When you work with marketing automation, the subject comes up again and again — how do we explain, in a nutshell, what it can and cannot do and the role it plays in a successful marketing program?

My colleague Kevin, our VP of Strategy, believes part of the challenge lies in the very name ‘marketing automation’. And I agree with him. To a point.

He’s very, very correct that the term marketing automation comes nowhere close to describing the full value of these software platforms. But as someone whose B2B marketing career thus far has included countless tours of factory floors manufacturing everything from ice cream tubs to huge bridge girders, I see more relevance in the term ‘automation’ than most.

That’s why I sometimes use the analogy of an automobile manufacturing facility when I’m explaining marketing automation.

Dictionary.com defines automation as the technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum.

We all know that vehicle components are assembled on the factory line by automated machines (and some uber cool robots). The automation in the factory allows the company to produce vehicles at scale, and in a more cost-effective manner than using manual labour. In that regard, the term automation makes perfect sense, right?

But those machines don’t design the cars — highly skilled and trained teams of engineers do.

And that’s where I think the disconnect regarding automation in marketing comes in. For some reason, people think simply installing the software is a silver bullet. They seem to forget that the humans still need to engineer the strategy, the creative and the content it will use to build campaigns.

The automation tool allows the marketing brains to bring it all to life at scale by doing the heavy lifting in place of manual labour. Yes, it ‘reduces human intervention to a minimum’. But you still need a plan. You still need creative thinking around gaining and maintaining engagement, and you still need great content to add value and nurture leads through the buying cycle.

The other misperception is that marketing automation can merely be plonked down any which way, or that it’s a set-and-forget solution.

Wrong.

First off, you need to tell the machine what you want it to do. What do you want to achieve? What is it going to build? Then you need to feed it all the parameters of all the components it will touch — the audience and its segments, the content, the measurements and KPIs.

Just like designing a manufacturing facility, setting up a marketing automation platform can be a very intricate business, and it requires forethought. Otherwise your marketing campaigns can end up performing like a car that’s been misassembled — grossly underperforming and potentially dangerous.

And, just like those sophisticated robots on the factory floor require a certain degree of human oversight and maintenance, so does your marketing automation platform.

Part of the beauty of these tools is that they can scale out to a very holistic level, or dig deep into incredibly complex data sets. But they can’t perform critical thinking or conduct analysis. A human is required to monitor, assess and tweak on a regular basis.

The good news is that both modern manufacturing and modern marketing — when done right — use automation to get more things built better. It’s just that the devil is in the details in both situations. And that’s why I don’t mind the name ‘marketing automation’.

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