There have been a ton of articles lately about the benefits of marketing automation. But unfortunately most of the articles give little or no practical information on how a company can start to put together a strategy. In this post I’ll try and cover some of the most important concepts to help kick start your planning sessions. I’ll also provide an actual framework you can use to help create an automation strategy, and some example campaigns you can use today to get started!

What Is Marketing Automation

Very simply, marketing automation is the practice of distributing content to a targeted list of contacts based on predefined actions or scheduled intervals. That’s it! In fact, if you are sending a newsletter today, you are doing marketing automation.  Now of course there are many different flavors, and some get very advanced, but in essence sending anything to a particular group of contacts based on predefined criteria or schedule is marketing automation.

The complexities come from the different types of campaigns you build. For example, you can have an automation start for many different reasons besides just picking a date and time to send. You can have them start from a website visit, a form signup, a whitepaper download, an email forward, or any number of trackable events that happen. It gets confusing when you start to build multiple types of programs, and then start combining them together into complex initiative. So for the sake of simplicity we are going to start with some of the basics.


First Some Definitions

As with most tech concepts, marketing automation is riddled with new terms. Below we cover some of the most common.

  • Leads / contacts: this one is pretty self-explanatory. In the marketing automation world any email address you have is a lead (or contact). It is worth mentioning most marketing automation tools consider contacts and leads somewhat interchangeable, whereas a typical CRM system will separate the two into different entities. For the sake of this article, I’ll use the terms leads to apply to both.
  • Segmentation: Think of segments as groups or categories of leads. Whether it is target verticals, industries, product interest, or another defining characteristic, segments are meant to quickly distinguish one lead from another.
  • Lists: Lists, similar to segments, are groups of leads. Lists can be based upon any criteria, and provide an additional way to sort leads. From a grouping perspective segments and lists can be almost interchangeable. Though having one main contact list and only differentiating by segment can be a little limiting. We prefer to use both, which I’ll discuss later.
  • Tagging: Think of tagging as a way to attribute additional information to a particular lead. Each tag that you add further defines the lead.  You may have a tag for #executive, or a tag for #golf. The purpose is to attach additional information to the lead.
  • Triggers: Just to add a little confusion, triggers are events (like a certain time and date), or interactions (a user clicking a link) that happen and cause an action to take place.
  • Actions: Actions are the things that happen after a trigger. For example, the trigger might be a website form was filled out, and the following action might be sending an automated email to the person that filled out the form.  Combining multiple triggers and actions together are called automations, or workflows, which we’ll get to in a minute.

** To add a little confusion, some marketing automation tools refer to triggers and actions interchangeably, and some refer to them as I am defining here. Just make sure when you select a tool, you know how they are referring to the terms. For this article, a trigger is a set of criteria and an action is what is done when the criteria is met.

  • Scoring: Scoring is basically a replacement for lead rating. Whereas in some CRM systems you may rate a lead as cold, warm or hot. With scoring you have a much more flexible system. Just keep in mind, some marketing automation platforms are limited when it comes to scoring, so defining your plan first might help you select the right tool.
  • Automations / workflows: This is where the magic happens in marketing automation. Automations, sometimes referred to as workflows (and sometimes even campaigns, but more on that later), are the predefined rules for how marketing communications should be controlled. They map out the schedules, interactions, triggers and the resulting actions. Each automation can be built to accomplish different things, and multiple automations can be used in combination with each other.
  • Campaigns: Campaigns are predefined communications enacted to accomplish a measurable goal. For example, if you want readership in a blog, you might build an email campaign aimed at getting people to your site specifically to read content you have created. The campaign itself is measured by how effective the email is at accomplishing that goal. Building multiple campaigns with the same goal gives you the ability to do things like A/B split testing.


A Good Framework To Start With

Definitions are great, but unfortunately this is where a lot of other material stops. To actually be useful, you need to define a framework to govern how all of these pieces of functionality work together.  Which is exactly what we’ve done below.  This framework is exactly what we have used in a number of situations. It can be deployed in very simple configurations, but also has enough flexibility to expand for more complex initiatives.

When And How To Use Lists

Think of lists as areas of interests for your leads. If someone is interested in your blog digest, that would be a list, if someone is interested in a particular product or service, that is a list, if you do not know what someone is interested in, that would also be a list (sort list).  Ultimately you need to define all of the buckets of interest a lead may have with your product, services and company. Your job then will be to determine what interests your leads have and add them into the appropriate bucket.  In the case where you do not know, use sort lists, like “interest determination” or “sales stage determination”.

When And How To Use Segmentation

Segments are used to fine tune content to your audience.  Each campaign you define can have multiple variations of the messaging aimed at each of the segments you define.  You are trying to create the most appropriate segments so that your message resonates with the most people.  The most common segments are based on industries or verticals (I’ll refer to them synonymously as verticals). Create a new segment for each vertical you target your products and services towards, and then add the correct segment to each lead. You can further refine this by defining personas in each vertical, and creating a larger list of segments for each persona / vertical combination.

For example, if you serve the healthcare industry, and your clients are hospitals as well as small practitioners, you may have a persona defined for a smaller primary care physician as well as a hospital chief of staff. Both have different interests, and are typically approached differently in the sales and marketing processes. In that scenario you would probably have three segments defined, healthcare-general, healthcare-small practice, and healthcare-hospital. The general segment will serve as a “catch-all” for general health related content, and the more specific segments will allow you to further refine your messaging.


When And How To Use Lead Scoring

Think of scoring the same way you think of taking a temperature. Each scoring group should exist to determine how likely a lead is to do a particular action, or as a way to further define specifics about that lead. Create “action based” scoring groups to determine your leads potential to take an action (read, like or share content, click on links, talk to your sales team, or interact in any particular way with you, your brand and your products). Also create “interest based” scoring groups to determine your leads level of interest in particular “things” (your blog, your products, your services, types of content they like, the topics they like, the types of links they like, and industry or persona information you can determine from their actions). Each scoring group will be a range of numbers that you pick (1-10, 1-100, 1-1000). Once a score grows to a certain number, you will take some action.

Example Scoring Groups:

Action Base (range 1-100)

  • sales-lead_temp
  • lead-email-engagement_temp
  • lead-social-visit_temp
  • lead-web-visit_temp
  • lead-event-visit_temp

Interest Based (range 1-20)

  • interest_executive_temp
  • interest_strategy_temp
  • interest_process_temp
  • interest_company_temp
  • interest_content_temp
  • trigger_toplists_temp
  • trigger_whitepaper_temp
  • trigger_best-worst_temp

How To Score

Scoring can be as simple, or as complex as you want.  It’s a good idea to start small, and add complexity as necessary.  Depending on your marketing automation platform you’ll have the ability to associate a score to a wide variety of different lead interactions. Start by defining some categories for these interactions, and then attribute points to each type.

Example categories and associated score

  • General Brand Impression
    • Points: (Interest +1) (action +1):
    • Qualifying actions: Lead sees online ad, lead opens email, lead visits website (but leaves within x time), etc.
  • General Interaction
    • Points: (interest +1) (action +1):
    • Qualifying actions: Lead clicks on general link in email, lead visits multiple pages of your website, lead follows your company on social media, lead comments or shares social posts, etc.
  • Targeted Interaction
    • Points: (interest +5) (action +10):
    • Qualifying actions: Lead clicks on a targeted link in an email, lead visits specific product pages of your website, lead forwards targeted email to another contact, etc.
  • Sales Interaction
    • Points: (interest +10) (action + 50):
    • Qualifying actions: Lead interacts with website form, lead requests information, lead respond positively to campaign, etc.
  • Negative Interaction
    • Points: (interest -X) (action -X):
    • Qualifying action: Lead requests not to be contacted, lead responds negatively to targeted email (wrong industry or not interested in particular product).

Once you’ve created the structure for how you will add and subtract points to your scoring groups, you can then build the campaigns and implement based on the actions your leads take. You then add rules (automations) that perform actions based upon your action group scores, and your interest based scores.


When And How To Use Tagging

Think of tagging as additional information you can collect about your leads.  A very common approach is to create tags for topics your leads are interested in, how they prefer to engage with your brand, and the types of triggers that cause them to react. Once you have your scoring groups defined, your job is to determine what score is needed in each group to add a tag to a lead, or remove a tag from a lead.  The routing and sorting automations (more on this in a minute) will manage this process and your content based automations will use the information to further fine tune your messaging.

Building Automations / Campaigns

In an effort to create unnecessary confusion, some marketing automation tools treat campaigns and automations very similarly, even to the point where creating a “campaign” will actually be building an automation. The trick is to focus on what you are trying to accomplish, and ignore the varying terms.

Automations are the “behind the scenes” powerhouses of these tools. Whether for routing and sorting leads (click tracking, visit tracking, scoring, tagging, subscribing and unsubscribing from lists), or for content based automations (sending emails to prompt interaction), automations do all the dirty work. Anytime there is a particular set of actions that need to be completed, use an automation.

Campaigns, on the other hand, are very simple, point-in-time messages that go out based upon a particular action.  Either an event (day and time), a manual email, an autoresponder, or even a newsletter or blog digest email; you’ll use a campaign.  Additionally, campaigns are great for doing A/B test on individual emails, and you can even include them in automations to help enhance your testing and reporting efforts.

Personally, we have found building automations accomplishes most items needed by small businesses, so we’ll avoid digging into advanced campaign uses in this post.

Bringing It All Together

Now that we have discussed a model for all of the moving pieces, let’s look at how it all works together.

  • Segments are defined for industries / verticals (and personas if you’d like to get fancy).
  • Lists are created for interests, like products, services, blogs, sorting lists for unknown interest, etc.
  • Leads are added to appropriate lists, and appropriate segments are added to the leads.
  • Scoring groups are setup to determine when an action should be taken, and when a lead is interested in something
  • Scoring points are attributed to leads when certain actions are taken
  • Automations are setup to perform actions when certain scores are reached, the actions are usually automations to try and get more information about a lead, or tags that identify an interest.
  • Tags are added to leads when a clear interest has been identified. Most valuable tags are interest based, and ones that identify what causes each lead to take action.
  • Automations are created to move leads in and out of lists based on their tags.
  • Automations are also created to nurture leads in each list to take a particular action
  • Scores are continuously adjusted based on leads interactions
  • Leads are continuously moved and managed based upon their scores


Let’s Look At Some Simple Examples To Get The Ball Rolling:


Scenario One: Basic Lead Nurturing

Business Challenge: Need to move high level leads for a particular product into the sales pipeline.

Program: Schedule timely, relevant content, measure engagement and move lead into sales when engagement hits a certain level.

  • An automation is created to gauge leads interest in a particular product.
    1. The emails within the automation have different versions of the copy based on segments so the messaging is very specific to each lead
    2. There is also general “catch-all” content for leads without segments
      1. This content will attempt to figure out the lead’s segment by including content from various existing segments and adding +10 interest points when content from a particular industry is interacted with.
  • Each visit to a product page on your website generated from a click in the email will add 10 points to your sales-lead_temp score, as well as 5 points to their interest-product_temp score.
    1. At 20 interest points a tag is added to your lead indicating there is a product they may be interested in.
      1. This can also add a segment for the particular industry to that lead.
    2. At 50 action points the lead is added to a “sales stage determination” list for the corresponding product to determine if they are “sales ready”
      1. The new list subscription causes a campaign (or automation) to run based upon their segment, and their interests (tags), to prompt them to take action.
        1. If they take no action, their action points are reduced and they are unsubscribed from the sales stage list.
        2. If they take action they are moved to the sales funnel for follow-up by the sales team.


Scenario Two: Basic Lead Sorting

Business Challenge: You have leads from a trade show, or conference, or webinar, or networking event and you are unsure where is the sales stage each lead may be.

Program: Build automated emails that address each group in the sales funnel (low, mid and top) to filter into appropriate groups.  Start with the most likely to close (low funnel).  Additionally, try and determine what interests, and segments the leads are in.


  • The initial automation will have three emails that are sent a week apart.
    1. Email one will be tailored to a lead that might be very low in your sales funnel. The content being sent will be focused towards an audience that knows they have a problem, has done research to find a solution, and is potentially considering your solution.
      1. The links in the email will be industry / interest specific, and a few links will be included to attempt to determine their interest when clicking.
        1. When a link is clicked, +10 interest points are added to their score for the appropriate interest, and +75 action points are added.
          1. This triggers another automation that adds the lead into the sales funnel for direct follow-up
          2. The lead is then move to the appropriate lists, and moved out of the sort list.
        2. If nothing is clicked, no points are added and the automation continues.
      2. Email two will be tailored to the leads in the middle of the funnel. They know they have a problem, but are not really sure what the solution is.  The messaging will be aimed at helping them find a solution.
        1. When a link is clicked, +5 interest points are added to their score, as well as +5 action points.
          1. The lead is then move to the appropriate interest list, and the automation is ended.
        2. If no link is clicked, the automation continues.
      3. Email three will be tailored to leads at the very top of the funnel. They do not know they have a problem.  Content will be very general, and aimed at convincing the leads they have an issue that needs to be solved by your product / service.
        1. If a link is clicked, +5 interest points, and +1 action point will be added to their score.
          1. The lead will then be moved to the appropriate list, and this automation will end.
        2. If no lead is clicked the lead is moved to a waiting list, and a similar automation will be triggered after a certain period of time has elapsed.

Above are two very simple marketing automation scenarios that can easily be setup and managed by any business. The goal is to get them up and running, and then tweak and adjust them for your needs.  You may simplify and go with one layer of points, or you may expand to include 3 or 4. Either solution is correct if it works for you.  Remember constant iterations will keep moving you forward, so don’t be afraid to try something new.