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Automating Without Alienating: Yes, It’s Possible

Marketers, we find ourselves in a quandary: We want to automate as much of our marketing work 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 (which drive revenue). And, unfortunately, automating our communications can make that goal harder – not easier – to achieve.

Sure, there are tools designed to automate posts on our social media profiles and even the direct messages we send 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 that, the resulting messages don’t feel authentic. They also lack a personal touch – a critical factor in relationship-building and revenue generation. In fact, research from McKinsey found that companies with the fastest rate of revenue growth were more likely to prioritize personalization in their communications.

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.

Then what, exactly, 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 six years ago, 43% of marketers stated that optimizing productivity is the most important objective of a marketing automation strategy.

It’s not hard to understand why we need to optimize our time. The average marketer spends 1.25 days each week on non-core tasks, according to 2022 research from Airtable (registration required). That’s 25% of our workweek spent managing, organizing, approving, reporting, gathering, and shuffling our marketing campaigns and content through the marketing mill.

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

So, 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 & president of the web design agency Kleurvision Inc. “It works for me, and there are a lot of tools that can help…”

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.”

So, our team set aside 30 days to experiment with different 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.

Automation strategy 1: Start with customers you’ve just acquired

All good marketing starts with the customers you’ve got. So, instead of starting our automation activities with prospecting, social media, or lead generation, we focused on the processes we implement immediately after acquiring a new client.

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

Designing these automations was surprisingly easy: We listed every little interaction, task, or deliverable in the client relationship. We’d just never tried to formalize the tasks or automate them before. It’s stuff we’ve done manually for a decade. It’s become 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 also recognized that to achieve marketing success with these automated efforts, we would need to maintain a high-touch, highly personalized experience for our customers.

That brings us to our second strategy:

Automation strategy 2: Ready-to-personalize (RTP) communications

Any CRM can “personalize” an email or text message: Simply insert “First Name” here, add “Company Name” there, and schedule it to be sent out automatically.

However, I am unaware of a CRM, or even an AI tool, that’s genuinely aware of the communication nuances that exist 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.
  • Their email signatures include legal disclaimers. 

Then, there are clients that fall somewhere in the middle. I call this style “the mullet of marketing”: 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 decided to generate “ready-to-personalize” messages.

Ready-to-personalize, or RTP, messages don’t get sent directly from the CRM to the client. Rather, they require a manual step that’s added to our account manager’s process: For each campaign, the account manager receives a notice that there’s a draft in need of 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. This 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.

Automation strategy 3: The single source

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

On average, Airtable’s 300 survey respondents report that they must reconcile between 9 and 11 different 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).

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 we need to touch 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 the next step 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.

Andrew Davis

Andrew Davis

Andrew Davis wrote for Charles Kuralt and produced for NBC. He's worked for the Muppets and MTV. He co-founded, built, and sold a marketing agency. You might have seen him on The Today Show or in The New York Times. He's a best-selling author and one of the most influential marketers in the world. Follow Andrew on Twitter @DrewDavisHere.