Marketing Automation vs. Email Marketing Software: Which Is Right for Your Business?

Although marketing automation solutions are more commonplace today, many marketers are still unsure how they differ from email service providers—and which will serve them better.

I can understand why people are confused.

You might wonder, what is marketing automation? and how is it different? Because email can be automated, right? And email is used for marketing, right? That’s the biggest part of the overlap.

Marketing automation and email marketing software have a different point of departure, with very different pricing and complexities. However there’s a definite trend toward marketing automation, with pundits claiming over 80% of the world’s top companies either use marketing automation tools already or plan to do so this year.

So we’re back to our original question: What is the difference between Marketing Automation and Email Marketing software? Here’s how to understand the biggest difference…

Marketing Automation vs. Email Marketing Software, what is the difference?

In my opinion, the biggest distinction between marketing automation and Email marketing software (ESPs) comes down to how sales happen. Both types of solutions are used for marketing, it’s how your company sells that determines which solution you need: A company with a dedicated sales team is more likely to benefit from a marketing automation solution than a retailer that relies on ecommerce for sales.

That’s because marketing automation solutions are designed to intelligently nurture leads along until they can be handed over to a sales team. These solutions have lead scoring, and automatically push leads over to sales reps when enough of the right kinds of interactions have occurred between the prospect and the marketing…when the score is “high” enough to make the prospect a likely lead—and in this case, we mean a sales qualified lead (SQL) vs. a marketing qualified lead (MQL).

An example of a multi-channel drip campaign flow by Hobson (source)

ESPs, on the other hand, are mainly used for direct conversion. Emails might be automated and a prospect might get a different email message based on whether he looked at men’s pants or women’s jewelry while on a retailer’s website. Emails can also be used for branding and for information purposes too, but these are usually done as part of a marketing and therefore sales process that—in the end—will be a direct conversion that doesn’t require a salesperson.

But that prospect is not getting scored as a lead because whatever sale happens will happen via the website or a brick-and-mortar store without a salesperson having to close the deal. The ESP is used to do the nurturing (sending relevant messages based on the prospect’s behavior), but it’s also used to get the sale.

Marketing automation: better for B2B

In general, that means marketing automation is most often a better fit for B2B companies. B2B companies tend to have longer sales cycles and a marketing department tasked with developing and nurturing leads. This kind of company has to have enough interaction with a lead that they feel comfortable handing that lead over to sales.

A sales team is usually limited in its resources and timing is important while personal interaction is expensive. Lead nurturing of the kind marketing automation provides can help a sales team to be much more effective.

Granted there are B2C sales that are also long and drawn out, such as the purchase of a car, but we are speaking in generalities here.

Marketing Automation vs. Email Marketing Software

Email service providers have increased their capabilities and some now offer more multi-channel marketing, like social media integration and SMS. Some ESPs can enable you to automate lifecycle messaging, to change the messaging sent to a prospect based on that prospect’s behavior or profile.

But they can’t score leads (which is a big part of marketing automation), nor do they need to. Although ESPs are evolving to be more like marketing automation by adding more of that kind of functionality, they weren’t designed from the start to do so. That takes us right back to the biggest difference between the two: In general, the ESP is used to make sales, while marketing automation is used to make leads.

How do you know which to choose?

Which is right for you? It starts with your goals. Choosing between a marketing automation solution and an email service provider boils down to what you need, i.e. your marketing requirements, not what they can do. If yours is a business with a sales team and a longer buying cycle that makes lead nurturing critical to your sales success, marketing automation is probably the right choice for you. If not, you should be determining what kind of email service provider will be the best fit for your business.

Be aware that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. A marketing automation solution often requires a bigger financial investment than an ESP. It’s also more complex, so it takes longer to implement marketing automation software and to master it. Although full-service email marketing agencies can be enlisted to help with this. And you need more content to make it work–lots of content that is targeted and appropriate to the recipients place in the sales cycle.

By contrast, implementing an ESP can be much easier and more affordable. Before choosing marketing automation, be sure it’s the best choice based on your business needs and be willing to make the commitment and investment required to make it work.

Marketing Automation vs. Email Marketing Software: Which Is Right for Your Business? It depends, and as the two kind of come together, maybe the real question is, Just how much marketing automation do you need in your email marketing tool?

About Marco Marini

With 25 years in business, Marco is a walking encyclopedia of all things email: best practices, technologies, trends, and more. Marco is currently the COO of iPost, an email platform built for marketers by marketers. iPost an easy, flexible, dynamic marketing automation solution for email and mobile marketing. He has also held key marketing positions with CyberSource, ClickMail, eHealthInsurance, DoveBid and IBM Canada.

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