The next level of marketing automation: Go beyond lead generation!

The next level of marketing automation: Go beyond lead generation!
Image by Neko Tai

Marketing automation systems are best known as tools for lead generation and lead nurturing, often related to the inbound marketing methodology. Even in markets with a slow martech adoption rate “marketing automation” has become a household name. But what’s next? Let’s have a look at the possible evolution of marketing automation—both the concept and the software.

A little bit of personal background

It must have been back in 2008 or 2009 when inbound marketing consultant Torsten Herrmann introduced me to the inbound marketing methodology. Since then I have implemented inbound marketing in a number of companies.

Over the years I worked with a variety of technological solutions. Most of the time the use cases were typical B2B lead generation scenarios. Since I always put strategic and conceptional work first, I considered marketing automation systems mostly as tools which made it easy to put my inbound marketing concepts into practice.

This changed recently. My current job at, the leading legal tech company in German-speaking markets, demands a more comprehensive view. Some inspiring conversations with B2B digital marketing consultant Alexander Woelke were thought-provoking, too. And appropriately enough I just started reading the German book “Marketing Automation für Bestandskunden” (“marketing automation for existing customers”) which examines marketing automation in a customer retention context.

My vision for marketing automation

OK, let’s get onto the subject of this article: the possible evolution of marketing automation.

Michael van Laar

Marketing automation (as a concept, not necessarily as a single software tool) has the power to orchestrate many—maybe even most, if not all—aspects of individualized corporate communications (on a per-person basis) as well as customer/stakeholder interactions and operational intelligence. Thus it can become a central element in a company’s growth and profitability strategy.

Michael van Laar

This goes far beyond the typical “lead generation, lead nurturing, handover to sales” use case. The possibilities are nearly endless. More and more marketing automation solutions arise which incorporate machine learning, artificial intelligence and data mining algorithms. Creative communication strategies can be backed up with data. This can lead to an unprecedented degree of (auto-)optimizing campaigns.

Why marketing automation is such a powerful and expandable concept

Marketing automation can be much more than just having a software execute a predefined email drip campaign. At its core the concept of marketing automation is about reacting to people’s behavior in an automated and scalable way. The above-mentioned drip nurturing campaign is a very basic example: The series of emails is a predefined reaction to the submission of a web form or another kind of user activity.

But that was just a very basic example. The more a marketing automation system “knows” about a person, the better it can react. This is not a one way street. Modern marketing automation systems can be connected to almost any database or piece of software. “Reacting” on a certain behavior doesn’t necessarily mean sending a predefined email. You can use marketing automation to orchestrate almost all of your available communication channels, including your employees.

OK, by now everything I told you sounds very abstract. Let’s have a few examples:

  • Imagine your company provides a software tool—a web app and mobile app. Several onboarding sessions with a technical consultant via a web conference tool are part of the premium plan. You use a marketing automation system to send a few onboarding emails to a new customer. You monitor their reaction on the individual emails. You use the marketing automation tool’s built-in website tracking capabilities to monitor how they use the web app. And you import user behavior data from the mobile app. All of this information, as well as derived key metrics, is available to the technical consultant via the connected CRM system. This data can be used to optimize the focus of the consultational phone calls.
  • Imagine your customers are browsing your online knowledge base a lot. Combine the person-related web analytics data (collected by your marketing automation system) with data from your customer support ticket system and information about your customers contracts. You can now use this intelligence to pick the right time and the most promising communicational trigger for upselling offers. You can either do this directly via email, website personalization, push notifications or any of your connected communication channels. Or you can instruct the marketing automation system to trigger sales reps by automatically creating tasks in a connected CRM system.
  • Imagine you create lots of helpful content on a regular basis. Forget the old-fashioned “one size fits all” email newsletter. Instead you could provide each recipient with an individual compilation of editorial and promotional content. Based on the recipient’s topical preferences as well as based on all their monitoring and tracking data you can tailor the content, the sending frequency and even the communication channel of your newsletter exactly to the preferences of each and every recipient. If you connect your content database with your marketing automation system, you can even automate the entire process. No additional editorial work required. An example: Think of a recipient who tends to stay no longer than 3 minutes on your article pages, who typically visits your website during evening hours, who is mostly interested in topic X and topic Y (but not in topic Z) and who likes to be informed about your new articles via WhatsApp messenger. This recipient will only receive teasers about new articles on topics X and Y which can be read in under 5 minutes. Article teasers are delivered to their WhatsApp account (via a third party service provider integration), scheduled between 7 pm and 9 pm. All of this is done by your marketing automation system in combination with other integrated tools—fully automated without you having to lift a finger.

I hope these diverse examples illustrate my main statement. Of course use cases and fields of application depend on your business model. But you get an idea of the many and varied possibilities.

However, we are not quite there yet. Some ideas dash against technological limitations (which I discuss below). But I’m sure that marketing automation can evolve into a central communication and steering role. It can help companies to scale their business and to enhance the quality of customer relationships.

Conceptual principles and the right mindset

When I talk about marketing automation becoming a central element in a company’s growth and profitability strategy, it’s obvious that this calls for certain changes and evolutions in a company’s culture and its personnel’s mindset.

Of course some clever people have already thought up a few different models. These are meant to act as a theoretical foundation for the concept I outlined above. Usually I don’t like buzzword bingo. We don’t need new pompous made-up terms for each and every little idea. But sooner or later a concept like this needs a catchy name. Let’s see what the market already has to offer. Here are the approaches I like best.

Engagement marketing

“Engagement marketing” is one of the concepts Marketo advises and explains.


What is Engagement Marketing? […] it’s a new way of thinking about how your brand communicates with your audience:

  1. As individuals
  2. Based on what they do
  3. Continuously over time
  4. Directed towards an outcome
  5. Everywhere they are

Sounds quite appropriate and comprehensive, doesn’t it? Marketo seems to really focus on this engagement idea. Back in January 2017 Marketo’s CEO Steve Lucas wrote a blog article in which he explained his idea of an “Engagement Economy” and its impact on marketing.

Steve Lucas, CEO of Marketo

The Engagement Economy embodies the fundamental shift in relationships between buyers and sellers, but extends across entire organizations to include customers, prospects, employees, and partners. The bottom line is that the marketer in this new era must engage with all the stakeholders in a business, not just customer, and deliver an experience with promise.

Steve Lucas, CEO of Marketo

Can you see some parallels when comparing this quote with the idea I described at the beginning of this article? The big challenge is to orchestrate—and scale—meaningful individualized communication not only with potential and existing customers, but with all stakeholders of a company.

I also recommend watching the video of Steve Lucas’ keynote speech at the Marketing Nation Roadshow event in Boston, entitled “Winning in the Engagement Economy”.

Customer experience marketing

“Customer experience marketing” is a term which marketing automation vendor Experiture uses. It describes the methodological background of their product. Recently they changed it to “Customer Engagement Marketing”. Now they call their product a “human engagement platform”. The old term can still be found on their website, but that page obviously wasn’t touched since 2014.


Customer Experience Marketing is used to describe the process of creating and measuring marketing programs that seek to facilitate this entire set of interactions—from customer activation and onboarding; to promoting efficient service delivery; to encouraging satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy; to winning back lost customers.


I like the fact that this definition describes the whole customer journey and customer lifecycle. The Experiture website even contains a page about “Customer Lifecycle Marketing”. Obviously Experiture experimented—and still experiments—with different terminologies to explain the use cases and benefits of their product.


To make the initially described conceptual vision become reality, a company must raise its employees’ awareness for customer lifecycle and customer journey management. This is an inter-divisional challenge and involves almost all departments.

This also requires a central place where intelligence about leads, customers and other relevant stakeholders is collected, stored and processed. I think a traditional CRM system can’t cope with this. In my opinion a highly interconnected marketing automation system is better prepared for this task.

But no matter which combination of tools is the best choice for the job, it’s important that employees trust and use this system. If this “central lead/customer/stakeholder intelligence system” assigns a task to an employee, it’s their job to actually take care of this issue. If this task is seen as purely optional information, the whole idea is reduced to absurdity. It is the job of the whole company to make the tool actually useful and thus trustable.

Marketing automation tools have to to evolve

The technical aspects of integrating marketing automation tools into complex IT landscapes are part of my job. So I could tell you lots of details. But I want to keep it simple and focus on three key aspects:

  1. The ability to store, access and manipulate custom data structures
  2. Integrating additional communication channels
  3. Allowing concepts other than lead generation and lead nurturing to be used as theoretical foundation of the software’s design

The marketing automation toolkit

Have a look at the following schematic diagram.

The marketing automation toolkit

You can identify three different types of marketing automation core modules:

  • Modules used to present information, interact with members of the target group(s) and collect data about their behavior: landing pages, web forms, web tracking and emails (including email interaction tracking)
  • Modules used to automate procedures as well as to process and organize data: workflows
  • Modules used to connect other tools, data sources and communication channels: APIs and integrations

With reference to the vision described earlier in this article, APIs and integrations become particularly important. They are even more important if the core part of the toolset is not a “classic” marketing automation system but an AI-driven solution like Optimove’s “Relationship Marketing Hub” or Pegasystem’s “Customer Engagement and Digital Process Automation Software”.

Such tools apply machine learning and predictive analytics. In doing so they unveil valuable information hidden in your data. They use this intelligence to suggest (or even execute) the best possible next step of a communication, lead nurturing, sales or customer support process. But such systems may not be equipped with communication modules. Instead they use APIs and integrations to connect to external tools. These external tools then take on the tasks of sending emails, managing social media communication or operating a call center.

The more complex communication becomes, the more important APIs, integrations and connectivity are. And it’s obvious that communication will become more complex. Today’s typical use cases for marketing automation only scratch the surface.

This leads us straight to the first of the above mentioned three key aspects of the evolution of marketing automation tools.

Storing, accessing and manipulating custom data structures

If a marketing automation system or a set of connected tools should be able to orchestrate individualized corporate communications on a per-person basis, a lot of data is required. The more machine-evaluable information about a lead, customer or stakeholder is available, the better the marketing automation control center can do its job. So we connect everything using APIs, middleware and connectors.

That’s fine. But the ability to access external data is only one side of the coin. To combine, mix and match information from different sources, appropriate data storage capacities are required. I’m not talking about custom fields for contact or company records. Custom fields are an easy-peasy commodity feature.

To enable a marketing automation system to store complex additional data, you need to be able to expand the tool’s underlying database. You need new data objects, each of them including new fields, database tables and connections. To go into this in detail would take us too far afield. I don’t want to bore you with technobabble.

As far as I know, only three four marketing automation vendors provide such database extensibility: Marketo, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Salesforce Pardot and Oracle Eloqua. They all provide a feature which is called “Custom Objects”. Custom objects are the containers used to store additional structured data. In some cases those custom objects are directly mapped to corresponding custom objects in a connected CRM tool.

Does this mean that these three tools are ready for the above mentioned challenges? Well, not quite. I can only tell you about Marketo. I haven’t investigated the capabilities of the other two tools in detail.

At the time of writing I consider Marketo’s custom objects as a step in the right direction. But to be actually useful—i. e. to enable the use cases I described earlier—there is still a long way to go. The reason for this is that Marketo’s custom objects have a number of restrictions. These restrictions limit their possible use in such a significant way that most of the really interesting and ambitious use cases I’m thinking of cannot be implemented. (If you are interested in details, just drop me a line.)

Please note that this statement is not Marketo bashing by any means. Marketo actually does a great job. Their tool provides a much better level of data accessibility within their automation workflows than many other marketing automation tools. The example of Marketo’s custom objects limitations just illustrates that even vendors with an already comprehensive feature set still have lots of room for improvement—if they want to cover the above mentioned use cases.

I think, custom objects are a core element for the progression of marketing automation software. Being able to access and output custom objects data in every automation workflow, email or dynamic list would open up unprecedented possibilities.

Integrating additional communication channels

A lot of “classic” marketing automation tools focus on emails as their main communication channel. Some of he tools even evolved from email marketing solutions.

However, nothing is as constant as change. Business messenger applications such as Slack, Facebook Business or Microsoft Teams are talked about as one of the big business communication trends in 2018. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and similar apps are used across all age groups. Subscribing to push notifications is a simple and convenient way to be informed about important news. Wearables and smart home gadgets just begin to unveil their potential.

Rose de Fremery, content writer for major tech brands

Although marketing automation began as a web-driven platform, it is adapting to our mobile-centric age. Marketers must reach their customers where they are.

Rose de Fremery, content writer for major tech brands

The attempt to reach people where they are can also lead to some unforeseen revivals. Sending printed letters to B2B leads as part of marketing communication seemed absolutely old-fashioned to a lot of marketers for many years. Email was the go-to medium. But think of the ever growing amount of emails popping up in people’s inboxes. Today a well designed advertising letter sent by snail mail is almost a curiosity. But because of being a curiosity it might gain more of its receiver’s attention than most marketing emails could do. That’s why it can make sense to connect a letter shop or direct mail service provider to your marketing automation system.

Marketing automation systems must adapt to these new conditions. I really like the idea of the “marketing message” concept of the open source marketing automation tool Mautic.

Basically a marketing message in Mautic is a container for different versions of the same message. Each variation is specifically adapted to one communication channel. The number of different communication channels is still limited in Mautic. But the underlying idea is great: You can reach each lead, contact, stakeholder or subscriber using their favorite communication channel(s). Instead of adding a “send email” activity to an automation workflow, you ship a prepared “marketing message”. Your tool’s algorithms do the rest. They choose the right distribution channel for each individual recipient—based on their granted permissions and their channel-specific preference settings.

At the time of writing I haven’t seen a similar concept in other marketing automation systems. A lot of tools haven’t even embraced different communication channels. At least not as equivalent alternatives to email communication. But I’m sure that the concept of marketing automation must become more communication channel agnostic to be ready for the challenges of the future. Email will still be important, but there will be much more diversity.

Broadening and/or flexibilizing the conceptual foundation of the software

Some software products are geared to certain use cases, theoretical foundations or methodologies. Usually this is a good sign. It is an indication that the developers have a clear vision of what their solution should be—and also what it should not be. This can result in an easy-to-use interface, simple and comprehensible use patterns and a flat learning curve.

Marketing automation products are often geared to typical inbound marketing and lead generation processes. As long as your specific use case is in line with the tool’s intended field of application, everything is fine. But if you want to use a marketing automation system to orchestrate a big part of your company’s individualized corporate communications, this narrow focus might become an obstacle.

There are a few possible solutions I can think of.

One way of dealing with this is a use case agnostic framework approach. In this case the software provides many small bits of functionality. These are very powerful when they are combined in the right way. The upside: Great flexibility. It’s a bit like a box of legos which can be transformed into almost anything imaginable—if you know how to do it. The downside: You actually have to build everything yourself. There is no out-of-the-box configuration matching your use case or business model.

Another way would be the development of different products for different fields of application. But this strategy involves the risk of confusing customers. Huge feature comparison lists, different product names and pricing options might put people off. A modular toolkit instead of different products could be an appropriate solution to reduce confusion.

The third way I can think of would be an option to switch between a “standard mode” and an “advanced mode”. The standard mode could be geared to the most popular scenario, e. g. a classic lead generation and lead nurturing process. It features some simplifications, guidance for unexperienced users and a flat learning curve. If you switch to advanced mode, the interface offers much more options, settings and tools. It now offers a framework-like approach. Experienced users can use it for more advanced use cases.

What do you think the future will bring?

Image by TeroVesalainen

I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think marketing automation will look like in five or ten years? Will we still treat it as a distinct part of our marketing toolset? Or will the concept of marketing automation be a natural aspect of every corporate communications, marketing and sales activity?

Please leave your comments using the social media channels linked below. I also plan to conduct some interviews on this topic. So stay tuned and subscribe to the Digital Ardor email newsletter.