There’s a lot of talk about marketing automation these days. Companies like Hubspot, Marketo, InfusionSoft and even the golden oldies like Constant Contact and Mail Chimp all promise that they’ll help you connect with customers by removing you from the process and automatically reaching out to your prospects and customers for you.

Considering that most business owners point to the lack of time when asked why they don’t market more or better, this solution seems ideal. After all, you just load in the content and let the software do its magic, serving it up over and over again to hungry prospects.

But the truth is, most organizations that try to launch a marketing automation program find it lacking. Instead of it being a nirvana of personalized and useful content which takes a prospect’s hand and guides them through your buying process, it ends up being a one-size-fits -all, garbage in/garbage out scenario in which every prospect is served up the same content and it feels, well, impersonal.

Marketing automation is a great tool for sharing information and teaching. It is not a great tool for selling. Why? It’s hard to trust a robot spitting emails at you.

We’ve talked before about how people can only buy if they know, like and trust you. The more costly and considered the purchase, the more know, like and trust it takes. It’s almost impossible to invite someone in and let them get to know you, so they can hopefully grow to like and trust you, when you are purposefully keeping them at arm’s length. The two goals -- get to know, like and trust me and try not to actually have any human contact -- are mutually exclusive.

So when does marketing automation actually serve a purpose? It can be very effective in allowing someone to do a bit of investigating at the very front end of their search for a solution. We know that most shoppers today start online – whether they intend to eventually shop locally or not.  We also know that they typically want to do at least 50 percent of their shopping before speaking to a salesperson by email, phone or in person.

So at the very top of the sales funnel -- when a prospect barely knows who you are and wants to do some sniffing around -- it makes sense to use automation to your advantage and theirs.   

How do you use the tool effectively? Start by keeping these things in mind.

They still have to get to know you: Remember, the first two elements of the know/like/trust model. Whatever information you load into your automation system needs to feel and sound like you, so the prospect can grow to have enough confidence in you that they will reach out to move to the next step.

You actually have to have a sales funnel: Before you set up any sort of automation, think through the steps you want your prospect to follow and light the path for them with your ongoing communication. Remember that one of marketing’s primary goals is to get the prospect to take one step closer.

Teach, don’t sell: When someone enters a marketing automation sequence by giving you their email address, they are trading that data for information they’re looking for. Be sure the content you deliver is factual, helpful and teaches them what you promised to teach.  

Marketing automation isn’t a substitute for selling or having contact with someone. If anything, it’s the breadcrumb trail that you leave, hoping the skittish prospect will come closer and see that you’re not all that scary. But sooner or later, contact has to be made.