Science Friction – 3 Limitations of Marketing Automation the Vendors Would Rather You Didn’t Know


There is no question that technology will transform our industry in the next decade or two. Frankly, I think it’s terrifying and if anything we should be talking about it more than we are.

What I’m less sure about is the hype we’re already attaching to today’s so called “marketing automation”. We’ve done a lot of client work in the last few years with software automation, not just within marketing but every function, and there’s no question of its value. But there is a big misconception. Automation is in many people’s minds conflated with AI, a term that litters just about every piece of MarTech sales collateral, but really it’s just a rudimentary form of robotic process automation, where certain very specific events trigger equally specific actions. It cannot conjure up new, innovative solutions. It can only accelerate the things you’re already doing. If they’re the wrong things, you’ll end up in the same miserable place, only much faster.

And in case I haven’t yet sufficiently dampened your enthusiasm, here are a few other reasons why marketing automation may not be the magic wand you’re hoping for:

  1. The first concerns data quality, because any automation model depends on data. Now if you’re a fairly established organisation, you will likely have huge volumes of data that go back decades. Not only are there likely GDPR issues with that data, but it will almost certainly be unstructured and inconsistent. It’s the reason why young companies that may have small amounts of data by comparison but absolute data integrity can be at a real advantage. In fact sometimes it can be best for older organisations to simply start again, but that means destroying their most valuable digital asset. Either way, it’s a problem.
  2. Secondly is the absence of strategy and creativity – marketing automation is still restricted to repetitive, structured tasks. It will not define a world class customer experience. It will not turn up to team meetings with big channel ideas or generate 50 headline options for your next killer piece of content. These are the things that determine the real potential of your work, and its direct impact on them is negligible. At best it’ll give you a few hours back so you do a better job of them yourself.
  3. The final one relates to your lead generation – you see most marketing automation tools are about nurturing the leads you already have, but they likely won’t automate the lead generation itself, and guess what, automating a lead nurturing funnel without any new leads is unlikely to win you a big promotion.

Look, I’m not saying that this stuff can’t be powerful. It’s the future. In fact for many functions in many businesses it’s the present, particularly in departments that operate in a highly structured environment like finance. And in a few years marketing will be there, too; any repetitive, structured task you are doing manually today will be done by machine. No question. But do not make the mistake of thinking that marketing automation is going to automate your marketing function. It will simply help you do what you’re already doing 30% faster and more accurately. If that stuff is mediocre, you’re going to become super efficient at being mediocre.

So the impact on your job for now is likely to be pretty negligible. And that’s a good thing by the way. In fact one day, when true AI does arrive and we’re all sent home to see out our professionally barren lives watching an elderly Judge Rinder on and playing endless rounds of boggle over zoom 27.0 with former colleagues, I suspect we may look back on the era when marketing automation was utterly overhyped with a certain wistfulness.

See you next time,



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