Marketing automation is one of the hottest software-as-a-service sectors, with dozens of companies competing for a bigger share of a growing pie.

But all is not perfectly peachy in marketing technology land.

In a recent survey by marketing automation analyst David Raab, a full third of companies adopting the new software said they are not hitting their ROI targets. And another survey by marketing expert Dan Freeman reveals that half of the companies kicking the tires on marketing automation are not sure they have the skills to properly use their new software.

To find some answers why this might be the case, I turned to Carlos Hidalgo, the founder and CEO of Annuitas.

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Hidalgo advices enterprises on not just marketing automation, but their entire marketing and demand generation strategy. The company typically engages over the course of about 12 to 24 months to help transform companies on an overall basis, rather than just coming in for a quick pinch hit on the marketing automation front.

That long-term and overall strategic approach, Hidalgo says, is critical to success.

And, he says, the problems we’ve seen are just the tip of the iceberg.

VentureBeat: Marketing automation is perhaps doubling annually. Why?

Hidalgo: It is not just marketing automation that is experiencing this exponential growth, marketing is spending more on technology than ever before. As the Gartner prediction goes, CMOs will be spending more on technology by 2017 than the CIO. This growth, including automation, is explosive.

Why we are seeing this kind of growth?

We only need to look at the sophistication of our buyers’ buying process. No longer are buyers dependent on vendors to collect information on products or services. The access to this kind of information is on buyers’ desktops and in the palms of their hands. As a result, marketers are having to match this sophistication and get a deeper view and gain deep insights of their buyers.

And, as a result, marketers are turning to technology for help.

VentureBeat: You’ve seen a lot of MA implementations. In one of our recent surveys with David Raab, we noticed that about a third of companies are not satisfied with the MA software they’ve purchased and implemented.

Have you seen that, and what is causing it?

Hidalgo: We see this all the time and I have a great deal of respect for David and his work, but I would say that this number is pretty low. Most of the marketing executives that I encounter talk about their systems in terms of some kind of frustration and know they can be doing much more with it.

I think there are a few things that cause this issue.

The first is buying into the myth that technology will be the savior for the issues that are plaguing marketing. Marketing automation on its own will not improve buyer engagement, produce better quality content, or provide qualified leads to sales. Marketing automation is an enablement tool and the more marketers embrace this fact the better it will be for them.

The second issue that causes this is tied to the first.

As a result of believing the automation technology is the silver bullet, many organizations forgo the development of a buyer-centric demand generation strategy. Typically what happens is they purchase automation, hire an implementation partner, and as part of the implementation they conduct a handful of workshops on lead scoring, lead nurturing and are coached on how to make these work.

This is not strategy — there is no deep insight into buyers, the market in which the buyer operates, and there is no understanding of the buyers’ purchase path, what triggers occur to initiate the buying process, and so on. If you do not have this understanding, how can an organization begin to even develop a lead qualification model or content for nurturing that will resonate with the buyer?

You bring these two issues together and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction with an automation system. In reality, I have found with many of our clients that it is very rarely the system, however it is easy to blame a technology as it makes an easy scapegoat.

VentureBeat: What non-obvious mistakes do companies make when implementing MA?

Hidalgo: I’m not so sure that many of the mistakes that are made are obvious.

We have to keep in mind that due to this disruption of the B2B buying process, marketers are having to learn new skills and adapt their organizations and roles. Just one of these changes is technology, so there are many mistakes that I believe are not very plain.

As for one of the more non-obvious that I see often is that organizations do not view marketing automation as a business application, but rather a technology that should be tightly held. As a result, organizations look to have a controlled group of power users that are the appointed gatekeepers of the organizations demand generation programs. When this is done in a global organizations with multiple locations, there is no way for this to scale.

When organizations understand that marketing automation is a business application and that their demand generation personnel should be trained on the use and adhere to a defined governance and strategy, they will get more value from it overall.

VentureBeat: Marketing has long been an art. Now it’s starting to be a science. Where’s the interplay or balance between them?

Hidalgo: I do believe the access to more data is there, but marketers by and large are still in the process of trying to get their arms around it and apply the scientific intelligence to ensure they get constant improvement. I think in many instances what is missing in terms of the data science is context.

Without the context behind the numbers, it is very difficult to draw conclusions and make any profound application.

As for the blending of art and science, I think where this needs to come together is using the science to inform the art. Think about how much better an organization will be at branding if they understand the data from their buyers. I believe that the art side of marketing has much to benefit from the emergence of the science side.

VentureBeat: Salesforce has a vision of “1” … one view of a customer or potential customer across all platforms and devices, and personalized ways of interacting with that individual in all the places he or she wants to. How close are we to the future where a major CPG company knows all of its customers individually?

Hidalgo: This gets back to the science we were just discussing and I do believe there is an ability to have this data where there is the 1-to-1 connection.

Think about how Amazon does this today. I log in with my information and there is a bevy of information that is all related back to my last few purchases. They know me, they know my preferences, my purchase history, etc.

As a result, I have a very customized “me” experience.

I think this is happening now and marketers will continue to improve as they do a better job at understanding the intelligence in their data … and how they make that actionable.

VentureBeat: All the automation in marketing automation can make messaging or timing seem off or even bad, given people’s different circumstances. What’s the worst example you’ve ever run across?

Hidalgo: I would again state that the bad content or the ill timed content is not the fault of marketing automation at all, but it does take a lot of the blame. Automation will do what it says it will do – automate.

If you have bad content, that will also get automated.

What we are seeing with automation is that companies which have no strategy automate chaos and just spit bad content out into the market in the hopes that something changes. I have seen many bad examples and rather than naming just one, I would say that each and every week I get an automated email about asking me if I have 20 minutes for a demo that will make my life so much easier.

Keep in mind, many of these emails are the first interactions I have ever had with these companies. It’s just bad marketing!

VentureBeat: You work mostly with significantly large companies. Do you have preferences between the various marketing clouds from major vendors or the individual solutions from younger, newer companies?

Hidalgo: I really don’t and we rarely ever encourage our clients to swap out an automation system, since marketing automation will only be as good as the strategy it is enabling.

There are a whole lot of good solutions out there that when you think about it have about 80 percent of the same features and functionality across the board. We have worked in an array of systems and used them quite effectively, so I do not have a “has to be this vendor” for our clients.

You can work with what you have installed in most instances … and when you lead with strategy you are starting off on the right foot.

VentureBeat: What are the 2 or 3 key things that the new marketer, the data marketer, needs to know and do that yesterday’s marketer didn’t have a clue about?

Hidalgo: At the risk of getting some people upset, I still think we have a long way to go in terms of getting our current marketing teams up to speed on the skills needed today. I just read a Forrester report that showed 97 percent of CMOs stated their teams are having to do things it never has done before in order to be successful.

Of those CMOs, 56 pcerntstated that they are having an issue with training for the right skills, so many are still in search of the “new marketer.”

I do think some of what today’s marketer needs to know that was not done yesterday is that demand generation needs to be perpetual in nature, which means placing nurturing in a strategic position in an end-to-end approach that engages, nurtures, and converts your buyers. I believe that today’s marketer needs to be outcome-oriented.

This means going well beyond impressions, opens and clicks.

It means measuring conversion rates along the buyers’ journey, reporting on pipeline impact and revenue outcomes, and speaking the language of the business. Lastly, this strategy also needs to be knit together with an overarching demand process approach. This truly means integrating and aligning people, process, content and technology to the buyers purchase path.

These are some of the new things that have to be done in our Buyer 2.0 world and while they are not easy, they are necessary for success.

VentureBeat: Anything else that you want to say?

Hidalgo: I always have more to say, but the one thing I will end with besides thanking VentureBeat for the time and opportunity is that I truly believe there is no better time to be in B2B marketing than today.

I have been doing this for 20 years and I do not think there has ever been a more exciting time where we can impact our businesses like ever before. I held roles before Annuitas where I was told “marketing is all smoke and mirrors.”

It is so much different today and we should be excited about the opportunity to truly make a difference and be strategic growth enablers for our companies.