7 Reasons Why Marketing Automation Projects Fail

Needless to say, Marketing Automation software is very popular today. It can be used for email campaigns, drip marketing, lead nurturing, lead scoring, landing page management and for brewing coffee. It is often positioned as something that will solve all your marketing problems for a couple of thousand dollars per month. Okay, I made up the part about brewing coffee.

In reality, Marketing Automation can help you automate existing campaigns, and also create new campaigns that would not be possible without automation. But there are limitations to what Marketing Automation can do, and I’d like to mention 7 possible reasons for project failure. And please share your Marketing Automation “horror” scenarios in the comments below!

prepare for project failure

1. Unclear Prospect Profile(s)

Part of a good lead management process is knowing exactly who are involved in the sale. For best results, the website and nurturing campaigns need to be highly relevant for them. Also, lead scoring only works if you know who you want to target. If possible, create personas for all people involved in the buying process.

2. No Interesting Content

A marketing automation system is great for continuously running campaigns. In complex B2B sales situations you cannot rely on product-centric communications, nor on discounts (“this week 10% off!”). For each persona you need to have relevant content: whitepapers, blog posts, case studies, webinars, and so on. Even more: the content should match the phase in the buying process, from awareness to validation. If you currently don’t have interesting content, and you don’t have capacity to create lots of interesting content, then there is a big chance your project will fail.

3. Not Enough Leads

A Marketing Automation system does not generate inquiries (or “raw leads”). It develops inquiries into sales opportunities. So if you have few raw leads, you should solve that problem first. An exception is when you have a lot of customers, and want to use the Marketing Automation system to cross-sell and up-sell.

4. Sales & Marketing Don’t Get Along

One of the primary goals of Marketing Automation is to deliver better qualified leads to sales. However, if Sales doesn’t believe in the benefits of Marketing Automation, that can kill the project.

5. Lack of Expertise

“Ease-of-use” is big theme in Marketing Automation selection. Several vendors claim to have self-service solutions that does not require IT involvement. The fact that no IT is involved doesn’t mean that you don’t need expertise. Getting the most out of a Marketing Automation system is hard, and if you don’t have people on your staff who’ve done it before, you may want to hire some expertise to avoid failure or unmet expectations.

6. Bad Business Model

A lot of startups and high-growth companies are using Marketing Automation to help them grow faster. However, if growth has stalled because you’re selling the wrong products to the wrong people, Marketing Automation will not help. You will just try harder, and still not sell anything.

7. Selling Simple Products

Marketing Automation is ideal for long sales cycles involving many different people. If you sell low-priced widgets with a very short sales cycle, Marketing Automation won’t help you. You are better served with B2C merchandising tools.

Have You Seen Marketing Automation Failures?

First of all, I think Marketing Automation software has great promise. But I hope we can avoid the same disillusionment phase that CRM went through. So if you have any advice or suggestions, please leave a comment.

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20 thoughts on “7 Reasons Why Marketing Automation Projects Fail

  1. Allen Jezouit

    Some really solid points here. One rule of thumb I always go by is never spend money to automate a broken or non-existent process (by “non-existent” I mean “non-standardized” – everyone is doing their own thing). Fix/create the process first, test your hypotheses in action, and then automate it.

  2. Jame Ervin

    Great post Jep! How about documented marketing processes? I think #7 is really critical. Another note, some people have a problem differentiating web analytics from Automation. I know you have seen the question: why do I need to track my visitor paths, I have Google Analytics. :)

  3. Jep Castelein Post author

    Allen: totally agree. Automating a broken process is definitely reason #8. Thanks for bringing that up.

    Jame: Thanks for reason #9 “undocumented marketing processes”!

    I would classify confusion about terminology under #5 (lack of expertise)

  4. Howard Sewell

    Hi Jep,

    I like what you have to say here but I respectfully disagree with you about #7. Marketing automation doesn’t always to be have used in the service of a long, complex sales cycle. There are plenty of business cases out there for using marketing automation to help sell simple, low cost products. In fact, you could argue that many such markets are tailor made for marketing automation because the companies can’t afford the cost of human interaction and follow-up by an actual salesperson. For example, a company selling a $49 software product via 30 day free trial could use marketing automation to trigger a series of emails tailored to each user based on demographic information (role, company size, industry) and also behavioral criteria – say, whether or not the person actually installed the product. Regards,


  5. Carlos Hidalgo

    I agree with a lot of these points but the one area that we have seen why these projects fail to meet the expectations is there is a lack of fundamental lead management process between sales and marketing. So the technology is implemented and there is no process by which it will be governed. Developing and implementing a well planned, well documented process that involves both sales and marketing will greatly increase your success factor and also address issue 4 of marketing & sales alignment.

  6. Jeff Ogden

    This is a great post, Jep. I like to use an analogy. It takes power tools to build a house. But if I go to Sears and buy power tools, can I build a house?

    I particularly buy into #1 and #2. You need a deep understanding of prospects and some really interesting content. Without those, nothing else matters.

  7. Jep Castelein Post author

    Howard: that is a very valid scenario. It seems that that is addressed by a different type of vendor though. For example Responsys or ExactTarget for larger companies and AWeber for SMBs. There is less focus on Lead Scoring and CRM integration, more on drip marketing. But nevertheless I see your point, and #7 may not be totally valid.

    Carlos: great insight to connect process design to sales & marketing collaboration.

    Jeff: nice analogy!

  8. Ardath Albee

    Hi Jep,

    Nice list. It’s what I equate to doing what you’ve always done, only faster or easier, and expecting different results.

    To #4 I’d add that until Marketing and Sales actually work together to define and agree to what a sales-ready lead actually “looks” like – proving the benefits of marketing automation to sales is extremely hard. Once sales is included in the process and they start seeing leads that meet their qualification standards, then you can get buy in.

    I’d also like to suggest an addition to your list. Closing the loop. If marketing automation is used to create leads and transition them to sales, but then disappear, the company is losing out on potential future sales. Make sure sales can hand leads back to marketing for maturing if they’re not ready to buy within the sales time line.


  9. Kevin Joyce

    I agree with Allen, Howard, and Carlos. Lack of a well defined lead management process prior to deploying a system that will automate it is a recipe for trouble. Look at what happened to 60%+ of the CRM deployments in the 90’s.

    Marketing Automation can certainly be used for B2C where there are short sales cycles. Imagine that your customers make repeat purchases, and do so online. Nurturing works for your installed base sales too.

  10. Arturo F Munoz

    Jep, I’ll latch on to your #6 reason: A Bad Business Model.

    Not only start-ups but whole corporate teams aiming at high-growth market sectors try to automate marketing processes to help them exploit that grow opportunity faster. However, lack of focus is indeed a problem, but not merely in targeting the wrong offer to the right kind of audience. It is a problem in keeping the marketing team from understanding which work process, if automated, will produce the most significant impact on the business’ bottom line.

    This is why work flow simulation is so critical in determining what to deliver to marketers as part of the automation solution.

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  12. Barry

    Jep – I like all your points and the additions others have made. I also enjoy your blog. What I find critical, and likely one of the most difficult aspects of effective automation, is defining the campaign structures. Developing the correct sequences, channels and content is very challenging. Obviously, this demands good collaboration with sales and relevant and compelling content for each message / component. Guides and examples on this would be very beneficial. Perhaps this is the point Arturo was addressing.

  13. Rebekah Donaldson

    Ditto Barry’s comment.

    I don’t have an example of a project gone wrong from an insider perspective — but I totally have an example of automation gone bad, from the outside perspective.

    From the Shocking Marketing No Nos Department

    It went wrong b/c there was an underlying issue re assumed permission — then automation spread the problem like a nasty sneeze. Ok, not a great image to implant in everyone’s minds… sorry.

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  15. Charles Eaton-Hennah

    Some good points here, well made. I’d add three; one which relates to 4.; Get senior/board level buy-in to any marketing automation project. I’ve seen some fail, or fail to meet their potential because they are middle tier manager initiated, and lack a senior champion. Partly this is to get support for the sort of business process changes necessary, partly to avoid internecine squabbles over blame.

    Addtionally; Don’t assume it will be easy (whatever the vendor claims)! Not only will marketing and marketing ops managers need to get fully engaged with the tool(not something that comes easy to many marketers) but some will need to have a 2nd level under-the-hood expertise to support users and fix stuff. Addtionally you will need to expect to commit addtional time and resource during the definition, customisation, user testing and training phases; these things do no just arrive fully formed one Monday morning!

    Finally; Don’t fail to define success! You need meaningful and robust success indicators; they might be empirical (cost/lead, conversion rates) time related (fully implemented by XX/XX/XX) or related to efficiency (XX campaigns/manager/month).



  16. Jep Castelein Post author

    Ardath: “closing the loop” is great addition for the list

    Arturo: “lack of focus” is actually a good reason for failure too

    Barry: good point, I can also recommend the Marketo Lead Nurturing guide, and the Genius.com Content Mapping webinar

    Rebekah: campaign gone wrong, but – I must say – very quick follow-up from Marketo to improve the campaign.

    Charles: “failure to define success” is a great point to add to the list. And to your second point: if I were a marketing automation vendor, I would also make it look easy, but in reality it’s indeed often quite hard to get the full benefits.

  17. Mike Rogers

    I would like to second the notion that #7 isn’t quite correct. We see marketing automation have great effect on converting more leads over time as well as helping to generate repeat business over time.

    Leveraging marketing automation to create continuity campaigns can increase repeat business, or support lost cost subscription based models by providing great content to current customers and additional support information about product improvements, new revenue opportunities and other relevant customer values.

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