Whatever it is, we’re calling it “marketing automation”

“Marketing automation” as the label for a major — if slightly amorphous — category of modern marketing software appears to be here to stay. Three recent points on the curve:

The latter is perhaps the most significant, as having a line item in the marketing budget is the Holy Grail of any marketing technology. When the challenge shifts from trying to convince people that they should buy a marketing automation platform to simply convincing them which one they should adopt, the industry has taken a major leap forward.

Marketing Automation is a line item in the budget

It wasn’t always obvious that “marketing automation” would be the label for this category of software that emerged from lead generation and lead nurturing technologies, and came to include a wide array of analytics and social media marketing capabilities.

For a couple of years, a number of the major players in the space worked hard to change the name. Eloqua and Marketo both preferred to position their platforms as “revenue performance management” solutions. HubSpot has stalwartly resisted the term, preferring “inbound marketing,” the category of marketing activities that it christened.

Why the rash against “marketing automation” from some of its very inventors?

For a while, marketing automation was starting to get a bad rap. Frankly, early implementations weren’t always as successful as adopters hoped they might have been. (Remind you of the early days of enterprise resource planning? The early days of CRM? There’s a pattern here.)

The word “automation” also implied a fairly mechanical, impersonal nature to the interactions, at a time when social media mania was rising, emphasizing the power of the human touch.

And, of course, every software provider in the world wants to differentiate their offering and control the message. To the degree that marketing automation was still up-in-the-air as the name for this category, there was plenty incentive to change the label to one that a particular firm could unequivocally own.

But over time, all of these reasons to avoid the term have faded. Marketing automation implementations are increasingly proving their ROI. All of the major analyst houses now refer to marketing automation and its best practices. The label “marketing automation” has outgrown its literal meaning, and indeed has shifted the discussion to how it can provide more personalized experiences.

That’s really not too far of a stretch. After all, Amazon’s amazing “personalization” is actually just an automated algorithm, not remote in-store greeters, madly typing away recommendations every time somebody lands on a page.

But the real reason marketing automation appears to have won is, well, that’s just what everyone calls it. As vendors returned to the term, capturing interest from people who were searching for the term, more vendors followed suit. Here’s the search trend for “marketing automation” on Google for the past 7 years:

Marketing Automation Search Trend

After an initial peak of hype, there was a trough of disillusionment, followed by a slow and steady climb of enlightenment. It’s the perfect incarnation of the Gartner Hype Cycle.

Now almost all of the key players in the space have “marketing automation” featured in the title of their web sites: Act-On, Aprimo, Eloqua, Genius.com, Marketo, Pardot. HubSpot still prefers inbound marketing, but they promote their marketing automation capabilities on their home page. Infusionsoft chooses to emphasize its CRM capabilities instead. IBM and Oracle are too large to register on this scale.

There may yet be a nomenclature revolution. Vendors who are trying to position “marketing automation” as a feature rather than the label for their overall platform may yet redefine the language of the market. But the stakes are getting higher.

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Comments

  1. I’m not going to refute the significance of the three events you cited (they are indeed important).
    But, I do have to share this Google Trends chart.
    http://dharme.sh/TRtsqT
    Turns out, there’s more broad *interest* in “inbound marketing” than there is “marketing automation”. Now, granted, analysts and people in the biz might be using marketing automation more — but what really matters is usage outside the industry.

  2. Hi, Dharmesh.
    No doubt, inbound marketing is hot. It’s reframed the way in which marketers think about marketing — major kudos to you.
    At the same time, content marketing is pretty hot too, and social media marketing is downright supersonic:
    http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=inbound%20marketing%2C%20marketing%20automation%2C%20content%20marketing%2C%20social%20media%20marketing&cmpt=q
    Unquestionably, these terms are firmly established as marketing concepts — guiding how marketers think about marketing — and the classifications they apply to their activities. But there aren’t really content marketing platforms as a category. There are social media marketing platforms, but many of those capabilities are integrated into products such as yours.
    You’re right that industry analysts and press aren’t representative of the larger outside world. But analysts and press do influence the outside world. Those influencers, for better or worse, have converged upon the term marketing automation for this category.
    That being said, I’m the first to acknowledge that the marketing software landscape as a whole is still quite young and being actively shaped. It very well may be that marketing automation is eclipsed by something greater. I’m eager to see where you guys take your vision, and I think that positioning marketing automation as a feature rather than a platform is a clever way to leverage the present towards the future.

  3. Up until late 2010, HubSpot didn’t have the capability for email marketing (or robust email marketing) like the other tools had integrated into their offering. They have long been evangelists of content marketing and analytic measurement. Until HubSpot added the email marketing portion I don’t think they would have qualified as ‘marketing automation’ in that sense…plus they own the ‘inbound marketing’ category (in my mind).

  4. Marketing is really the last department to finally get an enterprise application to manage their daily business functions, particularly the customer engagement process. What is interesting is the collision of this technology category with the broader customer experience management category (the artist formerly known as WCM) and the race to own the customer experience. I agree with you that this was inevitable though, and we see so many of the same trends that happened in ERP and CRM. ERP was for the bean counters, CRM was for the sales guys, and Marketing Automation/ Customer Experience Management is finally a system to start to optimize the marketing department.

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