Caroline Taylor, IBM's European marcomms VP, likened the old ways of marketing to, "tap-dancing through board meetings". At that time, she based her arguments on informed instinct and logic. Now, her world has changed. She has hard data to support her strategies. Insight has trumped instinct. She's just one of many old-style marketers, very familiar with the 'push' methods of the analogue world, who've broadened their vision to incorporate the 'pull' behaviour of the digital world.

Internet access through all manner of devices, from smartphones upwards, gives fixed and mobile users access to relevant information, before they even think of approaching a preferred supplier. But, behind the scenes, much of this behaviour can be captured and fed to smart marketers who use it at both strategic and tactical levels, to shape their online strategies and personalise the visitors' experiences. Information can also be gleaned from offline customer touch points through exhibition badges and the like.

Old-style, analogue, marketers relied on pushing their messages, blunderbuss style, to mass audiences in the hope that prospective buyers among them would notice and take action. Between the promotion and the reaction was a huge gap in which they had no idea what was going on. Digital marketers, however, have the power to monitor and assess behaviour along every step of the way, and beyond, thanks to a phenomenon called Marketing Automation. This might be used as a standalone system in simple, low value transaction, environments but, where deal values are higher or the buying decision is complex, it is more likely to integrate with other software systems, such as CRM or the help desk.

Marketing automation (MA) is all the software-supported activities deployed to attract prospective customers and turn the best into hot leads for the sales team. The process is fine-tuned continuously in response to which leads convert into what kind of deals, to changes in the competitive marketplace and changes in the company's product and service offerings.

Main elements of MA

Gartner uses the 'marketing automation' term in its reports but prefers to use 'CRM Lead Management' for its Magic Quadrant assessments. Since Marketo, an independent MA company, shares pride of place with Oracle in the leader quadrant, one must assume that 'CRM Lead Management' equates substantially to MA. Gartner's segmentation ignores the many MA systems that deliver good results without CRM – business-to-consumer vendors, for example.

In a more typical business-to-business scenario, the marketing team generates leads through paid-for (e.g. advertising and direct mail), earned (e.g. search and social media) and owned (e.g. company website and press releases) placements. Captured leads are scored according to their readiness for the sales team. Hot leads are passed through (usually via the CRM system) while the remainder are retained for nurturing. Sometimes sales will pass some unsuccessful leads back for further nurturing. The theory is that most MA-determined leads will be genuinely hot and sales will come to trust them – unlike the recent past, in which marketing used to moan that sales didn't follow up leads, while sales moaned that lead quality was rubbish.

But nurturing doesn't just apply to prospects, it can also help retain customers or generate new business from them by cross-selling or up-selling. The nurturing activities aim to create agreeable relationships with prospects and customers, and build credibility for your company, by delivering relevant and useful information at the right times, whether before, during or after the initial sale.

The MA flow doesn't stop there. Sales outcomes also need to be fed back so that marketing can understand which strategies worked best. Ideally, as much as possible of the above information, plus the minutiae of the sales follow-up processes is captured and delivered automatically. An MA system, in its widest sense, properly implemented and integrated will make this flow work.

The changing roles of the CXOs

It might appear from the foregoing that marketing has become the tail that wags the company dog. In fact, many words have been written about the possibility that the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) will put the CIO out of business, but this is based on shallow thinking such as, "marketing IT spend is growing faster than the IT department's." So what? Businesses exist to serve and retain their customers, hopefully profitably, and every department has its part to play. Trouble looms for any organisation that fails to harness all of its departments in harmonious pursuit of common goals, typically phrased in growth, market share, profitability and customer relationship terms.

This change is being forced by the fact that prospective customers have acquired minds of their own. They are able to search for solutions to their problems online through search engines, community discussions, social tools and company websites. They typically read dozens of pieces of collateral before making 'official' contact. Some MA suppliers reckon that a buying decision is at least 70% made before the sales folk know anything about it.

Understandably, perhaps, some sales departments are reluctant to concede the importance of marketing in this new world. Perhaps they're worried that their commission payments will be diverted to marketing in recognition of its changed role in the sales process. This is another reason why executive leadership should create an understanding of, and commitment to, harmony, collaboration and mutual respect between departments. Marketing's greater accountability, through MA's measurement and analytics, should help convince the doubters.

IT involvement is vital

Just as the more successful CRM systems were cloud-based, so are the equivalent MA systems. At first glance, this gives marketing and sales a high degree of independence from the IT department. However, this is an illusion, because for any of these tools to work effectively in high value or complex sales environments, they need quality data drawn from the IT estate. Major MA systems can be integrated with well-established CRM systems, which simplifies both the buying decision and the data synchronisation issues. However, for a fully accountable end-to-end MA system, you can be certain that the IT department will end up getting its hands dirty too.