B2B Startups, here’s how to select a marketing automation system – and a list of mistakes to avoid

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If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone put all their chips on a single marketing automation SaaS solution…

As a startup marketer in an agency, I constantly talk to clients about if, when, and which marketing automation to implement. 

There are two main points that usually come up in these discussions: 

1. Fear of a complicated, expensive and tiring implementation

2. A lack of knowledge regarding what can be done without automation, what it’s needed for, when you can no longer do without it, etc.  

But all along, the discussion is surrounded by great hopes (as if this tool is a whole marketing team) and a strong desire to rush and make through the implementation, without truly understanding whether it’s the right time for it, what specific capabilities are needed, or what the true implementation effort is. This is often due to the fact that marketing automation is considered a must in many organizations, and possibly because startup pros, when talking and meeting with many marketing agencies, constantly hear that they cannot run marketing campaigns without a marketing automation system. 

In this article, I’ll share my two cents about choosing and implementing marketing automation systems in B2B startups (hint: it’s not that complicated, and timing has a lot to do with it).  I will also mention some common mistakes I often witness entrepreneurs make in this sphere.  

Wait, what exactly is marketing automation? 

Marketing automation systems allow companies to define workflows and launch automated communications (focusing on prospects or leads) that can be segmented according to different attributes. These systems are also needed to get campaign origin data per prospect (attribution), view advanced analytics and run additional activities in a simpler manner (launching landing pages, social media campaigns, and more). 

What it isn’t? 

Like I said, a while ago I realized that when thinking about marketing automation, many marketers like to imagine some sort of lead-generating machine, but in reality, it’s important to state the obvious: marketing automation is not the lead generation brain, nor can it create a lead-generating machine on its own (by the way, here’s the lead-gen machine recipe,if you’re interested). Rather, it is a multi-area technological enabler that can help you do things more easily and in a friendly manner, from nurturing to analyzing campaign impact per lead, providing lead journey insights (from MQL to SQL) and more. 

When done right, automation combines the different building blocks of the lead-gen machine process under one single dashboard, and creates a seamless flow between all of them. No doubt that it’s good for productivity and is very convenient, but marketing automation is an enabler, not the goal.

The question(s) not asked 

There are a few questions that I feel are not asked enough: Is marketing automation really needed at this stage of my startup? What do I need it for? What capabilities, in this multi (huge) functional system, should interest me (in terms of selective implementation)? 

But, for some reason, most of our clients seem overwhelmed and just want someone to take the lead and manage it all, including answering the questions and making decisions on their behalf. This approach can be seen as a slippery slope which may lead to a long, tedious and very expensive implementation that only a small chunk of which was actually needed. 

What do you mean by ‘why’?

😶 

I can’t remember how many times I didn’t get an answer that made sense, when I asked the ‘why’ question. Why do you need to implement a marketing automation system right now? I did get these responses: “what do you mean by ‘why’? or “well, everybody says it’s a must, isn’t it?” or “every agency I met with insisted on having a ‘proper automation system,” or “it’s on my list for building my marketing DNA,” or “I always had it in other workplaces,” etc.

Solid reasoning is a must here. 

For instance, if you already have a multi-channel marketing operation going and it’s time to scale up, if you’re looking to analyze and nurture your leads in advanced ways, or if you have various communication assets to work with and wish to send different content to different segments – it’s time to automate, mate.

The right time

Automation implementation is usually a process that calls for valuable resources and requires (some) budget, so startups better make their move ONLY when automation can bring the desired value. 

Bill Gates once said: “Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

(If you’re still looking for a magic trick to instantly and continuously generate a chunk of quality leads – go back to the top of this article and start over; it’s important to understand that it won’t be achieved by solely implementing marketing automation). 

First thing first 

If you ask me, automation should come only after the digital foundations are ready for inbound push (such as the website, the content creation ‘factory’, initial ABM preparations and SDR on board to manage leads). 

A couple of examples: 

  1. If you don’t have sufficient content assets to base your automation process on – why the rush to implement automation? Focus on that part first. 
  2. If you are not yet running multi channel campaigns – why insist on costly automation systems that provide capabilities such as multi-channel campaign attribution (which you don’t need)? 
  3. If you are not ready yet to define different segments of target audiences and personas, and customize your messages accordingly, why (on earth) invest now in a sophisticated system, the core value of which is advanced segmentation with automated communications to each segment?

You should allocate your  precious resources to marketing automation implementation only after you have your essentials in place and there’s concrete need for a few activities that can be executed only (or much more easily) with automation. In other words, only when it doesn’t make sense to operate these activities via multiple, free (or low cost) decks.   

So again, it’s highly important that you ask yourself this question: Is marketing automation really a top priority for the phase-1 startup marketing you’re at? It’s not like you have to sift through hundreds or thousands of leads per month, right?  

Got it. What common mistakes should I avoid? 😖

If magnifying inefficiency isn’t your thing, try to consider and hopefully avoid the following: 

  1. The infamous marketing/sales split

If your sales team’s CRM system doesn’t have a marketing automation extension, we feel for you. It’s not going to be easy, or even extremely difficult, to synchronise between these two seperate systems (depending on which systems you have chosen). If it does, but you listened to those who preach against an all-in-one approach, we plead you to think again. Trying to sync a marketing automation system with a sales one is not only an evergoing painful process, but it usually involves the need to lean on 3rd party technical integrations service providers, which means money and overhead. Some projects I went through were so painful that I wanted to give up automation, marketing, and startups altogether. 

Do yourself a favor and do your best to avoid having two separate solutions for your CRM and marketing automation. Since you are running a startup, chances are there won’t be too much damage if you decide to consolidate all work under one system and move your salespeople to the new all-in-one system (there are quite a few nice ones, as you will see in my comparison table) 

  1. A mismatch between your automation solution and your CRM

OK, so you’ve made mistake no. 1. It’s not the end of the world, just as long as you choose an automation system that can work well with your CRM. Carefully study the integration process between the two and make sure it’s a friendly one. Some solutions include the option to add a connectivity key to specific CRM tools, which make the implementation relatively easy.  You’d want to prioritize these tools, if possible. Other tools don’t have a key, but can direct you to a configuration via Zapier. This is easier than an API integration with no out-of-the-box solution. 

3. Miscalculating the cost as you grow 

Startups are seriously price-sensitive, but many of them still get it wrong. Some choose the pricing plan that works well right now, only to find out later on that it’s time to scale up (yay!), but oh boy, the next level package is really expensive (nay!). Others choose a plan that would have been great if they had the manpower to support it, which they don’t. Others forget to calculate in 3rd party service providers to support multi platform integrations, and others don’t notice the small print that states the important features are priced on top. When making your choice, think long and hard about where you currently are, where you want to go, and which pricing plan will make sense in both scenarios. 

  1. Not negotiating on the price

Did you know that some automation vendors offer unique startup pricing that’s adjusted based on the company’s growth levels? This means you get the full benefits of the system, while the price is adjusted to the fact that you’re still taking your first steps.

In general, don’t be shy; automation tools salespeople are there to negotiate. There’s a good chance that you can get a better deal or even create an adjustable pricing model, just for you, depending on the vendor you are negotiating with. I met with more than one startup that wasn’t aware of this, so they didn’t try to negotiate and ended up paying much more than a reasonable price. Once you are in, you are in, so at that point they will be much less flexible with the pricing. 

Researching different solutions will help you find the perfect fit. Also, negotiations are a smart move for startups and people, no matter what you do. 

  1. Skipping important capabilities

I mentioned it briefly earleir. Implementing a marketing automation solution only to find that it simply doesn’t answer all your needs (or that it does, but for a major added cost) is not pleasant, and even a bit foolish. Think of the different automation companies pitching you as if they were politicians asking for your vote: Ask the difficult questions and trust no one. 

Make sure you choose a system that has all these essentials capabilities:

  • Combines CRM and automation capabilities or integrates seamlessly with your existing CRM
  • Enables proper lead segmentation and origin attribution, since the ability to trace every customer’s/lead’s path from start to finish is key
  • Allows for some freedom in terms of landing-page creation, form design, newsletter templates, event registration pages or alike, so they can be optimized for conversion and other goals without leaning on designers or web developers 
  • Has sufficient drip-email campaign capabilities that can support a multi-channel communications strategy
  • Any other specific needs that you may have (don’t assume that all systems are identical in their capabilities, this is far from true) 
  1. Overdoing it!! (I can’t stress this enough) 

Don’t fall for glamorous additions that you don’t really need to build strong workflows. 

From the day your startup was founded, people have probably been advising you to focus on the assense and follow a continuous delivery approach (if to use terms from the dev industry) – and they were right. 

Know which capabilities you are after in the near future and don’t overdo it with implementation, investing in immediately configuring elements that will not even be used in the upcoming year(s). 

Each added capability will require resources you might want to invest elsewhere. Know which problems hurt most and make a concentrated effort to solve them first. 

Help! How do I compare? Sharing our comparison deck 

OK, so the decision, selection, negotiation, and implementation of a marketing automation platform can be quite difficult to digest. 

To ease your way in, I am sharing a mini research that I’ve recently conducted (I repeat it every couple of months and whenever I need to reach a decision for one of my startups). This one focused on a customer that already has a Salesforce CRM system implemented, and wasn’t willing to consolidate, so there’s no escape from implementing two different decks. 😭

As you can see, when taking into consideration the many factors involved in an organized manner, deciding on automation implementation, selecting an optimal system and running the implementation process for your startup is no easy task, but it’s not rocket science, either. Good luck!

Lilach Bartal
Lilach is all about marketing. With over 15 years of experience under her belt, she dealt with all aspects of marketing work and has the rare combination of both high-level strategic marketing and hands-on operational work. Oh, and she’s passionate about her work!
Lilach Bartal
hello@g2mteam.com