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The Pros and Cons of Marketing Automation – Kelsey Jones
The Agents of Change

In the world of marketing, we’re constantly planning, coordinating, managing, and measuring all of our campaigns, which includes many repetitive tasks performed across multiple channels. Thankfully, there are a plethora of all too eager tools out there designed specifically to help you automate most of these tasks. No doubt we’re all using a few here and there to help us get a leg up and increase productivity. But what areas are best when it comes to taking advantage of these shortcuts, and which are better left to human touch? As Editor-in-Chief at Neilpatel.com, Kelsey Jones joins us today to give the lowdown on which tools she and her fellow staff are using to automate their systems and processes, and which tasks she still completes the old fashioned way.

Rich: Today’s guest is Editor in Chief at neilpatel.com, where she runs the content and editorial strategy for the site, which gets about 10 million page views monthly. Besides working with Neil and the team at NP Digital, she was Executive Director at Search Engine Journal for three years and has worked with brands like Yelp, Salesforce, Top Header, and more, on content and marketing strategy.

Today, we’re going to be diving into marketing automation, and maybe uncover when it’s not such a hot idea, with Kelsey Jones. Kelsey, welcome to the show.

Kelsey: Hi, thanks for having me.

Rich: So Kelsey, I was checking out your LinkedIn profile earlier and just blown away by how many things you were doing during your stint at Search Engine Journal. You manage 70 contributors, directed the entire editorial process, all while  co-hosting the Search Engine Nerds podcast. And then there was more there, too. You spoke, you conducted expert interviews, you worked with globally recognized brands. That seems like a job that required some marketing automation. So did you rely on marketing automation there?

Kelsey: I think we definitely realized when I started, because there wasn’t a set process in place, that we definitely needed to do more automation than what had been done in the past. Because the founder of SEJ, Loren Baker – who still co owns the site now – he’s really great. He for a long time had just been doing it on his own. And so as the site continued to grow and grow, and then when I came in, we realized we need a set process for this.

So a lot of the automation we did at Search Engine Journal was making sure that just the whole wheel of the editorial process was moving smoothly. So from auto assigning depending on where it was in the process, to adding specific data to spreadsheets to make sure that we were tracking everything, it definitely helped us get that formal editorial process started.

Rich: This may be a really basic question, but for people who have never done anything with marketing automation, or at least knowingly done anything with marketing automation, what examples can you give us, either from that job or what you’re doing with Neil Patel? What are some of the things that you’re using marketing automation for, or what are some of the software you’re using so that people can make sure that they’re on the same page?

Kelsey: Sure. So a lot of it involves using tools or APIs to connect different digital SaaS products together. So software as a service product (SaaS). So for example, we use Trello and Design Pickle for a lot of our images, and then the editing and the idea formation of the blog posts that we’re going to do.

So for instance, one good example is we use Zapier to connect Trello and Design Pickle. So every time I come up with a blog post that we’re going to work on, whenever it’s moved to the writing queue in Trello, that movement then triggers an action in Zapier to create a new Design Pickle image request, so I don’t have to go into Design Pickle and say, “Hey, we need a new image across” and manually type in the blog posts, manually type in the image specifications. Because our featured images are always exactly the same size, I don’t have to give them background again on what site it’s for. That is all pulled from the Trello card.

So that’s one example of several different types of marketing automations that we use that we don’t even have to worry about the automation or the image creation process. It’s just automated. And then when we go in to put the post in WordPress, we just go to Design Pickle and the image is there and ready for us and ready to go.

Rich: I’m not familiar with Design Pickle. Is this a service that they’re human beings at the other side? Or is this something that it’s automatically creating an image based on some parameters you’ve set up.

Kelsey: So it is a unlimited graphic design service. So you pay a flat rate per month, and then you have an assigned set designer, but that can change. But it is real people designing the images, but you pay a flat rate to have I say “unlimited”, because there’s only so much someone can do in a workday. And so it is a real person at the other end. But in terms of the automation, that is what creating the assignments is what we’ve been automating.

Rich: Awesome. So let’s talk about some of the benefits of marketing automation. I think you’ve kind of touched on a few of them. But if you can explain what you feel they are, and if there are any other examples you want to share with us from your current or past work where you’ve successfully used it.

Kelsey: Yeah. So I think in marketing, because things are always…so there’s two things. One, things are always changing so you’re always adding new strategies, adding new platforms, adding new tools that you now have to post on or optimize for. And then two, a lot of our work, especially when it comes to SEO and creating content, is a standard for the most part. And when I say that I mean every blog post we check certain things like meta descriptions, images, links, things like that. And so it’s very easy to get in a routine of the same old wheel doing the same checklist over and over. And a lot of workplaces that I’ve been in or clients that I’ve had, I’ve just had somebody do that because it’s always been done by somebody.

And so whenever I started at Neil Patel about seven months ago, there wasn’t really a formal process for the editorial process. Neil was doing most of it himself. And so since the site is so huge, I knew that we had to automate as much as we could, because it’s such a huge site that we can’t have the team that we have, being trim and small, do all these tasks manually. Like assigning assignments, the little tool connections like the Design Pickle, for example I mentioned. So I think it’s really important to look for opportunities in your marketing process and your day to day that could be automated.

So one example of this that I do a lot with my own projects is I have a to-do app. And right now I use Amazing Marvin, which is a pretty small app but I really like it. It has a lot of cool features. And then Todoist is an app that I’ve used the paid version of for years and years. But two main benefits of those apps is they have reoccurring tasks. And I’m sure there’s a lot of other ‘to do’ apps that do this, too, but because in marketing there’s tasks you have to do every week. Like for instance, we do post publish optimizations for all our blog posts, like internal linking things like that. Once I complete that for the week, then it automatically creates a new to-do item for me for the next week, so I don’t have to worry about adding that I have to do post publish optimization every week and add that to my list. As soon as I check it off, it gets assigned to the next week. So things like that, you’re reoccurring tasks, automating that. Anything that you can think of that takes the mental load of all the stuff you have to do, I’m all for it.

Even little tools that automate processes that were done by humans in the past, like even scheduling. I use Calendly. And so it automatically updates based on my ‘out of office’ or based on if I block off time, obviously. So then whenever somebody tries to schedule something with me, there’s no back and forth, they just look at my Calendly and they schedule something it’s really easy.

So I’m always on the hunt for tools that can make tasks that I used to do manually, or my team used to do manually, easier. And I think AI has helped a lot with that, too. One thing I’ve been really interested in that we haven’t done a lot with at Neil Patel, and we didn’t do it all at Search Engine Journal, is what can we use AI to do? Because some of the tools that are coming out using AI and marketing is really interesting to me. So for instance, we use frase.io, and they use AI to compile basically a content brief. So whenever we’re doing keyword research for all the articles we want to create, instead of having someone do that manually, like search the SERPs to see who the top competitors are, what are the related keywords, let’s look at ATRA for that, frase.io will do that for you.

And MarketMuse is another tool that’s sorta similar. They do their research in a different way, but we use that as well. And so that’s another example of where we don’t schedule those reports so it’s not automated in that way. But in terms of collecting the data and research, that is all automated using these tools that harness AI.

Rich: I can imagine you Kelsey at a networking event, maybe pre COVID or post COVID, and somebody is talking to you about this. You’re telling them what you do, talking about all these tools. And they’re like, “You know what? That would never work for me because I’m a creative person and I need to be free flowing with my ideas. And so using these kinds of automated tasks would just not work for me.” What would you say to that person?

Kelsey: So I was reading a book recently. I’m a big reader, so if anybody ever has any book recommendations, let me know on Twitter. But they talked about how actually being constrained gives you freedom. So I think they were talking about it from the point of view of capsule wardrobes, like how Mark Zuckerberg only wears the same outfit every day. That actually gives him freedom because it allows his brain to think of other things besides, what am I going to wear today. So I would urge the person to think of it that way. What are some things that you can automate that would actually give you your brain space back?

Because I found that automation actually has given me so many hours in my week back that I now have the time to research or read other experts in the industry, what their new analysis or theories are. I have that time to be creative and use their ideas to inspire me and learn from them, instead of being stuck in the day-to-day of, I have to sign these out, I have to build this report or analysis by scratch. So thinking of it as this type of automation and keeping processes the same, it’s actually a type of freedom in terms of creativity and not really boxing you in and limiting you.

Rich: I’m less of a reader these days and more of a listener, I listen to a lot of audio books these days, and I’ve read a book or listened to a book that’s very similar to what you’re describing. And I can’t remember the title of it either, but it’s all about the fact that constraints are actually what make us creative, and that’s where our creativity shines. So it goes hand in hand with what you’re saying about automation.

So we’ve talked about a lot of things where automation can really help marketers, in terms of creating systems, and communication, and even research. And with AI being another level on top, that’s probably a whole other conversation of where things might be heading. But when I first discovered you, it was because you had written a blog post about when automation is not such a great idea. So talk to us a little bit about some of the ways that marketers are using automation that maybe they should stop.

Kelsey: So one thing that I’ve seen a lot at clients and even agency work, if I’m in-house helping people over the years, data analysis is always a little touchy. So there’s tons of tools out there that they will analyze your data for you and tell you what to do. Like, “Oh, this title is not optimized correctly”, and it’s based on what they’ve been programmed. I think that in terms of analyzing data, that’s something that I’m really hesitant to automate. Because there are insights that only a person would know who’s in the trenches with the site.

Like if I looked at a report and it said, “30% of your URLs have decreased in clicks over this month.” Well, if I just took that analysis at face value, I would think oh my gosh, our traffic’s tanking in organic, what are we doing wrong? But if I was looking at that manually, it might be because we dropped off keywords that weren’t really relevant. So it’s actually a good thing that the clicks went down because we were getting too much irrelevant traffic.

One good example of that I can think of is we wrote a post about Clubhouse the app. And we’d been getting ranked for a ton of keywords that are about building a clubhouse outside, instead of the actual app. And so that’s a good example of where it was almost a good thing for our clicks and our traffic to go down because people that were mistakenly going to our site or getting shown our blog posts about Clubhouse in the search results, we didn’t want to be there.

And so if you rely on automated analysis in marketing, that’s something that I always want to be careful about because there are things that going in, bad reports might actually be a good thing, or they might be saying something’s bad when it’s really not as big of a deal or whatever. So that’s one thing I can just think of off the top of my head.

Rich: How about outreach? You know, a lot of marketers try and save time by sending out bulk emails or by having triggered events. What are some of the pitfalls around marketing automation and communication?

Kelsey: That’s a really good point. You would not believe – or maybe you can – how many outreach emails I get every day. And it was like that at Search Engine Journal, too. There are so many things that can go wrong.

One of the biggest things is I often get is mis-gendered, so I would get called ‘sir’ all the time, Mr. Jones. Even that turns me off right away because it’s just like, you obviously are both sending this and you’re assuming I’m a male because I run these huge sites. That’s going to turn me off. So getting people’s names wrong, their pronouns wrong, not addressing the right people. I still will get automated outreach emails for a news writer from Search Engine Journal that hasn’t worked at Search Engine Journal for like eight years. I mean, he worked there for like maybe the first year that I was there and then he wasn’t. I still get emails because people are using outdated, dirty email lists to send to people. I don’t even know where Albert is. I hope he’s doing well, but I have no way to reach him.

And then also on that same line, people are sending me pitches because I’m assuming that I’m in an email list for press and PR. But they’re sending me pitches that don’t relate to marketing at all. Like one time, years ago, we got a pitch about Viagra and it’s got nothing to do with marketing. Why are you trying? I mean, so that kind of automated analysis where it’s like, “Oh, let’s just blast everybody in the PR list”. You know, a ‘spray and pray’ approach that is just not working for automation at all. If you’re going to automate sending outreach emails, you need to make sure that your list is clean, that all the information is correct.

I’ve also seen emails where there’s a placeholder that says, ‘insert link here’. Or maybe the auto-generated link that they’re trying to get a link from didn’t work. Or it’s someone else’s site to your page, and it’s a totally different site. Those kinds of mistakes are really going to be hurting your email outreach because it just seems so impersonal and it’s just not correct.

Rich: Yeah. It’s funny. So recently I’ve received two emails that say, ‘dear name’, and then they’re like, ‘just kidding Rich’, you know? And so I’m like, Oh, that’s funny. You got me a little bit. In fact, one was on LinkedIn and this woman said that to me through LinkedIn messenger. And I said, “Oh, you know, that’s very funny. So instead of pitching me on something, tell me something interesting about yourself”, and immediately the bot behind this came back and pitched me like 1,000 words on why they would be a great outsource partner for us. And it was just, immediately I was turned off. I would never do business with them. At that point, I actually took a screen capture and shared it on LinkedIn. I did blur out her name and her picture because I didn’t want to throw her under the bus, but I see other marketers who are more than happy to throw people under the bus and show what a poor job they’re doing.

So it certainly can help hurt your brand if you’re just doing that. Now some marketers might say, “Oh, but the ‘pay and spray’ method, at least it’s going to get me some leads”. How do you feel about that? Do you think that that’s an actual argument to be made?

Kelsey: You know, it’s hard because it’s kind of like telemarketing, like how everybody hates telemarketers. but at the end of the day, it still works for a good enough revenue that companies still do it. So you want to say, stop doing it, do something else, be more personalized, but until more legislation has passed where it’s basically illegal to spam people – especially with calls and texts, too, not even just email – people are still going to do it. Because at the end of the day it still, unfortunately, does bring revenue.

I definitely don’t think it should be a thing. But, you know, one thing that it has kind of always been digital marketing’s downfall, is once we find something that works, we abuse the hell out of it until somebody has to come and bring us in like Google or the FTC or whatever.

So, you know, unfortunately that those types of things I think do get a response rate and not that people are like, “Well, I’m just going to keep doing it”.  Or even if there’s marketers in-house or at an agency that are trying to educate their stakeholders or their executive leadership team and say, “This is actually hurting us because we’re coming across as spam”.

Those higher level leadership numbers, a lot of times aren’t educated enough in how that type of approach is actually going to have a long-term negative impact that might cost you more revenue beyond this immediate game that you’re seeing from these types of terrible strategies.

Rich: Absolutely. And there’s always going to be people out there taking screen captures of those terrible automated emails that will come back and haunt you at some point. It definitely seems like marketing automation is not going anywhere. In fact, with AI, we should only expect to see it more.

I guess, from what I’m hearing from you is, there are places where marketing automation can really improve your life as a digital marketer. And you gave some great examples with Trello and Design Pickle, and some of the other things that you mentioned there. A lot of those communications or processes are internal, and then a lot of the other stuff that we talked about is external. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have email triggers or remarketing tactics that are automated. And I don’t think you’re saying the same thing either. But I think it’s like once you start doing some of this marketing work and the outside world can see you, you need to be very careful because marketing automation is a multiplier. And if you are doing good things, that can be helpful. But if you’re doing something that’s questionable or it’s going to frustrate people, it can really have a negative impact.

Kelsey: Yes, definitely.  There was an example I think you and I had talked about previously, where at Search Engine Journal we had an automation set up that whenever there was a new blog post, it would automatically tweet the link on Search Engine Journal’s Twitter profile. And that seemed okay. But then there were a few times where it would automatically cut off a longer URL, so then the link wouldn’t work. Well, then all these people are complaining they’re trying to click on the link, they’re trying to go read the article, and they can’t.

There was another time where it cut off, I think one of our news writer’s Twitter handle so that the automation was always like blog post name, URL by, and then the, his Twitter name. And so it always cut off if it reaches certain lines. But the cutoff was with somebody else’s Twitter account. And I don’t remember the specifics, but let’s say if it was Matt Southern, instead of Matt Southern, it was like Matt, so or something, and that was a real Twitter account. And so that person would get so upset and say, you know, I’m getting spam from all these auto bots that are auto tweeting as EJ’s tweets. Please make it stop and all this stuff. But that’s a prime example of at the bare bones.

When we started that, yes, that automation is good. Like let’s automatically share our posts with somebody who doesn’t have to manually go in and share it on Twitter. But you know, 10% or 15% of the time, we do have to fix that. So if you are used to seeing automation that’s more public facing like that, you need to make sure that you have somebody in charge of making sure that it always goes smoothly. With automation, you cannot set it and forget it. Whether it’s internal or external, depending on what it is, you need to set up reoccurring checkpoints for somebody to check it and make sure that it’s still working at all. Because I’ve had times where something has stopped working for like months. And I don’t realize it, or if it is working, it’s working in the right way.

Rich: Absolutely. And I think I may have shared a story with you, where years ago when I was using paper.li on my Twitter account for Agents of Change to kind of pull together daily newspapers on all things search, social and mobile related, I was pulling it from the people I had interviewed on the podcast. But I also decided to broaden my reach and I started using #SEO, #social media, #mobile. And that unfortunately picked up a couple of porn bots along the way. So suddenly my newspaper was filled with pornography, which then somebody called me out on. And obviously I got rid of the hashtag component of that, but yeah, it’s embarrassing.

If you’re going to set up some sort of marketing automation and it is public facing, especially at the beginning, you need to be very aware just like you would be training a person, I guess, To make sure that a new employee is doing a good job, you have to stay on top of that marketing automation.

So Kelsey, this has been great and really good insight into how somebody at your level is using marketing automation, and the kind of places where you’re avoiding it and using a human touch and non-scalable solution. If people want to learn more about you or any of the things that you’re working on, where can we send them?

Kelsey: So I am a big Wonderwall fan. So my Twitter handle is @wonderwall7 and so is my Instagram.  I usually respond on Twitter faster. And if anybody has any questions or anything like that, feel free to tweet me, I would love to help. Twitter and Instagram are the main channels that I use. And then you can also check out some of the cool, new content we’ve been publishing on neilpatel.com/blog.

Rich: Awesome. We’ll have links to all of that in the show notes. Kelsey, this has been great. Thanks so much for your time today.

Kelsey: Yes. Thank you, Rich. Appreciate it.

Show Notes:

Kelsey Jones is a content strategist and digital marketer that understands the power of utilizing automation for optimal performance and productivity.  You can check out the work she’s doing at NeilPatel.com, or look her up on Twitter and Instagram.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.

Automation Tools discussed in this episode: