Move over social media. Something new has come along for publishers that’s making audience development (nearly) sexy: Marketing automation.

Seemingly overnight, media blogs, webinars and conference sessions are hailing marketing automation, behavioral targeting and lead nurturing as the new panacea, offering publishers opportunities to deepen their relationships with audiences and sponsors. And within all the hype is more than a kernel of truth. Marketing automation can give publishers tools to engage with their readers more intelligently, and add value to their customer relationships by providing richer, more nuanced views of what prospective buyers are doing.

For my organization, GreenBiz Group, we’ve found marketing automation to be a valuable means of quickly identifying, segmenting, nurturing and converting the best prospects for our paid conferences. It’s helped us quickly convert newsletter subscribers browsing our events pages into paid conference registrants, and also proven to be a more effective tool than traditional methods in supporting sponsored lead gen programs, not only increasing response, but also providing sponsors with richer data about user behavior that better identifies where they land in the sales funnel.

So you’ve got the marketing automation bug? Here are three things you should consider when planning and evaluating the myriad of technology choices in this rapidly growing sector.

1. Software may be the least of your expenses. While marketing automation software isn’t cheap, the costs of setup and integration with existing systems can grow quickly. To really gain the full benefit of the behavioral targeting opportunities, publishers need a complete picture of how users are interacting with their marketing and content. It’s to your advantage to go all in, integrating site pages, Web forms, email, e-commerce apps, CRM, etc. Whether you migrate current functions (e.g. newsletter management) away from dedicated email services, or build integrations to share information between systems, you’ll need to evaluate the time and cost of training staff on new processes, as well as the development costs for custom integration.

2. What users say is interesting. What they do is more interesting. Most marketing automation packages come equipped with an array of features. These include progressive profiling, which lets you ask a few questions with each web form. Fewer questions increases conversion rates, but still lets you build a comprehensive user profile over the course of several interactions. While self-reported information can provide valuable qualification information, erroneous or flat out deceitful answers are not uncommon, making it only one part of the equation.

Marketing automation software lets you see what users are doing on your site, and this can be valuable for identifying purchasing interest. By flagging key sections or pages on your site (e.g. comparative specs or pricing data on products), you can identify and focus on users who not only have the authority to purchase, but who also behave with intent to purchase. Developing lead scoring methodologies based on self-reported and behavioral data lets publishers offer sponsors a richer lead profile, which can be provided at a premium over traditional qual form data.

3. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. As valuable as marketing automation is for enhancing sponsor programs, it’s even better for your own product/service sales activities. Identifying and flagging prospective advertisers to sales staff is a natural. Perhaps even better are programs that convert to sales directly, such as premium content or conference passes. In this case, prospective buyers who respond to email or ad campaigns, pay repeated visits to event pages, or who visit pricing and registration pages can be flagged and added to automated nurture campaigns. These can be highly effective at speeding conversions.

These are just a few of the considerations when planning for marketing automation. And while the planning and investment in marketing automation software requires a significant commitment of time and resources, the upside is that you provide greater value to sponsors for lead gen programs, improved performance of event and premium content efforts, and overall greater insight into which content investments provide higher ROI. And all of that is more than worth the effort.

Hugh Byrne is Senior Vice President at GreenBiz Group. You can find him on Twitter at @greenbiztweets.

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