Over the past five years or so, we must have trialled just about every piece of marketing automation software on the market. At the very least, we’ve had a good go with all the major names in this game and learned a lot about choosing the right pieces of software along the way.
If we knew five years ago what we know now, we would have found the right automation kit much sooner. Not only that, but we would have saved a good amount of time and money without trying to implement the wrong type of tools into our business.
In this article, I’m going to try and pass on the knowledge we gained and, hopefully, this will help you find the right marketing automation tools faster. So here goes: these are nine things we learned from trying out all the best marketing automation tools.
#1: Form tools generally aren’t good enough
Most enterprise automation platforms will come with some kind of web form builder that allows you to embed forms on web pages without any coding. This is a pretty fundamental feature because forms are where you generate all of your most valuable leads and you need to be able to create and optimise a range of different forms.
Sadly, even with enterprise automation tools, the form builders and optimisation tools built into these platforms simply aren’t enough to maximise conversions.
You don’t just want to slap forms across your web pages and hope for the best. You need tools that help you design forms that are built to convert from day one and then you need to analytics tools to measure performance, optimise your forms and increase conversions.
We were so underwhelmed by the flock of form tools out there that we ended up building our own.
Leadformly makes it easy to build and embed them on your site. While the analytics features mean you can see where users are running into problems and remove barriers getting int the way of conversions. You can also use this data to run informed A/B tests on your forms and constantly improve performance over time.
This is the kind of form tool businesses need to maximise leads and we just weren’t getting these features from the leading automation providers.
Bonus lesson: Sometimes you just can’t find what you need and have to build the right tool for yourself.
#2: Usability really matters
When you’re using marketing automation software on a daily basis, usability issues can really get in your way. This is especially true if you’ve got an all-in-one marketing automation platform and CRM which members of your sales team need to use every day.
Running into these issues every time you try to create a new automation workflow, manage segmented lists or complete other tasks gets boring really quickly.
I’m not going to name and shame any providers here and I’ll also make the point that usability is somewhat subjective. Just be aware that a surprising amount of marketing software platforms leave a lot to be desired in terms of UX.
Common problems we ran into include:
- Speed issues: A lot of marketing automation tools – especially the more complex or feature-rich ones – have slowdowns and other speed issues.
- Navigation woes: Another common problem is poor navigation that makes it difficult to find tools or complete basic tasks quickly.
- Click fatigue: Closely related to navigation, it often takes too many clicks to make simple things happen on marketing automation tools.
- Reports/analytics: Most automation suites offer analytics and reporting but they rarely offer enough in-depth data to gain genuine insights.
- Customisation: If you can’t customise features, the ones you don’t need are going to get in your way and make it harder for new team members to learn the software.
- Learning curve: You want to know new people can join your team and get to grips with your automation tools quickly.
- Setup/integrations: The more complex marketing platforms can be a real pain to set up and integration with other tools is often patchy.
Those are the most common usability problems we’ve come across but the biggest lesson we learned was that some of the most trusted names in marketing automation can be the worst performers when it comes to usability.
So don’t think the oldest and most popular marketing platforms are necessarily the best. Quite the opposite.
So which marketing automation tools nail usability?
Here’s a quick list of some tools that really delivered:
- HubSpot: Easily the best marketing and sales platform we’ve tried in terms of usability.
- ActiveCampaign: For a platform this capable, it’s amazing how easy ActiveCampaign is to set up and use.
- Sendinblue: Purely for email marketing automation but there are some great features and UX is a winner.
- Unbounce: By far the best landing page builder tool we’ve used.
- Leadformly: Usability is always a priority for us and we made sure Leadformly delivers on this.
- Buffer: Social media automation made easy.
- Zapier: For basic integrations and automations between different apps.
I’m not saying these are the only automation platforms that deliver on usability but I am going to reiterate how important it is you try things out before you buy. Besides that, don’t kid yourself that you’ll learn to deal with usability issues because they’ll only become more annoying and restricting over time.
#3: The monthly costs soon stack up
One of the hardest lessons we learned from trying out automation software is that the monthly cost of premium platforms can increase significantly. Any platform that involves email marketing automation or a CRM is generally priced on the number of contacts you can have on your system although other factors like the number of users you’re able to have on a single plan can factor into this as well.
The frustrating thing is the price difference between plans can be really steep. Not only that, but you’ll often be automatically bumped up to a more expensive plan if you go over your contact allowance (or any of the other limitations on your plan).
This can really catch you out.
The other problem with this is it’s easy to start using a cheaper plan, thinking it provides everything you need, only to realise later on that you’ve outgrown the limitations of that plan and you’re forced to upgrade to a more expensive option.
Unfortunately, these options are normally disproportionately expensive compared to the plan you originally sign up to. It just comes across as a blatant attempt to get you on board as a customer at cheaper rates and then hold you to ransom with higher fees once you’re locked into the platform.
There are some exceptions, though.
After becoming frustrated with the pricing models used by the major marketing software providers, we came across ActiveCampaign, which provides an all-in-one CRM, email marketing and marketing automation platform.
So this company is competing with the likes of Salesforce, Infusionsoft and HubSpot but it doesn’t employ the same kind of pricing model. Prices are far more competitive to begin with and they’re calculated based on the features you need, as well as the number of contacts you require – so you’re not paying for functionality you’ll never use.
Crucially, the price difference between plans is relatively modest and proportionate to what you get in return. So, as your business grows, you’re not suddenly going to find yourself paying out 5X as much for the same piece of software.
When it comes to pricing, always look at the more expensive plans and consider how you expect your business to grow in the future. Remember, automation software is designed to make your business grow and – if all goes well- you’ll be paying those higher fees in the near future.
#4: You don’t need one tool that does everything
A lot of marketing software providers make out their platform is the only one you’ll ever need. This is complete rubbish, of course. No single tool can do everything and most can’t even do multiple things as well as they should do, so don’t worry about trying to find a single automation tool that’s going to handle everything for you.
There are a few providers who do an impressive job of combining CRM, email marketing and marketing automation – ActiveCampaign and HubSpot being two of them. These three marketing essentials are deeply integrated and being able to manage them all from a single platform is a huge advantage.
Unfortunately, the majority of platforms we tried that offer all three were underwhelming. They simply fail to do a decent job of all three and even ActiveCampaign (the platform we ended up choosing) can’t do everything for us.
It gets us close, though – and at a fraction of the price charged by similar providers.
We also use Sendinblue for transactional emails, Leadformly to optimise our web forms and create automation workflows with ActiveCampaign, Unbounce to build our landing pages and WebinarJam to schedule our webinar screenings and dozens of other automation tools.
While ActiveCampaign and Leadformly are involved in every marketing automation strategy we implement, we’re often using five or six tools combined to make things happen.
To get an idea of how many tools we actually use, take a look at our article listing 53 Business Automation Tools That Skyrocketed Our Growth by 330%.
#5: Integration is essential
When you’re using multiple tools to get a single job done, you need to know they can all work together. Automation relies heavily on integration to transfer data between different platforms and not all tools are built to play nicely with each other.
This is something you need to pay attention to as you’re choosing marketing automation tools and many of the enterprise offerings are surprisingly poor when it comes to integrations. In some cases, they employ a walled garden that keeps you locked into its own toolset. In others, providers may have a list of partners which restricts you to integrating with select tools.
Then we have the occasional fallout between providers, such as the recent Shopify-Mailchimp fiasco, which left a bunch of online store owners with two tools that no longer integrate.
In an ideal world, you’ll know which integrations you need before you start using any new tool but this isn’t always the case. In these cases, it’s worth taking a good look at providers who offer a wide range of integrations as this gives you the best chance of working with additional tools further down the line.
#6: Automation must be GDPR-compliant now
Automation is a data-driven process and this often relies on user/customer data to function. As of May last year, collecting data from people must be GDPR-compliant and this has an impact on the tools you can use to capture information from people.
Above all, make sure you’re dealing with software providers who take GDPR seriously. You should be able to find new features and updates to features that make them GDPR-friendly – and you’ll need these to say on the right side of the European regulations.
ActiveCampaign updated its form tool to add GDPR-compliant consent requests.
Getting to grips with GDPR can be tricky and the EU’s documentation literally requires a legal team to decipher. Understanding these regulations is one thing but then actually applying them to the software platforms you’re using is something else entirely.
So it helps to choose tools that come with the necessary documentation to help you use them in a GDPR-compliant manner. Keep in mind, this documentation doesn’t qualify as legal advice and you should always seek independent advice from legal experts on how your business needs to comply with GDPR.
However, having platform-specific documentation will make life a lot easier when it comes to actually implementing this advice with the tools at your disposal.
#7: You need software that’s going to grow with your business
It’s relatively easy to choose marketing automation tools that meet your current needs today. The industry has boomed in recent years and there are more software providers emerging every year, bringing their own unique offering to the table. In terms of choice, marketers have never had it so good but choosing a platform for today’s needs is only part of the battle.
You need marketing automation tools that are going to help your business grow. Not only that, but you also need tools that are going to grow with your business and continue to meet its changing needs as your enterprise expands.
The problem is, most marketing automation tools specialise in one of two areas: small businesses or enterprise brands. There aren’t many providers making a genuine effort to create platforms that help small businesses grow into something bigger and then continue to meet their needs.
We didn’t want to implement marketing automation into our business and then have to change toolsets once things got bigger and our needs became more demanding. Likewise, we didn’t want to pay enterprise prices from day one, simply because we expected to need enterprise features in the future.
There’s still a huge gap in the marketing automation market for small businesses and new ventures looking for platforms that can grow with them. ActiveCampaign was the only provider really filling this role when we first starting using it and there aren’t many alternatives five years on – not affordable ones anyway.
This is incredible really when the whole point of marketing automation is to grow businesses.
#8: Automation won’t solve all of your problems
There’s a lot of hype in the marketing industry about automation (and many other industries, too, in fact) and there’s plenty of reason to be excited. But automation isn’t going to solve all of your business problems. It’s important you understand what the technology is/isn’t capable of before you start paying for tools and trying to implement them into your business.
Automation is great at handling repetitive data-driven tasks, but someone still needs to set up and implement those automation workflows.
First of all, you need to be able to spot opportunities where automation can make an impact. Automation tools will point you in the right direction (e.g.: ActiveCampaign encourages you to automate emails) but you can achieve so much more by combining different tools strategically.
For example, we don’t just use Leadformly to optimise our forms, we use it as the starting point for various automation strategies:
- Pre-qualify leads upon sign up
- Automate quotes and proposals for prospective clients
- Assign users to email lists in ActiveCampaign
- Automate email responses
- Kick-start our automated webinar strategy
These automation strategies have transformed our business but we have to use multiple tools to achieve them – none of which are designed for those specific purposes. Leadformly isn’t a webinar or proposal automation tool by any means but we’ve used it as a crucial tool in both of those automation strategies and many more.
You have to sit down and really assess your business to spot opportunities where automation can make a real impact and then you have to devise practical strategies based on the tools and data you have available.
Automation tools will help you implement those strategies but you need to have the knowledge and creativity to come up with them in the first place.
#9: Marketing automation is an investment – and it must be profitable
Marketing automation is an investment and it can be a pretty sizeable one, too. As with any kind of investment, you need to achieve a positive ROI in a suitable time-frame, otherwise you’re simply going to automate your way into a bunch of problems.
If you’re new to this technology, the most important thing to know is that marketing automation is that it can’t make bad business processes any better. It can make solid processes faster, more efficient and scalable, though – but those systems need to be there in the first place.
To get the best out of these tools, you need a certain understanding of how automation technology, algorithms and data science work.
There’s a common expression in data science: “crap in, crap out”. You can’t expect to throw a bunch of low-quality data at an algorithm and expect it to come up with quality results. In other words, even the best automation tools are going to have a limited impact if you’re creating ineffective workflows or using low-quality data.
If you’re going to make automation profitable, make sure you have the core essentials in place first.
Automation for every business
Automation tools are both more advanced an affordable than ever, meaning businesses of all sizes can use the technology to improve efficiency and grow faster. In many cases, the hardest part is choosing the right tools and implementing them into your organisation.
Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into what can be a somewhat long journey in choosing marketing automation software. For us, this journey certainly would have been shorter if we knew five years ago what we know now.