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What is marketing automation software?

Marketing automation (MA) software is an advanced platform designed to help marketers capture new customers, improve marketing efficiency, and analyze lead behavior and campaign performance. This software captures leads, facilitates lead generation, develops relationships with individuals and groups of customers, and moves prospects through the sales funnel and throughout the customer journey. Marketing automation technology is now an essential resource for B2C and B2B marketing and sales departments looking to grow their business without the help of a marketing agency.

The software combines helpful platform features like email marketing, social media marketing, search engine marketing, multi-channel marketing, web analytics, and reporting tools. Many MA tools contain out-of-the-box features that teach marketers to develop successful marketing strategies. With these tools, B2C and B2B marketers and sales teams can quickly draw together customer data from multiple sources, create tactics that span different mediums, and combine and analyze customer insights for better conversions and higher revenue.

Marketing automation software is often compared to customer relationship management (CRM) software as they have overlapping functionality. But CRMs currently function as the go-to platform for sales departments, whereas MA platforms are built to scale and accelerate marketing efforts while making each touch more personalized and focused.

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5 common marketing automation software feature sets

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While marketing automation tools can vary greatly with customization, integration, and personalization, common features do exist for MA tools for a variety of processes. These five most common features are:

1. Email marketing automation

Email is one of the oldest forms of digital communication, and it remains extremely effective. Although consumers have grown somewhat jaded to email marketing due to spam, email remains one of the most effective means of communicating with your audience. This makes it an excellent starting place for marketing automation.

Email marketing is one of the core components of what MA vendors offer, allowing you to send emails en masse to segmented audiences. Advanced platforms automatically send emails after prospects take desired actions, like filling out a form or downloading a piece of content. Marketers can also use these tools to create, edit, and embed forms on their website that are relevant to the customer journey for lead generation and email outreach.

The features below are common in most MA solutions. Use them as a checklist when doing a basic MA software comparison.

Segmentation and batch emails

As a base-level feature, MA vendors include features that allow users to send emails en masse to segmented groups of customers. Templates and a native email design are also common features. These functions make your marketing activity more personal if you use them to send segmented and targeted emails.

By segmenting your prospects and communicating with each group in a way that’s relevant to their interests, you build trust. And as a key benefit, one MailChimp study found that segmented campaigns had a 23% higher open rate than non-segmented campaigns.

Behavioral trigger emails

A behavioral trigger email sends designated content to prospects if they take an action on your site such as downloading content or completing a form if they’ve given an email address or are logged in. Follow-up or transactional emails offer your audience reassurance by confirming that their action was noticed by your organization and that you are currently in the process of responding to their request.

While most email marketing tools and MA platforms have the ability to trigger automatic emails, 49% of marketers don’t use these tools, so using these features gives you a competitive advantage.


A form creator gives you the freedom to build and edit your own email marketing forms. The tool provides code you embed on your website pages, and the information the user enters will show up in the marketing automation tool. This code lets you collect email addresses and other lead management data from visitors in exchange for content, promotions, or an email newsletter.

Mobile Optimization

Most people check email on their phone, so ensuring your email content is readable and just as eye-catching on a phone as it is on desktop is essential. Most email and MA tools have made the switch to mobile optimization, letting you view an email in mobile and desktop view before sending.

Dynamic Personalization

Personalization of marketing emails has come a long way since we first started making different lists for different types of customers. Using dynamic personalization, a marketing automation solution can pull pretty much any type of customer data or information from your CRM or contact list to build a tailored email.

These tools use dynamic tagging to select, match, and include content in the email. Marketing teams often use dynamic personalization to send mass emails while still keeping a personalized feel for the email.

Split Testing

Synonymous with A/B testing, this email tool lets you run different versions of the same email campaign to a test audience, analyze which version of your email has a better engagement rate, and even automatically send the best performer to the rest of your list.

Teams often use split testing to find the best subject line, content, design, and send time or to test pretty much any element of the email you can change.

2. Lead nurturing

Lead nurturing is a feature offered by some of the best MA software tools. It helps companies track, segment, and communicate with leads in order to convert them from a prospect to a paying customer. Here are the basic and advanced lead nurture functions found in MA programs.

Lead Database

Similar to a CRM database, a marketing automation lead database offers an in-depth perspective on prospect behavior. It tracks and connects common customer data, such as customer behavior on your website; customer engagement with your email campaigns; shares and likes on social media; and customer experience based on conversations with marketing, sales, and customer service. A lead database may also communicate with the company’s CRM and share the lead score with relevant integrations.

Drip Campaigns

The main form of nurturing new leads toward a sale, drip campaigns send content to prospects to build trust in your organization, expand brand awareness, and offer right-time content. Set up a drip campaign by choosing the content pieces that move leads through the funnel, and the drip campaign will send that content to the lead based on time, lead actions, or other triggers. Many companies choose to create a welcome series for people who sign up for their email list.

The best drip campaigns are set up as a logical progression from one action to the next. Did your prospect download a content asset from your website? The next step in the drip campaign is to follow up with an offer regarding that type of product, or with even more content about that same technology.

The most common drip campaigns run through email, but many of today’s MA tools can also incorporate social media and other channels.

Task and Alert Automation

Most SaaS products include task automation, alerts, and push notifications as standard features. These tools cut down on the manual processes and amount of memory juggling that goes into paying personalized attention to leads. As automation becomes more commonplace, it becomes more widely used, helping teams complete more tasks in less time.


Quality segmentation that takes into account demographic information, professional details, and online behavior helps marketers deliver relevant content to each individual prospect. This feature relies heavily on lead score functionality, but you can also segment your list based on demographics, browsing history, and purchase history. While list segmentation can still happen the old fashioned way via spreadsheet, lead segmentation tools will streamline the process and pull lead reports based on nearly any standard or custom information field or tag.

Lead Scoring

Lead scoring is a method of ranking prospective customers by their potential to convert into a sale. Each user’s score determines the type of communication they receive from the organization, the frequency of that communication, and the department from which that communication originates. Lead scoring often combines demographic information alongside behavioral information such as website activity, past purchases, and social media actions.

Lead scoring plays a huge part in determining the way organizations interact with prospects. Advanced lead scoring features take into account recent behavior and adjust scores accordingly. A high lead score often indicates buying intention, which can help your sales team determine what type of offer to make.

3. Social media automation

Standalone social media applications like Hootsuite and Buffer could be considered MA tools, but they don’t offer as much functionality as full MA software like Aritic Pinpoint or Pardot by Salesforce. MA software often features social analytics tools showing how many engagements you received on each post, so you can determine which types of content perform best. Other features allow you to schedule your posts in advance and track what your audience posts across social platforms as well as who shares your content and with whom they share it.

Using features built into the MA software, you can engage your audience by creating polls, sweepstakes, and referral programs. Event-triggered capabilities also let you prompt prospects to share content at precisely the right time while they engage with your content.

Posting and scheduling

Marketing automation software that includes social media management primarily helps teams post to all of their social media accounts from a single interface. These tools often have scheduling features where teams can set up posts weeks and months in advance, saving time.

Social listening

Marketing through social media isn’t just about posting into the void and hoping you’ll catch a prospect with your amazing content (although that’s part of it). This type of marketing works best when it’s a conversation between you and potential or current customers. Social listening tools scour social media sites looking for mentions of your brand, product, service, or designated keywords, so you can stay up to date on the conversation.

Social interactions through messaging

To follow up on all of those new possible customers you find through your social listening tools, a social media marketing automation tool will also provide an interface for you to send direct messages. These features help you to engage with new social media contacts, facilitate fast damage control (should you ever need it), and provide customer service directly to leads, prospects, and current customers.

4. Analytics and reporting

The greatest benefit of automating your marketing process — after scaling personalized marketing to larger audiences — is getting in-depth analytics. Most MA tools look like business intelligence software that provide custom dashboards displaying the company’s crucial KPIs in straightforward graphics.

Website analytics

Most companies analyze their website traffic through Google Analytics (because it’s free and powerful) or another on-site analytics tool. Make sure your MA software can integrate with your website analytics tool, so you can see all of your website traffic information in a single place. Integrated website analytics tools will let you see the full scope of your digital marketing and how your campaigns affect your website traffic, conversions, and ultimately the return on investment (ROI) of your marketing activity.

Advanced website analytics features will help marketers understand the impact of keyword targeting and SEO changes to website content, and they may include individual website rankings on the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Multi-channel analytics

Your website isn’t the only marketing channel that must connect with your MA software. While most MA platforms provide analysis for email and content marketing, you will want to analyze all your campaigns in a single platform. When researching a marketing automation tool, check to make sure you can connect to data from these sources:

  • PPC and retargeting campaigns for search and display ads
  • Social media
  • Ecommerce platforms
  • Direct mail
  • Call metrics
  • Traditional media (TV, radio, billboards)
  • Organic search

Lead funnels

Marketing automation and analytics have turned marketing from an art into a science. Through automated lead management, marketers now rely on detailed open, click, and engagement metrics to understand how customers interact with their content all throughout the sales funnel. This has come a long way since the days of using gut feeling to know when a lead should be passed to sales.

By aggregating data from across your marketing efforts, you can get a clearer picture of your funnels and the success of your campaigns. That includes providing insight into:

  • Which types of content nurtures or closes leads
  • Which types of content hold your leads back from buying or progressing down your funnel
  • Where leads fall out of the funnel most quickly
  • When your team should act quickly on hot leads to close the deal

Most marketing automation tools will provide visual dashboards of aggregated lead management data and funnel visualizations to help your team better understand your lead funnels and find the bottlenecks.

Conversion rates & ROI:

One of the most concrete metrics available for marketers to report on the success of their campaigns is the measurement of conversions and ROI. A modern marketing automation tool can allow marketers to track their spending, attribute revenue, analyze conversion rates for individual assets and channels, and report these figures to C-level executives and stakeholders.

Also read: Should You Switch to Automation Marketing Reports?

5. SEO, paid media, and digital advertising

Mostly found in enterprise marketing automation software, SEO, paid media, and digital advertising features help marketers run their paid and organic campaigns from the centralized marketing platform where most other marketing campaigns live. SMBs may find that managing these campaigns in free or standalone tools is sufficient, but it helps to have all that data consolidated in a single interface for analytics.

Personalized customer targeting

Companies who do not personalize their inbound marketing to the individual wants and needs of consumers will find themselves left in the proverbial dust of their competitors. A marketer may find increasing success with personalization through retargeting campaigns, detailed audience targeting for ads, and multi-channel nurture campaigns that make use of all the places where customers spend their time. Teams that run these types of automated marketing campaigns in a marketing automation platform can draw upon multi-channel data for specific customers and leads to build their targeting and segments.

Account-based marketing

Although the buzz about account-based marketing (ABM) has died down a bit since its height in 2016, many companies still use this marketing technique to increase revenue and ROI. ABM tools in MA software help companies run multi-channel engagement campaigns that target specific companies.

Organic and paid search

Understanding how your website stacks up against your competitors and placing your site where you’ll get the most clicks on the search engine results pages (SERPs) is a full-time job. Gathering your website analytics, ad campaign metrics, and digital display targeting into a single interface can both make that job simpler and give your team maximum insight into marketing campaign success.

Custom website landing pages and lead capture forms

Paid search and display media rely on an agreement between keywords, the ad, and the landing page. Most marketing automation tools will provide you with customized landing page builders and lead capture forms. Your team can customize these landing page builders and capture forms to fit your online ads to drive lead generation and provide immediate value to customers.

Why choose marketing automation software?

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Marketing automation software is sometimes confused with other tools because it has so many capabilities. Marketing automation software combines the power of email service providers, social media automation, automation workflows, project management, customer relationship management (CRM), and even data visualization software all in one centralized location. This can make marketing automation technology extremely powerful and useful for companies. However, the combination of all these tools can mean heightened complexity that might scare away many users. So how does MA software differ from these other tools?

CRM vs. marketing automation

While both marketing automation tools and CRM software help teams understand the movement of prospects along the sales and marketing funnels, the two tools have different focuses. A marketing automation solution can help marketers capture and nurture leads across many channels and prepare those leads for the sales team. CRM often picks up where marketing automation leaves off, storing and analyzing the historic data on a lead’s interactions with the company to facilitate the sales process. Most companies use a marketing automation platform with CRM integration to manage different parts of the lead-to-advocate funnel.

Email marketing vs. marketing automation

The difference between email marketing and MA software is a matter of scope. Most marketing automation systems include impressive email marketing tools combined with the connected power of all of the other marketing automation software features like customer data analytics, automated workflows, and lead scoring. Email marketing stops after the email campaign, but MA software tracks a potential customer across multiple channels and campaigns.

Social media automation vs. marketing automation

Most leading marketing automation solutions include social media automation and monitoring tools, so you can cancel your subscription to that best-of-breed social scheduling tool. A marketing automation platform provides context to social media interactions by tracking potential customers to your website and combines social media data with other touches like email campaigns, phone calls, and events to better understand the marketing effectiveness of all your campaigns.

Workflow automation vs. marketing automation

While both these tools provide a hands-off approach to repetitive tasks, workflow automation software has a different specialization. A marketing automation strategy tool will automate important manual tasks in a nurture campaign like sending drip email campaigns, reminding agents to call prospects, or automatically publishing social media posts. Workflow automation tools like Zapier may include marketing connections in their triggers and actions, but they won’t give you the analytics and deep customer insight into campaign effectiveness that you’ll find in a marketing automation platform.

Project management vs. marketing automation

Project management and MA tools should be used together. A marketing automation platform can help you implement a successful marketing strategy, but they don’t show all the tasks necessary to create a marketing campaign. 

A project management tool, on the other hand, can help your marketing team lay out the step-by-step design of your campaign, pull the assets together in a centralized location, and collaborate on the desired outcome of that campaign. Once you’ve planned your campaign, build it out in the marketing automation system where you can set it to run and then analyze your results.

BI vs. marketing automation

Business intelligence (BI) and MA software have some overlap when it comes to visualizing data and preparing it for analysis. However, the analytics in a MA software will be focused only on marketing-specific behaviors. 

A good BI software will allow you to consolidate all of your data from across your company’s tools to gain deeper insights into the effects they have on one another. For best results, marketing teams should use their MA software to dive deep into marketing-specific analytics and then export their data to the BI tool to better understand how marketing affects the company’s overall success.

Marketing automation software benefits and ROI

Lower operating costs

Automation takes repetitive manual tasks out of human hands and makes computers responsible for them, meaning you can get more done without adding extra staff. Computers complete triggered actions efficiently; they can send a set email in response to a form fill, alert a team member to a change in lead status, or send social posts at a scheduled time. While your team will still need to do a little planning to set up marketing automations, you’ll save overall time (and your concentration) because you won’t need to complete marketing tasks individually as they arise. This extra efficiency can lower your operating costs.

More data

Big Data’s usefulness as a business tool makes companies hungry for more data that they can use to better understand their customers, funnels, operations, and financials. Marketing automation systems produce granular, customer-focused data that can help your teams segment customers, build better nurture campaigns, and close more sales. All of this new data can be analyzed right in the MA system or fed into BI software to view its impact on the company’s overall ROI.

Analytics and reporting

The best MA software includes analytics and reporting features that track and illuminate your campaigns. Using these features can help your marketing team build better campaigns with more personalization and better customer targeting. While BI software brings together data from all across the company, marketing automation analytics focuses on marketing and sales campaigns, giving you better insights and preparing your company for growth.

Centralized marketing tool

It’s the dream: One marketing platform to rule them all! Marketing automation software can come close to this dream, centralizing control over email, content marketing, contact forms and downloads, social media, and even direct mail and traditional media channels. This depends on the scope and price of the marketing platform software, so check feature lists carefully before you buy to make sure you don’t pay for features you won’t use.

Improved ROI

Return on investment is a percentage found by dividing your net profit by the initial cost of your investment and then multiplying that number by 100. For example, if your profit was $1,000 and your initial investment was $200, your ROI was 500%. 

Your investment cost should include the software subscription fee plus what you spend on training and implementation. Expect Marketing automation software to increase your team’s efficiency, bring in more qualified leads, and target the perfect customers at the right time. These improvements should increase your overall revenue.

What you should look for in SMB and enterprise marketing automation software

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Marketing automation software for SMB companies

Small and midsize businesses have to choose tech tools that work as hard as they do and don’t have a lot of extra features that no one uses. Plan your decision carefully by choosing an MA vendor that offers several features packages based on your company’s list size or channel needs. You don’t want to get stuck paying for 1,000 direct mail campaigns if you’re only going to use your MA software for social media and email campaigns.

While you don’t want to go overboard, you do want your MA software to be robust. It’s usually cheaper to pay for a single marketing automation tool than to buy a CRM, social media automation tool, and email marketing subscription. By keeping each of these functions in a single system, it’s easier to track each campaign and ensure they are working together to improve your ROI.

SMBs also may need more robust customer support than enterprise businesses. Many small businesses don’t have in-house IT staff that can address problems with the software if they arise. Because of this, choosing a vendor with great customer service will create a more positive customer journey and save you a lot of time and headaches.

Marketing automation software for enterprise corporations

Enterprise corporations also worry about paying for features they won’t use, but they often have more flexibility to give their marketing departments options to run different types of campaigns. Enterprise companies should take into account the marketing needs of all divisions of the company before purchasing to make sure that no one division purchases a best of breed tool that doesn’t integrate with the analytics and reporting of the marketing automation platform.

Enterprise companies also generally have the option to spring for more customized tools. Software with integration and API capabilities is great for enterprise companies that want to connect their MA software with other tools they use regularly, like project management or BI software. Enterprises might also want to create custom segments for their email marketing campaigns or track custom KPIs in their dashboard.

Additionally, enterprise businesses can benefit more from split testing of their campaigns because they have larger sample sizes than most smaller companies. Not only that, but there are generally more people in their marketing department, so they aren’t as pressed for time when it comes to creating ideas for split testing.

Marketing automation strategy automates critical — but repetitive — marketing processes, like posting for social media, sending automated emails, and segmenting customers based on their actions. However, the software also offers customization and personalization features that keep your branding fresh. You can customize email templates to fit your company, create special fields for categorizing your leads, and personalize each email with your customer’s name or recent product views using special fields that will add them automatically.

Marketing automation lets you scale your efforts to build relationships with multiple prospects across several different channels and provide them with a consistent experience despite their differing interests or needs. And when you properly segment your audience, this technology actually allows you to build more meaningful relationships with your prospects by providing them with content that’s relevant to their interests and to extend the customer lifecycle.

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