For B2B marketers, we’ve seen a complete flip in how to engage prospects and nurture leads. Instead of using sales calls or trade shows as the first touchpoint, smart marketers have built websites and content that attracts their target audience. Companies can no longer be gatekeepers of information. Buyers expect to find the information they’re looking for when they need it and if you don’t make it available, they’ll find one of your competitors who will.

According to SearchEngineLand, 3.8 million searches are conducted on Google every second. Marketers have taken advantage of this by building content that addresses their audience’s interests and pain points. Basically, if a potential customer is searching for a solution your company can provide, you want to show up on the search engine results page. Quality content is the core of an effective inbound marketing strategy. But content can be used in additional ways to capture and nurture leads, effectively engaging prospects throughout the buying process and delivering sales qualified leads to the sales or business development team. 

Marketing automation systems can nurture and convert prospective customers without any manual intervention. It’s powerful and when implemented correctly, can be a game-changer for growing your business. However, content marketing automation is far from automatic. It requires sophisticated strategists, designers, programmers, copywriters, and data analysts to properly execute content marketing automation initiatives. This comprehensive guide outlines the various elements necessary for successful content marketing automation that delivers qualified leads.

The Value of Automating Content & Inbound Marketing

Marketing automation requires a lot of upfront investment of time and resources. Many assets need to be developed and sophisticated workflows have to be programmed. However, the residual value increases over time. It’s the difference between paid and owned media. By developing your own assets and collecting the email addresses from prospects, you have the ability to deliver valuable marketing communications with no ongoing costs.

Not only do these assets continue to provide value with little depreciation, they can also provide important information that will guide future efforts. Even something as simple as the titles used for ebooks or guides can be analyzed. Determine the commonalities that lead to the highest download rate on a landing page or click rate from an email. This will give you insight into your target audience’s pain points and interests. Use these data points as you continue to add additional content and touchpoints to our marketing automation campaigns.

Taking Email Marketing to the Next Level

Email marketing has long been a go-to tactic for digital marketers in the B2B space. According to BtoB Magazine, 59% of B2B marketers say email is their most effective channel for generating revenue. It can be highly targeted and successful at driving action. The secret to email marketing success is timing. You have a great product or service but if the reader isn’t currently experiencing the pain point that your company addresses they’ll quickly delete the email and go about their day.

Content marketing automation is a superior approach to email marketing for two main reasons:

  1. Emails are triggered based on a specific action taken by the user so the messaging can be extremely relevant
  2. The time to manage ongoing email marketing programs is greatly diminished as workflows are programmed

A recent study by Salesforce found that B2B buyers expect an email response within an hour of taking an action. Using marketing automation platforms can ensure your company is quick to respond with a personalized message. These communications are often your first chance to make a good impression with a potential customer. Email marketing using a marketing automation platform like Hubspot or SharpSpring can ensure you’re consistently delivering relevant and personalized information.

Marketing automation platforms can be used to build complex workflows with hundreds of scenarios based on various user actions and time delays. But it can also do some pretty simple things that will increase the performance of your email marketing initiatives. These systems allow for easy A/B testing of subject lines or calls to action to analyze the effects these differences have on open rates and click rates respectively. They also allow you to set up standard drip campaigns that can communicate a longer story over time. 

Determine Your Strategy

There are many ways to approach your inbound, content, and automation strategy, but a good place to start is determining how to position this approach to marketing within your organization. As you know, success is the culmination of all your teams’ work and content marketing should be a central piece of this puzzle. Here are three approaches to consider:

  1. Department Approach.
    Build a department that specifically manages content and is responsible for building long-term relationships with both customers and prospects. This group – whether its large or small; internal or a partner agency with content expertise – will empower and inspire your audience to accomplish their goals with your product or service as the end solution to their needs. You’ll need to consider dedicating content producers to the work, have a mechanism to engage content contributors (i.e., customers, on-staff experts, industry partners), and determine how this content will be delivered. Consider marketing automation for this last piece as it allows you to directly market to prospects and customers on an individual basis based on their interests and actions. Harnessing its strengths, however, does require expertise and strategic automation know-how so take that into consideration as you build the department or engage agency partners.
  1. Contributor Approach.
    At its core, inbound marketing needs to support both your company’s B2B goals and also provide valuable information to your target audience. Positioning content as a contributor accomplishes both, with a slight bend towards the latter as its objective is providing wide-ranging topics covering a plethora of subjects interesting to your audiences, community, and industry players. In this approach you’ll need each of your departments or business units to come together creating connected content. This content should position your company clearly as an expert so that content will be used as a reference, shared both directly and through your audience’s social media channels. 
  1. Service Approach.
    A final approach to consider is providing content as a service to your direct customers so they can reuse it with their customers and increase channel leads. Producing high quality content to which your partners can add their branding is a great way to not only add value to your customers, but help your bottom line as well. Offer partners wide ranging, sharable topics and consider how you’ll measure effectiveness. This approach might also necessitate early outreach and training to your customer base depending on their marketing capabilities. You could even go as far as developing specific content for your top customers’ prospects and offering your automation tools to get that message out for them. 

For B2B marketers, the end goal is leads and, ultimately increased sales. Engaging prospects and nurturing leads takes strong strategic thinking and a solid execution plan. Consider the options on how to structure the work and then move forward to accomplish your objectives.

Audience Persona Development

Once you’ve determined your strategic approach to content marketing, you’ll need to define the audience that you want to target. We do this by developing audience personas. An audience persona is a realistic yet fictional representation of your ideal customer. 

When developing personas, it’s important to go beyond basic demographic information. You need to have a clear understanding of what makes him or her tick. An audience persona should detail the prospective customer’s goals, motivations, values, and frustrations. This information is then used to develop content that addresses these aspects of your target audience. 

The information used to build a persona should come from multiple sources. The people at your company who interact with customers regularly are an excellent resource. Ask for input from sales, support, and business development teams. Another resource is your website. Google Analytics can provide not only demographic information, but also psychographic data as well. If you place a LinkedIn tag on your website, you can get data about your visitors that corresponds to their professional attributes – job title, function, seniority, industry, etc. Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn also provide data on the audience that follows your company’s page or profile. This includes information about affinity groups, geographic location, employer, educational background, and much more.

Lead Generation Through Automation

How do you define a “lead?” The answer depends on whether you’re in the marketing department or the sales department. Marketers want to count a lead as anyone who has supplied their name and email, whether it was a business card exchange at a trade show or an enewsletter sign-up on their website. The sales team is typically looking for a prospect who has expressed a specific need or pain point. 

The best way for the marketing team to support the sales teams is to provide sales-qualified leads, or SQLs. How do you determine an SQL? Well, that’s really up to the sales team or maybe a specific sales person, but a general rule of thumb is a prospect who has shown interest in your product or service. Someone who is actively shopping for what you sell. 

Using email marketing automation, you can nurture leads that the sales team doesn’t think are ready for a sales call. We often refer to these leads as marketing qualified leads, or MQLs. Generating MQLs can be done through a variety of methods including content marketing. By gating various pieces of content behind an online form, B2B marketers are able to acquire MQLs using inbound marketing (SEO), social media, and/or paid advertising. 

When content marketing is done correctly, you can identify a specific need, interest, or pain point based on what the prospect has shown an interest in. Using content marketing automation, you can send additional content and communication pieces that hone in more specifically on the problem and potential solutions. These email automation tracks can be simple or extremely complex. Either way, the emails and content will be delivered based on the prospect’s specific actions. For example, if they don’t open the first email, have a rule that sends a follow up with a different subject line. If they click a link but don’t take a specific action, send them an email that takes them to a different offer or provides an incentive.

Eventually, you’ll want to present your product or service as a viable solution, but not until you’ve provided some value and positioned your company as a trusted resource. As soon as a prospect has taken an action that shows they are interested in your solution, it’s time to move them from MQL to SQL status. As a B2B marketer, your task is complete. You’ve used email marketing automation to effectively deliver a sales qualified lead.

Automating Increased Customer Retention

Once the sale has been made, there are additional opportunities to increase sales and enhance your relationship with the customer using email marketing automation. Especially for companies that don’t have as much customer interaction, this could be used as a key customer retention tool. 

B2B marketers know that the best way to increase revenue is by increasing sales to current customers. It’s also more profitable as new customer acquisition is expensive. You can use email marketing to cross-sell and upsell to current customers. Look for products and services that complement each other. Test different offers and incentives that are exclusive to current customers. 

Building a strong relationship with your customers will help with customer retention. Again, the cost of acquiring new customers is high, it’s always more cost effective to retain customers. Using marketing automation, you can add value to the relationship by providing information, resources, tips, and news based on their actions. You may have complete content libraries that mainly sit dormant on your website. Using automation you disseminate this content based on each customer’s behavior. This could also lead to additional sales opportunities as you learn more about each customer’s interests and needs.

The Intersection of Marketing Automation & Sales

Marketing automation should be used as a tool that drives sales qualified leads. This means it’s imperative that the marketing and sales teams work together efficiently. You don’t want to allow any opportunities to slip through the cracks. There are two ways to ensure that the efforts by the marketing team are not wasted.

  1. Connecting marketing automation with the CRM (customer relationship management) platform
    If you’re using a popular CRM like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics, chances are there’s a way to connect this to the marketing automation platform you’ve selected. Salesforce even has its own automation platform, Pardot. However, other automation platforms like Hubspot and Marketo can also be connected seamlessly. When connected correctly, you can ensure that leads that transition from MQLs to SQLs are automatically assigned to the appropriate salesperson or territory. 
  1. Using the marketing automation platform as the CRM
    Marketing automation platforms continue to evolve in their capabilities. Many have CRM functionality built in or have a separate component that can be used as your organization’s CRM of choice. This streamlines the transition of leads as they are nurtured from MQLs to SQLs, however, it can be difficult to transition if your company is already using a robust platform like Salesforce. We do not recommend trying to juggle two CRMs, it’s hard enough to get everyone using one CRM correctly and consistently. 

It’s important that the marketing team have regular reviews with the sales team to make sure that the leads being supplied are of high quality. In our experience, a few unqualified leads being transferred to the CRM can result in a lack of trust. If the sales team doesn’t place a high value on the SQLs that the marketing team is supplying them, they may stop doing their due diligence and the lead nurturing activities will be all for naught.

Measure the Metrics that Matter

Content marketing automation initiatives generate a large amount of data. Every touchpoint has measurable interactions. Some are important, others are not. When running these campaigns, it’s important to learn what works best in order to optimize your initiatives to maximize results over time. 

For each component within the marketing automation programs it’s important to establish which metric or metrics are the key performance indicators, or KPIs. For example, when measuring email performance, open rate and click rate may be the KPIs. Unsubscribe rate or bounce rate should not be used to optimize performance. When you’re presenting a content offer, the landing page should be evaluated based on the conversion rate. What percentage of people who land on the page complete the form to download or watch the piece?

The best way to use data to help understand what works is to set up experiments. You should test hypotheses to learn if your assumptions are correct. Running A/B tests with two different subject lines will provide you with a clear cut understanding of which performed better by comparing open rates. On landing pages you can test different images, form lengths, incentives, headlines, calls to action, etc. It’s important to test a single variable at a time, however. That’s the only way to learn which element aided the performance.


Content marketing automation and email marketing allow us marketers to use content to address pain points, capture leads, and nurture them in order to provide the sales team with sales qualified leads. Marketing automation platforms have become extremely sophisticated and with powerful capabilities. By working closely with the sales team, marketers can develop and execute programs that successfully drive sales and increase revenue. This is important, especially for small and mid-size businesses that often view marketing as an expense and sales as a revenue driver.