Most marketing automation is really experience design


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Marketing Automation Flow

If you were going to pick a representative image of marketing automation, it would surely be one of these flow-like diagrams:

If a customer visits this page, then send this email — if they’re a qualified lead — else wait 2 days and send them this other email — if we know their email address — else cookie them for display advertising retargeting.

And so on.

Being able to create and maintain these flows is one of the main reasons that marketers should learn how to program. It’s quintessential programmatic logic.

But it struck me the other day: this is not automation, this is experience design.

That may already be obvious to many of you — and the rest of you may think I’m splitting hairs — but this is not really about business process automation. This is about designing an experience that a prospect or customer will have. Increasingly, it’s an experience that crosses channels and spans a sequence of events in time.

Okay, technically speaking, it is automating a process. But if we’re going to be technical, almost everything that a computer does on our behalf is a kind of automation. Serving up web pages is an automation — you aren’t personally handling each request. But you don’t think of creating a website as an automation mission. You think of it, hopefully, as a user experience design mission.

Looking through a user-centric lens makes all the difference in the world. You’re making choices explicitly with the goal of how they will affect your audience, rather than being overly distracted by internal processes or the configuration mechanics of your marketing automation software.

For websites, there’s now nearly 20 years worth of user interface design knowledge that can be applied. But the experience design of marketing automation is still in its infancy — a nascent specialty in user experience design. But it’s clearly one that’s growing.

More about robots vs. marketers

Related to this, I want to follow up on my post on robots vs. marketers: the algorithmic marketing matrix. Because in this new kind of experience design, it matters what we’re relying on the software to do on our behalf.

In many ways, the term “algorithm” is as fuzzy as “automation.” A well-planned customer experience flow can be said to be following an algorithm — an explicit set of instructions — even though the decisions of what happens in that flow were 100% determined by a human. There’s no artificial intelligence involved.

To be more precise, I think we want to look at two dimensions in which marketing can be “automated” by software:

Abstraction and Probability in Marketing Automation

The X axis represents one dimension in which processes become more automated: through the use of probabilistic methods. Without probability, you have a deterministic process — if P happens, then do Q. Simple probabilistic functions are things likely randomly assigning users to different variations of an A/B test. More advanced probabilistic algorithms enable machine learning and artificial intelligence. As you go along this continuum, you turn over more decisions to the software.

The Y axis represents another dimension of automation: through an increased level of abstraction. Down near the bottom, the marketer works with very discrete events and conditions — e.g., a prospect visits a specific page on your website. As we go up this axis, we deal with higher-level concepts, such as checking a condition that someone has “qualified as a lead.” There may have been many components that contributed to that person becoming a lead, but we don’t have to explicitly check them there — the software helps us abstract those details away.

Marketing software can get more sophisticated and advanced along both of these axes. However, take care — more probabilistic methods and more abstraction are not always desirable.

Algorithmic Marketing Matrix

As I pointed out with the algorithmic marketing matrix, introducing probability into a user’s experience can be dangerous. In scenarios where a prospect or customer has expectations about an experience, you don’t want to leave the outcome to chance.

On the other hand, in scenarios where serendipity can apply, it makes tremendous sense to harness the power of machine learning.

Machine learning techniques are also relatively safe if they’re being used in back-office marketing work, to help sort through the heap of big data and identify new opportunities for customer segmentation and targeted campaigns. Eventually this results in front-office marketing, but human judgment and supervision intervenes in the translation.

In a similar way, abstraction can be good — it lets us design and monitor higher level flows of our business — but we have to be careful not to abstract away the user experience. The boxes and lines on your screen when you’re designing a marketing automation flow will become actual customer experiences.

Even with abstractions that a customer will never directly see — such as a “is this person a qualified lead?” condition — it’s prudent to check in on the lower-level details from time to time. What are the rules that contribute to a qualified lead? Are they overstated? Or maybe understated? Have they been updated to reflect changes elsewhere in your marketing programs? Trust but verify those handy abstractions.

You can mix abstraction and probabilistic methods, but the caveats of each are multiplied. You can get into some strange territory when machine learning algorithms are attempting to determine the high-level abstractions of your business.

This give us a frontier of practical use — the line between theory and practice, perhaps? — that is constantly being advanced.

But going back to the opening point of this article — that marketing automation is really experience design — we should continually reaffirm that the area below the curve of that frontier of practical use is solid, not hollow.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Scott Brinker
Scott Brinker is the president & CTO of ion interactive, a leading provider of post-click marketing software and services. He writes the Conversion Science column on Search Engine Land and frequently speaks at industry events such as SMX, Pubcon and Search Insider Summit. He chairs the marketing track at the Semantic Technology Conference. He also writes a blog on marketing technology, Chief Marketing Technologist.


  1. Regardless of how much automation or technology is put into a website or a marketing process (automated response, emails, etc.), it is still designed for people by people. The people who created this automated “personal” experience must realize that there is a person – a customer – on the other side. The best companies know it and do it.

  2. Scott,

    This really is true but I am not sure a lot of people who design marketing campaigns really give thought to the customer experience, as they design the work flows. There is still a great deal of legacy outbound marketing thinking that is still prevalent in the design of campaigns, as most of us know from being on the receiving end!

    This is a very thought provoking post, particularly about the right interplay of machine language with managerial judgment.



  3. Scott,

    It’s true that MA technology has an impact on the user experience, so designing the process flows is part of UX design.

    However, MA process design is fundamentally an inside-out proposition, with the goal of increasing leads, conversions, etc. All of these things valuable to the company.

    I’m fine with that, but in my view UX design would start with the user’s goals, and wouldn’t assume that MA is the only or biggest part of their experience.

    I see your post as a decent reflection of CRM thinking — how to help the company profit from it’s customers/prospects. But it doesn’t really reflect the thinking in the CX/CEM community that the user/customer experience is the starting point.

    So perhaps you’re right that “most marketing automation is really experience design.” Because some kind of experience will be delivered with that automation. But I think UX is much more than process automation, and must starts with user goals.

    I researched this topic of “buyer experience management” and wrote a big article about it last year. Bottom line: most B2B marketers think delivering a great buyer experience is very important to attaining revenue goals, but have no idea what kind of experience they are actually delivering. I doubt that UX professionals would agree these marketers were doing effective user experience design, despite massive investments in MA technology.

    My article can be found at:
    B2B Sellers, Wake Up! Adopt Buyer Experience Management, or Get a Pink Slip from Customer 2.0.

  4. Hi, Bob.

    I think we agree.

    I’m not saying that marketing automation EQUALS customer experience. I’m saying that marketing automation — the portion that ends up impacting prospects and customers — is a SUBSET of customer experience.

    I do think it’s interesting that the kind of flows that marketers are creating in marketing automation are a somewhat different flavor of customer experience design, one that probably still has a long way to go in the development of frameworks and best practices.



  5. Hello Scott,
    I say let’s step aside from theory and ideology and ask ourselves what actually happens when marketing automation takes place. So I ask you what actually happens? And who is involved in the happening?

    Based on my experience what happens is a bunch of technology folks, who understand how to configure the marketing automation system, talk with a bunch of marketing folks. What is their discussion about? I say it is about how to automate marketing activities usually with the intention of making marketing more effective and efficient.

    Clearly, the implementation of any technology that directly or indirectly interacts with the customer will impact the customer experience. And I say that does not mean that marketing automation is experience design.

    To be engaged in customer experience design, I say one starts with the customer. His context, his task, his objectives. And use this understanding to design an experience that works for the customer and profits the company. The objective in experience design is to create happier customers in the hope-expectation that these customers will stick around, visit again, and bring their friends with them the next time around.

    In conclusion, I do not find myself in agreement with you. And there is plenty of room for difference in this world. Especially, in the business world where nothing means anything. Where strategy means nothing specific. Where relationship means nothing specific. Where customer experience means nothing specific.

    All the best

  6. Yes, what you say is true about using marketing automation’s embedded process. Or using Six Stigma or Lean. But anyone who does any of this should (in Bob’s words) receive a pink slip.

    Today, forward-thinking process people are using inside-out approaches that start with customers and work in towards operations. O-I process design completely encompasses customer experience and provides the tools to make the customer’s desired experience a reality rather than a seller intent.

    You need to rethink your premises regarding process. Without effective process, you can’t approve customer experience. And the last thing we all need is to start renaming process work “experience something.”

  7. Clearly I’ve touched a nerve here.

    But to be honest, I’m not sure I grok which nerve I’ve touched.

    My article is simply made the point that marketing automation work should be done with an eye towards its impact on customer experience.

    Reading these comments, I’m having a hard time seeing where the disagreement is?

  8. Scott – what you’re describing is a new realization of the age-old problem of technology sellers presenting “software as the solution,” instead of software as an enabling tool. The marketing automation merchants are just following in the steps of CRM software merchants before them and the SFA merchants before them.

    Some of us have been working on resolving this issue for many years. We’re finally making some headway – but only some. Reinventing the problem doesn’t help address it.

  9. Scott,

    While the details of your post are more nuanced, I think it’s the statement that “most marketing automation is really experience design” that hits the nerve of CX professionals.

    Experience design means, according to Wikipedia (

    Experience design (XD) is the practice of designing products, processes, services, events, and environments with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions.

    My emphasis would be on the quality of the user’s experience. Indeed, CX is really about delivering experience, while your post emphasizes how to get the user to do things the company wants.

    The two concepts are related, because a great experience should motivate the user to engage more deeply and do more of what the company wants — to become a “lead” in the case of Marketing Automation.

    Automation will deliver an experience, but that doesn’t make it experience design, regardless of how many process flow charts are used. Because those process diagrams reflect an internal (company) orientation.

  10. Bob – process flow diagrams are only company-centric when the process deign approach is customer-centric. Visual Workflow, to cite one example, starts flow with customers and ends flows with customers.

  11. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post, Scott. Your continued evangelism on the need to bridge gaps between marketing and IT is much appreciated and your observations about the relationship between MA and experience design are brilliant.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Shep, Naras, Bob and Maz that a good MA experience starts with the user/customer’s wants/needs/expectations. This is true for both the recipient of MA campaign messages and the MA user trying to get the most out of the tool.

    So why aren’t we doing a better job at experience design?

    1. Promotion mentality still pervades practice: Naras hit the nail on the head. The modus operandi of most marketers is persuasion over attraction, invasiveness over permission, creating buzz over delivering relevance. For more on what I call marketing manipulation madness, check out: .

    2. Customer-centricity as lip service: Internal politics, poor cross- and intra-functional collaboration, out-of-alignment reward systems and win-lose belief systems are just a few of the barriers to putting the needs of the customer first. Marketing needs to lead the enterprise toward increased customer centricity with a customer experience optimization approach, not perpetuate the disconnect with maverick behavior.

    3. Imbalance of pockets of expertise vs. holistic approach: In an age that places premium value on specialists, glue people are often missing from the equation. Implication: siloed thinking and actions.

    Real marketing transformation is needed to truly master experience design and continuously deliver real value through marketing automation. We have a long, long way to go. A faster path there is to adapt a Marketing Operations 2.0 mindset. There are lots of great resources on what that looks like and how to get there at .


    Gary Katz

  12. Sure. Here’s a quick one.

    -Business customer needs a new pump
    -Goes up on web
    -Enters search terms (identify)
    -Evaluates outcomes (identify likely evaluation criteria)
    -Targets vendor(s) (selection criteria?)
    -Contacts vendor
    [branch flow for different contact options]

    (etc. until purchase made; then map fulfillment for each option)

    By putting ourselves in customer shoes at each step of the flow; we learn about customer considerations, preconceptions and preferences so we can design the experience to suit the most customers or specific types of customers.

    The outcomes highlight the gaps between buyers and sellers. Running the mortgage app process from the consumer’s perspective is a fun one.

  13. When your product or service gets to a point that impresses customers so much they want to advocate for it then you’ve provided that WOW user experience. Many aren’t there yet but those that are get adopted quickly and loyally!

  14. Coming from a company that enables organizations to capture feedback, analyze it to understand and take action to improve -and being the leader of the team that sets-up our marketing campaigns and uses marketing automation – I find this post compelling and on target.

    When we think of our campaign flows at Medallia, we spend a lot of time talking about and debating experience and we even go one step further – we actually ask for feedback on certain steps (e.g., a survey after a webinar or to get feedback on a whitepaper download.) That way, we can understand the true experience of the visitor.

    But coming from the CX space where NPS, the ACSI or other satisfaction scores can be the barometer of experience success (or lack there of) I think that marketing metrics like clickthroughs, bounce rates, clickstream, registration and of course MQLs and closed deals are also metrics that can help us to understand if we are creating the right experiences.

    Measurement and then closing the loop on the feedback can help us to both understand and improve the marketing experiences we deliver to our customers and prospects. Do you agree?

  15. Michelle – no, I don’t agree. Speaking as a customer advocate, customers are sick and tired of sellers waving surveys and other data collecting tricks in their face. They want to be left alone. And the essence of customer-centricity is doing what they want.

  16. Dick, if a person does an internet search looking for information on a topic, finds a white paper or other educational asset on a web site, then fills out a form to get the download, how is that wanting to be left alone?

    I would agree with you that emails or other outbound activities can be intrusive. But again, with email subscriptions the presumption is that it’s an opt-in relationship. People know when they sign up that they’ll receive newsletters or promotions.

    There’s a line out there that should not be crossed, and some vendors do abuse their customers with excessive emails, calls or other promotional gimmicks. But I don’t agree that all customers want to be left alone. Good experience design will help customers get what they want, not force stuff they don’t.


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