critical challenges to achieving marketing automation success?

  • Increasing marketing ROI (46%)
  • Improving campaign management (44%)
  • Measuring performance (39%)
  • Optimizing productivity (38%)
  • Acquiring more customers (35%)
  • Improving database quality (33%)
  • Aligning marketing and sales (33%)

Objectives Versus Challenges

The results we get when we lay objective priorities against the challenges they pose to the marketing team make sense here. But, once again, it focuses attention on the disconnect between Marketing and Sales.

In a complex sale, it is highly likely that integrating marketing and sales becomes a much bigger strategic objective. Why? Because that is where the biggest potential for ROI can be realized. Marketers who forge strong relationships with their sales counterparts will find tremendous value in automation.

It is also worth noting that ROI drops below optimizing productivity at this point. This may be a short-term phenomenon, as the marketing team uses automation to increase their bandwidth before making more resource-intensive changes that have larger ROI impact.

Evaluation Criteria

It's no surprise that "Ease of implementation" is the No. 1 criterion for choosing a marketing automation platform. Our concern is the gap between ease of implementation and the No. 7-ranked "Clients/ recommendations."

Only 23% say clients and recommendations factor into the evaluation. We would challenge potential buyers of marketing automation systems to put more emphasis on validating claims of “ease of implementation” along with every other aspect of the platform by looking for recommendations.

It is also worth mentioning that nearly every evaluation factor mentioned here works better when the marketing team has a strategy for implementing marketing automation. That makes sense: when you know what your goal is, and you can communicate that goal, you get better results because you consistently work towards that goal. Clients who have a fully articulated and supported strategy see better results, consistently.

What are the most important evaluation criteria for selecting a marketing automation system?

  • Ease of implementation (64%)
  • Technical support (42%)
  • Cross-platform integratin (41%)
  • Industry analyst ratings (32%)
  • Analytics capabilities (32%)
  • Cost of ownership/pricing (32%)
  • Clients/recommendations (23%)

Perceived Complexity

Nearly half of top marketers say implementing a new marketing automation platform is "extremely complicated." But as with the results in question 6, there's another way to think about this

Suppose it takes you 120 hours (roughly 3 weeks) to create a marketing automation program. It sounds crazy, but if you take that total time and amortize it over the year, a time when you will increase revenue and contribute to your company's success, it's not unreasonable.

Also, consider it from the cost of ownership. If you were to say that for every hour spent in implementing a new program you make X amount of additional revenue, then you will perceive that cost of implementation differently.

We talk with many marketers who say they don't do automation because it's too difficult. However, everybody who ever succeeded had to work hard to achieve it.

How complicated is the implementation of a marketing automation system?

  • Extremely complicated (46%)
  • Somewhat complicated (35%)
  • Somewhat uncomplicated (13%)
  • Extremely uncomplicated (6%)

Implementation Resources

It's encouraging to see nearly all top marketers outsource implementation of a new marketing automation system to specialists, whether they do it entirely (59%) or in cooperation with in-house personnel.

This is exactly what marketers need to do. The way to have rapid innovation is to outsource the heavy lifting to people with the bandwidth and skill sources to do it quickly without being distracted by other company needs.

Outsourcing enables companies to grow and innovate faster. But the challenge – assuming the company backs them – is not to get lazy because someone is doing the work. There's still a cost associated with outsourcing, beyond paying for the service.

You must look at how to manage the cost and time involved in the project and to make sure your program is effective. That means testing and thinking about strategy. As we mentioned in question 6, the best results come from a fully articulated and supported plan of action. This becomes even more important when third party experts are brought in. They can achieve more when they work towards specific goals beyond “implement a system.” Brands that have a strong, well-articulated and supported strategy for marketing automation will realize results much sooner as well.

Which best describes the resources used to implement a marketing automation system?

  • Outsourced to a specialist (59%)
  • Combination of outsourced and in-house resources (38%)
  • In-house resources only (3%)


Marketing automation could be the holy grail to better utilizing marketing resources, and increasing productivity and ROI.

But brands need to think about technology implementation strategically instead of tactically. Many of the results in this survey showed that tactical concerns were driving decision making, yet the greatest successes will come to those who have a strong strategy that is supported internally at the highest levels and across functions.

Companies that have complex sales cycles should also make sure that marketing and sales work together while thinking through a marketing automation strategy. Too many appear (according to the results in this survey) to be missing out on opportunities by dismissing the impact marketing automation can have on sales. Marketers can open greater ROI opportunities by avoiding that mistake.

Marketers need to make sure they reach out to peers at other brands who have already implemented marketing automation. Lessons learned are often able to be shared, and will help marketers get off to a strong start as they investigate marketing automation platforms.

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