‘Marketing automation” is one of those terms that sounds really cold and detached; like one of those things faceless corporations say when they want your money without having to actually communicate with anybody.

Tim Stauning, a marketer with WSI Internet Consulting and career marketing and sales executive, says it’s anything but. While the automation part is somewhat impersonal, the information gathered by automation in fact opens dialog between companies and potential customers in a way that marketers of old only dreamed of.

Stauning will present a free workshop on the subject at the Capital Networking Group on Tuesday, March 14, from 7:15 to 8:30 a.m. at Princeton United Methodist Church. Visit capitalgroupnj.com.

A Philadelphia-area native, Stauning grew up in a Presbyterian household, where his father was a clergyman. His mother, a librarian, was also the archetypal “dedicated pastor’s wife,” he says — someone who supported her husband’s work and advanced the mission of the church. It was a large congregation, more than 1,000 strong, which Stauning says prepared him well for getting along with lots of different people.

His interest in marketing was always sort of there anyway, but it wasn’t until his first day as a senior at Gettysburg College that he really knew it was the career for him.

“I had an adjunct professor who ran a local consulting firm,” Stauning says. “On the first day of class he held up a 500-page book called ‘The Fundamentals of Marketing.’ He tossed the book and said, ‘Let’s talk about what real marketing is all about.’”

“Real marketing” turns out to really be about talking to people. Stauning was hooked on the idea and after getting his bachelor’s in business administration and management in 1978, he moved to New York City to start his career in outdoor advertising. He worked his way up the ranks of Clear Channel, eventually becoming the company’s New York president in 1998 and its group president in 2005.

In 2013 Stauning joined the Buntin Group, after thinking “maybe there’s something else” out there for him after all that time. He spent about a year figuring out what that something else might be, talked it out with some of the many friends and contacts he had built, and decided to apply his experience and acumen to helping companies find their way, as a consultant. He joined WSI (which stands for We Simplify the Internet) in 2015, where he guides companies through their marketing process via the web.

So what is marketing automation? The dry, 500-page textbook-style definition is “content and analysis driven strategy that pulls your target audience closer to your brand and converts them into leads.” Stauning says that once you toss that rote definition aside, marketing automation is a customer-first approach to marketing built on nurturing relationships and educating potential buyers.

“In contrast to the traditional shout-out to potential buyers to try to get their attention,” he says, marketing automation is an inbound strategy; more about informing and educating, then letting the consumer decide whether he wants to proceed.

At its heart, marketing automation has four legs: attract, convert, close, and delight, Stauning says. Attraction begins with something like a blog, perhaps — inbound, content-driven, enriched content. This, he says, is where marketers establish themselves as experts and thought leaders. People see what’s written and come in willingly to consume the message.

Conversion refers in part to a call to action — the subscribe button, maybe, or a link to where to buy a product. What’s critical for marketers to know here is that once someone is on your page, they’re engaged to some degree. They have shown an interest in you.

“This is where marketing automation kicks in,” Stauning says. The automation is software that looks for patterns of behavior —what are visitors looking at, and for how long? Who’s just popping in and then bouncing out versus who’s actually looking around for real information?

For those who bounce in and out, there are programs that will remind them they were on your site. These show up as ads on other pages. If you’ve ever tried to price check lumber and then quickly switched to check hockey scores only to see a small web ad for Lowe’s on the side of the page, that’s part of marketing automation. It’s the part of the program that has determined you might be interested in something and follows you around a little.

For more engaged customers who maybe read a few blogs or check out a lot of properties for sale in a city, marketing automation programs let the company know that you’ve been browsing with interest. This is the mark of an informed and likely serious buyer.

“About 70 to 75 percent of decision making happens before you get on the phone with someone,” Stauning says. In other words, people looking through your real estate site at lots of properties within a certain price range or in a particular end of town have already mostly decided what they’re looking for.

Marketing automation charts these more serious potential customers as people in need of information. Then a real person gets the analysis, whether it’s from a proprietary automation program or Google Analytics or something else, and that gives a marketer something to go on.

Marketers can then begin an actual conversation, Stauning says. They will likely send an E-mail saying something like “I saw you were browsing for sports cars. Here’s some more information on that model and a few others like it.”

The aim, Stauning says, is not to beat customers on the head with ads; it is to educate them about their options. If you think people don’t walk in the door already knowing what they want these days, you’re very far behind the curve. People do a lot of internet research before making purchases, meaning the best customer is an informed one.

Stauning says this process of relationship building lends itself to longer-term decisions and purchases, like buying a home. It’s most effective when someone is looking to make a big decision and needs time to orient and find the right purchase. And all that building of relationships is part of the conversion process. It’s turning a looky-loo into an educated buyer who makes his own decision on what he wants based on real information you helped provide. Then you can close and, hopefully, delight the customer with how you helped.

If there’s one major challenge marketers face with marketing automation and the relationship building that stems from it, Stauning says, it’s that they give up too early. Something like buying a home might be six months in the making. Maybe a year. So marketers can’t just analyze trends for a few weeks and expect a sudden flood of customer money. They need patience.

“Marketing automation is a series of what-ifs,” he says. “And it takes a fair amount of constant engagement.”

What Stauning learned from his book-tossing adjunct back in the day is the ultimate, inviolable rule of marketing: that it’s not about studying numbers and removing the face of the company. “You still need to know how to talk to people,” he says.

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