While trudging my way through the last few miles of the Boston Marathon last month, I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities between tackling a 26.2-mile running endeavor and implementing marketing automation.

Imagine if you decided to run your first marathon, went over to your local running store to buy those high-performance running shoes, stuffed a few power gels in your pocket, and showed up at the starting line? Well, chances are you wouldn’t achieve your goal. You need to be prepared for how to pace, hydrate, and fuel yourself. You need to spend the time to condition your muscles for the abuse of several hours of rigorous use. And you want to have people along the route to support you.

Over the past few months, I’ve interviewed more than 25 marketing and sales leaders to learn about their experiences in implementing marketing automation platforms. Most of them are using the technology to make it easier to do things they were already doing, like putting out a monthly newsletter, inviting people to their webinars, or capturing more leads and buyer behaviors on their website. 

While this is valuable, it just scratches the surface of what marketing automation can do, which is to help you create a demand management machine that supplies a steady stream of high-quality nurtured leads to the sales organization, a high percentage of which convert to pipeline opportunities. Getting to that outcome takes a lot of preparation because it takes marketing and sales teams beyond things they’ve done before.

Let’s start with nurturing. Marketers often struggle with defining lead-nurturing campaigns, because it requires an understanding of what buyers do at the very early stages of their problem-solving cycles, which most marketers have never had to think about before when they were focused on managing events and creating collateral. Marketing leaders need to take the lead in defining buyer journeys, understanding buyer information needs along those journeys, and mapping content to those needs.

Which leads us to the content chasm . . . B2B marketers have a ton of content about their products but not much content that talks about buyer pains, issues, and approaches to solving their problems. Since marketing automation makes it possible to target different types of stakeholders at each stage of their buying process, it exponentially increases the amount of content that is needed, so marketing leaders need to prepare to be content creators, aggregators, and publishers.

Now look at the other end of the funnel, when leads are passed to sales. Without automation, this handoff is usually a one-time event, where marketing gathers as many leads as it can and pushes them all over to the sales team. Automation makes possible a much more advanced lead-to-revenue management process than companies have had before, so marketing and sales leaders need to get together and make some important decisions, such as how to define a marketing qualified lead, what attributes and behaviors of leads indicate that they are ready for sales attention, how quickly sales will follow up on sales-ready leads, and how to capture the outcomes of the follow-up.   

Marketing automation is mission-critical, but like any other change management initiative, it requires marketing leaders to prepare their organizations for all of the changes required to fully realize all of the potential benefits. I talk about more of the preparation required in my recent report, "B2B Marketers Must Better Prepare For Marketing Automation."