What is marketing automation software?

Marketing automation software is a set of technology tools that enable marketers and business owners to deliver, test, measure and improve personalized communication and experiences to a larger audience than they possibly could do manually.

What does that mean?

Think about marketing as a mass-market version of sales. If prospects walked up to you at a party and said, “Hey, I might be interested in your product or service,” you’d automatically have a natural, personal and useful conversation with them.

You’d ask them what the problem is and what their goals are. You may ask them what they’ve tried before and why it didn’t work out. You’d probably also size them up, personally, maybe making a quiet internal guess about their age and budget. Then, you would tell them about how you can help, and you’d tailor your story to match the specific needs and goals and experiences (and budget) of each person you’re speaking with.

It would all make perfect sense and, if you’re a decent sales person, you’d create a nice relationship with each of these people, a sense of affinity, and you’d leave them feeling excited about the possibility of working with you. Then, at a time that’s not so soon that you seem desperate, but not so long that they’ve forgotten about you, you’d call them up and invite them to come in for a consultation or whatever the next step in your process is. They’d be happy to hear from you and would book an appointment without a second thought.

You get the idea.

When two people are in front of each other, having normal human conversations, all this stuff happens automatically without anyone having to think much about it.

This is exactly how most businesses get started… because it works great! You go to networking events, hit up your friends and family’s friends, people you meet at parties. Easy.

But what happens when you start getting more leads than you can manage? And what happens when they’re not standing across from you at a party, but instead they’re strangers who filled out a form on the internet from halfway across the world?

This is where marketing automation shines. The purpose of these platforms is to virtually and automatically have the same sort of interactions you used to have at a party.

How do you create and automate the delivery of personalized experiences with Marketing Automation?

It’s easy to understand how you would naturally inquire and discover the details of your new prospects’ needs if you were standing across from them at a party and how you’d use the information you gathered to compose a personalized pitch that would match what you learned about them. We all do that naturally, but how do you do that using software?

It’s not as hard as you might think, though it does take some doing.

A good marketing automation platform is like a Dyson Jet Powered Vacuum for details about your prospects. It will automatically capture and store every detail it can find about each one. If you’re smart, you’ll organize your website and emails and online ads to make that information gathering even easier and more effective.

What kind of data does a marketing automation platform collect? Depending on the toolset you choose, it can be a lot. It can track:

  • Every click of every ad on every ad platform
  • Every click on every page visited on your website
  • Every email open and click, including which exact links are clicked
  • Everything they fill out in any form online
  • Everything they purchase from you and everything they return
  • Everything they download
  • Everything they tell your sales reps or service team
  • Every referral they make
  • And lots more…

Armed with this information, you can understand a lot about each prospect. You can figure out what their specific problem is, how they want it solved, what their concerns are, what they may have tried before, how much they want to spend, and so on.

And, of course, based on that information, your marketing automation platform can deliver personalized communications – emails, text messages, snail mail, tasks to your sales team to follow up, even targeted ads and more – to each individual customer.

Think of the whole thing as if it were you, cloned 1,000 times, at a huge party full of people, looking for prospects and having those conversations, doing the follow-up, setting the appointments, and so on. With a good marketing automation platform and some strategic thinking, you can scale that personalized experience to an unlimited audience, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ensuring that every lead is managed, no ball is dropped and, just at the right time, you or your team is called in to deliver the real live personal touch.

The tools in a marketing automation platform

It’s pretty easy to understand this analogy; computers do the work that people used to do all the time. But how is this work really done? What are the tools in a marketing automation toolbox? And how are they put to work?

If you think about the ‘conversation’ analogy, it’s pretty easy to begin to see what’s important in a good marketing automation platform.

  • You need tools to gather and store information about each prospect.
  • You need tools to segment prospects into groups based on that information.
  • You need tools to deliver the right communications to each segment at the right time for each prospect.

But that’s just the beginning… because, whether you realize it or not, there’s another very important thing that you’re doing with each prospect at the party: you’re learning.

Every time you have one of these conversations, you’re looking at your prospects’ face to see if what you’re saying is landing. You can tell if they’re digging what you’re saying, can’t you? And when they walk away with a grimace, you know you went wrong… and you try something else next time. Pretty soon, you’ve got your pitch down pat.

The same thing works online. Sometimes your ads work, your emails connect, your landing pages convert like crazy… and sometimes they flop. And you need to know which is which, or you’ll end up wasting a lot of time, money and good leads.

So, a good marketing automation platform also includes a lot of functionality around tracking, testing, and measuring the effectiveness of your programs so you can see what’s working and what’s not.

For example, it should include:

  • Tools to see which ads are working to attract quality traffic to your site and which ads bring tire-kickers
  • Tools to see which pages on your website are working to convert that traffic into leads
  • Tools to see which messages are working to drive leads to your order or booking or sign-up pages
  • Tools to see which sign-up pages are working to convert that traffic into customers
  • And so on.

That leaves us with a big list of tools. In marketing automation terms, that list will look something like this:

  1. Tools to collect data
    • Forms to collect data directly from users
    • Social connections to capture data from the networks
    • Email click and open tracking
    • Page visit and click tracking
    • Something for feedback/input from sales reps
    • Something to track outcomes of manual tasks
    • Inbound SMS capture
    • Inbound email capture
    • Phone call logging
    • Cookies to track anonymous users’ visits and lead source history
    • Tools to identify as many anonymous visitors as possible, as often as possible
  2. Tools to store and view data
    • CRM integrated or built in
    • Customizable databases with custom field and custom record types
    • History logging and search
    • Customizable views of your data so you can sift, sort and order it
  3. Tools to segment data
    • View dynamic groups or segments of data based on any criteria in your database, including purchase history, page visits, email interactions, sales team inputs, or any other ad hoc data or tags that you capture and store
    • Automatically sort contact records into fine grained segments for targeted, automated follow-up
  4. Tools to automate follow-up
    • Campaign or automation builder to design communication workflows
    • Trigger actions based on any data or any update in all records
    • Add, remove, pause and move any contact around in your campaign workflows based on information that you gather about your prospects
    • Integrate personal, human interactions at appropriate times in your follow-up workflow
  5. Tools to deliver relevant messages
    • Send automated follow-up and broadcast emails
    • Send automated follow-up and broadcast SMS text messages
    • Alert internal or external team members to take some action, such as a phone call or mailing a welcome letter
    • Send individual contact data to ad platforms like Facebook for retargeting
    • Send data to third party tools for other communication channels
  6. Tools to deliver relevant web experiences
    • Personalize each web page visitor’s experience by customizing the page based on what you know about them in the contact record
    • Personalize web pages by merging data from the contact record onto the page
    • Show or hide certain pages for individual contacts, and redirect visitors without access to another page
    • Customize each visitor’s redirect after a form fill out based on the information they gave you in the form
  7. Tools to track ads
    • Store UTM variables in the contact record
    • Track UTMs using cookies so that contacts who don’t fill out a form on the first visit still have their original source stored
    • Track both first and last UTM values in each record to track both where leads originally came from and where they most recently came from
    • Track referring page and IP address
    • See which lead sources and campaigns deliver the most down-funnel conversions (sales, upsells, retention, etc.)
  8. Tools to track message and page effectiveness
    • Track email opens and clicks
    • Split test emails to determine which are most effective
    • Track SMS text message clicks
    • Split test text messages to determine which get the most clicks
    • Track specific link clicks
    • Track down-funnel conversions that come from each email/SMS/link click
    • Track number of page conversions per visitor, for multiple possible goals
    • Split test pages to determine which get the most conversions, based on any goal

As you can see, there are a lot of tools involved in putting together a solid, scalable and effective automated marketing program. And, like anything worth doing, it’ll take some time and focus to figure out how to use your tools and then to get them set up and working the way you envision. You’ll also have a lot of content to create: emails and text messages to write, web pages to write and design, and so on.

Since you can see that there’s going to be some real effort involved in creating 1,000 automated versions of yourself, before you dive in, it’s worth asking the question…

Is marketing automation a good idea for your business?

The answer is not necessarily yes, at least right now. Why?

Think about how people buy your product or service. If you sell shoes or t-shirts or coffee at a coffee shop, the decision to buy or not is made pretty much on the spot. It’s a low-impact, relatively low-cost decision that doesn’t take a lot of consideration.

On the other hand if you’re, say, a financial adviser whose decisions and advice will seriously impact your clients’ future, then the decision to buy your services is typically made VERY carefully, after much research, consideration, review of your historic performance and credentials, consultation with family and friends, and so on. The cost of your services is a lot higher than the price of a t-shirt, so people take their time making the decision… sometimes years!

Many businesses fall somewhere in between these two extremes but, in general, you’ll find that the more prospects think about the decision they’re making before making it, the more valuable marketing automation will be to your business.


Because marketing automation is fundamentally about a few things: capturing lead information, figuring out what your prospects’ problems are, following up in the most interesting and relevant way specific to those problems, and positioning yourself over the long term to be the obvious choice when they finally make a buying decision. And doing all that at scale, automatically.

As we said above, all that takes some work! If you’re selling t-shirts, this kind of work probably isn’t at the top of your list. People don’t need to be nurtured into a buying decision over a pair of shoes or a cup of coffee or lunch, do they?

That’s not to say that a restaurant or an apparel brand shouldn’t eventually put together a long-term follow-up program, but most folks in those industries have higher priority marketing work to do first. They need to figure out how to drive traffic and make sure their product is something people want.

But, if you are a teacher, a service provider, a professional of nearly any type, or you offer high-end experiences (think travel, retreats, seminars) and you don’t follow up over the long term, you’re just wasting time and money. Think about it: someone sees your ad for a couples retreat in the jungle of Costa Rica, or for your estate planning services, or your personal training program. They click, think to themselves, “Oh, that looks cool. I should do that sometime,” and then they scroll on… never to hear from you again. You paid for the ad click, you got the traffic to your site, but you didn’t make the sale. When, three months from now, they decide they’re actually going to pull the trigger on this, how likely are they to remember you, figure out how to find you online, and then actually find you and buy from you? IT’S NOT LIKELY!

Instead, they’re going to go to Google and type in ‘couples retreat’ and find a million sites that aren’t yours and the sale will be lost forever.

On the other hand, imagine you’d followed up with that lead. Maybe you started with a retargeting campaign that showed them a bunch of beautiful pictures of the area, reminding them again and again about what they’re missing out on. Then, you capture an email address and start following up via email with dates and descriptions, special offers, videos of past retreats, testimonial videos from previous guests…

And this time, what happens three months down the road when it’s time to book that trip? They’re going right to your email, clicking your link and making it happen, right?

The same is true for basically every high-value, considered purchase. If that’s you, then you need to be focused on putting together a solid marketing automation follow-up program BEFORE you start spending money on advertising because, without it, you’ll be flushing your ad dollars right down the drain.

Does that mean it never makes sense for a restaurant to get around to automated follow-up? No… it’s just lower down the list. A clothing brand or a cell phone case seller can safely start with ads and see how it goes. If it works, then putting together a good follow-up system will make sense as they scale up.

How to get the most from your marketing automation platform

Since choosing a marketing automation platform is an important choice and a real investment for most businesses, you have to know that you’re going to get out of it what you put in. Just as a bag of tools doesn’t build you a house, a marketing automation platform doesn’t start closing new business just because you turned it on.

A high quality marketing platform has a lot of features, and they can be bewildering to a new user. So, where do you start? How do you get the biggest bang for the least effort?

With 15 years of serving tens of thousands of companies around the world, we are pretty confident that nailing these few items right at the start will give you the best foundation for success in the long term.

  1. Get your bearings. You don’t have to learn every detail of your new marketing automation platform right now… or maybe ever. But you do need to have your head around the basics. Just as you’d want to know how to use a hammer and a drill before starting out on building a home, there are some skills you’re going to want to get a handle on right away.They are:
  2. Create your first, basic lead follow-up campaign. This should just be simple. Start with three to five emails, spaced a week apart. If writing is easy for you, then do more. To decide what to put in each email, check out these tips for writing emails.
  3. Set up your first lead capture form. You can do this by adding a form to your existing site or, if your platform offers landing pages, build a new lead capture page and link to it from your site. In Ontraport, you can either build a form to put on your existing site or build a web page that we’ll host for you. Make sure that your lead capture form works and is set up to add new leads to your follow-up campaign.
  4. Import and organize your existing data. This can take a little thinking and a bit of foresight. Unfortunately, too many entry-level email systems organize data using tags and/or lists, but that’s a terrible practice that you’ll want to put an end to when you move up to a professional marketing automation platform.Why? So. Many. Reasons.

    First, you’ll have the same contact on several lists, so if you send an email to three of them, one contact may get the same email three times. Some systems have ways of avoiding this, but even those take careful management, and there is no room for mistakes!

    Second, there’s little ability to segment your data after the fact: what if you decide you want to look at all contacts who haven’t bought product A, have been on your list for more than six months but haven’t clicked in three months, and who live in the United States. Tag and list-based systems commonly fall down hard on what should be a simple project like this. What about sorting by anniversary dates or birth dates? What about choosing people who have spent more than $100 in the past? What list are they on? What tags do they have?

    Also, tags get unwieldy very quickly. At Ontraport, we once had a major competitor (now a minor one) whose whole system was tag-based and when clients would move over, they’d commonly have contacts with literally HUNDREDS of tags. This is obviously no way to manage and organize things.

    Also, in most systems, tags contain no actionable ‘meta data.’ That is, you don’t know when a tag was added or removed or how many times it’s been added or removed, which leaves you missing a bunch of important information.

    The proper way to store and organize data, and the way it’s always done in larger businesses, is to store it in bespoke fields. That is, if you want to know when a customer cancelled service, you don’t add a ‘cancelled’ tag… you create a date type field and store ‘cancellation date’ instead.

    If you’re changing platforms, that is a really good time to clean up your data and get it organized in a way that it’ll be useful in the future. Lose the tags as much as possible (except where they make sense, for example tagging a user with the problems they have!) and replace them with fields.

    Then, import your data into your new platform. If it makes sense (and you have permission) consider adding your existing list to your long-term follow-up campaign, created above.

  5. If your system offers landing pages, learn to use that tool. Being able to quickly throw together a new webpage is a key skill for an active marketer. Ideally, you’ll be able to personalize that page based on the information you have about each contact, but that’ll only be possible if your marketing automation platform offers a built-in web page builder.Normally, you can use those pages alongside your existing website. So, you’ll want to learn to use that tool, understand how to host pages on your domain, and how to personalize them using your contact data.

    Consider building a new web page that specifically targets each problem that you have a great solution for. Add a free offer and a form to each page.

  6. Automatically segment and follow up with each. Once you have your long-term nurture campaign built (above) you’ll want to create a mini-campaign for each of the problems you’re really good at solving. Maybe just three or four emails for each segment. Then, if someone signs up on your Problem A page (built in the last step), you should send them some follow-up about your Problem A products or services. When those are done, move them to your long-term nurture campaign.
  7. Learn how to integrate the human touch. Ideally, your platform should allow you to trigger tasks to your team members so they know they need to pick up the phone and make a call or attend a demo or free consultation. Figure out how this is done in your platform, and make sure your best prospects have a way of asking someone to reach out.

Of course, there’s a LOT more that you can do with your marketing automation platform but, if you get the above seven steps done, you’ll have put in place some great basics and you’ll have learned to find your way around your new tools.

Some ideas for projects you could take on after you’ve hammered out the ones above might include:

About Landon Ray
Ontraport Founder and CEO Landon Ray is a serial entrepreneur whose personal mission is to educate, motivate, and enable others to realize their goals of starting and growing their own business. At the age of 25, Ray transformed himself from a street-corner flower vendor into one of the nation’s top securities day traders in only twelve months. After beating the odds on Wall Street and again during the great recession, Ray has taken his research and personal experience and created Ontraport, a small business automation platform and related family of services, which reflect his passion for educating and supporting entrepreneurs.