What is a marketing automation platform?

What are the differences between marketing automation platforms and how to pick the right one for your business

What is a marketing automation platform?
Photo by Alex Knight / Unsplash

What does marketing automation mean

We refer to a marketing automation system when a software platform is able to execute actions based on conditions and triggers. Simply put, in the context of marketing automation platforms the automation relates to – for example – sending emails or sms messages when a recipient performs an action such as submitting a form or visiting a specific link.

Simple automations are easy to set up and run and even non-specialized tools such as IFTTT or Zapier can do the job for free. This is a valid option for low-volume and simple requirements that can offer some results creating an appetite for more specialized and powerful tools.

Skipping on marketing automation means missing out on huge opportunities. Simple marketing actions like posting articles, sharing information on social media or sending an email newsletter won't turn the audience into loyal and engaged followers who can consider becoming customers. Much has changed and the attention span is diminished. Engagement needs to be built with consistent, interesting and relevant content. Distribution and constant exposure is required to convert views into actions.

The importance of maintaining a marketing database

Any action and interaction can be tracked and attributed to users in a variety of ways. Each platform offers a tracking functionality and different tools to implement tracking across emails, web pages, social media and more. Integrating the different tracking methods and using the data to automate actions is much harder though.

Data access, consolidation and easy analysis is a common shortfall that needs to be overcome to increase conversions and build consistent brand trust.

Ideally, businesses should invest into building a single, consolidated, marketing database able to collect interactions across all channels and present the data in a form that can trigger further actions.

In real-world terms, this would enable a flow the likes of: sending an email to all recipients who visited a landing page and did not request a quote within a 14 days window, and have expressed interest in the product by interacting on social media twice in the past 30 days.

This is of course just an example, and a good marketer will find plenty of similar situations that can – in time – improve conversions, frequency and many other KPIs to ultimately grow trust, brand recognition and sales.

What are the main marketing automation platforms?

  • HubSpot Marketing Hub
  • Adobe Marketo Engage
  • ReachOut app (currently in private beta)
  • Microsoft Dynamics 365 Marketing
  • Salesforce Marketing Cloud Account Engagement
  • ActiveCampaign Platform
  • Mailchimp Marketing Automations

No marketing automation platform is built equal and pricing may widely vary. Looking at email cost alone or the monthly subscription plan doesn't tell half of the story to pick the right one.

Email sending costs – for example – are pretty much consistent across the different offerings due to the level infrastructure cost paid by the platform. The monthly subscription fee, limitations imposed by basic plans, or number of maximum managed and tracked users is a huge differentiator.

Also, expensive monthly costs to keep the platform running are likely to put off many businesses looking at growing their marketing actions in time. In fact, a monthly subscription to allow managing 10,000 users is likely to get expensive and wouldn't be justified if the average monthly activity is a couple of email newsletters and a few visits to the landing pages.

The detrimental effect on the business is clear when the customer list is large enough, but the marketing activities aren't on par with the potential offered by the platform.

Picking the right marketing automation platform

We recommend focusing on three areas:

  • Functionality
  • Data security and compliance
  • Pricing


The basic functionalities are normally available in all marketing automation platforms. Sending emails, uploading lists, updating the data and analytics are common.

ReachOut app analytics

Advanced functionalities should include integrating different touch point types to collect tracking information in a single database. Sending an email to a recipient who will then click the link should track the recipient across all the actions in time.

Data security and compliance

Marketing lists contain recipient information like email address, phone number and addresses. Sometimes additional information is required to drive campaigns and in some cases this can include health records, financial information and more sensitive data.

It is really important to know and understand the data storage and transmission policy offered by the marketing automation platform. GDPR and CCPA are good examples of data protection regulations that require most businesses to be compliant. Users are growingly aware of their privacy rights and demand strict policies to agree on data processing.

Every marketer should carefully evaluate and publish a data privacy policy and processing terms when storing and using customer data. Regulation compliance is just one of the reasons, with users' peace of mind and trust being the most important nowadays.


Subscriptions fatigue is real, with many people getting weary of paying a fixed amount each month for accessing functionality.

Most of the platforms offer an hybrid model that gives access to a set of functionalities depending on the subscription level, combined with incremental pricing based on the number of managed recipients.

While this is a valid model for platforms, we find that this is distant from the mindset of marketers. The number of managed recipients doesn't always provide a good proxy of the marketing intensity, resulting in misalignment between results and ongoing cost.

It's very important to note that even if pricing and free tiers seem manageable at first, moving out of a marketing platform is really hard. Data transfers out of a platform and migrations are always difficult and tend to lock-in companies with one platform.

Researching scalable pricing to validate a platform based on the current feature set and expected future needs is very important to ensure that the adoption will be sustainable in time.

Pricing tends to change in time and data protection regulations are getting tighter by the day. Carefully setting the requirements and investigating the offering in the three areas above is vital to achieve results and remain compliant in time.