5 Key Differences Between Email Marketing and Marketing Automation

by Aleksandr Peterson on November 16, 2016

9 minute read

Your business is getting traction. You’ve started to gather a critical mass of leads. Even better, you have a direct way to talk to them, via their inboxes, and they've opted into your email list, so they do expect to hear from you. Once you have enough potential customers and their very real email addresses, it’s time to gather the right tools to make sure your digital conversations with them run smoothly and effectively.

You begin to look at the options for marketing software, and.. this is the point where you may have arrived at this article. There are hundreds of different marketing software tools out there, most offering some variety of automation, email, and analytical functionality. Before you compare vendors, you need to start with the most basic question: what is the difference between email marketing and marketing automation?

The answer is simpler than you might think. While both tools use email as the primary channel to engage with your audience, email marketing tracks only the actions taken by recipients of your email blasts. Marketing automation software, on the other hand, monitors every digital interaction a lead has with your business. It also compiles all that data into an activity history that gives a 360-degree view of your leads and their digital footprints.

If you’'re thinking in terms of inbound and outbound marketing, an email marketing system is pretty much outbound only. A marketing automation platform, on the other hand, will help you create and manage inbound social marketing, and integrate it into your outbound programs. It will also make it easy to build landing pages and forms, so those inbound prospects can easily sign up for your list or engage with your content marketing assets.

To break it down further, here are five key differences between email marketing and marketing automation for your consideration:

1. Email Behavior Tracking vs. Web Behavior Tracking

Many of the differences between email marketing and marketing automation stem from their analytical approach – what data the platform collects. Email marketing tools track a recipient'’s behavior within your email campaign. Did the prospect/lead/customer open your email? Did they click a link? Which link and how many times? And you get aggregate data, so you can see what percentage of people did what with your email, and what percentage did nothing.

With marketing automation, you get that email data plus much more. A lead'’s behavior can be tracked everywhere they interact with your company on the web. After they clicked that link, did they go to a landing page on your site? What did they do next? Did they open an infographic? Download an eBook? Make a purchase? If so, how long did it take? Having the full picture of a lead’'s journey through your funnel lets you plan more targeted campaigns based on observed behavior.

2. Single Path vs. Adaptive, Customer-Centered Messaging

Email marketing requires a significant investment of time on the front end –from the creation of emails, to list segmentation, and post-delivery analytics. When you’ve built a campaign, a basic email marketing program typically sends emails out to everyone on your list, and then it’s done (This is sometimes called 'batch and blast'). Depending on the sophistication of the email marketing tool, you might be able to send the same email to different segments of your list, with dynamic content applying itself so that people in different segments get slightly different messages or offers.

Marketing automation also requires lots of hands-on work up front, but you can get more for your effort. You still have to create your emails, plan your campaigns and segment your list, but you can build automated programs with more choices and options. Drip campaigns send a series of messages out over time; you can set them up to go out to people automatically as people join your list.

Nurture campaigns are a type of drip campaign that sends different follow-up communications based on how a prospect interacts with your messages. The platform will manage your leads automatically, based on their data profiles and digital body language. Meanwhile, real-time analytics keep track of engagement metrics and qualification level (assuming you’ve set up lead scoring). Here’s the irony: because of these automation tools, it’'s much easier to create dynamic campaigns that follow the actions of individual leads, instead of a single, homogenous list. These feel more personal to the recipient. Such adaptive campaigns help the marketer make the customer the center of the campaign experience

3. Static Information vs. Dynamic Lead Scoring

Another difference is that marketing automation allows you to do lead scoring. Email marketing tools know only the information about your leads that you provide, which is often just contact information. This means you aren’t going to gather a lot of ground-breaking insights unless you use a separate analytics tool. And that will mean managing another tool, and consolidating data from multiple tools to gain a single picture.

Marketing automation, with all the data it collects, can score your leads’ intent based on their firmographics data and behavioral cues. For example, if your best customers are companies of a certain size, you can create a form that asks 'what size is your company' and gives the good answer a high score. If you know that people who watch one of your webinars are likelier to convert, you can score the action of watching that webinar. The net result is, the better leads generate higher scores, letting you more easily identify the leads and prospects who are actively engaging with you. This allows you to tailor campaigns based on that intelligent scoring information, and to quickly, automatically, pass those leads to sales when they’re ready for a conversation.

In 2014, CMS Wire surveyed companies using lead scoring to ask what kind of results they got:

  • 42 percent named measurable ROI on their lead generation program as a main benefit
  • 38 percent named increased conversion rates of qualified leads to opportunities
  • 31 percent named increased sales productivity and effectiveness
  • 27 percent named shortened sales cycles

Your takeaway: If you have a long or complicated sales cycle, lead scoring is probably worth the trouble, and you’ll need marketing automation to do it. If your sales cycles are short and you sell goods or services that don’t require a lot of consideration, lead scoring may not be worth the trouble.

4. Revenue Assumption vs. Revenue Attribution

When you send a lead an email through an email marketing system, you can tell if the lead clicked on a link with a call to action to purchase. Separately, you can use your CRM to see whether that lead became a customer. But just because a customer opens an email and later makes a purchase doesn’t mean they made a purchase because of the email alone. They may have engaged with a dozen additional touch points and assets on your site. It'’s no small wonder that 78 percent of marketers struggle to measure content ROI.

With marketing automation, you can track the full journey a lead takes and (usually) see the exact path to purchase, including any subsequent actions taken outside of email. Instead of making assumptions about purchase behavior, you can map it. That lets you see which actions and assets actually drive conversions and sales, and which are a waste of time.

5. Simple Automation vs. Intelligent Follow-Up

Most modern email marketing tools offer some kind of automation component, but the capabilities depend on the platform. In simple systems, this could mean scheduling email blasts in advance for specific dates. In more advanced marketing automation systems, you also get transactional triggers, the ability to apply segmentation rules, sending by time zone, and the capability to create nurturing programs with if/then logic built in. Some marketing automation systems facilitate account-based marketing, in which marketers can coordinate and manage their communications with multiple stakeholders inside the same company.

Marketing automation systems take automation to the next level with intelligent action based on behavioral analysis. Depending on lead behavior, the system can optimize the timing of contact, the message shared, and even create suggestions for offline contact such as phone calls or direct mail.

Which System Will Meet Your Needs?

Both email marketing and marketing automation systems can be useful tools for any marketer to start conversations and make connections with the people in their lead base. The choice between which type of tool is right for your business depends on how much you want (or need) to accomplish with your leads before they make it to the sales team.

If your sales cycle is simple and your leads don’t need a lot of attention – maybe one or two touches, such as a newsletter or a few promotional blasts – an email marketing solution might be exactly right for your needs, and a marketing automation platform may prove too advanced (and expensive).

If, on the other hand, you'’re ready to start nurturing, scoring, and qualifying leads based on their engagement with your brand, marketing automation is worth the investment. In most cases, the decision will depend on the scope of your product offering, the speed of your customer journey, the extent of your content marketing, and the quantity and diversity of your leads.

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