How to Choose the Best Marketing Automation Platform + Comparison of the Top Tools

  Marketing Technology
Chris Grimmett
Chris Grimmett

02.26.2021 | 18 min read

Not too long ago, a portable music player that could store literally hundreds of songs was the big leap in technology. Today, technology continues to progress at a rapid rate, forcing us to reconstruct how we approach not only our personal lives but also our business practices. 

One of the most impactful technological developments for businesses has been the ability to automate marketing tasks. It's helped prevent leads and customers from falling through the cracks, identified the most viable opportunities and delivered highly relevant content to the right prospects. 

Enter: Marketing Automation Platforms. 

Marketing automation platforms are the machines that make automating these things possible. Some are feature-rich while others focus on being budget-friendly. Some focus on user-friendliness and others on being highly customizable. They all have their place in the market so the question becomes, which one is right for you?

We’ll cover all the features to consider in a marketing platform so you can choose one that fits your business’ needs. Plus, we’ll compare the top tools on the market right now (if that’s what you came here for, use the handy table of contents below to skip ahead)

What is a marketing automation platform and why would I need it?

In the old days, it wasn't difficult to keep up with every lead that came in. All your team needed to ask themselves was "did that new prospect reach out by phone or email?" 

Technology has only become more ingrained in our lives as time has gone on, and that means your prospects are more likely to interact with you digitally than through other channels. Now, you have to take into consideration social media, online paid advertising, texting, online reviews and many other factors. There's only so much time in a day and so many spreadsheets that you can keep up with before information starts getting lost. Having a central, digital location where your team (both sales and marketing) can operate out of will be crucial to making sure no lead falls through the cracks. 

A customer relationship management tool (CRM) is great for keeping up with your leads, but that alone isn’t always enough. Depending on the size of your business and the marketing initiatives in your plan, you might need software that can send email or manage your social media or any number of other digital functions.

In addition, your team is limited in how much they can accomplish in 24 hours. That’s where marketing software, particularly marketing automation solutions, is really making an impact in businesses. Technology allows us to automate many of the tasks that get pushed to the side or overwhelm our day. Marketing automation continues to be a game-changer for sales and marketing teams because they are discovering how much time it saves them, allowing them to just focus on the highest impact leads. 

What will it cost?

The good news is you don't have to be a Fortune 500 company to take advantage of marketing platforms. There are literally hundreds of marketing platforms available for all budgets and sizes of business. Whether you are looking to run drip campaigns, social media management, or a variety of other multi-channel marketing options, there’s a tool for it out there. 

Price is determined by a few major factors:

  1. Marketing features
  2. Number of contacts
  3. Types of marketing channels

Options range from $15 per month to thousands per month. 

How do you decide what features you actually need? Here are a few of the most important tools to keep in mind when determining the best marketing automation software for you.

What marketing tools do you need?

Email Marketing Tools

There was a time when email was king. It was new. It was exciting. It was the sure-fire way to grow your business. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan convinced us that love was only one inbox notification away. 

And to be honest, email can still be effective, it’s just not quite as romanticized. Most studies show that it takes around 8 touch points with your brand for a consumer to make a purchase decision. So, to stand out to your customers, you have to find new ways to get their attention beyond their inbox. Email marketing software helps bring all those different touchpoints together so you can track them and make informed decisions about your future initiatives. Plus, it automates the sometimes arduous task of staying in constant contact with your prospects. 

Many small businesses start with a simple email marketing platform. These platforms will have a varying range of features, but a good email marketing tool will have the ability to run email campaigns as well as have a library of email templates or a drag-and-drop email editor tool. That should be considered the bare minimum. In the world of online marketing, we have to remember that email marketing campaigns are just one source for lead generation and nurturing.

Landing Pages

Some might wonder "aren't landing pages just a simplified web page, and if so then why should they be considered such an important feature for achieving marketing success?" However, landing pages play a very specific role in your marketing. HubSpot says it best, "Landing pages have one chief purpose: to generate leads for your business. Whether you're providing a free trial of a product, holding an event or webinar, or offering a resource such as an eBook or whitepaper, landing pages provide you the ability to measure specific metrics and gain valuable insights into your target audience. Most importantly, they are designed to provide the biggest conversion potential for users. Good landing page tools allow easy editing of text and images, and the best ones offer A/B testing so you can constantly and objectively optimize your pages. 

Marketing Automation Tools

This is where the real magic happens and why marketing automation platforms provide so much value to both sales teams and marketing departments. How are you expected to provide meaningful lead nurturing and real-time follow-up when you cannot work every hour of the day? With the development of some amazing marketing automation features, you and your team no longer have to choose between quality lead nurturing or a healthy work/life balance. 

Marketing automation tools can input data on your behalf, segment contacts into customized lists, and build out reports so you can focus on the areas of your business that will have the biggest impact. Imagine having an additional salesperson, intern, and administrative assistant all in one that works for you 24 hours a day and never gets sick? Sounds pretty amazing right? That’s basically what marketing automation offers business. 

Alas, not all marketing automation tools are alike. Just because two tools say they have "marketing automation" does not mean they will be able to achieve all of the same outcomes. Think of marketing automation as a genre of features. You still need to investigate and consult to make sure your platform can accomplish all the things you want it to.

Integrates with Your CRM

Remember at the beginning we talked about the importance of having a central place your team can operate out of? To do that, you need to make sure your marketing tools connect with your CRM. Why? Because all the data about your leads and customers should live in your CRM. If you can connect that data with your marketing platform, you allow your marketing initiatives to leverage that data. A quality CRM integration will have a larger impact on lead management than nearly anything else your company does.

Social Media

There are a lot of tools out there that specialize in social media management so you may wonder why this plays such an important role in determining your marketing automation platform. Social media marketing is its own beast. The real issue though is that there will always be a new social media platform coming. All it takes is your Aunt Linda tagging you in one picture of yourself as an eight-year-old dressed in sequins and you'll too want to find a new platform to call your home. We've all be there...right? Anyway...

Whether it be to monitor all your content going out, seeing statistics on what's working, or whatever features of social media your company uses, having a tool to centralize all of your social marketing is key to maintaining your company’s presence and reputation.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Ahh, the elusive and magical world of "SEO." This is a term you've probably heard plenty of times but still feel like you only somewhat understand it. Well, that makes sense, because the fact is how to optimize your website for search engines is constantly changing. As regulation increases and algorithms continue to change, this will always be a moving target to try and hit. Google Analytics is an amazing tool, but sometimes it can either be a little overwhelming or inconvenient to have to open up one more tab in your browser. Having SEO tools integrated into the platform you are using allows you to do much more than simply see how many "impressions" your site is having. It allows you to compare how different pieces of content your team is using are performing in relation to SEO. You also can start associating your actual leads to the numbers you're seeing as opposed to simply wondering who those mysterious 1,000 website visitors are. This allows you to continually improve your prospect's experience and in turn improve your business growth.

Reporting tools

Speaking of having more data, a team cannot be successful without good reporting. Numbers don't lie. Without reliable reporting, it's impossible to identify what is and isn’t working. Ask yourself these questions, and if you don't know the answer, we'd encourage you to find a platform that can help you find out.

  • What is our cost per customer?
  • Which pages on our website converted the most leads into customers?
  • What is the average length of our sales cycle?
  • What is the percentage of qualified leads sent to Sales?

Paid Advertisement Management

Paid Advertisement is the Wild Wild West in the content marketing world. Whether it be Google pay-per-click (PPC) ads, social media, or the ads you often see on the side of the article you're reading or on an e-commerce site, paid advertisement is an incredibly lucrative industry. In 2020, social media advertisement alone brought in 43 billion. When nearly every company is vying for consumer's attention, how do you know if your efforts are working or if they are even worth it? 

While most marketing platforms don’t offer the best tools for running your ads, many will track and integrate your ad performance into the rest of your data. This allows your team to recognize trends across the entirety of the funnel and adapt quickly to ensure you’re getting a return on your investment.

Lead Scoring

Let's be honest, not all leads are created equal. We’re not a parent who doesn't want to choose a favorite between their children. Some leads are worth putting more effort into because they’ve shown interest before they’ve even entered a sales conversation.

How do you know the quality of lead without diving deep into a conversation with them? Lead scoring is a powerful tool that teams can use to help them determine which leads should be prioritized. You provide criteria that your team has agreed indicates how qualified (or unqualified) a lead is for your business. Each criterion gets a value assigned to it. The higher the score, the better fit for your company. Criteria can be budget, services they’re interested in, how they’ve engaged with your content, or a host of other things. The best part is, this marketing feature can be easily translated no matter if you have a b2c or b2b marketing strategy. Don't miss that million-dollar deal because you've spent the last hour providing phone support to a lead who just wants some free advice.

Personalization

Modern consumers are being inundated left and right with content and advertisements. The newest development in digital marketing is providing a custom, personalized user experience. Not all people will come to your website for the same reasons. Prospects might have different priorities or questions that need to be addressed before they convert. If they don't see what they are looking for then they very well might leave and look elsewhere. How then do you make sure they are being shown the information they want to see? Through personalization. 

With the development of "dynamic content," companies can dictate what people see when they visit their site. Instead of marketing the same thing to a brand new prospect and someone who has already downloaded an eBook from you, you can show them different content. 

marketing strategy c

Comparing Marketing Softwares - Pros and Cons of Each

MailChimp

Founded in 2001, MailChimp got its start in developing into one of the largest email marketing brands in the world. This platform may be known first and foremost for email, but don't let the cute monkey fool you because over the past few years MailChimp has sought to expand its services drastically by working to become more of an all-in-one marketing platform for businesses.

Features

  1. Landing page builder
  2. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  3. Reporting
  4. Automations (workflows)
  5. Personalization options
  6. Social media management for scheduling and reporting on posts
  7. CRM
  8. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • Pricing: One of MailChimp's greatest strengths is its pricing. With the majority of its tiers being around the same cost per month as a Netflix account, it makes sense why so many businesses (particularly small businesses) rely on MailChimp for their needs.
  • Email: This is MailChimp's bread and butter and it shows. With tons of great templates and an easy-to-edit builder, it's a great way to create professional-looking designs for your email marketing campaigns. 

Weakness

  • Not Scalable: MailChimp is a solid product don't get me wrong. The issue is simply that it's far better suited for smaller businesses. There is a lot of areas where to MailChimp's credit their plans just aren't capable of solving at their affordable price point. Once you get to their premium plan it starts to be at a comparable price to many others on this list without the same quality of execution. If your business will likely always stay smaller, however, MailChimp could work well.
  • Reporting: An area where they receive many complaints is with their reporting tools. They are just more limited than what many businesses need. When it comes to many more generic statistics you might be interested in MailChimp could probably get the job done, however, don't expect to be able to have too much customization.
  • Support: As great as many of the tools they offer are, their customer support has one huge flaw (in our opinion): if you use their free tier, technical support becomes nonexistent. Not the best for those who are newer to marketing technology and trying to get the hang of a tool.

MailChimp's smart advertising led to much of their growth in the early 2010s and has proven to be a company to reckon with in this space. Although not a tool we'd recommend for certain sized businesses, it's a solid option for those needing to keep marketing costs low.

ActiveCampaign

ActiveCampaign was founded in 2003 and has been a veritable fixture within the marketing realm for some time. Though perhaps slightly less versatile than other marketing automation providers, Active Campaign is considered a sound and largely reliable platform, perfectly suitable for smaller or medium-sized companies across all industries.

Active Campaign has its strong suits and one or two shortcomings. Aligning its broader functionality with your specific needs is key to understanding whether the platform can support the marketing efforts you intend to undertake.

Features

  1. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  2. Lead scoring
  3. Automations 
  4. Personalization options
  5. CRM
  6. Reporting
  7. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • Pricing: Budget is a big concern for nearly every business owner in existence. Attracting and retaining customers is a costly business, and much of the software used to accomplish those goals is also expensive. Not so with Active Campaign, which on the lower end of its service offerings is nearly free. Even the higher-end premium package is fairly affordable.
  • Automation: Automation is one of the biggest factors in pricing for most marketing automation platforms. This is a place where ActiveCampaign shines. The sheer amount and variety of automation available for their pricing level is truly a great value.
  • Easy Setup/No Annual Contracts: ActiveCampaign makes the setup and integration steps preposterously easy for its clients. Though the process is designed to be manageable on the client-side, ActiveCampaign is home to an excellent Support Team trained to see all activation aspects through to completion. Considering the service’s low cost, this is a great differentiator for ActiveCampaign’s operation.

Weakness

  • Integration Fees: Certain app integration measures require added fees to be implemented. ActiveCampaign is not overly sweeping in terms of broader software/app integration. Though there do exist workarounds, the most direct path to achieving full-scale integrative functionality is to cough up the required cash.

Taken as a whole, ActiveCampaign is very much as advertised: A solid marketing automation service geared largely towards the middle-market economy. Strong service reviews and attractive pricing render it very much deserving of your consideration, provided your integration needs are, at most, modest. At Lone Fir Creative, we recommend ActiveCampaign for small to medium-size businesses where budget is a limiting factor.

SharpSpring

SharpSpring was founded in the relatively recent year of 2012. SharpSpring has undeniably benefited from the foundational knowledge produced by its forerunners, which is evidenced by the quality-life-features they introduced early on. Things like a drag-and-drop email builder and design-friendly landing page interface were at the top of the list. 

Not overly different in terms of its primary offerings, SharpSpring positions itself as something of a lean, cost-effective, flexible alternative to the juggernauts (and their copycats) within the industry. A close look at their business suggests there may be considerable legitimacy to that framing.

Features

  1. Landing page builder
  2. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  3. Lead scoring
  4. Automations
  5. Personalization options
  6. Social media management for scheduling and reporting on posts
  7. CRM
  8. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • Potential: The SharpSpring platform is consciously designed with streamlined use in mind. It very much succeeds in that regard. But the solution is laden with complex marketing automation potential which, when properly understood, allows the user to engage more intricately with various reporting and targeting capabilities.
  • Tech Support at No Additional Cost: Even the savviest of companies will on occasion find themselves in need of technological support from a vendor or two. SharpSpring offers exactly that…and at no additional cost to the client. Given the customizable nature of their software, a round or two of backup from the provider might well be in order at least once during the life of your month-to-month subscription. Note the Contextual Help-In App when reviewing the linked support page.

Weakness

  • Complexity: On its face, SharpSpring is not an overly complicated software platform. But once your need/desire for data reporting and re-targeting capabilities materializes (and it likely will), you may find yourself struggling to proficiently wield the tool at your fingertips.
  • Clunky: They might have improved, but when one of our team members tested it out in 2019, the interface was quite clunky and much more difficult to use than its pricier competitors.

SharpSpring has actively worked to contend within a very crowded field of deeply entrenched competitors. Their approach is to adhere closely to lean business practices while consciously pricing their products and services below the market average. Combined with their solid approach to customer service, this company is arguably punching a pound or two above its proverbial weight. If costs are a significant factor for your marketing plan(s), SharpSpring might just fall within the budget.

Keap (formerly known as Infusionsoft)

Formerly known by many as Infusionsoft, Keap has kicked off the 2020s with a new online platform to match their competitors. They might have a new name, but they continue to focus on being a platform for entrepreneurs and small businesses. 

Features

  1. Landing page builder
  2. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  3. Reporting
  4. Automations (workflows)
  5. Personalization options
  6. CRM
  7. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • Sales Tools Accessibility: Although many of the platforms listed here have similar tools, one thing that stands out about Keap is their willingness to include many of those tools at even the lowest pricing tiers. Having your sales team be given tools such as appointment scheduling, sending quotes, etc. can make a difference for a team when it comes to closing leads faster. 

Weakness

  • Not Scalable: Although Keap relies on their established reputation as Infusionsoft, it may be a surprise to many that as big of a brand name as they are, it's not suited best for a company unless they're a small business. Although convenient for organizations like a start-up you'll likely find a need to move to another platform as you grow which is never as easy as it seems.
  • Lack of Tools: As nice as it is to have certain tools made available to your sales team at lower pricing tiers, many Sales departments have found that it lacks the functionality they need compared to what they feel was advertised. Add the fact that many reviewers have complained about the platform's limited file storage system, and you can see that although there might be a wide variety of tools the tools themselves might be not as thorough as your business needs.

Keap may not be the best option for certain sized companies, but they have proven to be a reliable and adaptable platform for the past two decades. More of a lower to middle of the pack in pricing, Keap shows a lot of promise as a platform as a whole. 

Marketo

One of the biggest names in the marketing automation platform space, Marketo (and Adobe company) has been one of the pioneers of this industry. Due to its price, you won't find many small or even medium-sized businesses using this tool, but Marketo is an automation powerhouse that understandably deserves to be one of the leaders in this space.

Features

  1. Email marketing 
  2. Lead scoring
  3. Automations 
  4. Personalization options
  5. Reporting
  6. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • Usability: Marketo is not known for how attractive its user interface is, but it is known for its intuitive nature. Things are well labeled and many find it pretty easy to adapt to.
  • Onboarding: When moving to a new platform, setup can be one of the things teams dread the most. For as in-depth and comprehensive as this tool is, teams have found setup to be impressively easy and fast to get started.

Weakness

  • Usability: You might be thinking, "wait wasn't this a strength?" Yes, it was, however as convenient as Marketo is in some ways, in other areas it can be one of the biggest complaints of their platform. It's time to address the elephant in the room: it's not pretty to look at. Often you'll see reviews of their users stating they feel "as if they are back in 2004." Now looks are certainly not everything (at least that's what middle school self would always say), but when you have to spend a significant amount of time in a platform it can have an impact on your team. What particularly makes this weakness so confusing is the fact that it is an Adobe company (known for the premier design tools out there such as Photoshop, InDesign, and many more). Now, this certainly shouldn't be the only factor you make your decision on, but it's important to note when most of their competitors are particularly praised for their interfaces without sacrificing quality elsewhere.
  • No CRM: Arguably one of its biggest flaws is not having a CRM included. Some suggest this may be due to their close integration with Salesforce. This wouldn't be as much of a pushback from customers if it were not for the sheer amount they have to pay to not have a CRM included.
  • Pricing: This is where we start getting to some of the more costly platforms on the market. In recent years, Marketo has particularly seen a price increase when it already was not known for being one of the affordable options in the space as is. Now although it's no Eloqua level of pricing, it's not far off and for most businesses, it's just realistic for their budget. 

Marketo will always be one of the biggest players in marketing automation platforms and for that, they certainly are worthy of being included in this list. We, however, would recommend looking at some of their competitors who for around the same price provide significantly more tools for the price point.

Pardot (by Salesforce)

Pardot was acquired by Salesforce in 2013 as a way for Salesforce to further expand their solutions beyond sales teams and into marketing departments as well. Salesforce may be one of the largest household names on this list and for good reason. They are one of the leaders in sales automation and CRMs and have continually worked to stake a similar ground into the online marketing world. 

Features

  1. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  2. Lead scoring
  3. Automations 
  4. Personalization options
  5. CRM
  6. Reporting
  7. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • Sales: Because they are part of Salesforce, you are getting access to one of the largest leaders in the Sales space. They know what they are doing and give you a variety of tools for your sales team to succeed. They have many specialized automations built for specific industries and have advanced tools to help with growing trends such as Account-Based Marketing
  • Salesforce Integration: This may seem obvious, but it shouldn't be overlooked. Integrating a CRM can be a huge hassle. Knowing that the integration will be seamless can save a lot of time and headaches as your marketing and sales teams work together. 

Weakness

  • Design tools: As great as their tools are for sales, designing things such as emails and landing pages is a much less enjoyable experience. Often users have expressed that they go and make emails in other tools before then sending them through Pardot's platform.
  • Price: Get ready to invest a lot of money if you want to use Pardot. This is not to say it's not worth it, rather than acknowledge that for many businesses using Pardot will never even be an option. There are no free versions or trials you can take advantage of (only a free demo) so when making the investment it needs to be one that your team takes seriously.

Pardot by Salesforce is without a doubt one of the top tools for any company looking to build out their strategy online while keeping their platform on a marketing cloud. Not a tool that everyone can afford, but certainly a good option to consider when determining what platform will be right for your team. 

HubSpot

HubSpot was founded in 2006 and in many ways it continues to drive the industry it helped create. As the leader in the world of inbound marketing, HubSpot is one of the top authorities for not only online sales and marketing, but in how teams develop their processes internally. Being early to the game is not always an indicator of subsequent marketplace resilience (ask MySpace), but HubSpot has maintained a strong competitive edge throughout its 12-year run and is regarded as a sort of “benchmark” against which fledgling marketing solutions are measured.

Familiarity alone will go a long way towards engendering favorable impressions amongst clients, both prospective and active, but the fact remains that being competitive requires any software company to keep pace with technological developments and changing consumer demands. While the competition has burgeoned in recent years, HubSpot does remain something of a metonym for the automation software space.

Like all software companies, HubSpot has several core proficiencies with which it is closely identified and many secondary/tertiary capabilities which its customers use to varying degrees. Though reflexively characterized as the industry gold standard, HubSpot should nevertheless be subjected to a SWOT analysis to better understand what it does well and where customers find it wanting.

Features

  1. Landing page builder
  2. Email marketing (with drag-and-drop builder)
  3. Lead scoring
  4. Automations
  5. Easy-to-use CMS platform
  6. Personalization options across multiple tools
  7. Social media management for scheduling and reporting on posts
  8. CRM
  9. Reporting
  10. A/B Testing

Strengths

  • User Education: The HubSpot brand is synonymous with knowledge sharing and with the idea of empowering customers to better understand and properly use the technology at their fingertips. Marketing is inherently characterized by a guerrilla component which makes mastery of its tenets all the more elusive. Offering a series of certifications through its academy, HubSpot provides its users an opportunity to develop key marketing skills or to further hone those they already have. It’s a commendable feature.
  • Intuitive Interface: HubSpot absorbs the lion’s share of the backend coding responsibility to spare their clients that trouble. The interface is highly intuitive and can be easily engaged with by those with limited technological inclination
  • They're on top for a reason: As the old saying goes "you get what you pay for." HubSpot is a leader in the sales and marketing industry because they practice what they preach and have continually innovated digital marketing for the better. Their marketing automation tools are of the highest quality and always provide teams with new features that are at the forefront of online marketing and sales.

Weakness

  • Free and “Free”: Much of HubSpot’s software is free, a price many small businesses find attractive. However, there are limitations to “free” software, particularly when it comes to the number of stored/reachable contacts within your system. Based on the size of your company (or your growth trajectory), you will likely find yourself upgrading to one of HubSpot's premium packages, which are priced towards the middle-high end of the automation software spectrum. There are also costs associated with receiving technical assistance.
  • Price: Like many of its competitors who are top of the pack, price is something that companies need to consider before investing in a tool like HubSpot. As mentioned above, they do provide more accessible pricing tiers for smaller businesses than some of their major competitors like Salesforce and Marketo, but like any tool, the lowest levels do have their limitations and some businesses may find the features they are most looking for are in a price bracket that is not doable for them.

We may be biased, but we choose early on to work with HubSpot as a certified partner agency because to provide the best for our clients we wanted the best tools to do the job. As an agency that spends every day in this tool, we have not simply used it to help our clients grow their business but are users and advocates of the tool ourselves.

What should I do next?

So you might be thinking, "wow that was a lot of information and I'm still not which platform I should go with." Take your time, experience some demos, and make sure you can take advantage of all that your chosen platform has to offer. 

If you're not looking for an all-in-one solution or are just curious what else is out there, check out our roundup of the best digital marketing tools for growing your business