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As a small business owner, it can be extremely challenging to scale your marketing and sales efforts. Between you and your personnel, there are only so many man-hours in a day, and small businesses typically choose to apply those hours to closing existing opportunities with hot prospects or maintaining the business that they already have.  Yet, without a system in place for a steady inbound lead generation and a way to turn cold prospects into warm leads, your sales efforts are always in jeopardy of coming to a screeching halt.  

If this sounds familiar, a marketing automation strategy may be the answer to your problems.  

Marketing automation drastically reduces the man-hours required for marketing and sales tasks, allowing your sales team to spend more time with the hot prospects that are the most likely to become clients. 

Nurturing Your Buyers Through the Sales Funnel

So, what exactly is marketing automation?  Well, before you can fully understand automation systems and inbound marketing strategies, you first need to understand the concept of a sales funnel.  

Text book marketing theory suggests that ALL potential customers – regardless of product or service - go through a fairly distinct decision-making process before eventually choosing to purchase anything. 

The stages of the marketing funnel are generally defined as:

Awareness > Interest > Consideration > Decision

Note that the more expensive and technical your product is, the more defined, distinct and elongated these stages tend to be.  But make no mistake; the funnel stages are all there - regardless of the nature of your offering.  Also note, this idea of a 4-stage sales funnel is by no means new school marketing mumbo jumbo!  The concept of a sales funnel is as Marketing 101 as it gets and has been taught in marketing courses at every university for a long long time.  That said, many digital marketing have adopted a rebranded version of the concept that refers to the funnel as the "Buyers Journey" - though ultimately, it is the exact same thing.  

And so, it is universally accepted that a cohesive inbound marketing strategy is one that very strategically moves prospects through the phases of the sales funnel (aka buyers journey).  This is generally done via content marketing, which ultimately seeks to put the right content in front of the right person at the right time through a mix of blogging, social media and advertising.  Providing potential customers with the information and education they need to advance in the funnel is what marketers refer to as “lead nurturing.”

Using the stages of the buyer’s journey as their guide, marketers look to first understand the thoughts/conditions/concerns that lead to a prospect being aware that they have a problem (awareness stage) - a problem that their product could ultimately solve.  This awareness naturally leads prospects to an interest in solving that problem (interest stage), then an evaluation stage (consideration stage) and ultimately a conversion (decision) stage.

Why Use Marketing Automation?

Lead nurturing takes a ton of time and resources.  Businesses utilizing marketing automation software are running laps around those that still rely on human beings to nurture leads.  Meanwhile, businesses resistant to using software almost always have opportunities falling through the cracks.  Marketing automation plugs up these gaps by automatically sending the right content to the right person at the right time based on things like website user behavior/engagement, social media behavior and email engagement metrics (or lack thereof). 

Automation systems use a lead scoring system to understand how hot a prospect is.  The more a user engages with your content, the higher their "lead score." Moreover, a good automation tool monitors the type of content a site visitor or email subscriber spends time with, thereby helping your sales and marketing teams to understand what stage of the funnel a buyer is likely to be in.  This helps them to prioritize their efforts with prospects and to know what types of e-mail marketing they are most likely to respond to. 

Inbound Marketing Is Buyer-Centric

Note that the ability to save business owners precious time and resources isn't the only reason marketing automation has caught on.  When calibrated correctly, buyers love marketing automation too!   Putting the right information in front prospects helps them to make better decisions, and a brand's ability to anticipate a potential buyer's wants, needs and questions builds tremendous amounts of brand trust.  This is a welcome deviation from the interruptive advertising of the past, and this is why we say the inbound marketing is “buyer-centric”.

Top Tools for Small Business Marketing Automation

Shopping for a marketing automation solution?  You'll find a huge list of options, but many of these aren't suitable for small businesses.  Here are a few options that are proven to work well for small and mid-sized business marketing campaigns:

  • Drip:  Drip focuses on the e-mail marketing side of the equation. You can configure complex behavior-triggered workflows that send emails to the prospect to move them along the funnel. As you might guess from its name, it truly shines when you want to "drip" content to your leads.  This is what marketers call a "drip campaign". 
  • Infusionsoft:  Infusionsoft takes an all-in-one platform approach to marketing automation. You would use it for your customer relationship management (CRM), email marketing, e-commerce, sales funnels and other marketing tasks. While it's feature-rich, especially for a more established small business, the sheer amount of features can be overwhelming.
  • MailChimp: MailChimp is an email marketing tool that features several automation features. Many small businesses enjoy this platform's user-friendliness, but the more advanced features have a bit of a learning curve to overcome. Companies with a strong e-commerce focus will particularly like many of these options.
  • ActiveCampaign: ActiveCampaign has an approach that is entirely geared towards small business needs. Email marketing, lead scoring, CRM tools and other features provide a robust platform for your company.
  • HubSpot: Well-established small businesses with a strong growth plan can get a lot out of this market-leading automation platform. You can control your entire sales and marketing processes through this software, but it comes with a sizeable learning curve and an equally sized price tag.

In closing, a good marketing automation platform can give you a powerful advantage, but only if you can configure them properly.  It can be time-consuming to learn your way around each platform, along with going through the trial and error testing to figure out how things work.  In the spirit of conserving resources and cutting out wasted manual labor, consider hiring an agency that's familiar with automation tools to shorten the learning curve and expedite the setup.   Just make sure it’s an agency you can trust.