Want Better Marketing Automation Results? Think Outside the Inbox

When most of us think of marketing automation, we think of email. Automated emails, also called “drip emails,” “drip campaigns,” or “auto-responders,” are the backbone of marketing automation.

These pre-scheduled emails go out at certain times, based on specific actions your subscribers take. By planning and optimizing these emails, you can create an impressive lead nurturing system for many different types of prospects. You can use all these same tools to retain your existing customers, too.

That’s all well and good. It’s great, in fact. Marketing automation works, and it works extremely well. There are plenty of studies that show it generates excellent returns.

And yet, using email is really only Marketing Automation 101.

It’s time we all thought outside the box with marketing automation. It’s time to go beyond what we can do in the inbox.

Before we dive in, though, let’s frame up some definitions. Namely, how lead generation, lead nurturing, and loyalty fit within marketing automation.

Marketing automation – Is it lead nurturing or lead generation? And what about loyalty, too?

Short answer: It’s all three.

Longer answer: Lead generation and nurturing are nearly tied as priorities for marketing automation, at least according to recent research from Ascend2 and Dun & Bradstreet. Their report, “Optimize Your Marketing Automation: Mastering Marketing Automation with a Quality Data Foundation,” has lead nurturing just edging out lead generation as the most important goal of a marketing automation strategy.

You can borrow most of the ideas from this blog post for either lead generation or lead nurturing. But, for the most part, we’re going to focus on lead nurturing here. I tend to think that marketing automation is really more suited to lead nurturing, simply because the word “automation” implies a process. Lead nurturing is more of a process. I think of lead generation as that first touch – the first step of lead nurturing, if you will.

Of course, marketing automation shouldn’t stop once someone becomes a customer, either. In many ways, the party’s just getting started once someone places their first order. Marketing automation is fantastic for building loyalty, whether it’s through win-back campaigns, cross-sells and upsells, or referring new customers. All those actions should be included as you plan the architecture of your marketing automation machine.

One thing’s for sure with all this, though: You don’t have to limit yourself to email. There are many different channels to use for marketing automation. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. But if you’re ready to move to the next phase of evolution with your marketing automation program, it may be time to expand into other channels.

1. Phone calls.

Okay – no big surprise here. But I thought I’d start with the most obvious alternative.

Your sales team is probably already making calls based on how people interact with your emails. And, hopefully, you’ve integrated your data well enough that sales can see each interaction a prospect has had with your marketing … while they’re on the phone with that prospect.

The way to make this 2.0 is to give your sales staff a method to tell your CRM what they learned when they placed the call. Did they get no answer after leaving three messages? Did the prospect not want to talk to them? Or did they end up having a nice, receptive chat for 30 minutes? Those are very different responses, and a good marketing automation system can adjust its messaging based on what your reps tell you.

2. Personalized website messages.

Wouldn’t it be nice to personalize a prospect’s experience when they arrive on your website?

This can be done with overlays and sliders that say “hello” and recommend content. Or it can be done with content recommendations at the close of blog posts, videos, or any other media on your site.

You could even offer a chat window, with a rep standing by who’s got the profile information you’ve gathered to date on a visitor. And should that chat go well, you could be ready to pass this prospect right over to sales, who should also instantly have all the information you’ve collected on the prospect.

Knowing someone’s information – without making them repeat it over and over again – really helps people have confidence in your company. It’s particularly important for existing customers, who kind of expect you to know their information already. Having to explain and re-explain your problem to every “specialist” you get passed on to is a pain. (Lookin’ at you, Comcast.)

3. Retargeting ads.

If you’ve got something to say to a prospect on your website, you’ve probably got something you’d want to say to them on another site.

Enter your retargeting campaign.

Retargeting is a powerful way to keep nudging a prospect along their journey, but without being too invasive. And even if they don’t click on your ads, they’ll probably see them. All those little messages make impressions that can turn into actions over time.

Just do try to personalize, or at least segment these messages as best you can. Your ads will compete with a lot of content and a lot of distractions. The more targeted you can make those ads, the more likely they’ll get a response.

4. Social media.

This is one of our favorites. After all, you went to all the work of building your social media following. You’re publishing top-quality content and work hard to keep engagement levels up.

So leverage all that work! Connect with prospects via personalized or narrowly segmented content designed just for them (or for just where they are in the buying process).

You can do this with posts your entire audience can see, or you can do it with direct messages, like the example below.

5. Direct mail.

Don’t knock “snail mail.” It still works, and works extremely well, thank you very much.

Direct mail also allows the possibility for a truly personalized message (like a short, hand-written note from a sales rep). Or you can print on-demand pieces that pull all sorts of cool information from your CRM and make it into a personalized mailer.

If you’ve been doing this in emails, you’ve got the information already. It’s just a matter of finding a printer who’s sophisticated enough to bridge your CRM.

By the way … if you’ve got the budget, consider “dimensional mail,” aka “lumpy mail,” or any piece of mail that’s got a 3D object in it. These pieces cost more to send but they can get impressive response rates.

I once got a 22% response rate from mailers with a personalized letter, a report, and a little plastic puzzle with a message inside. It took a while to gather the info and assemble all the mailer pieces, but once it was done – boom – I got all the business I needed for more than a year.

6. In-person events.

The Content Marketing Institute consistently names in-person events as one of the most effective content marketing formats.

That’s great, but the effectiveness can jump another notch if you’ve got a way to make any prospect who’s attending the event feel special.

Maybe you’ll give them a “swag bag” or promotional offers. Or you’ll invite them to a private reception for drinks. Whatever the method, you’ve got a great opportunity to leverage your investment in the event by treating your known prospects (and customers) extra special.

When does automation come into play? When you have a system that automatically asks who’s attending, then queues up invites, messages, or any other communications for you. Maybe it’s even smart enough to give you a short list of top prospects and customers to invite to that soirée.

7. Text messages.

If you haven’t tried SMS or text-based messaging, it’s time. SMS is an effective B2C tactic that more B2Bers should embrace. You can use it for:

  • Location-based messages
  • Appointment reminders
  • New content announcements
  • Breaking news about your company
  • Messages from sales reps
  • Mentions of your company by influencers, or by someone your prospect follows on social media
  • Messages that urge your existing customers to optimize their account in some way, or alert them to customer service updates

The trick with SMS is to keep messages super short (like what can be read on an Apple Watch), and to keep them timely. There’s immediacy to SMS – which is why it works – but if you send messages that don’t merit that immediacy, it starts to fall flat.

Of course, you’ll get permission to send these messages, too. And you’ll give your SMS “subscribers” ample ways to control which messages they get.

8. Messaging apps.

These are a bigger deal than many of us realize. There’s actually more activity on messaging apps now than there is on social media.

Most of us probably think of using messaging apps for B2C programs rather than for B2B. And that’s fine. But as you know, B2B marketers tend to eventually adopt all the channels and tactics that B2Cers do. They just tend to wait a while, hanging back until the channel or tactic is more mainstream.

The question is: Why wait? Why hold back until a competitor beats you to the punch?


If you’ve got an email-based marketing automation system set up and running well, that’s great. It’s an excellent, high-return sort of start. But as your sophistication grows (and those quotas keep rising), it might be time to expand beyond the inbox.

One caveat: We don’t particularly recommend you add every one of these channels at once. That’s a tremendous amount of data, and a lot of inputs to manage.

But do consider adding one or two strategic channels at a time. Pick whatever channel has the best chance of generating a good return, but that won’t make your system overly complex.

Marketing automation can be a fantastic, super-effective tool, but it’s smart to always be thinking about how to keep it as simple as possible, while still giving your team enough tools to rock their jobs.

Back to you

Is your company using marketing automation in any channels besides email? Are you using any channels we haven’t mentioned here? Leave a comment and tell us about it. We want to know what you think of marketing automation beyond the inbox.