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Automation in the hands of a learner driver will destroy your brand

Marketing Tech Symposium Rob Brown


Marketing automation is a buzzword akin to CRM five years ago, says Rob Brown, head of digital at global education provider Navitas. According to Brown, it is “one of those sexy things” that everyone is talking about but most marketers are failing at it spectacularly.

Marketing Tech Symposium Rob Brown

Brown has a unique insight into marketing automation having spent the past seven years overseeing the roll out of Marketo across the Navitas group. The process has seen him train more than 400 marketers globally on how to best utilise the platform. While the journey, in Brown’s words, “hasn’t always been roses” it is starting to reap results for the education company.  

“Since we rolled out Marketo in 2010, I can demonstrate $50 million a year of directly attributable business to the platform,” Brown told the 2016 Marketing Technology Symposium. “I’m talking about people who took an action which led directly to a sale. The untold story behind that is there’s probably about $100 million left on the table in terms of our inefficiency internally, but even so, that’s a very different place from where we were seven years ago.”

Marketing automation fail

While Navitas is well down the marketing automation road, for businesses starting out, Brown has a warning. He says the most common reason marketers fail when it comes to implementing marketing technology such as an automation platform is a lack of strategy. “They have no idea what they’re going to do with the platform. It’s like, ‘We’ve got CRM, we’ve got marketing automation.’ Well, what are you going to do with it? ‘I don’t know. Send some emails?’” said Brown.

Brown is at pains to point out that strategy and planning must be the first step in the marketing automation process otherwise businesses are setting themselves up to fail from the outset.

“I see so many companies that dive straight into the technology. They go, ‘Oh, look what this can do! It’s got this bell and this whistle,’ but they forget to plan,” said Brown. “I would recommend you do not even open up the tool until you’ve actually planned out, outside the tool, what you want to do. That’s butcher’s paper. It’s Post-it notes, it’s whiteboards. It’s 20 hours in a room working out what you’re going to do over four, five, six sessions before you actually go in. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing but that was one of the keys to our success at Navitas. It was partly because I was afraid to go into the tool, to start.”

Most companies that go down the path of marketing automation and skip over this all important first step end up, according to Brown, with the most expensive email blasting machine or EBM imaginable. If all you are looking to do is send emails, Brown advises against marketing automation. Instead of considering Marketo or other similar platforms, he says a MailChimp subscription would be a better bet.

Businesses that do opt to invest in a platform such as HubSpot or Marketo can fall victim to getting caught up with the technology itself and instead of focusing on what can be achieved with it. Brown said: “It’s not about the technology, it’s about, ‘What are you going to do? What’s the strategy behind it? What do you want to improve in your common practice?’”

The good, the bad and the ugly of marketing automation

Marketers looking to make the leap into marketing automation have a wealth of examples to draw from and when it comes to epic fails, look no further than your inbox. Brown shared examples from Sheraton Hotels and travel platform TripAdvisor that address him as everything from ‘291Rob291’ to ‘Mr Brown, Robert’.

“There are good examples out there. Some companies are getting this right. Not many, but they’re well documented,” said Brown. “Whether it’s on one of the major platform blogs like Marketo’s blog or HubSpot’s blog, there are some great examples of companies that are doing this well.”

A lack of imagination also holds businesses back. As a marketing automation consultant, Brown is often called in to help marketers get their heads around the platform but he doesn’t believe it should be his job to decide what to do with the technology.

“This has been one of the most depressing things for me in my journey attempting to train hundreds of marketers around the world. Most of them don’t have any idea of what you can do with this. I say, ‘This is only limited by your own imagination in terms of what a marketing automation platform can do for you.’ Most of them are like, ‘Oh, we’ll just take your ideas, Rob. You’ve written a manual here which is awesome.’”

When Brown points out this is merely a starting point and that the businesses surely must have some ideas, the response is often, “Not really.”

More than a marketing challenge

Another challenge for businesses looking to utilise marketing automation can be resistance from other departments within the organisation. While IT departments are generally able to get their heads around the platform, this may lead to tension with the marketing team.  

“I certainly experienced this with my journey with marketing automation: the resistance from IT was fierce,” said Brown. “The whole implementation of the CRM was very controversial. The chief technical officer wanted one thing, the CMO wanted another and he got his way. IT were outright trying to block implementation of marketing automation.”

Still, tension between departments is nothing compared to the risk of a marketer with a little IT knowledge. Brown said: “The most dangerous people to let inside the marketing automation platform are marketers with an IT background. They are the ones that can really break stuff. They go, ‘Oh wow, this is awesome! I can do this and I can change this.’ You’ve got to keep them on the leash otherwise it can all end in tears.”

Next in line is what Brown calls the ‘learner driver’, someone with little to no knowledge of what the platform can do. These L platers are generally the ones responsible for some of the most widely reported marketing automation fails.

“That’s not saying all learner drivers are bad drivers, it’s just such a common occurrence. It’s like, ‘Oh Bob can do it or Simon can do it, he’s going to be the marketing automation champion,’ but he’s got no clue, or he’s managing off the side of his desk,” said Brown.

Masters of marketing automation

What this all boils down to is the fact that implementing marketing automation isn’t easy. Brown said: “The technology, no matter how it’s presented, is hard too. Most marketers have never done this stuff before. Most marketers, traditionally, are not used to this kind of thinking.”

As such, he encourages marketers to ask for help.

“This is harder than most people imagine,” said Brown. “If it wasn’t, every major marketing automation vendor would have a long list of references or referees that you could call for a reference on how well they’re using their tool. The reality is they don’t. They don’t because most people aren’t.

“Don’t be afraid to seek help, especially in the early stages, especially when you’re trying to get out of the blocks. One of the reasons why most people just revert to EBM’s on their marketing automation platform is because they don’t know what else to do, they don’t know what else they can do. Don’t be afraid to seek help on strategy and building. That help can come from various different places.”

That said, he urges marketers to be selective when seeking assistance. He’s particularly wary of agencies taking on the job. He said: “I see so many companies outsource this to an agency that it’s not their speciality. Especially the big four. It’s like, ‘They’re doing your implementation?’ They’ve just subbed it out to somebody else who subbed it out to somebody else who subbed it out … and the whole thing ends up failing. A very costly failure.”

Brown closed his presentation with a quote from Bill Gates: The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

He concluded: “If you are doing what Sheraton or TripAdvisor is doing, you are damaging your brand. Stop doing it. I would add to that, automation in the hands of a learner driver will also potentially destroy your business. Don’t be that guy, ‘Dear Mr Rob’ or, ‘Dear Brown, Robert.’ I get that so many times. It’s like, ‘Come on guys, we can all do better than that.’”

Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media About Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media
Mark is Content Director at Ashton Media. It's his job to create interesting and engaging conference programs that stretch the thinking of our attendees. Mark works closely with our industry advisors to ensure the conference content is aligned with the needs and interests of our audiences.