The Future of Marketing Automation: Are We There Yet?

Editor’s Note: This post revisits Rob Walling’s hypothesis about the future of marketing automation. He made bold predictions about the industry 3 years ago, so we wanted to see just how right he was To read that post, go here.

Three years ago, Rob made this tenacious statement:

“Within 3 years, any business experiencing success with online sales will be using some form of marketing automation. Remember that you heard it here first.”

No, Drip co-founder Rob Walling doesn’t read crystal balls beneath the facade of a covered wagon as his side hustle. He’s just a serial web entrepreneur who saw a trend he knew would change the marketing landscape as we know it.


Three years have passed since Rob wrote that statement above, and we wanted to return to it and see if he was onto something big or not.

So, was marketing automation the future of email marketing? Is this tool the present-day magic wand for online marketers, or was it a short-lived trend that never took off as anticipated? Is my job writing about marketing automation about to become obsolete? Let’s find out.


The Prediction: Marketing Automation Is the Future of Email Marketing


In 2013, Rob defined exactly what marketing automation includes since it was a relatively new term just making its way into the online marketer’s dictionary.

According to Google Trends, the term “marketing automation” has been only growing in popularity since Rob’s original article was published in 2014.

Automation tools range from one-trick ponies to all-encompassing mega-tools that will not only automate your marketing, but will also “do your dishes and put yours kids to bed,” according to Rob. Because of this variation across uses, it was important to outline the boundaries of what we mean when we talk about marketing automation.

Rob listed the six defining elements of marketing automation:

1. Lead Nurturing via Email Marketing Automatically sending a personalized sequence of emails to subscribers, customers, etc., based on their interactions with your website.

2. List Management The ability to segment your subscribers and send offers targeted to who they are and what they’ve done.

3. Web Analytics Usually integrated into lead scoring (the next bullet), it’s helpful to know what a person is doing on your website in order to determine how likely they are to buy. For example, if someone downloads three reports and attended a webinar, they are more likely to buy than someone who only signed up for blog updates.

4. Lead Scoring Provides a score, often 1–100, on how ready a person is to make a purchase. In high-touch sales, higher scoring leads are typically assigned to sales agents who make phone calls and send one-to-one emails.

5. CRM Customer Relationship Management which, contrary to its name, typically has nothing to do with “customers” and everything to do with following up and closing a sale. This is the section that shows a sales agent who to contact next.

6. Email (a.k.a. lead) Capture Accomplished using opt-in forms that run from a single field (typically email address) in low-touch sales to 15 or more fields (name, company, email, phone, job title, size of company, etc.) in high-touch/enterprise sales scenarios.


The Email Marketing Trends That Helped Shape the Future


Rob predicted that marketing automation would help businesses with a handful of qualities necessary for online success. These predictions were based on a few up-and-coming email marketing trends:

  • People Crave Continuous Engagement Leads crave relevant and continued engagement. While email marketing is useful for sending out promos and newsletters, it isn’t fit for sending personalized emails after a lead or customer takes a specific action. Marketing automation sends the right relevant email at just the right moment for engagement with each individual lead.
  • The Death of One-to-Many Emails Three years ago, a rise in highly personalized communications started taking shape. Instead of one-to-many or one-size-fits-all, people wanted one-to-one communications. A marketing automation tool would be needed to help accurately personalize communications based on real user behaviors, resulting in a highly personalized experience.

As Rob put it, “if your email software doesn’t view an email address as a single person, no matter which ‘campaign’ or ‘list’ they are subscribed to, you’re losing out on a ton of information that would help you understand your prospects more (and make more sales).” Therefore the static and sparse emails of yore just weren’t going to cut it.

In short, true online success for small businesses would be tough if they didn’t start implementing lightweight marketing automation software.


The Verdict: Rob Wasn’t 100% Right, and Here’s Why


Three years have come and gone since Rob’s prediction. So, was he right? Is every business experiencing success with online sales using some form of marketing automation?

Thankfully, Drip has accrued a beefy portfolio of important data that helps identify exactly how businesses are using marketing automation today. We’ve been tallying survey responses and writing up reports that explore the small businesses of today, their marketing strategies, and just how automated they really are.

Digging into some of this data helps us understand that Rob was mostly right in his lofty predictions, but marketing automation still has a long distance to travel to reach ubiquity. Here are a few reasons why this tool isn’t in every online business’s toolbox, yet.

Reason #1: “Marketing automation” isn’t on every marketer’s radar, yet.

Our 2017 Small Business Conversion Marketing Report discovered that only 36% of small business owners are able to define “marketing automation.” Furthermore, only 53.7% of SMB owners can describe “conversion rate” — a critical component of successful marketing automation.

This is an indication that marketing automation might not be as widespread as we thought it would be by now.

However, half of small business owners spend less than 2 hours a week on their marketing, which means they’re probably focused on the tools they have in place instead of searching out new tools and immersing themselves in the world of automated conversion marketing.

And not knowing how to define marketing automation means not knowing all of the common problems and frustrations it can solve.

For example, only 1.6% of small business owners reported using a marketing automation tool to complete tedious tasks like storing contact information and following up with leads and customers. Nearly one-third reported relying on their own email account to complete those tasks, which can become inefficient and time-consuming as business grows.

Managing contact lists and trying to send crucial communications to promote your business through your own email address can be a marketing mess. But for marketers who have only heard the term in passing (Or not at all), they simply aren’t aware of what marketing automation can do.

Reason #2: Not every small business owner sees the value of automation despite awareness.

While we’re on the front lines of automation every day here at Drip, we realize many people aren’t as immersed as we are. This means they don’t see how automation can streamline email communications, reach leads on a one-to-one basis, and increase conversions day in and day out. So while they’ve heard about this up-and-coming tool, they don’t always realize its full potential.

One of the reasons Rob’s prediction wasn’t 100% right is because quite a few businesses aren’t using automation of any kind.

When entrepreneurs were asked “How important is automation to your operations and your marketing?” in our 2017 Entrepreneurship Data Chart, 41.1% said they don’t use any automation. Only 9.5% claimed their business depended on automation.

This could be for a handful of reasons, such as time and cost barriers for startups, but that stat indicates that marketing automation needs to prove its true value for more SMBs to adopt it in any capacity.

In a promising contrast, we found that 42.2% of marketers said marketing automation will be important or very important to their business’s success in 2017.

This indicates that even if marketing automation wasn’t being used before, its competitive edge is being realized and it will be used in the upcoming year.

Reason #3: Many small businesses are prioritizing other marketing goals with more obvious payoffs.

Small business owners are trying to complete an endless lists of tasks in an effort to gain traction online: build a website, get on social media, set up an email list, find a payment processor, stock inventory levels, check emails, send emails, get leads, never sleep.

Of those businesses planning to dive into digital marketing, the most prioritized goal was “driving more sales.” Interestingly enough, “automating digital marketing” was the lowest priority with only 3.6% of respondents stating it was their primary goal for the year ahead.

This indicates that businesses trying to find success online have their eyes on the prize—more sales, more profit. However, this also means the majority of businesses are overlooking the steps and strategies it takes to boost sales, such as marketing automation.

This disconnect between automation and increased conversions is one of the reasons Rob’s prediction wasn’t dead-on.


Marketing Automation Is (Still) the Future of Email Marketing


As hyper-personalized communication and lead-nurturing engagement are now absolutely critical for turning more leads into customers, marketing automation is the only tool fit for the job.

It’s the marketing tool that responds to the behaviors of your leads and customers. This responsiveness enables you to speak with each lead on a one-to-one basis and nurture them all the way through your sales funnel, which means more success and profit for businesses online.

The verdict about Rob’s predictions? Marketing automation is still the future of email marketing, but it is also very much the present.

More businesses are becoming aware of and implementing some sort of automation, and its full potential in driving conversions is still being realized. As more small businesses seek success on the world wide web through digital marketing, the more marketing automation will be the go-to solution.

Are you just starting to explore all marketing automation could do for your business? Try it out, absolutely free, and start working toward true online success.

Let’s Get Automated

What are your thoughts about the future of marketing automation? Let’s talk in the comments.