How to Choose a Marketing Automation Platform

Companies that want to be successful in their digital marketing efforts need to leverage the power of a marketing automation platform.  From driving more leads and converting them to sales to measuring campaigns and understanding ROI, marketing automation platforms are a vital tool for today’s companies.

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But, how to you know what platform to select?

Before you can even begin, make sure you fully understand what a marketing automation platform is, along with CRM and all the other terms that come along with having a deeper understanding of this technology.

You can read our guide, The Ultimate Guide to Marketing Automation Terminology for starters.

Choosing the right platform comes down to many factors. Every organization is slightly different, but from our years of experience providing marketing automation services, we believe if you follow these steps, you’ll be on the right track.

Understand What You’ll Need

Like shopping for a car, chances are you’ll need certain features more than others, depending on your business and industry. The following preferences / features are key to selecting your platform:

CRM / Sales Capabilities
CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is often part of a marketing automation platform offering. If you don’t already have a CRM, it may be essential to selecting your platform, especially if you’re a B2B company who relies on a sales team.

Social Media Posting / Listening
Like CRM, social media features are often part of the platform. If your company is active on social media, or wants to be, and you’re not using social media software already, this is a must have. Be careful here and do your research. Some platforms offer very limited social media tool sets, while others, like Hubspot, deliver an entire feature set.

Email Capabilities
Every platform offers email capabilities, but some are better than others. Maybe you need to run drip campaigns or subject line A/B testing. Or maybe you need demographic segmentation? Be selective in this area and learn as much as you can – make you look into how many emails you can send per month.

Analytics and Reporting
One of the true advantages to using a marketing automation platform is analytics and reporting. Good platforms use intuitive dashboards to provide insights and detailed analysis on your campaigns. Be careful here, some platforms are great in all areas, but fail to provide good reporting.

Integration with Your Software
All of the better platforms have API integrations with other popular SaaS platforms. But, you’ll want to make sure you research exactly what you’ll need to integrate with and make sure it’s easy to setup and that it works seamlessly with any existing platforms you already have in place.

Content Extensions
Many platforms offer content extensions, like blogging and landing pages. These can be important, if you need them, but most organizations already have them as part of their current website capabilities. If not, consider a platform that offers them.

eCommerce Capabilities
If you sell online, you’ll want to consider a platform that offers eCommerce capabilities. Using features like lead scoring, lead nurturing and personalized communication, you can integrate your platform directly with your existing shopping cart.

For example, SharpSpring’s shopping cart Integration allows you to automatically record web transactions from your online store and attribute those sales to SharpSpring Campaigns.

Research Your Platform

You’ve probably heard of some of the bigger players, like Marketo, Hubspot, Act-On and Pardot, just to name a few. By all means, you should look into these. But, don’t rule out some of the other lesser known platforms, like ActiveCampaign, Sharpspring and Infusionsoft.

We recommend researching your platform using the following criteria:

Read Validated Reviews
There are a few websites that specialize in providing reviews specific to software and marketing automation. There are actually hundreds of review sites, but we recommend you use the following three: G2 Crowd, Capterra and Trustradius (specific to B2B software).

All three have hundreds of reviews and provide easy tools for drilling down to learn more about each platform. G2 Crowd is my favorite because it’s very intuitive and easy to compare vendors. TrustRadius offers comparison tools, but they’re not as easy to find. Capterra is very good as well, but seems lack the tools for comparing.

Look for consistency when reviewing a platform. Generally, if a platform gets 4 starts on one site, it gets 4 stars on the other sites as well. This is a good indication of the validity of the reviews and sites that provide them.

Do a Demo and Free Trial
There’s really nothing better than getting access to the platform itself. Many platforms will provide a free trial with all or many of the main features Some, like Hubspot, offer a free solution, as opposed to a free trial. The good news is you can continue using it as long as you like; the bad news is the features are limited.

Speaking with a sales rep and getting a demo is also helpful. Especially if you have specific requests that you can’t find answers to already.

Interview Companies Already Using the Platform
If possible, find other companies already using the platform. Try to do an apples-to-apples comparison. For example, if you’re a B2B software company, find another similar B2B company in a similar industry, of similar size and with similar requirements.

Thoroughly Understand Pricing

Pricing shouldn’t be the only qualifier for purchasing a marketing automation platform, but it certainly should be at the top of the list.

Most marketing automation tools are priced on a sliding scale with additional costs for onboarding, training and add-ons.  Many let you pay on a month-to-month basis, while some, like Hubspot, require you to sign on for an entire year.

Subscription Costs
When pricing out a platform, first look at the monthly cost and what you’ll get in terms of features. Pay particular attention to how many contacts you get.

For example, Hubspot, charges $800 per month for their Professional plan and only provides 1000 contact records. In comparison ActiveCampaign’s Professional plan costs just $129 per month for 1000 contacts.

When you increase your contacts to 25,000, ActiveCampaign still only costs $319 per month. In contrast, Hubspot costs $2,000 for 25,000 contacts.

Now, to be far, Hubspot does provide features that ActiveCampaign doesn’t, like landing pages, robust social media tools (to name a few), Google Search Console integration and many others.

The key takeaway here to fully understand what you’ll need while comparing it with the value you’ll receive. ActiveCampaign and SharpSpring are two of the better platforms, especially for the price. But, you may find you need specific features found on the more expensive platforms, like Marketo and Hubspot.  For a quick pricing review and comparison of some of the leading platforms, I’ve compiled a few resources below:

Onboarding Costs
Most platforms charge an upfront fee or onboarding fee, generally for getting the platform setup. Costs vary greatly – Hubspot’s onboarding fee is $3,000, while SharpSpring’s is $1,850. ActiveCampaign doesn’t charge one. Often times, however, companies will waive the onboarding fee if you sign on with a Partner Agency.

If you’re going to pay an onboarding fee, make sure you understand what’s covered. Is training provided? Will they help migrate lists and data from an existing database or email platform? Do they provide direction related to setting up marketing campaigns and lead generation?

Is Support Covered?
Don’t forget about support because you’ll need it. Marketing automation can be a game changer, but it does require time and effort. And in the process of getting everything set up, you’ll encounter problems or just need help with executing something specific, like building a drip email campaign or custom report.

Many companies provide free phone support, like SharpSpring and Hubspot. ActiveCampaign doesn’t, unless you’re on the Enterprise Plan.  Act-On provides limited phone support and Pardot charges an additional fee.

Make Sure It’s Scalable

So, you’ve done all your research, a demo, a free trial, understand all the costs associated with it and now you’re ready to purchase.  Before you do, think out 2 to 3 years and ask if the platform is scalable. Will it grow with you as you need more features? For example, maybe you really like a platform, but it lacks a CRM. And maybe you say that you don’t currently need a CRM because you’re on Salesforce. That’s ok, but consider that maybe you’ll eventually find Salesforce too expensive and not worth the high price tag. If you have a marketing platform with CRM built in, you can simply drop Salesforce and not lose a step.

Conclusion

Choosing a marketing automation platform can be a daunting task. If you follow the recommendations above, you’ll certainly be off to a great start. Remember, you can always start small and grow over time. Good luck!

James Kieffer

About James Kieffer

Hi, I'm James Kieffer, Principal of Kieffer Consulting. We help companies thrive in today’s digital environment. Leveraging strategy, content, design and marketing automation platforms, we bring together small, talented teams to meet the unique marketing demands of our various clientele. And while each client is different, we begin each engagement with same question: what’s success mean to you? We then set in motion a detailed set of proven principles and methods that help our clients achieve their goals and ROI.

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