Automation Platforms Help Marketing Agencies Thrive
Marketing Automation software helps many digital agencies win new accounts and build long-term, profitable client relationships.
This post explains why and how, along with leading automation platforms for agencies to consider.
Last Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Competing to Win and Retain Marketing Clients
Digital marketing agencies are always in a competitive battle to find and retain good long-term clients. They’re competing with each other and, in many cases, with in-house marketing teams.
Many agencies want to get away from single project-based assignments, low cost-based marketing RFPs, and unrealistic “we need results yesterday” demands.
They need to move into more strategic, value-added relationships with clients that stick with them year after year and campaign after campaign.
Platforms for Delivering Client ROI
In this context, tools and techniques that provide competitive advantages to marketing firms while also delivering solid ROI for clients are essential.
Marketing Automation (MA) software platforms provide one way for agencies to stand out from the pack while delivering tangible positive results for their clients.
This post explores this topic and introduces several top vendors of marketing automation software for agencies to consider.
Marketing Automation for Digital Agencies
Building Competitive Advantage
Marketing automation is a natural fit for digital agencies. They already have extremely tech-savvy staffs coupled with creative skills, so learning and leveraging MA platforms for the benefit of clients is well within reach.
Even better, agencies can utilize these tools for their own B2B marketing purposes. They can use the software internally to build and nurture relationships with their own prospective clients and show that they know how to “walk the talk”, so to speak.
Long-Term Client Relationships
Agencies that provide effective automation services have a distinct competitive advantage over those that do not. They have a complete layer of services to offer that can bring more strategic, long-term value to their existing and potential clients.
In addition, agencies with effective, proven MA tools and processes have “stickier” client relationships and are therefore harder to unseat by competing agencies.
B2C vs B2B Marketing Automation
Consumer vs Business-to-Business Focus
One distinction to make is the difference between B2C and B2B in the context of common MA software tools.
For B2C, the focus is more on ecommerce aspects, such as:
- Ecommerce store platform integrations
- Driving consumers to completed transactions (ecommerce conversions)
- Product up-sell and cross-sell opportunities
In B2B marketing automation, the focus is more on lead nurturing along the entirety of the buyer’s journey, from initial vendor marketing impressions all the way through a complex final buying decision made by multiple participants.
B2B emphasis includes:
- Website landing pages and integrated forms
- Customized email nurturing campaigns (drip email sequences)
- Lead identification, profiling, and scoring
- Relatively longer time periods between first contact and completed sale
- Marketing and Sales coordination
- Properly-timed handoffs to the direct sales team (outside sales)
- Account-Based Marketing (ABM) support
- Effective CRM integration
Leading Marketing Automation Platforms
Agency Centric vs Enterprise Focused Software
The following sections cover several of the leading MA platforms available today.
As I researched vendor information for this post, it became obvious that some automation vendors rely heavily on agency partners as a sales and implementation channel.
Others sell much more directly to end-user enterprises… often medium to large businesses. These firms either implement the MA platform themselves using in-house marketing teams, or they may engage implementation consultants to help.
Given the focus of this article, I start out below with the more prominent vendors that emphasize marketing automation for agencies.
Inbound Marketing Origins
HubSpot is a well recognized MA leader, with an emphasis on inbound marketing. Their platform incorporates website development and hosting, blogging tools, email marketing, social media marketing, SEO, and automated campaigns (e.g., drip email marketing).
They also provide tools for Sales and Service teams.
HubSpot Intro Video
HubSpot Agency Overview Video
HubSpot for Marketing Agencies
HubSpot has a highly developed partner program with many options.
For marketing services firms and other potential partners, HubSpot offers a Solutions Partner Program, an App Partner Program, the HubSpot for Startups Partner Program, and other programs for affiliates and educational institutions.
HubSpot also offers the HubSpot Academy, full of free courses that can boost your digital marketing skills and agency credibility, no matter what automation software you may choose to leverage for your clients.
All HubSpot solutions are built upon the free HubSpot CRM, which offers an easy entry point into the world of HubSpot tools.
HubSpot’s free CRM covers all the basics of customer relationship management: contact management and tracking, marketing basics, and free sales and service tools.
Regarding pricing, HubSpot’s products and plans are grouped into the following categories:
- Free Tools and CRM
- Marketing Hub
- Sales Hub
- Service Hub
- HubSpot CMS (website builder)
For digital agencies using HubSpot for ongoing client work, the main focus will be the Solutions Provider Package or the Solutions Partner Package… and most likely the latter.
These start at $50/month and $300/month, respectively, as a base entry cost.
However, for HubSpot partners interested in delivering more robust automation capabilities, the more likely entry point will be the “Professional” pricing tier, starting at $800/month or $9,600/year.
Also Note: The HubSpot Solutions Partner Package has replaced the previous Marketing Agency and Sales Partner programs.
HubSpot also offers several bundled packages, including the Starter Growth Suite, the Professional Growth Suite, and the Enterprise Growth Suite.
These bundles offer a 25% discount compared to their respective standalone component prices, and may be more attractive for SMB and enterprise buyers, vs. agencies.
There’s also the HubSpot for Startups program, which offers even more aggressive discounting up to 90%. This is only available for legitimate startups, of course, and so would not apply for a typical digital marketing agency serving multiple established clients.
Needless to say, there are many pricing and bundling options available in the world of HubSpot, and only some of them apply well to agency partners.
See the Solutions Partner Program details here, and be sure to talk to a partner specialist to discuss your specific needs and get answers to your questions.
Competitive Features and Value Pricing
SharpSpring is another full-featured marketing automation software suite that is highly competitive and cost-effective vs. other leading platforms.
Unlike some alternative platforms, SharpSpring is marketed heavily to digital marketing agencies. Everything about the company, from product features to support and pricing, is designed to be extremely agency friendly.
Even the user interface is rebrandable for client-facing agency branding purposes.
They happily sell to and support direct SMB and enterprise clients, of course, but providing cost-effective automation software for agencies is a core part of SharpSpring’s growth strategy.
SharpSpring’s feature set includes:
- Smart email automation and CRM tools
- Dynamic forms
- Customizable landing pages and lead funnels
- Visual automation workflow builder
- Flexible lead scoring
- VisitorID for website visitor identification
- CRM integrations (built-in and 3rd-party)
- Blogging tools
- Social media management
- Marketing analytics for performance tracking
- Numerous external integrations
- 3rd-party App Marketplace
In November 2019, SharpSpring also acquired a digital advertising and remarketing platform called Perfect Audience. It’s a great way to extend and complement the benefits of MA software, as explained further by SharpSpring here.
SharpSpring Overview Video #1
SharpSpring Overview Video #2
Why SharpSpring for Digital Agencies?
SharpSpring Marketing Agency Insights
SharpSpring offers month-to-month pricing, starting at just $550/month for 1500 contacts.
Digital Marketing Agencies
SharpSpring is priced to be specifically compelling for agencies. They offer all the core automation features needed by most agencies and clients, at one-tenth the cost of competing solutions.
This allows marketing firms to offer automation programs at extremely competitive price points to end clients, while keeping reasonable profits for the agency.
It’s also a month-to-month arrangement, eliminating the cost pressures and risks associated with annual contracts.
SharpSpring doesn’t publish agency pricing specifics on their website, but it’s easy to learn more and contact them for details here.
SMBs and Enterprises
Based on number of contacts, SharpSpring’s price range for SMBs and enterprises is $550 to $1,250 per month. There is also custom pricing available for large enterprises who need to manage millions of contacts and emails.
You can also expect a one-time onboarding fee of ~ $1,800, which covers an initial 60-day support period to get things started right.
Act-On is another top MA platform option for enterprises and agencies.
Like other MA platforms, Act-On provides an integrated suite of automation features, including:
- Highly segmented, targeted, and automated email campaigns
- Landing pages with adaptive forms
- Customizable templates
- Flexible lead management and scoring
- Social media marketing
- Website lead generation (anonymous visitor identification)
- Account-Based Marketing (ABM) support
- Automated webinar management
- Marketing analytics and reporting
- CRM connectors
- Other popular martech integrations
On the enterprise side, Act-On targets banking and wealth management, insurance, manufacturing, and technology firms.
Act-On doesn’t have an official YouTube channel, but the 3rd-party product review below is helpful. Act-On also has intro videos available on their website.
Act-On Software Review
Act-On for Agencies
Act-On offers a few interesting additional options for marketing partner firms.
Their Managed Service Partners use Act-On across any number of end-client accounts. This program includes agency-friendly features, such as:
- An Agency Control Panel that allows managing multiple client accounts from a single agency log-in.
- Dashboards and reporting on a per-client basis
- The ability to also join Act-On’s Reseller Program
Act-On offers annual contracts at two pricing tiers: Professional and Enterprise.
These are priced starting at $900 and $2000 per month, respectively, though it is billed as an annual commitment. There is no month-to-month option with Act-On.
Only Pay for Active Contacts
Act-On also promotes their “active contacts” pricing model. This means you won’t pay for contacts in your overall marketing database unless they are considered “active”. (Although the definition of active here is not immediately clear from their website… be sure to ask them how this is measured.)
Act-On also offers three support plans, ranging from free to $15,000 per year, on top of product pricing.
Marketo, which is now part of Adobe Systems, is one of the original leaders in automation software for marketing teams.
Marketo is a full-featured MA platform, with additional capabilities and extensions now that it’s part of the Adobe product family.
Core Marketo features include:
- Automated email campaigns and sequences
- Account insights and profiling (AI-driven)
- Account-Based Marketing (ABM) features
- Custom landing pages and forms
- Dynamic website content personalization
- Predictive content delivery
- Visitor behavior tracking
- Mobile and social integration
- Personalized display ads (retargeting / remarketing)
- Marketing analytics and campaign ROI
- Marketing channel attribution analysis
- Marketo Sales Connect (sales and marketing integration)
Marketo Intro Video #1
Marketo Intro Video #2
Marketo does not disclose actual price points on their website. It is based on “database size” (e.g., CRM / email contacts database) with features bundled into four pricing tiers.
Marketo pricing starts with a base automation and measurement bundle for smaller growth marketers, then moves progressively higher, with global enterprises and distributed marketing teams at the highest level.
Marketo Partner Agencies
Marketo does actively recruit agency partners as part of its overall Premier Partner Program.
They offer a bundle of partner services, including collaboration on go-to-market strategy, co-marketing, co-selling, and joint service delivery. They also have Marketo certification options.
Note: Sometime after March 1, 2020, portions of the Marketo Partner Program may start to move under the umbrella of the Adobe Solution Partner Program.
For now at least, there is also still a Marketo Client Referral Program available.
Enterprise Marketing Software for the CRM Leader
Pardot, which is now part of Salesforce, is another prominent automation platform used primarily by B2B marketing teams. It has the distinct advantage of being tightly integrated with Salesforce.com, the world’s leading SaaS-based CRM.
Pardot offers the full range of MA functionality, from lead generation and lead management, email marketing, ROI and analytics reporting, artificial intelligence (AI) features, account-based marketing (ABM), and sales alignment.
Pardot’s target industries include financial services, healthcare and life sciences, and manufacturing.
Clear Enterprise Focus
For marketing services providers who want to use a single automation platform across a wide range of clients and industries, Salesforce Pardot may not be the best fit.
The Pardot website currently has no partner content directly focused on recruiting and engaging digital agency partners. Instead, they link over to the “consultants” section on the Salesforce AppExchange.
However, for agencies serving specific industries and/or clients that are heavily into Salesforce already on the CRM side, it may make sense for them to pursue a consulting / implementation partnership with Salesforce, specifically for Pardot implementations.
Otherwise, for most agencies who primarily serve an SMB client base across many industry segments, the marketing partner programs with HubSpot or SharpSpring will probably be a much better fit.
Pardot Intro Video
Pardot currently has three pricing tiers – Growth, Plus, and Advanced – with a price range of $1,250 – $4,000 per month. This is end user (enterprise) pricing, billed annually, with no apparent discount structure for agencies.
In the early years of MA, Eloqua went toe-to-toe with Marketo for traction and market share within B2B enterprise accounts.
Since then, of course, both companies got acquired and Eloqua is now part of the overall Oracle Marketing Cloud… and is referred to simply as Oracle Eloqua.
Core Eloqua features include:
- Audience targeting and segmentation
- Cross-channel campaigns
- Simplified user interface
- Visual campaign builder (“drag and drop”)
- Adaptive customer journeys and campaign flows
- Flexible lead management and scoring
- Account-Based Marketing (ABM) support
- Robust marketing analytics and dashboards
- WeChat integration (China’s largest messaging platform)
Eloqua Overview Video
Oracle does provide partner opportunities via the Oracle PartnerNetwork.
The Cloud Sell Track and Cloud Service Track would be the most applicable for agency partners interested in using Eloqua with clients.
Pricing information for Oracle Eloqua is not provided on their website.
CallidusCloud is now part of SAP and is marketed as part of the SAP Sales Cloud.
Overall, the CallidusCloud positioning is focused now on modern CRM tools, including Sales Force Automation (SFA) and Sales Performance Management (SPM).
However, they still also offer a lead generation and automation solution via the CallidusCloud LeadRocket platform.
LeadRocket offers a wide range of MA features, including:
- Email marketing and automation
- Lead generation and lead management
- Lead intelligence and scoring
- Customizable campaign workflows
- Customizable forms and landing pages
- Integrated SEO tools
- Social media marketing
- Visitor identification and intelligence (anonymous visitor tracking)
- Marketing analytics and reporting
- CRM and social platform integrations
I looked for good recent CallidusCloud MA videos on YouTube and didn’t find anything current.
LeadRocket Moving to SAP Marketing Cloud?
It seems that LeadRocket is likely going to reach end-of-life and/or become rebranded and integrated into the SAP Marketing Cloud.
One strong hint of this is that the demo request buttons for LeadRocket now all redirect to a demo request form for the SAP Marketing Cloud.
See the following video from September 2019 for a brief overview of the SAP Marketing Cloud.
SAP Marketing Cloud Intro Video
Picking the Best Marketing Automation Platform
Key Considerations for Agencies
For most digital marketing agencies, decisions about which automation software vendor to select as a strategic partner will come down to several factors, including:
- Which software alternative is best suited for my agency type and client needs?
- Which platform offers the best pricing structure and margins for my agency and typical clients?
- What are the vendors’ contract terms and commitments?
- Will I need to have my agency staff earn vendor certifications on the selected platform?
- Do I have key accounts or prospects already using a specific platform in-house? Will they potentially outsource campaign automation and similar duties to my agency?
- Do I need specific platform expertise to sell into key target accounts or industries?
- Which MA platform is best suited to my own team’s existing skills? Will I need to hire new staff to build my agency’s marketing automation skills?
- Which MA vendor(s) offer the best support structure for agencies like mine?
- How many other vendors in my region or target market already offer similar services? Which software platforms do they use and promote?
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B2C Marketing Automation Options
MA Software Meets Ecommerce
Many MA tools are better suited for B2B marketers vs. their B2C counterparts. Their B2B feature sets are more oriented to companies with complex products, longer buyer journeys, and multiple marketing and sales touchpoints required before actual sales transactions happen.
Hence the emphasis on campaign sequences, drip email marketing, lead scoring, and so on.
However, there are also MA solutions that are more appropriate for B2C and ecommerce firms.
- Drip (Ecommerce CRM)
- ContactPigeon (“eCommerce Marketing Automation”)
- Ontraport (B2C and B2B MA platform with ecommerce options)
Alternatives to Full Marketing Automation
Agencies and Clients Don’t Always Need Everything
Not all enterprises, SMBs, and marketing services firms absolutely need to jump into a full-featured automation suite.
For example, the line between email marketing service providers and MA platforms has been blurring for a while now.
After all, MA tools are based on email outreach, and well-established email service providers want to add more value by getting into aspects of the marketing automation game.
For some companies and agencies, a robust email service provider (perhaps with at least some MA features), will be all they really need.
There are many to choose from. Some email marketing platforms have a fair amount of automation capability as well.
Here are a few worth considering:
Email Marketing Platforms
Website Visitor Tracking Software
To be completely realistic, some companies with direct B2B sales teams may just want to help generate more and better leads for those reps to pursue with their preferred outbound sales methods.
For these firms, software tools that specialize in website visitor tracking and anonymous visitor identification may be all they need. These inbound marketing tools help with website-based lead generation by identifying visiting companies via B2B IP address lookup.
They leverage inbound website traffic to directly benefit outbound sales activity.
These more focused lead generation and B2B sales intelligence tools are also much less expensive per month than the complete MA software suites described above.
Some visitor tracking tools are also very agency-friendly. They allow marketing services firms to deliver affordable B2B lead generation services for their clients.
This post on marketing automation and website visitor tracking is directly related and may also be helpful.
Great Choices for a Range of Marketing Agency Needs
For many digital agencies, marketing automation has become a source of competitive advantage and recurring revenue from their client base.
While some of the top MA software tools cater more to enterprise accounts with fully-staffed in-house marketing teams, others are built more specifically for deployment by external marketing firms supporting their client base.
HubSpot, SharpSpring, and Act-On are obvious choices for agencies looking for automation tools that they can leverage to grow agency revenues and establish deeper, longer-term client relationships.
Other MA platforms, while equally capable from a feature set standpoint, will be more attractive to agencies dealing with more specific client situations.
For example, Pardot may become a higher priority for agencies or integration consultants whose clients are already heavily invested in the Salesforce CRM and ecosystem.
Comments and Feedback
Digital agency executives: Let me know if you think I missed anything important here, or misrepresented any of these software alternatives from an agency perspective.
SMB or enterprise marketers: Do you work with automation software solutions either completely in-house or with an external marketing agency? What’s going well and not-so-well with your current implementation and approach?
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing with your social networks.