How to Run an Inbound Marketing Automation System

by Eric Goldman

President and CEO ,
Gossamar Inc.

The combination of inbound marketing and marketing automation produce a powerful marketing approach we call an inbound marketing automation (IMA) system. While there is much discussion about the individual components of an IMA system, this post explores how to choose the right tools for your specific needs.

As we all know, especially the readers of this blog, software tools in the hands of inexperienced users produce less than desirable results. This post presents a formal process description for how to design and then run an IMA system. But please, don’t touch that dial. Process definitions are not deadly, dull and boring when they lead to you operating a marketing system that delivers the following benefits to your company:

  1. Higher-quality sales leads at a lower cost. While this is easily imagined as marketing hype, the truth is that IMA systems significantly boost profitability by increasing revenues and lowering expenses.
  2. By running the process according to the dictates of continuous process improvements (CPI), you will get better and better at the task over time.
  3. You will finally be able to quickly and easily calculate the return on marketing investment (ROMI) of every marketing campaign. The literal proof of (1 & 2), each time you measure your results. Also the best way for you to justify your marketing budgets.

CPI Turns Marketing into Predictable Science

When I was a kid in the 1950s, toys made in Japan were rightfully viewed as cheap junk. But Edwards Deming changed all that. He taught Japan Inc. the ways of CPI and their reputation for quality manufacturing improved dramatically over the years. CPI can transform your marketing from an art with occasional home run into a predictable science that delivers continuously improving ROI.

The concept is simple enough. Take any process and… think, plan, do, measure and repeat. That’s it. Implementing this in practice, however, is a little more complex and a discussion of it lies outside the scope of this article.

Inbound Marketing

What Defines an Inbound Marketing Strategy

Despite the many benefits of IMA systems, they are not magic bullets – and do not eliminate the need for a comprehensive online marketing strategy. That’s why I urge you to get professional help creating yours – if you are at all unsure of what to do or how to do it. You’re going to invest a great deal of time, money and effort designing and then implementing your IMA system. If you base it all on the wrong strategy, your system will be an expensive failure.

At minimum, your strategy should include:

  • Persona definitions: These portraits are examples of the visitors you expect to attract. Their definitions should include photos of typical examples to help you picture them while you define their needs, as well as the reasons for searching out your site or solution, their buying motivations and the stages they encounter while moving around their buying cycle.
  • Persona’s buying cycle stages: The classic marketing sales cycle stages include: awareness of need, solutions and suppliers; supplier research; and supplier preference (short list). This leads to contract negotiations and finally a sale and then repeat business. But as these now cover a buying cycle and not a sales cycle, the stages must be tuned to allow the buyer to be in control, not the seller.
  • Keyword strategy: Search engine optimization (SEO) is a rapidly changing and complex world – again, seek help if you are not an expert. It’s vital that you get this component right as your entire web site and all the content you are going to create (see below), must precisely match your keyword strategy. And please note: These keyword phrases should be based on the words and phrases your target audience use to find the solutions your company sells, not your own.
  • Content strategy: This matches content to the expectations of your personas and delivers the answers they are seeking when they initiate their search for a solution. Ideally, your content will establish your company as a thought-leader in its industry, earning your visitors’ stamp of approval in the form of a bookmark, Tweet or “like.” This content should be so appealing and useful that people come back to the site again and again to get more of it.
  • Social media marketing strategy: This outlines what you will blog about, including the frequency of posts and schedules for the people who write them. It also outlines appropriate strategies on the social platforms germane to your industry (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). Traditional marketing strategy: The plan should also include traditional aspects of a marketing strategy such as a competitive analysis, price, place, product, pitch and positioning statements, etc.

The 4 Phases of Marketing Automation

Armed with this strategy, we can examine the process itself. In the brief process description below, we focus on why these phases are needed and how they achieve their goals. The IMA process consists of four sub-processes or phases.

1. Attract Phase
In this phase, the focus is to attract more leads. While generating more leads into your funnel doesn’t necessarily translate into more sales, IMA systems use SEO, social media marketing and, if needed, pay-per-click ads (PPC) to drive relevant traffic to your site. Given that your strategy is aligned with your SEO keywords, website copy and headlines, web visitors will find it easy to explore your site and engage with it.

2. Engage Phase
This phase begins when visitors arrive on site and interact with the site’s calls to action, or CTAs, usually in the form of buttons and links which encourage visitors to click them to get something. The goal here is to give your prospects the information they need to advance to the next state-of-mind in their buying cycle (remember, the states-of-mind prospects undergo while making their buying decisions).

Thus your content is the fuel which drives the process. Whether it’s a blog, white paper, video or tool (i.e., calculator, guide, review), each piece of content must educate, entertain and inform. It must also establish your company as a thought-leader supplying the most advanced solution of its kind; or the lowest cost; or the easiest to use; whatever pitch and product definitions you designed into your marketing strategy.

3. Convert Phase
For the purposes of this article we will call conversion the moment when one of your visitors wants an item of your content badly enough to register on the site. He or she gives you an email address, name and title (or answers whatever questions you put), in exchange for the desired content. Some of our clients, without spending a dime on advertising (they don’t use PPC or older forms of advertising), convert 25 percent of their website traffic. According to a study by Hubspot, the cost of acquiring an inbound lead is 60 percent less than the cost of doing this the old fashioned way.

4. Qualify & Nurture
Now that you have visitors’ name and email address – and most importantly their permission – you can begin your drip email campaigns. Each email thanks the person for the latest activities performed on your site and includes links to encourage the person to return to the site. For example, “People who downloaded piece A also found piece B interesting.”

Each time the visitor returns, the IMA system scores their activities on site. For example, 50 points for completing a form requesting an item of content. The IMA system monitors email activity (opens, clicks on embedded links, etc.), as well as every digital footstep on site (pages viewed, duration, duration of visit and frequency, etc.). As well, each time people answer questions about themselves, the system builds a more comprehensive profile of them.

Think of score as a measure of the person’s interest in your solution, while grade is a measure of your interest in the person. When prospects’ scores and grades reach a predetermined level the system automatically feeds them into your CRM system.

The system thus automatically sorts out the hottest prospects. According to Brian Carroll, author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale, 70 percent of the buyers you attract to your website will eventually buy from someone. However, most of them are not ready to engage at the moment they appear in your system.

If you pass on a lead to sales in this “not ready” state, the sales call will likely be disappointing. However, by keeping the lead in the funnel via well-timed and precisely targeted emails, they will accumulate enough score to arrive in the CRM system – and be more likely to talk to sales when the time comes.

Generating Long-term Marketing ROI

Using Google analytics, and the analytics captured by your IMA system, it’s easy to trace how visitors arrive on your site. The IMA allows you to enter the costs of each campaign and the CRM to capture the resulting opportunity values. And because the IMA and CRM systems share and exchange this information, it’s easier to quickly and easily calculate your ROI.

Offline campaigns, such as at trade shows, can be brought into this calculation too. The beauty of this aspect is that it allows marketers to stop spending money on campaigns which don’t deliver results and focus on those that do.

Beyond helping funnel new buyers and generate ROI, establishing a solid IMA strategy now creates a foundation by which you can make informed decisions during future budgeting processes. Imagine being able to prove your marketing spend in the same way that sales can. With hard numbers to back up your strategy, you’ve got a much stronger case for your budget.



Thanks for the elaboration on inbound marketing and marketing automation process, Eric. In our client engagements, we work methodically through the buying process steps. A past article on Converting Inbound Leads ( highlights the challenges and considerations for driving a successful process.

Yes, strategy is the critical factor for success in this game far beyond the software. We can mix and match software. The litmus test will come from clean execution and design for the human experience that a buyer touches and experiences. Thanks again for sharing.

Comment by Don Dalrymple

Thanks for reading and commenting. Your article on Converting Inbound Leads does indeed provide useful information – thanks for sharing.

And obviously I agree with your comments as they support my own!

Comment by Eric Goldman

I am curious as to the best practices around measurement data for these inbound efforts. I assume that measurement would be broken down into the following “buckets”:
1) Inbound Lead Stage (Pre MQL) Definition and Analysis
2) Asset Effectiveness – by lead stage, type, conversion rates, etc.
3) Inbound Campaign Attribution on the Funnel
4) “Onramps” to Inbound Mapped to Conversion Rates



Comment by Ryan Kelly

Thanks for reading and commenting.
The list of metrics you provide is a good one. Best Practice focus now tries to separate the Top of Funnel (TOFU) from the middle and bottom, (MOFU and BOFU). Conversions in all three areas are of course important, but we can now track timing as well (time to move from Top to Bottom or – in other words – the duration of your buying-cycle). And always within TOFU, we want to know the source of the lead (I think this is what you meant by “Onramps to Inbound…?)

Your Asset Effectiveness is in Inbound terms almost always an item of content (tool, video or white paper). In this regard we want to know how many times it was downloaded, by whom (and if possible, which stage in their buying-cycle there were in when they did so). Here we measure the popularity of the piece and its effect on stimulating the prospect to move into the next stage.

You can check out some of the metrics and our approach by reading some of the Process Description posts on our blog. They all give our take on the approach defined by Continuous Process Improvements or CPI. Each post applies the idea to a specific case such as “How to Run a A Social Media Marketing Campaign.”

Comment by Eric Goldman

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