Marketing Automation or CRM – Which do I need?

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Here at Blue Fish, we design and implement commerce-based solutions across a variety of industries and company sizes. In nearly all those solutions, our clients also have varying needs to help improve their marketing efforts. And in some of those cases, our clients are also looking to optimize their sales processes through technology.

In an ideal situation, our clients would leverage the best of breed technologies for marketing, sales processes and selling of goods/services on their e-commerce sites and other channels. However, things that are ideal are often out of reach either due to budget constraints, existing technologies with heavy prior investments or inertia when it comes to trying something new.

Regardless of constraints that prevent the adoption of great technology, there’s still a basic need to market to prospects and nurture customers. So, when faced with having to decide on implementing a solution to handle these requirements, how do you know if your team should be using marketing automation, a CRM or both?

In this article, we’ll give a high-level overview of each and reasons why a company would choose one over the other.

First, Some Definitions

When you build technology solutions for a living, you often hear terms being tossed around that have different meanings to different people. Before we can dive in on marketing automation and CRMs, we need to level-set on what we mean by those terms:

  • Marketing Automation – Software that helps companies manage how they communicate their offerings to prospects and customers across one or more sales channels. Marketing automation software typically makes it easy to understand the effectiveness of marketing campaigns so a company knows where it should continue spending marketing dollars. No surprise here – marketing automation tools are generally used by marketing teams
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) – Software that provides tools and services around managing a customer’s complete lifecycle with a business (leads, sales activities, orders/deals). CRMs that are B2B-focused also provide features that allow users to better manage company accounts, not just individual customers. CRMs are typically used by sales teams

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s jump right in!

Some Background on CRMs

For us to talk about the benefits of today’s CRM solutions, let’s first walk through a bit of history in this space.

As a kid, I remember going to my dad’s office and playing with the various objects on his desk. Perhaps my favorite was the Rolodex. I didn’t necessarily understand the benefit of such a device, but I sure liked to spin it – with a business card or two inevitably flying out of it while I did this.

The Rolodex wasn’t fancy, but it was an easy way for my dad to keep tabs on his customers. He’d tape business cards to it, write in details about a particular customer (“Bob has two kids – Sally (8), Sam (11). Sam plays baseball”), etc. Everyone on the sales team had one.

While the Rolodex worked for each of the individual members of the sales team they had one major drawback – the data wasn’t necessarily structured. Sure, they were sorted alphabetically but beyond that the organization of the data was up to each user.

Drawback number two of the Rolodex – none of the data was shared. If my dad made a sales call and noted that on one of the cards, a fellow member of his sales team had no idea unless they went snooping around at his desk.

Eventually, some smart people realized that software could help here. Spreadsheets and databases were introduced into the mix and helped to enforce structure, unlike the Rolodex. In some cases, they also facilitated data sharing – someone could save a spreadsheet on a network drive that others could access.

While these tools were a dramatic improvement, they weren’t optimal for sales teams because they weren’t always purpose built. Sure, a spreadsheet had columns that may have represented a particular sales process but the data within was just that – data. There was no easy way to relate the data, searching was challenging, data validation options were limited, duplicate records were common, etc.

Along came the early CRM solutions like ACT! (I can, to this day, remember my dad going down to the local software store to buy ACT! – he was way ahead of his time as he was the first one at his company who decided to use a software package to manage his customers). These solutions were made specifically for sales teams that wanted to have better management of their customer data. Working with a company? No problem, create a company record and add contacts to it. Want to see the last time George called a customer? No problem, pull up that customer’s record and review the call notes.

Eventually, these tools started to mature and gave more flexibility to companies that wanted to model more complex customer data (e.g. custom properties or even custom objects).

The next progression of CRMs gave sales teams the ability to structure their sales pipelines in whatever ways worked for them. They could also see how customers (and company accounts) made their way through these pipelines. These CRMs also allowed for revenue forecasting and powerful reports to gain better insights into customers and their relationships with a company’s sales team. Additionally, some CRMs were even offering limited marketing automation tools to allow teams to drive communication directly from lists within the CRM.

Fast-forward to today. CRMs are (often) cloud-based, data-driven powerhouses that give teams real-time visibility into their prospects and customers by providing flexible data models and workflows that can be configured to ensure that the right people at a company are interacting with customers at the right times. Additionally, more modern platforms integrate with other technologies like artificial intelligence to guide companies to the most optimized way of obtaining and nurturing customers.

Some CRMs, like HubSpot, have even taken what was once “marketing automation light” features and transformed them into a complete marketing automation offering that natively integrates with the data in the CRM. This gives sales and marketing teams the ability to manage and report on all levels of their sales funnel, in one place.

Why Would a Company Need a CRM?

There are many more reasons to use a CRM than reasons not to. Here are a few that we think are the most compelling:

  • Your business has grown to the point where managing your leads and customers in a spreadsheet is more than your team can handle.
  • You don’t have the visibility you need to make sure that your sales team is staying on top of things.
  • Prospects and customers can be handed off to multiple people on your sales team throughout their lifecycle and you need something that ensures that no one falls through the cracks.
  • You’re trying to improve customer service and need tools to better understand your interactions with those customers.
  • You’re spending too much time over email or on the phone just trying to set up meetings with your customers – i.e. your team isn’t spending their time on valuable activities.
CRM : Woman on Sales Call

Some Background on Marketing Automation

With a few exceptions, most companies need to promote their goods and services in order to grow their business.

In the days before Marketing Automation Platforms (MAPs), companies would have lists of their customers that they’d use to manually send email-based communications on a regular basis. The larger those lists, the more time consuming this became.

Eventually, services and tools were created that helped to alleviate much of this burden. These early marketing automation options initially focused on taking digital lists of customers (CSVs, databases, etc.) and sending out emails (based on templates) to each of the members of the list. Think of the old-school Word “mail merge” functionality but with emails.

While the mechanics of the traditional manual email process were much improved, early MAPs didn’t help marketing teams manage larger campaigns that might require multiple communications over a set timeframe. Additionally, early MAPs didn’t provide anything to measure the success of email sends – sure, a company knew that they sent 20,000 emails but was that useful in acquiring new customers and/or converting them?

Modern MAPs like Marketo and HubSpot (technically a CRM with strong marketing features) provide a suite of services that take this automation to a whole new level while providing powerful insights to the effectiveness of a company’s marketing initiatives. Additionally, more modern platforms aren’t just looking at email as the primary communication mechanism with customers. Marketing via SMS or even live chat on a site is table stakes for today’s MAPs

Somewhere along the way, marketing platforms started to introduce features to help teams manage data about their customers (not just email addresses and names). This data was then incorporated into the automation process (e.g. “Send emails about dog treats to our customers that own a dog but not a cat”). Eventually, the tools around customer management in a MAP started to look a bit like those offered by a CRM. We’ll call this “CRM-light”.

Why Would a Company Need Marketing Automation?

Like CRMs, the justifications to use a marketing automation platform are plentiful. Here are our favorites:

  • You’ve grown to the point that sending an occasional newsletter no longer suffices.
  • You want to be able to send target communications to different customers based on segmentation data.
  • Lack of visibility into your marketing campaigns’ effectiveness is preventing you from optimizing them. You need to be able to answer questions like – are people clicking on your ads and is that leading to conversions? Are people opening the emails you send but not clicking links within? Are prospects getting to your site but failing to fill out contact forms?
  • You already run mildly successful marketing campaigns but you want to optimize them and determine which are converting the best using tools like A/B testing.
  • Your customer data is managed in another system and you want a marketing automation platform that can easily use that data to improve your campaigns by making them more customer-focused.
MArketing Automation: Marekting Dashboard

Why Would a Company Need Both Marketing Automation and a CRM?

Not all companies need both a Marketing Automation Platform and a CRM to be successful. As mentioned, some MAPs have decent CRM-light capabilities which may be more than enough for a small sales team with a lightweight sales process.

On the flip side, some dedicated CRMs have some limited marketing automation features that could be sufficient, particularly for those companies that have limited budgets/resources to market to their customers.

For businesses where growth is a focal point, having both types of solutions implemented may be critical. Here are some reasons why you may want your company to have both a MAP and a CRM:

  • Sales and marketing teams need to always be on the same sheet of music.
  • You want your marketing campaigns to automatically inform your sales process, including how a prospect interacted with marketing assets prior to a handoff to the sales team.
  • There are activities/events in your sales process that should trigger marketing events, without manual intervention.
  • You want your marketing campaigns to be driven from the detailed customer data you maintain in a CRM.
  • You want quick access to relevant data that tell you where you need to optimize, whether that’s marketing or sales.
  • You’re using a MAP with limited CRM capabilities that are no longer meeting your needs.
  • You’re using a CRM with limited marketing automation capabilities that are no longer meeting your needs.

Depending on your specific requirements, you may need separate technologies to handle each of these areas. Fortunately, there are some great solutions out there (like HubSpot and Salesforce) that give you the best of both worlds on a single platform so your sales and marketing teams will be working in one system.

Companies that aren’t using technology today to help manage their business are already behind the curve relative to their competitors that are. This is especially true when it comes to having deep insights into customers, how they’re interacting with a company and, most importantly, how companies are converting them into buyers and keeping them happy.

If you’re a small business that has marketing needs but doesn’t have the budget for a CRM, a marketing automation platform with limited CRM features may be just fine. On the other hand, if you’re looking to scale quickly and have the budget, a CRM with full-blown, native marketing automation features may be your best bet.

Just starting on your journey to implementing a CRM and/or marketing automation platform? Or have you outgrown your existing technologies and need to find something that will scale with you? If so, feel free to drop us a line and we’d love to talk through your questions or challenges to help guide you to success.


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