How to Become a Marketing Automation Expert: 9 Skills You Need to Get and Keep the Job

Thinking of carving out a new niche for yourself as a marketing automation expert?

It’s a great time to make that move. Entry-level email platforms are trying to play catch-up and add marketing automation features left and right. Businesses are gradually moving away from tacking “send e-blasts” onto the end of a list of a random staffer’s job duties and moving toward hiring actual automation pros. The best automation platforms are becoming both more sophisticated and easier to use every month.

And I suspect we’re still at the beginning of the curve—that we’re seeing only a fraction of the opportunities for marketing automation experts that will arise in the next five years as smaller businesses catch up to what major players are doing.

One data point: our 2017 Small Business Conversion Marketing Report, we found that while about a third of small business owners were familiar with marketing automation, fewer than 2% were using automation to manage their contacts. As they learn more, they’ll need automation experts to lead the way.

Sometimes that leadership might require writing your own job descriptions. Not all small-to-medium businesses have a clear picture of what hiring or consulting with an automation specialist will look like in practice. That’s why Senior Director of Brand Marketing Josh Braaten took the screen at Drip’s Automated virtual conference this spring to share a presentation called “How to Hire a Marketing Automation Expert.”

Josh has hired and worked with many marketing automation experts over the years, so he has a sharp eye for the kinds of skills and traits that translate into on-the-job success.

Thousands of entrepreneurs got to take in Josh’s advice at Automated, so I thought it was only fair to share his tips with you—so you can be the kind of marketing automation expert savvy businesses want to hire.

Ready to see if you’re cut out to be a marketing automation pro?

1. Know the Tools of the Trade

“That’s a tall order in this day and age,” Josh admits. In its 2017 Worldwide Cloud Report, Netskope found that the enterprises it surveyed used an average of 91 cloud-based marketing services. Today’s marketing automation experts don’t just need to master email and automation platforms. They increasingly need a command of the tools that integrate with those platforms, including:

  • Ecommerce platforms
  • Lead-gen tools
  • Analytics and tag-management solutions
  • Data enrichment services
  • Content management tools

… and more.

Of course, you can’t set out to master 91 different applications before you set out to land a job or a client. Instead, strive to become intimately acquainted with the top two or three automation platforms that are most common in your target industry. Then, make sure you have at least category-level knowledge of the other kinds of marketing tools that integrate with them.

If you’ve heard people talk about the concept of the “T-shaped marketer,” that applies here. Marketing automation should be your central area of deep expertise, but work to expand your knowledge wide across other tools as well.

Looking to broaden your knowledge of different marketing automation platforms? Look for tools with full-featured free plans. Drip Ecommerce CRM, for instance, gives you access to every email and automation feature the platform has with its 14-day free trial

2. Know the Customer

You might hear employers refer to it as a customer journey, a marketing funnel, or a message map, but the central idea is the same: successful marketers need to match their campaigns to all the different stages of the buying cycle.

This requires both strategy and empathy. “You want somebody who can curate a journey, rather than just automate marketing tasks,” says Josh.

Getting into marketing automation at this moment in marketing history helps you here: you probably haven’t worked as a marketing automation specialist your entire career. Draw on customer insights you’ve picked up all along the way when thinking through your automation strategy—and then perfect it by interacting with real customers.

3. Gain Meaningful Experience Across Marketing Disciplines

Great marketing automation specialists aren’t content to live inside their platform of choice. They’re endlessly curious about everything else that’s happening in their coworkers’ and clients’ businesses.

If you’ve ever mapped out an end-to-end automation sequence, at some point you’ve probably stopped to think: wow, this touches almost every part of the business. Your automation becomes many times more effective when you know things like:

  • What kind of data the analytics manager is pulling in
  • What kind of graphics the designer is creating for your email campaign
  • What the social media manager is planning to accompany the campaign
  • What tactics the copywriter has developed to increase clickthrough rates

… and so on.

But what if you’re not currently working within a marketing department? How do you know which marketing skills to brush up on?

Josh gave a simple tip in his Automated presentation: find people in the kind of roles you’d like to have on LinkedIn, and see what skills they’ve been endorsed for.

If you notice any weak spots in your own skill set, start seeking out ways to become better-rounded.

4. Apply Logic and Creativity to Your Work

With all those if/then statements and complex workflows, you probably realize that to succeed with marketing automation you need to have a logical mind. Until AI takes over, our automation systems are only as smart as the people who build them. You need to be comfortable thinking six steps ahead in an automation sequence and swiftly deciding which of several possible pathways is most efficient.

What’s less obvious at first glance is the creativity you need to bring to the process. The best marketing automation experts have “almost an artistic flair” to their work, says Josh.

Even if you’re working on a team with people whose job it is to handle design and copy, your creativity will still give you an edge in automation. Consider…

  • Building the most effective delays into email sequences
  • Developing compelling calls to action
  • Making sure design elements in an email look great at every screen size
  • Weighing in on how messaging should change in a push notification vs. an email vs. an in-app message

Josh cites the example of Andre Chaperon’s “soap opera stories” concept. The creator of the Autoresponder Madness course doesn’t just teach the nuts and bolts of automation—he goes over the kind of email-based storytelling that keeps people clicking Open.

5. Know When to Say "No"

Once an organization grows to a certain size, automation specialists may find themselves in a tough spot.

The marketing team wants to send out a promo email. The events director needs to get an invitation out before another day goes by. The customer support team needs to spread the word about a service outage, stat. And there’s a newsletter and a product release announcement that should have gone out yesterday.

So, as the automation expert, do you just power through these emails as quickly as possible and avoid looking at your unsubscribe rate?

Or do you take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and coordinate a plan to make sure that you aren’t bombarding people with five emails in the space of a day?

Thinking strategically means knowing when to press pause on a communication plan, says Josh. Sometimes that may mean adjusting the timing of your sequences, or creating more precise segments to ensure that your emails stay relevant. Sometimes it may mean recommending entirely different channels for a given message.

Of course, when you have to say no, you should have more than your opinion to back you up. So pay attention to the data: what usually happens when you send a certain group a certain kind of email? Which approaches get the highest and lowest clickthrough rates?

Once you understand the patterns, you can help your team use automation to get more predictable results.

6. Work on Your Juggling

“Spectacular multitaskers” thrive in marketing automation, says Josh. It’s useful to be able to hold an entire automation sequence in your mind at once, or effortlessly reconfigure timelines when a company’s priorities shift.

That’s not to say you need to be a natural-born multitasking prodigy to be a sought-after automation expert. You just need to find—or create—the right tools to help you keep all the plates spinning. Think about tools like:

  • Calendars that show all the communications going out each day
  • Request forms to help you take in automation requests from different sources (and get all the info you need to proceed)
  • Project-management tools like Trello, Asana, or Wrike
  • Reporting dashboards and data hubs
  • Regular meetings or checkin calls

Creating the right structures and processes will help you shift gears faster and ensure that multitasking doesn’t devolve into chaos.

7. Be Strategic, Operational, and Tactical

“These are not all the same, and very few people can think on all three levels,” Josh warns. Here’s how to think about the differences:

  • Strategy: a plan designed to achieve an overall aim
  • Operation: an active process
  • Tactic: an action carefully planned to achieve a specific end

For example, let’s say your company’s goal this quarter is to book 20% more consultations with new clients.

You might devise a strategy to get those new clients’ attention by promoting an ebook on a relevant high-interest topic.

Operationally, you’ll need to create a plan to produce the ebook, create and drive traffic to a download page, and build an email funnel that guides new leads to sign up for a consultation.

And at every step of the way, you’ll need to consider specific tactics to deploy to make this effective, from the content on the landing page to the tags you apply to leads who enter the funnel to the exact email subject lines you use.

Now, you might not be doing all of the creative work as the automation specialist. But you’ll need to have a firm grasp of what should happen at each level. Otherwise, new leads are sure to fall through the gaps in your automation plan.

8. Learn to Spot and Correct Errors with Grace

As an automation pro, you’re often the last line of defense before a campaign hits your audience—and you have to be prepared to speak up (politely) if anything seems off to you. Such as:

  • Typos in email copy
  • Off-brand or incorrectly sized imagery
  • Email content that doesn’t make sense for the target audience
  • Links going out without the right UTM parameters

Again, it pays to know a little bit about everything. So shadow your colleagues, read industry blogs, and even consider taking mini-courses outside your area of expertise. It will all help you correct problems and make recommendations with authority.

9. Know When to Be Lazy

Sure, you might not want to lead with “laziness” when an interviewer asks for your best qualities. But you should definitely have an instinct for the most efficient way to get something done. After all, the entire purpose of automation is to do as much as possible with as little labor as possible.

Josh recommends asking yourself, “Is there a way to get out of doing this (while still meeting the end goal)?” That outlook can lead to time-saving decisions like these:

While you shouldn’t be afraid of hard work, you should cringe at the idea of performing the same manual task week after week. Selective laziness can actually help you get more done than colleagues who don’t bristle at busywork.

Will You Be the Next In-Demand Marketing Automation Expert?

If you don’t have formal training in marketing automation, that’s no barrier. The discipline is new enough that very few marketing automation pros got their start through traditional education.

Instead, they were coders or designers or virtual assistants who had some of the skills above, started tinkering with automation, found they liked it, and worked hard to improve and market their expertise.

These days, new automation specialists can get a little more help with that last part. Quality programs are starting to pop up to teach marketing automation, and the best ones involve lots of hands-on experience (not just theory).

Now, get out there, build your automation skills, and get ready to share them with the world.

Which of these 9 skills do you feel is your strongest point? Feel free to brag in the comments!