Is Automation Dehumanizing Marketing?

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Product Minting

I started thinking about the way automation can dehumanize marketing and sales in a way that rejects and alienates people. It’s what you get when you view talking to people as being a quantity over quality equation. It’s what you get when you don’t spend time with your audience in a meaningful way, and instead view them as a collection of dollar signs who don’t matter to you as people.

This excerpt from Jon Westenberg’s article ‘Stop treating me like a piece of shit.’ got me reflecting on my own experience as a consumer.

When was the last time I signed up for a newsletter hoping to get value and not get bombarded with a series of sales messages? I kept drawing a blank. Then I peeked through my inbox and LinkedIn Inmails and understood why Jon felt so frustrated.

Exhibit A

A series of emails for a sale

A series of emails for a sale

Back to back reminders for a sale when I hadn’t even opened their emails sent two months ago.

Exhibit B

Example of a LinkedIn sponsored message

Example of a LinkedIn sponsored message

Sponsored messages like these on LinkedIn are the absolute worst. I have zero relationship with gaming. I’m also neither an engineer nor a management graduate. This is a classic example of the ‘spray and pray’ method.

I’m sure you’ve also experienced a similar deluge of spam disguised as marketing communication. With exceptions, of course. At best, they’re easy to ignore. At worst, they feel desperate and invasive.

But even then, I wouldn’t say automation is dehumanizing marketing. I think, as always, the problem lies with the people *doing* automation.

In What Ways Can Automated Marketing Interactions Be Dehumanizing?

The purpose of marketing has always been to generate interest in a business’s products and services among an audience that can genuinely benefit from what it’s selling.

(Emphasis on the ‘genuinely benefit’ part)

But when a business chooses to spam you with sales messages left and right, without paying attention to your actual needs, then that’s not marketing. That’s just reducing you to data points in a CRM.

You become nothing more than a sales target – as Jon shares in his own experience.

This lack of empathy and nuance in communication is the reason why most marketing feels impersonal and generic today. Because most of the time, it actually is!

Just sending algorithm-based, pre-set responses and expecting to get a sale? You’ve got to be kidding.

But as a content marketer myself, I can understand the intention to use carefully timed, automated communication. Done well, it’s a great way of collecting customer data and getting quantifiable performance insights that can be presented to the stakeholders.

Besides, multiple surveys have also vouched for the effectiveness of marketing automation. To quote a few:

  • For every dollar spent, marketing automation returns %5.44 on average.
  • Triggered emails (sent based on user action) have a 152% higher CTR and 70.5% higher open rates than other types of campaigns. This makes sense given how they’re synced and queued to mirror the user journey.
  • Sharing automated, personalized offers based on purchase and browsing history can improve sales by 20%.

This looks like a success driver, doesn’t it? No wonder marketers want to automate every touchpoint in the customer journey. That said, I’ll read the data with a grain of salt. It doesn’t always paint the bigger or fuller picture of the real world.

But like I said, the real problem with marketing automation is the (mis)use in the hands of the marketers. It has never been about technology.

“If it weren't for the people, the god-damn people' said Finnerty, 'always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren't for them, the world would be an engineer's paradise.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

Can Personalization Save Automated Marketing?

For years, marketers have been touting the combination of automation and personalization as the be-all for marketing success. But personalization as a concept has been woefully reduced to <insert first name> tactics.

*ahem* B2B marketers *ahem*

So, you know my name and email address? That doesn’t give you the right to spam me for a quick call. Personalization works only if you’re using my personal information to add value to my life or help me overcome a pressing challenge.

That said, some of the best examples of marketing automation that I’ve seen are in the eCommerce space.

Say you added certain items to the cart but left without checking out. Two days later you get an automated message saying the items in your cart are still available at 25% off – nudging you to take action. What would you do? If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably take the offer.

See? If done right, automated interactions can drive revenue growth. I feel the problem is mostly two folds:

Poor Copy: I understand it’s difficult to scale marketing automation. As of now, the technology lacks the understanding of nuance or context. But there are surely ways to segment the audience and customize messages according to their unique needs. Why do you keep running mass campaigns with generic messages? Show me you care about me to get business from me.

Poor Frequency: Getting the ‘item on sale’ message, like the one I mentioned above, once in a while is cool. But it’s definitely not cool to send similar promotional messages (personalized or otherwise) every two days in the week – just piling and taking up storage in the customer’s inbox. You’re just creating a hassle for the (potential) customer.

Parting thoughts

Marketing automation was a technology built to save time wasted in doing the grunt work: Collecting data, sending mass emails, and more. It wasn’t, however, meant to replace genuine connection and empathy for customer needs.

Marketers who forget that are the ones who are failing to sell anything.

As Ben Baker, a well-known voice in the marketing space and CEO of Your Brand Marketing, shared in an article titled “Why I hate marketing automation!” on LinkedIn –

People do not feel that companies care because they get automated, contrived responses to their queries. People do not feel more loyalty because an automated response email came saying "thank you for your email, someone will be back to you in 24-72 hours.” People do not feel part of the tribe when it is impossible to find a contact phone number of a human within a company because the company feels that people are served better online.

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