Today’s guest post is by Adam Blitzer, COO and Co-founder ofPardot, a marketing and email automation system.

The key to sales and marketing in a small business is efficiency. Marketing automation technology can help tremendously by eliminating manual effort and nurturing leads.

Small companies often have a seat-of-your-pants approach to marketing, simply because they can’t afford to hire a full-time marketing director. Those companies lucky enough to have one, may have her handling sales or customer service responsibilities as well. If your business has invested in online marketing, through your website and/or social media, it requires considerable manual effort to send and track campaigns, measure results, and to separate the wheat from the chaff in those online-generated leads. Without distinct processes and technology to help manage all this, online marketing could be a big waste of time and money, yielding lackluster results.

If you are using the Web to generate leads, and you have a long and complex sales cycle typical of many B2B companies, you’ll want to automate as many marketing processes as possible. Not only does this simplify your efforts and free up more time for sales and business development, but it can also result in a greater return on your marketing efforts. Here’s a checklist to get started on marketing automation:

1. Build the online marketing foundation

To start, you’ll need a clean, easy-to-use and sales-ready website. Since most small companies don’t have in-house technical expertise in this area, outsourcing is your best bet. It’s possible to find a local web designer within your budget — someone who can not only design and develop the site but maintain it and add new features as needed. This might be one or two people, depending upon their skills, since web development and web design are two different practices. Don’t rush through the process. Your website is the cornerstone of your online marketing strategy.

Critical to your website strategy is the content. High-quality content drives traffic, attracts prospects, and retains customers. Most e-mail marketing campaigns link to landing pages where prospects can register to receive a white paper or attend a webinar. Visitors will want to learn something substantial about your product or space, not just receive a marketing spiel. Outsourcing that content development is a smart idea. There are plenty of freelance writers with subject matter expertise, and willing to lend a hand without the Madison Avenue price tag. To get the most bang for your buck, develop content that can be used in multiple ways: Blog posts that can expand into a white paper, or a webinar that contains quotes for a Q&A, for instance. Ideally, you will have a content management system (CMS) that is simple enough for any employee to use, so that you don’t have to call the Web team every time you want to update content on your site.

2. Choose strategic yet simple marketing technology

Many small businesses use free and low-cost tools such as Google Analytics for metrics, Constant Contact for e-mail marketing and Wufoo for online forms. Beyond campaign creation and tracking, consider how you will manage the leads generated by those campaigns. Manually sorting those leads, qualifying them, and then following up with e-mails is time-consuming especially if many of those leads are still “cool.” Marketing automation software allows you to set up a nurturing program that kicks out e-mails and new offers as the prospect progresses up the ladder of engagement.

Marketing automation software also includes many of those point solutions, such as e-mail marketing, forms and metrics. That way, you can reduce the number of tools that your staff needs to learn and use (which lowers complexity and long-term costs) and also realize other efficiencies related to lead management. Marketing automation software comes in all flavors, depending upon your business size and needs. Look for solutions that are extremely simple to use and learn and require minimal IT support. Fortunately, cloud-based service offerings are prevalent today.

3. Qualify your leads

This is the bread-and-butter of online marketing. Companies that are adept at qualifying prospects and understanding their level of interest can get ahead quickly. Scoring leads allows you to see which leads are hot, and which are not, and which leads just need a bit more time. The lead that comes to your site every week, spends time on your pages and clicks on campaign content will naturally have a higher score than someone who occasionally reads your blog. Marketing automation systems automatically supply a score to each lead, based on the rules that you set up in the beginning. Your company now has a clear indication of a visitors level of interest in your products or services, based on their activity. You can also set up filters to ensure leads meet certain ?ideal prospect? factors such as job title or industry that can help determine if they are a good fit for your company. What about my CRM system, you may ask? CRM software is excellent for organizing contacts and storing information about them, but it can’t qualify leads. Google Analytics provides metrics on an aggregate level by telling you how many visitors you have monthly on your site, and where they spend their time. Only marketing automation can give you detailed information about an individual lead?s behavior, which is critical for B2B companies. Scoring tells the sales team exactly who to call first.

4. Automate follow-up

What a prospect isn’t ready to buy right away, salespeople don’t want to waste time with a phone call or personalized e-mail. This is where nurturing programs come in to play. Marketing automation allows you to “set and forget? rules and processes for nurturing so that your team jumps in only when the prospect has progressed to a certain level of interest. It’s best to start out with one basic nurturing program, and add additional nurturing tracks later when there is a need. A basic program might look something like this: a visitor who fills out a Web form for the first time will receive a thank you e-mail with a link to a white paper. In two weeks, the system will send him another e-mail with a link to a webcast. If he registers for that, the following week he may receive an invitation for a sales demo. If he doesn’t respond to the webcast invitation, he will receive a different type of content — and so on.

Marketing automation software also includes real-time alerts. Let’s say a prospect tracked in your system is on your site downloading product collateral. A sales rep assigned to that prospect can get instant alerts when one of their assigned prospects visits the website or requests additional collateral, and choose to call the prospect right then. Studies from Harvard and other institutions have shown that following up on hot leads when they are engaged has more success than waiting a few hours or days.

Automating marketing activities doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s always best to start slowly and keep it simple, so that you and your team don’t get overwhelmed by a product’s features and capabilities. Begin by scoring your leads and setting up a simple nurturing program. As with many functions in business today, automate the repetitive processes so that your people can focus on growth activities, such as developing relationships with high-value prospects and customers. This is where technology can truly provide ROI to a small company’s sales and marketing efforts.


About the Author:?Adam Blitzer Is COO and Co-founder ofPardot.Adam is responsible for product management, marketing, and operations. Adam was previously a senior email marketing consultant for InterContinental Hotels Group, a consultant at Moxie Interactive, and spent four years in Japan at an advertising agency