The state of Marketing Automation in 2017

April 7, 2017

Day-by-day, the world of digital marketing can be a bit of a slog. Q1 has already passed and we’re all by now in the midst of trying to implement our 2017 marketing plans and meet those ambitious KPIs.

You don’t have to look too hard for thought leadership and research when it comes to best-practice, but measuring where your organisation is at against the industry isn’t quite so simple. That’s why I was intrigued enough by the recent launch of Marketo’s 2017 Marketing Benchmark Report to write a blog post, particularly in seeing how the marketing automation industry has really evolved since I first entered it three years ago.

The insights appear to be pretty robust, based on the answers to a survey at the end of 2016 answered by more than 1,300 practitioners and executives across companies of various sizes and industries. With that out of the way, here’s my five key takeaways of where marketing automation has reached in 2017…

1. 80% of marketers are now running nurture campaigns

This figure jumped out at me more than any other in the report, to the point that I’d say it should be taken with caution and very much depends on each person’s interpretation of the word ‘nurture’. To put the figure into context, it’s 4% greater than the number of responding companies that have implemented a scoring model! (I’d be interested to know what those 4% are supposedly nurturing their leads towards!) In fairness, you could argue that a four-or-five-drip email campaign to a defined segment of data is a nurture campaign, since the content follows a carefully written storyline and cadence, but I’d separate that from a ‘true nurture’ campaign that’s much more reactive and behaviour based. An example being an trigger-based email series to inbound leads that’s served to reflect the their explicit preferences.

Even so, the headline’s still valid. The typical customer journey of a new enterprise implementing a marketing automation platform (MAP) is by starting off with predominantly simple batch-and-blast campaigns, through to gradually implementing fully-formed engagement programmes, and we’ve now reached a maturity in the industry whereby simply having a live trigger programme no longer differentiates you from the crowd.

2. The top challenge of marketing automation deployment continues to be content

This one’s certainly of less surprise. Particularly within enterprise organisations, but also SMEs, a lack of content creation is seen as a barrier to scaling marketing automation activities with 65% of marketers publishing one or less pieces of content per week. The challenge becomes clear when it comes to designing a fully-baked nurture campaign, with different messaging for leads in various target segments and at each stage of the lead ‘funnel’. After trawling the company website for every piece of (still relevant) content going and dropping it into the relevant bucket, the chances are you’ll still have a fair few gaps to plug.

Without the appropriate investment in content marketing, this will always remain a hard one to fix, but I’d highlight the importance of reusing and repurposing content pieces as much as possible to stretch them further. A colossal whitepaper is a great form for certain audiences, but there’s still likely to be value inside that could be better served in alternative format to others, such as a series of bitesize blogs, or perhaps a webinar. And great content shouldn’t be left to die! With a few tweaks, ‘old’ content can often be brought back to life and re-served to add value.

3. 66% of marketers are now practising account-based marketing (ABM)

Without wanting to be too much of a cynic, again I think this figure for account based marketing is too high, backed by the fact that most of the platforms on the market today aren’t well suited for ABM. For all the benefits of automation platforms, true tailored campaigns at the account level is somewhat contradicted in practice by the clear emphasis on responding to lead behavior, rather than an account-by-account communications strategy; to the extent that Marketo even launched a ABM tool in 2016 to try and close this gap, such as offering an account-level score for a company rather than each lead within possessing their own.

The takeaway for me is a general marketing shift away from mass-marketing to more targeted campaigns. With marketing budgets ever-shrinking the luxury of wasted effort becomes more costly, and consequently fewer, more targeted campaigns are the result. Marketing automation is facilitating that through more personalised campaigns, such as segmented versions of an email drip based on the industry each lead is within.

4. More than 60% of marketers have 6 or more technologies in their stack

With the SaaS industry thriving, more and more “solutions” keep coming onto the market that seemingly solve your every marketing need. Not happy with your standard out-of-the-box dashboard? No sweat when there’s a new whizzy reporting tool available. And apparently it “integrates seamlessly” with your MAP. The reality is that’s great sales talk at the decision maker level, but simply having a working API to allow the two systems to talk to each other doesn’t make it seamless in action and most organisations aren’t geared up to manage and integrate them efficiently in practice.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly in favour of integrations that add significant value and ultimately help you to market better, but given my technical background I cringe when MAPs are over-engineered to the point that managing all the integrations ultimately ends up doing little more than drain resource with manual interventions and workarounds.

5. Measurement and reporting is still a problem

Gone are the days when telling a business leader that our campaigns are generating “engagement” (opens, clicks, web page views, form fills…) was enough. With content marketing and automation now a core component of the marketing strategy and not just a nice-to-have, we need to be proving it’s generating a return on investment. How many leads are MQLing and going over to sales? Are they actually any good and converting to opportunities? Ultimately we need to demonstrate that marketing is influencing and driving real business.

In my experience, one of the biggest hindrances is the tendency to report in silos – some reporting from your MAP, more from your CRM and then potentially adding in a standalone dedicated platform. Take away the politics, step back and decide on the right platform to focus on. Only then can you start to ensure the right fields are mapped to the right places and build the necessary end-to-end reporting to conquer this lingering issue.


It’s a shame there’s no previous version of this report to compare against… so hold tight for that one next year, folks! That said, it seems to me that the big stride taken over the last year or so is unlocking of the power to nurture on a grand(er) scale, whilst content and reporting continue to be the two pain points which increasingly press for a solution.


Thinking forward to 2018, I anticipate the next big shift will concern data. We’ve known for some time that privacy laws are becoming stricter and, in the EU, May 2018 is when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) finally takes effect, effectively taking us from a default opt-in to a default opt-out status and meaning that you require an explicit opt-in in order to contact by email. Consequently, there will almost inevitably be a greater focus on nurturing inbound leads who provide consent as opposed to much of the historical data that is no longer legally mail-able without first obtaining this consent. It’s a big issue for the industry, and one we’ll no doubt revisit very soon!

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