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Can You Keep the Human Touch When Using Marketing Automation?

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Can You Keep the Human Touch When Using Marketing Automation?

Marketers, we find ourselves in a quandary: We want to automate as much of our marketing as possible, yet we don’t want any of it to feel automated.

We’d love to be able to just set it and forget it. But great content marketing is designed to build relationships (that drive revenue). And unfortunately, automating our communication can make that goal harder – not easier – to achieve.

#ContentMarketing is designed to build relationships. Automating communication can make that goal harder, says @DrewDavisHere via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Sure, there are tools designed to automate posts on social media profiles and even the direct messages sent through LinkedIn. We can also choose to automate our most valuable interactions, such as our welcome emails and thank-you notes.

But when we do, the resulting messages don’t feel authentic. They lack personalization – a critical factor in relationship-building and revenue generation. In fact, research from McKinsey found companies with the fastest rate of revenue growth were more likely to prioritize personalization in their communication.

So, as much as we may want to put tasks on autopilot to increase productivity, we wonder how much our relationship-building efforts might suffer if we do.

What should marketers automate?

I’ve spent the last three months wrestling with that question, and it turns out I’m not the only one.

Even in 2017, 43% of marketers stated the most important objective of a marketing automation strategy is optimizing productivity. It’s not hard to understand why. The average marketer spends 1.25 days each week on non-core tasks, according to new research from Airtable. That’s 25% of our workweek spent managing, organizing, approving, reporting, gathering, and shuffling our marketing campaigns and content through the marketing mill.

Marketers spend 1.25 days each week on non-core tasks, such as organizing, approving, reporting, etc., according to Airtable research, says @DrewDavisHere via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

That’s 1.25 days we could reclaim by automating the right stuff.

Where do we start?

What is the “right stuff”?

Here’s what a few experts had to say on the subject:

“Automate the admin, the mundane, the data collection. Animate the rest with personality,” suggests Patrick Lyver, founder and president of the web design agency Kleurvision Inc. “It works for me, and there are a lot of tools that can help.”

Automate the mundane and animate the rest with personality, says @patricklyver via @DrewDavisHere @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Gloria Lafont, president of Action Marketing Co., agrees: “Automation does not mean set it and forget it, nor eliminate the human. It means eliminating as many repetitive tasks as possible in the marketing implementation, so you have more time to focus on making the relationship-building more effective.”

Automation does not mean set it and forget it, nor eliminate the human, says @GloriaLafont via @DrewDavisHere @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Our team set aside 30 days to experiment with ways to follow Patrick and Gloria’s advice. By embracing three simple, strategic ideas, we found an approach that automates mundane, repetitive tasks without eliminating the human touch.

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1. Start with recently acquired customers

My core belief is all good marketing starts with the customers you’ve got. Instead of starting our automation activities with prospecting, social media, and lead generation, we focused on the processes implemented immediately after acquiring a new client.

From the instant we sign a new deal until the final invoice is paid, our team identified 49 separate multi-step automations that could save us time. More importantly, those automations allowed us to craft a unique, consistent, and high-quality client experience.

Designing these automations was surprisingly easy: List every little interaction, task, and deliverable in the client relationship. We just had never tried to formalize or automate them. It’s stuff we’ve done manually for a decade. It’s second nature. Then, we used our CRM’s built-in automation workflows and Zapier to turn each task into a tiny automation.

How much time did we claw back? It’s hard to say precisely, but I’d guess four to six hours per week. That’s six hours we can now spend on marketing instead of managing.

Yet, we have also recognized that to achieve marketing success with these automated efforts, we need to maintain a high-touch, highly personalized experience for our customers.

That brings us to our second strategy:

2. Ready-to-personalize communication

Any CRM can “personalize” an email or text message: Simply insert {first name} here, add {company name} there, and schedule it to be sent.

However, I am unaware of a CRM or even an AI tool that’s genuinely aware of the communication nuances across different client relationships. For example, some of our clients are “business-casual” communicators. Their emails feel like they’re wearing shorts to the office:

  • They use extra exclamation points and emojis.
  • They send short, punchy text messages.

Other clients communicate with all the formality of a black-tie affair:

  • Their messages are crammed with corporate lingo.
  • Every imaginable stakeholder gets cc’ed.
  • Even their email signatures include legal disclaimers – just in case.

Then, there are clients that fall somewhere in the middle. I call this style “the mullet of marketing” – all business up front and party in the back.

These nuances matter in communication. They’re what supplies that human touch we’re so afraid of losing when we automate.

So, instead of sending pre-written, generically personalized emails directly from our CRM, our team generates ready-to-personalize messages.

Ready-to-personalize or RTP messages don’t get sent directly from the CRM to the client. They require a manual step added into the account management process: For each campaign, the account manager receives a notice that a draft needs their attention.

The CRM has already filled in all the critical customer data – such as first name, company name, and amount due. All the account manager needs to do from there is add some brand personality to the message. It could be as simple as popping in a few emojis, removing the exclamation points, or asking how the customer enjoyed their long weekend or a recent vacation.

Then, they hit send, and off it goes.

RTP has transformed our perspective on how powerful marketing automation can be.

Yet, that still leaves one last element of our approach that still needs work.

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3. Create a single source

Zero percent – yes 0% – of marketers have a single source of truth for up-to-date information on marketing activities, according to the Airtable report.

On average, Airtable’s 300 survey respondents report they must reconcile between nine and 11 data sources to build a holistic view of their marketing activities and audience insights.

That’s a ton of work.

Any marketer who’s attempted to marry their Google Analytics with their customer database, email marketing platform, social media insights, and a pipeline of opportunities has faced this nightmare head-on.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: customer data platforms. CDPs used to be for massive enterprises blessed with a vast IT staff capable of building custom connectors for proprietary platforms.

But that was the old days.

Today, any company (even yours) can use free (or low-cost) web-based tools to build your own CDP.

We’re planning to use those tools to reduce the number of platforms needed to run reports and find new insights. We’re confident those insights will help us find the perfect balance between automated efficiency and authentic communication that builds client relationships. So, that’s next on our list.

With our initial 90-day automation experiment closing, we’re excited to see if we can achieve similar results when communicating with our prospects, leads, and open opportunities.

All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.

Get more advice for content leaders in the Chief Content Officer digital magazine. Subscribe today to get it in your inbox every quarter.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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For a Better Long-Term Content Strategy, Find a Purple Audience

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For a Better Long-Term Content Strategy, Find a Purple Audience

“The stock market is not the economy.”

When the stock market is up, it doesn’t always follow that the economy is great. When the stock market crashes, it doesn’t always mean the economy is bad.

That’s as true today as it was 25 years ago when I first got into marketing. And it’s a great reminder to avoid basing business decisions on faulty connections.

Over the years, I’ve learned an adjacent lesson about content and audiences: Popularity isn’t a sign of differentiation. People don’t necessarily regard what is popular among online audiences or the media as high quality – or even true.

If you successfully chase trends and feed popular content to audiences, you have not necessarily differentiated your content. On the other hand, differentiating by taking a contrarian or highly niche view of what’s popular doesn’t always work either. How do you blend popularity and differentiation?

#Content popularity isn’t a sign of differentiation, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Red and blue ocean strategies

In their 2004 book, Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne explain red and blue ocean strategies for marketing. Red oceans are crowded markets where popular products abound and cutthroat sales and marketing strategies rule. Blue oceans are undiscovered markets with little or no competition, where businesses can create new customers or die alone.

In strategic content marketing, most businesses focus on the red oceans – offering short-term, hyper-focus feeding. They look to drive traffic, engagement, and conversions by getting the most people to consume the content. So a red-ocean strategy focuses on topics and content that have proven popular with audiences.

But this strategy makes it difficult to differentiate the content from everyone else’s.

This myopic view of content often prohibits testing the other side – investing in a blue-ocean mindset to find and create new audiences with less-popular content.

Short-term, hyper-focused #Content feeding often prohibits the mindset of creating new audiences, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Finding a blue niche in a red world

I recently worked with a financial technology company that provides short-term loans to small businesses experiencing a cash-flow crunch. It’s as sales-driven as any team I’ve seen.

When they started, they put much of their marketing and content efforts into a blue-ocean strategy, targeting small businesses that will need a loan within a month.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Five years ago, this company wasn’t the only one to recognize the massive opportunity in fast, easily accessible, short-term lending. A red ocean of new customers who needed these loans grew in a relatively robust economy (and historically low interest rates).

The value of these loans grew from $121 million in 2013 to just over $2 billion in 2018. And competition for this audience’s attention grew, too. As short-term, low-funnel content on accessible lending saturated the market, this strategy became less and less successful because so many fintech companies pursued it.

My client’s team knew they couldn’t only count on this red-ocean audience for new business. They recognized the need to invest time in building a new audience – larger, more established, long-term borrowers.

This audience wouldn’t produce immediate lead generation. But the company wanted to diversify its product line and better support the new audience’s loan-related needs.

The genius of this strategy was teaching, targeting, and building demand for new ideas from a niche within the red audience. Put simply: They created a purple audience by targeting a blue audience within the red one.

The blue audience the team targeted consisted of fast-growing smaller businesses that would soon evolve into established, long-term borrowers. These businesses might want to know the benefits of the short-term availability of cash. The team focused the new learning content platform on teaching companies that don’t need a loan now about the benefits of having a solution at the ready when they do.

The purple audiences took time to develop. But when those audience members entered the red ocean, my client company stayed top of mind because it had bucked the popular trends and offered completely different content.

3 triggers for targeting purple audiences

Deciding to invest in cultivating a purple audience requires some thought. These three considerations can prompt the move to a different audience hue.

1. You’re ready to hedge bets on current efforts

So many companies double down on their content to the point where their strategy incorporates the same content at every stage of the customer’s journey. Why? Because everybody is talking about it.

I see some B2B marketing organizations deliver the same “why change” thought leadership content to prospects as they do their customers. Shouldn’t your customers’ needs and wants change after they purchase your solution?

Developing thought leadership you believe is important but current audiences aren’t yet thinking about can be an excellent hedge.

You shouldn’t deliver the same thought leadership to prospects AND customers. After all, your customers’ needs and wants should change after they buy.

2. You believe the consensus is wrong

Many companies fold their content marketing like a lawn chair because their content goes against the consensus. Last week, a chief marketing officer told me, “Our CEO says we can’t go out with that thought leadership message because people will disagree with us.”

You don’t have to invest the entire budget in a contrarian idea. But if you genuinely believe the world will eventually come to your point of view, build the content infrastructure that supports that opinion and experience a multiplier on the investment.

3. You see an opportunity to steal audience

Look at the most popular content, and you see all your competitors fighting over the eyeballs seeking that topic, trying to outrank everyone on search, and fighting a red ocean of potential audience members. Then, look up and ask, “What’s next?”

You might see a slight trend. Or, as my fintech client did, you may notice a niche blue audience in the red audience. Investing in that content can pull audiences from the popular content into your fledgling purple audience.

SAP’s content site The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience illustrates this concept. During the pandemic, the team, led by Jenn Vande Zande, adjusted its editorial focus to steal a segment of the red-ocean audience seeking COVID-19 coverage. Jenn and team designed the content to appeal to people looking not just for lockdown news but also for the most up-to-date practices and industry information for businesses on customer experience in the COVID-19 era.

SAP created a purple audience.

Get colorful

As a marketer, you should think about new audiences. How can you address them with content that may not be widely popular now but can help them better prepare for what you believe is coming tomorrow?

That’s a better question to answer for long-term content marketing success.

Get Robert’s take in just five minutes:

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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