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Marketing automation for startups

Plot Team
October 21, 2022
An abstract illustration of a chair and a desk on the right, and a large gear on the left

Many startups and small businesses tell us they haven’t invested in marketing automation because it’s something “bigger companies” do with more budget and resources. This couldn’t be more of a misconception and a missed opportunity. Sure, you may need to be scrappier and more creative, but teams of all sizes can benefit exponentially. Marketing automation saves you time, increases your bottom line, and ultimately helps you do a whole lot more with less.

What is marketing automation?

Marketing automation is the use of software to more effectively market across various customer segments and channels and automate repetitive marketing tasks. It includes anything from planning email campaigns to personalizing content, social posting, ad targeting, and general process improvement, all with the goal of intelligently automating customer interactions across your entire brand experience. Automation unlocks a massive opportunity for marketers to rapidly test and iterate on campaigns, not to mention gain efficiency in planning, producing, and launching them. You may also hear marketing automation referred to as lifecycle marketing, marketing workflows, or triggered customer journeys.

Some common examples of marketing automations:

Email marketing is one of the most effective channels to automate. While you may already be sending one-off messages (a sale alert or product update), you’re likely having a hard time personalizing content to the behavior and attributes of your users. Email marketing automation opens up a wealth of opportunities to trigger timely, relevant flows like a post-purchase series or cart abandon sequence that capitalize on user intent. More mature teams will layer in additional channels like landing pages, SMS, push notifications, and in-app content as part of their omnichannel strategy.
Paid advertising is another great way to leverage automation. Ad platforms like Facebook and Google offer tools to automate campaigns, target audience segments, and intelligently detect which of your unique selling propositions (USPs), copy, and creative convert best. Their algorithms promote your best performing ads and gradually phase out the poor performers.
Content marketing is another area where automation levels up your ROI. SEO and SEM tools like Moz and Semrush help marketers automate website audits, backlink analysis, and keyword research. Apps like BuzzSumo detect content gaps and reveal new opportunities to create and amplify your reach. More recently, marketers have started experimenting with AI-powered assistants like Jasper.ai to generate large amounts of content quickly.

Getting started with marketing automation

Before determining which automation tools to introduce to your workflow, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What are my goals?
    Your goals and needs will vary depending on the stage of your business. Perhaps you’re a pre-launch company looking to build a waitlist; or you have significant traffic to your website or app but not a whole lot of conversion. Maybe you’re focused on converting newsletter subscribers to paying customers. Regardless of your stage, identifying short- and medium-term goals will help you understand which tools and channels are needed to support your efforts.

  2. What data do I need?
    Data sits at the heart of marketing automation. You can’t trigger communications and actions based on audience segments without first capturing the behaviors and attributes that form those segments. This tends to feel like a “blocker” for startups and SMBs who are just dipping their toes into automation—a lack of data engineering expertise on the team can make setting up a data foundation feel daunting. Luckily, data and analytics platforms have come a long way and many are accessible for non-technical teams or require minimal technical lift.

    As you get started, think about what data is absolutely necessary for you to build a sustainable growth engine. What will provide you with the most insight? What’s going to move the needle?

  3. What’s my budget?
    The million dollar question… 😉 This will largely depend on the size of your business and how you’re funded. Teams that are bootstrapped will likely allocate funds differently than a VC-funded company. Start by determining the inputs for your budget, understanding who your decision-makers are, and estimating the revenue growth and cost savings that marketing automation will generate (pro tip: always pair budget requests with clear expectations for ROI).
  4. How will I measure success?
    When it comes to marketing automation, “set it and forget it” is a common fallacy and pitfall. It’s tempting to think that automating communications means you never have to think about them again. However, a strong experimental framework is critical to your success. Before investing in a particular automation, set your hypothesis, focus your segment, document what you’re testing, and define your KPIs. Then, set a clear timeframe for measuring results so you can continuously iterate and optimize.

Marketing tech stack for startups

Now that you understand the benefits of marketing automation and you’ve set clear goals for your team, you’re ready to choose the products to incorporate into your stack.

But choosing software is hard—especially in a saturated martech market. To avoid the headaches that come with vendor analysis, we put together a list of our go-to marketing automation tools for teams that are just getting started (you can view a more extended list by use case here):

  1. Plot - Lifecycle planning & collaboration
    Building a marketing automation takes planning, thought, and collaboration across several departments and stakeholders. A sequence could have just a couple of touchpoints (cart abandon) or upwards of double digits (post-purchase onboarding series). Plot is where this work begins, helping you quickly brainstorm, plan, build, scale, and document any type of marketing activation. Start for free with one of our 20+ ready-made, optimized flow templates for ecommerce or for B2B SaaS. Alternatives: Miro, Lucidchart
  2. Freshpaint - Customer Data Platform (CDP)
    Freshpaint is a data platform that connects and standardizes customer data from all of your data sources to your analytics tools. We prefer it over Segment for its no-code event creation (great for teams with limited engineering resources) and retroactive data capture. Its Autotrack feature automatically collects customer events in the background from the moment you install the Freshpaint snippet. You can define custom events at any time and backfill historical data before piping them into downstream analytics or marketing tools. Alternatives: Segment
  3. June - Product analytics
    For software businesses, product analytics are the key to understanding how customers behave and interact with your product. These insights enable marketers to assess platform performance, as well as analyze individual cohorts and usage patterns. A great analytics platform will have strong tracking and visualization capabilities so you can slice and dice data in whatever ways you need. We enjoy June for its simple UI and focus on B2B SaaS. Alternatives: Mixpanel, Heap, Amplitude
  4. Fathom - Website analytics
    For marketers who want to succeed in a cookie-less world, we recommend Fathom for its simple, scalable, privacy-focused web analytics. Fathom is a powerful Google Analytics alternative that gives you a full picture of your web visitors while complying with global privacy laws like GDPR, CPRA, ePrivacy, and more. Just add Fathom’s script to your website and start tracking user behavior via their simple one-page dashboard (no complex metrics or reports required). Alternatives: Google Analytics, Plausible
  5. Stripo - Email builder
    Stripo is a handy drag-and-drop email builder that helps marketers create responsive emails without coding them from scratch. Just use their visual email builder, then export HTML to your email service provider (ESP) or marketing automation platform (MAP). You can also create reusable components like headers, footers, and product blocks to save time. Alternatives: Knak, Stensul
  6. Parcel - Email coding platform
    Parcel helps teams rapidly code high-quality emails. They offer a powerful suite of tools to optimize the email building experience, like reusable components, a universal command palette (we love a command line :)), previews across 100s of devices and platforms, and reviews/approvals. Alternatives: Litmus, Email on Acid
  7. Klaviyo (Ecommerce), Customer.io (B2B SaaS) - ESP / MAP
    The ESP / MAP you choose will largely depend on the type and stage of your business. The two we selected here have been touted in their respective target industries. If you are a small ecommerce business built on Shopify, Klaviyo is a stellar option due to their robust integrations with ecommerce and consumer apps. Their cheapest plan starts at just $20/month.

    For startups in B2B SaaS, we are part of and love Customer.io’s Startup Program. They offer a free version of their Basic tier for a full year, or a highly discounted version of their Plus tier. They support email, SMS, and in-app messages. For more mature businesses, Klaviyo and Customer.io continue to be excellent, but we’ve also heard good things about Braze and Drift. Alternatives: Intercom, Mailchimp, Userlist
  8. ChatGPT - Generative AI
    ChatGPT has taken the world by storm—and we’re here for it! We love ChatGPT as a support companion for copywriting and content generation needs. At Plot, we use ChatGPT to outline and write anything from a tweet to a long-form blog post in half the time. Just give it parameters like theme, goal, tone, and desired word count, and it will generate ideas and paragraphs for you to edit and expand upon. Alternatives: Jasper, Copy.ai

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