By now, many of us have come to understand how the game has changed for B2B sales and marketing teams. Technology business buyers enter the sales cycle much later, armed with much more information, and much closer to a decision point. They can now independently—and at their own pace—gather data, reviews, and even personal recommendations online and through social media channels. Decision makers don’t need to reach out to an account rep as early as they used to, and perhaps more significantly, they may not want to.

What does this shift mean for B2B marketers?

Simple: it’s now up to marketing teams to take charge of the early phases of the buying-decision cycle. They must take responsibility for lead management, and nurture prospects from initial awareness, through product consideration, all the way to sales readiness. Of course, this new role is fraught with new challenges. Fortunately, marketers have new tools such as marketing automation to help them transform challenges into opportunities.

What is Marketing Automation?

Marketing automation provides a way for B2B marketers to automatically manage the targeting, timing, and content of outbound marketing messages in response to prospects’ inbound actions and online behaviors. When used correctly, marketing automation can help marketers cope with the growing volume, speed, and complexity of marketing campaigns. It can be essential for measuring the impact of lead-nurturing activities. Finally, and arguably most importantly, it can help marketing and sales executives clarify the boundary between lead nurturing and sales readiness.

In subsequent posts, we will examine in more detail how you can use marketing automation to meet each of these challenges. For now, let’s take a quick overview of each.

1. Manage Bigger, Faster, More Complex Campaigns

Rather than spending most of their time creating product collateral or building presentations, marketing teams now have to execute a large number of marketing campaigns that include high volumes of diverse, engaging, high-quality content. Today, with the magic of web and social-media analytics, marketers can follow and respond to trends in buyer interest and behavior. However, without the ability to deliver content quickly (read immediately), they risk getting lost in the background noise and letting opportunities slip by.

Marketing automation is no substitute for good people and good ideas; it won’t develop effective campaigns for you. But it can reduce the cost and time it takes to organize, drive, and deliver high volumes of diverse content to the right leads at the right time, before they move on to a competitor’s message, or to a YouTube video of a cat with its head in a glove.

2. Measure the Impact of Your Marketing

With marketing automation, marketers can quickly and continuously evaluate the impact and effectiveness of their lead-nurturing activities, based on reactions to outbound marketing and other online behavior. By automatically monitoring which web pages people visit, which links they click through, which forms they submit, or which emails they forward, marketers can not only score leads through the marketing funnel from awareness to buying readiness, they can evaluate the value of their marketing content at each phase in the decision process.

3. Identify the Hand-Off Point from Marketing to Sales

Marketing and sales executives can use marketing automation to identify the boundary between lead nurturing and sales readiness. Through lead scoring, marketing and sales teams can reach consensus on success and clarify accountability. By determining beforehand how to score specific behaviors (reading a blog, clicking a link, registering for an event, etc.) marketing and sales teams can objectively identify the points when a “prospect” graduates to a “marketing qualified lead,” and when it becomes a legitimate “sales qualified lead.” That helps companies minimize irrelevant conversations with prospects or avoid sending leads to the sales team prematurely, which can help to increase conversions and reduce their cost.

There’s plenty to celebrate here. Marketing automation can help buyers make decisions at a pace that is comfortable for them, help marketers execute effectively at scale, and help sales teams operate at peak efficiency. But like all tools it’s only as good as the policies and procedures that support it. To make marketing automation work best, marketers still have to develop high volumes of quality content, develop processes and workflows to support new paradigms, and build out teams who are as comfortable working with data as they are with marketing messages.

How to deliver the right content at the right time to attract and engage prospective buyers.