Automation is big and getting bigger — but that’s not really the story for marketers.

For marketers, the story is about powerful rewards but real and possibly acute risk; it’s about threading that needle in an intentional, organized fashion.

  • The rewards are powerful: margin expansion, individualization at scale, efficiencies to free up time for higher-value efforts, etc.
  • The risks are immediate and far-reaching: Customers will rebel against any perceptions of invasion of privacy, poor or inappropriate experiences will explode across social networks and impact brand, and alternatively, an overly cautious roll-out will place the company at a competitive disadvantage.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of change as the gap between customer expectations and how marketing engages is creating unnecessary risk for established brands.

In other words, marketers need to thoughtfully drive automation as the strategic and operating model is retuned to the market.

The big steps, as I see it, are:

  1. A head-space strategy. Beyond the initial gains of your marketing automation platform (MAP), broader automation including AI, robotics process automation (RPA), and other implementations should free up resources from the repetitive and mundane. (Forrester estimates a 2.5–4.0 full-time-employee savings from RPA implementations). The question is, what do you do with the newfound time? The habit is to fill it with other mundane, less strategic tasks — the daily grind. One of the most important missing pieces in today’s marketing arsenal is empathy: investing the time to really understand your customers at a human level. This has been a chronic underinvestment, as payoff is long-term and not easily quantified. Use the savings from automation as good-faith working capital to make this strategically important investment in your teams and in your customers.
  2. Navigating the gray line. Consumers continue to participate in the value exchange of personal data for perks, yet 51% of surveyed consumers are actively pulling back from providing personal data due to skepticism or distrust. There is a gray line between useful and unwanted personalization. Marketers’ instinct has been to capitalize on the leverage made available through automation and maximize use of data in service of the customer — not realizing that they are crossing this gray line into driving up frustration and distrust. This is an area where risk begins to escalate — get both quantitative and qualitative guidance from customers so that: 1) You can get a feel for what the gray line is and 2) you can operationalize accordingly.
  3. Experience it before doing it. The most acute brand risk will be when you use AI to deliver new experiences — but you have not really tested the common-sense, human response (see recent profiling experiences as Exhibit 1). What seems cool and novel in a design thinking session may bomb out and create unnecessary risk in the market. In the same breath, not leveraging AI will cause competitive disadvantage. Take the time to experiment, experience it, and look at it objectively or even from detractors’ point of view. Do a little risk management work in the front end to win the risk-reward game.

Ultimately, marketers will run a portfolio of automation efforts with different levels of risk and reward and internal and external impacts. Be intentional and thoughtful about how much simultaneous risk you can manage against how fast the market compels you to move. Tricky, tricky stuff.

Forrester’s automation framework is intended to help leaders and marketers take an organized, intentional approach to a complex but crucial effort. Use the framework to guide decisioning and navigate tricky waters to achieve powerful gains from automation.