Note: This is the first in a series of marketing automation reviews that are coming once a week for the next 6 weeks (including this one!). I’ll be covering HubSpot, Pardot (Salesforce), Keap (Infusionsoft), SharpSpring, and MailChimp. If there are any other platforms you want me to add to the list, just let me know!
Marketing automation tools are, right now, more important than they’ve ever been but…what are they and how do they improve your business, your processes, and help you grow your business?
In this post, we’re going to discuss what marketing automation tools are and what they do. We’re also going to review the first of 5 platforms in our review series, HubSpot.
Marketing Automation defined
“Marketing automation” is no doubt a term you’ve heard bandied about quite frequently in the last decade, and increasingly so in the last few years. It seems as nebulous a phrase as The Cloud but it’s a rather simple concept:
Marketing automation is the blanket term used for tools and platforms designed for marketers that allow them to market in a more omnichannel way while automating repetitive tasks and processes.
Repetitive tasks can include things like emails, social posting, workflows, etc. With marketing automation tools, businesses have the ability to create workflows and automated processes so that passive branding and lead generation can be working in the background so sales and marketing can focus on more pressing activities and objectives.
The too long; didn’t read version:
Marketing automation tools can help increase the potency of your lead generation efforts, allows low-level tasks to be automated so you and your team can focus on higher-level activities, and gives you the ability to optimize, test, and brand your content and lead gen efforts.
Marketing Automation Tools + Platforms
There are many tools and platforms out there to help everyone from a one-person shop to enterprise-level, global companies. The trick to getting the right tool is knowing what’s out there, what you need, and how your needs can be met by the tools you choose.
First a note: You will probably need more than one tool. Yes, I know. Your MarTech stack is already gigantic (or you don’t have one yet) but the fact of the matter is, there is no tool out there that I’ve found that does it all, even if they promise they do.
The most common marketing automation platforms you’ve probably heard of are things like Salesforce and HubSpot. Full disclosure: I’m a HubSpot fan. I’ve been using it for like a decade, but I’ve also used pretty much everything else out there. For a time, HubSpot was so expensive I just couldn’t afford it, so I spent a few years test-driving and jumping around other platforms to find a suitable, affordable alternative.
You may have some test-driving to do yourself as you start looking around for a new platform. Whether you have a hefty MarTech stack or you’re just now starting to shop around for tools, it’s absolutely critical to sit through the sales pitches and demos so you can SEE the platform itself and ask questions about it. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve invested a LOT of money and time on a platform that promised and ultimately, couldn’t deliver. I don’t want that for you.
Ok, diatribe off. Our first review is HubSpot. So let’s do a little deep-dive into what it is and what it offers.
Marketing Automation with HubSpot
As I mentioned above, I am a HubSpot fan and a HubSpot user. That being said, HubSpot did not ask me to write this nor have I or will I receive compensation from HubSpot because of this. It’s just a highly visible platform so it’s where I started.
While I’ve used other platforms, I usually come back to this one every time. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean it’s the right platform for you! Automation is a tool, not a strategy, so it’s really important you either have an inbound strategy in place or you’re building one.
Your new mantra: No tool, no matter how great, can make a strategy for you.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
HubSpot is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool as well as a marketing automation tool. The CRM for HubSpot is free to use. Some businesses stop there, HubSpot touts that the CRM is free forever and, as far as I can tell, it’s not a gimmick. You can have both unlimited users and up to one million contacts in the database with the free version, so it’s pretty robust.
Note: In another post, I’ll talk about the importance of a CRM, but for now, just know that’s a great way to store, organize, and keep track of your contacts, prospects, and vendors all in one place.
HubSpot marketing automation tools are part of paid plans and are not included in the free versions of HubSpot. Depending on the size and budget you have, HubSpot now offers a few different tiers of use that allow different levels of functionality which we’ll get to later in this post.
For my reviews, I’ll be looking at email marketing, social media scheduling, workflows, landing pages, chatbots, and pricing.
The email marketing tool that HubSpot offers is part of the Starter tier of their plans and includes a limited number of free email templates, the ability to create email triggers through simple forms, and the ability to track email activity and have it auto-update in your CRM.
If you don’t have a lot of automation and workflows to set up, then this version is totally fine. If you have a newsletter to send out once a month, you’ll be good here! If you need anything a bit more complex, you’ll need to move up a tier to unlock the full potential of the marketing automation options like SMS and workflow creation. You can also stick with something like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor and integrate them into your HubSpot account because, as we know, it’s not a MarTech stack without one million things on top of each other.
The tool is rather easy to use, like most email marketing platforms, it features a simple drag-and-drop functionality that allows for easy design and editing. I will say, something I like about this tool above others that I’ve used, is that it’s the closest to MailChimp that I’ve found. MailChimp, to me, is still gold standard for email marketing, but HubSpot has done a good job at making a competitive offering.
If you’re new to email marketing, you’ll have no trouble getting the hang of this tool and if you’re an email marketing expert, you’ll probably be pretty happy how easy and quick it is to create and launch a campaign.
Side note: At the Starter tier, you will not be able to purchase templates through the HubSpot Marketplace and will only have access to their basic templates. If you have a designer, they can work within HubSpot to create something custom but it’s not always the easiest thing to do and WILL elicit grumbles.
Social media scheduling
HubSpot’s social media tool is not included in the free or Starter versions, so if you want this tool you’ll need a Pro+ account. The scheduling tool works with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram and allows you to export messaging in and create multiple posts at once on different platforms.
I’m going to be really honest here: I’ve never liked the HubSpot social media tool. In its past iterations, it hasn’t been great about posting things properly on each platform, especially LinkedIn and Twitter. It also doesn’t cover TikTok or Pinterest or Instagram Stories or YouTube, so if you’re a brand the relies heavily on design and video content, you may want to stick with whatever social tool you’re using now.
If you demo it and you fall in love: woohoo! My personal preference is not the end-all be-all, but I don’t know any social media professionals who use the HubSpot social tool for their brands.
Workflows, in this context, are about creating automated chains of tasks that can help you accomplish marketing goals without much active engagement by you or your team.
Example: A prospect downloads your whitepaper. The landing page and form they fill out are hooked into HubSpot. Their contact information is automatically stored in the CRM, and an automated email goes out with the whitepaper and a thank you note. Once the contact has clicked on the download link, an automated email can be sent the next day to see if they have found the whitepaper useful, provide an additional resource, and give the contact the opportunity to speak to someone to get their questions answered.
A less convoluted way to say this is that you can create things like automated responses and nurture campaigns. Hubspot’s visual workflow tool is the easiest I’ve used so far. There are some pretty convoluted tools out there, so making one that’s actually easy-ish to use is a feat.
You’ll want this tool if you’re working with a lot of lead generation campaigns, gated content, forms, and scheduling. Automating these processes will be a lifesaver no matter how big or small your team happens to be.
Creating landing pages is a big piece of CRO (conversion rate optimization) so being able to create landing pages for your campaigns and gated content means you have another way to help track your leads and activities per channel.
HubSpot’s landing page builder looks a lot like the email builder in that they’re both drag-and-drop and you have access to several free templates with the Starter version.
If you want to get fancy and buy a template from the HubSpot Marketplace, you cannot. That feature is for Pro+ users.
The builder used to be not great but it’s been updated in the past few years to be more user friendly and features things like pre-designed templates, the ability to customize and re-design easily, and drag-and-drop design. You can also do A/B testing with the pages but not multivariate testing so if you’re dealing with a massive amount of traffic and you really need that multivariate testing, you’ll want to invest in a 3rd party tool that is dedicated to landing pages. Testing is a part of the Pro+ tier so freebies and Starters aren’t able to use this function.
Side note: As I mentioned in the email section, HubSpot does give you the ability to do some custom coding but it’s not super easy. If you have a developer or a designer get into you may hear some grumbles coming from that side of the office. It’s not impossible, but it’s not the easiest.
Chatbots: Learn them, live them, love them. These little automated cuties are a super simple way to ensure your business is always open, even if you’re fast asleep. Chatbots allow you to set up automated answers to frequently asked questions, like directions, product information, hours of operation, location, etc. It’s a handy tool to use as the amount of time you or your team may be spending answering FAQs is definitely taking time away from your branding and lead generation activities.
You may already be using a chatbot through Facebook’s messenger app but, HubSpot’s is specifically for your website and it’s free! It’s fairly easy to navigate and colors can be customized to match your brand.
It’s also pretty easy to set up and get notifications via email, too. So, if there is a customer that really needs to speak to a person, you can assign chats to certain team members or groups of users so that, during business hours, there’s someone to hop on and have more in-depth chats.
HubSpot will also connect with Facebook Messenger so you can manage all of that from your free account. Paid tiers have more options like creating automated quick response emails, chat snippets, and templates of your most engaging responses to help increase your email engagement rates even for one on one emails.
HubSpot has some crazy-detailed tiers so I’m not going to type it all out here. Below you’ll find what you get for free in the different areas and here you can find the pricing tier data.
Free CRM: unlimited users and contacts, contact management, contact activity data, companies, deals, and tasks + activity tracking.
Free Marketing: All of the CRM features plus email, forms, ad management, list segmentation
Free Sales: CRM plus live chat, conversational bots, team email, conversations inbox
Free services tools: CRM plus ticketing, live chat, conversation inbox, and calling.
Is HubSpot worth the investment?
I think it is. I like that it’s a platform that is easy to grow along with your business. With paid options, you also have access to HubSpot Academy so you and your team can get HubSpot certifications in things like SEO, email marketing, social media, sales, and more. And HubSpot certifications have some weight behind them, too, so if you want to bulk up your sales and marketing skillset, the HubSpot Academy is a great way to do that.
HubSpot’s customer service is also amazing. You have a product specialist who is assigned to you and can meet with you (virtually) and help you out rather quickly. Their Chatbot, Hubbot, is also very helpful and they area big enough company that there is usually a person on the other end able to jump in if you have a complex query that a chatflow can’t answer.
You also get channel consultants at higher levels who meet with you monthly to discuss business strategy and can even help with client pitches and business ideas. They are pretty handy to have and because they work with many other businesses, they can use their pool of experience to demonstrate how other, similar businesses are doing things more efficiently and effectively.
I’m probably always going to recommend HubSpot to SMBs who are looking to grow and are serious about investing and growing their inbound marketing strategy. Hopefully, this review was helpful! If you have any questions or comments to add, just let me know!