Guide to Marketing Automation

No matter how big or how small your business is, it can often seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Inventory, sales, shipping, payroll, marketing, customer service… the wheel of time never stops turning. Time doesn’t have to be your enemy, however. It can be tamed and managed. You just have to be smart about it, and that starts with knowing what tasks should be delegated and how. In the old days – before computers, the internet and the cloud – the delegation of secondary tasks was mostly a human-to-human practice but nowadays, business-critical tasks can easily be delegated to specialized and easy-to-use software. Because the outcome of doing so can be faster and more efficient, businesses of all sizes may consider delegating marketing tasks to specialized software.

“…nowadays, business-critical tasks can easily be delegated to specialized and easy-to-use software.”

Enter marketing automation: software and technology platforms that allow businesses to effectively market to potential customers across a broad spectrum of channels (direct mail, email, the web, social media, mobile, etc.), while automating repetitive tasks that don’t require a human touch. Once the principality of the enterprise, marketing automation has, in recent years, become accessible to small businesses, both in terms of cost and ease of use. As intimidating as some of this may seem, the campaign management systems designed for small businesses to leverage these technologies are now built to be easy to use. Read on for a simple explanation of how marketing automation works.

Business functions that marketing automation systems can assist you with:


By automating segmentation and targeting, small business owners can let software quickly connect the right audience with the right campaign. Less guesswork, and fewer endless hours agonizing over demographic charts.

Functionality and scale

With embedded marketing automation small business owners can now let software activate interconnected discovery, capture, engagement and conversion systems that work entirely on their own, leaving them free to concentrate on the day-to-day needs of their business.

Data, Insights, Reporting, and ROI

Marketing automation software can track the effectiveness of marketing campaigns in real time and can equip business owners with accurate and actionable marketing insights with real value. Depending on the marketing automation system being used, automated reports and/or performance dashboards might show business owners what aspects of a campaign performed well (or not so well), which in turn may allow them an opportunity to improve marketing decisions and the ROI of their next campaign.

how does marketing automation work

Getting Started with Marketing Automation

How could a small business start using marketing automation? The best place to start may not be to dive into technology right away. First, it is important to understand the business objectives (or pain points) that marketing automation will be tasked with driving (or eradicating). In short, start by asking the right business questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • What do I wish my marketing could do better?
  • What do I wish my marketing would do that it doesn’t do now?
  • What do I wish my marketing would do if I had more time to devote to it?

The answer to the first question (what am I trying to do?) might be to acquire more customers. It might also be to let more current customers know about a new product or service, an upcoming special sale, or even a new grand opening. Once these business questions have been articulated, only then can one move to the next phase: How can marketing automation help improve these outcomes?

Segmentation and Targeting

One easy place to start marketing automation is segmentation and targeting. Marketing automation software can help organize your customers (potential or existing) based on key characteristics like age, gender, income, interests, and even purchasing history. Doing this helps identify those prospects in your market that are most susceptible to respond positively to a campaign – as opposed to marketing to tens of thousands of poorly targeted prospects that may have no interest in becoming your customers.

Note that by improving segmentation and targeting, the secondary questions listed above (what do I wish my marketing could do better; would do that it doesn’t now; and would do if I had more time to devote to it?) are also addressed. Improved segmentation and targeting also tend to increase campaign ROI in a variety of ways, from boosting discovery and response rates to driving visitors to a website or brick-and-mortar store (all precursors for net new sales).

Once the targeting and segmentation are complete, the data may be converted into a format that the right marketing automation software can then use to either help create a campaign from scratch or improve the effectiveness of a direct mail campaign. One way to maximize a direct mail campaign ROI is to directly connect a direct mail campaign to digital technologies and key digital marketing assets – like a website, video channel or social media account. How is this done? Below is a short list of some of the marketing automation technologies in use today that a small business can leverage to do just that.

Direct Mail Marketing Technologies

QR Codes

QR codes are high-tech boxy-looking bar codes that can be printed directly onto print ads and direct mail pieces. Via a scan by a customer’s phone, a direct mail campaign can connect potential customers to digital content or a digital platform – either of which can be designed to drive the next phase of their customer journey. Below are two of QR code’s most exciting direct mail uses:

  • Brand discovery experiences: Not ready to push a sale right away? A QR code scan can allow potential customers to instantly access an array of digital experiences that may get them excited about your latest product, service or location. The code can take them to a video, for instance, or a specially-designed interactive web page designed to drive a first round of sales-free engagement. From there, you can engage them to sign up for news and special offers, or RSVP to your next event.
  • Instant purchases: Ready to push a sale? No problem. You probably already know how important to business social media platforms can be. But did you know that social media platforms can also be shopping carts now? Why not help potential customers become followers and let them purchase products from your social media feed at the same time? The genius of adding QR codes to mailers is that they can help do just that: With just one scan, you can acquire thousands of new followers who can instantly purchase your products directly from your social media accounts.

NFC / Near Field Communication

A fancy term for what is basically a mailer-embedded wireless chip that interacts directly with a potential customer’s smartphone when gently tapped or hovered over, and can be used to connect them directly with customized digital content.

VEP / video-enhanced print

Yes, you guessed right, these are paper-thin video screens.

AR / Augmented Reality

Turn your mailers into mind-blowing virtual 3D pop-ups and animations on your potential customers’ phones and tablets.

Variable Data Printing (VDP)

Integrates customer databases with high-volume mass printing to customize text, images and promotions at specific times to provide recipients with personalized content.

direct mail marketing technology

The most difficult aspect of almost every small business’s journey of discovery into the world of marketing automation may be taking that very first step. To learn more about whether marketing automation is right for your business explore our white paper below.

Conducting A Shipping Invoice Audit

Shipping expenses can make or break your business

Over time, basic rate increases and surcharges can add up. That’s why it’s so important to audit your shipping invoices. They are a valuable resource that can help reveal your true shipping costs which can include unexpected fees that can drive costs higher.

When it comes to shipping costs, knowledge is power

Key invoice areas to evaluate:


As mentioned above, unmonitored surcharges can account for a large percentage of your shipping costs. When you know what you’re paying for, you have options. You can shop around and choose alternate carriers that may not charge extra for comparable services.

“…understanding your shipping expenses in the short term can pay off significantly in the long run.”

Common ancillary surcharges include:

  • Residential delivery
  • Delivery area surcharges (DAS), Extended DAS
  • Fuel (ground and air)
  • Large packages
  • Saturday delivery
  • Return fees (print and electronic return labels, pickup attempts)
  • Package pickup and intercept
  • Confirmation of delivery

Address correction charges.

Many businesses don’t realize that they can be charged extra for a typo in the street name; a missing apartment number; or even a wrong digit in the ZIP Code™.

Dimensional (DIM) Weight occurrences.

When the DIM weight is larger than the actual weight, you may be paying extra for non-existent weight. It pays to compare how shipping carriers apply DIM weight, so you don’t pay more than you need to.

Investing the time to understand your shipping expenses in the short term can pay off significantly in the long run.

Planning for Success Around the Holidays with Shutterfly COO Dwayne Black

Preparing for peak holiday season presents a constant stream of challenges—from ensuring equipment functions properly to training the influx of temporary employees, it takes wisdom and planning to make the most profit in the final quarter of the year. We sat down with Dwayne Black, Senior Vice President of Operations at Shutterfly, to understand just how the website—which turns personal photos into books, holiday cards and gifts—tackles the holiday season. Read on for tips on forecasting stock needs, perfecting inbound and outbound processes and the importance of smooth communication along the way.  

How much of your business occurs during the holiday season?

Well over 50% of our revenue comes in the fourth quarter. Our highest volume of orders comes between November 15 and December 20, which is really our peak season right around Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

How do you plan and prepare for the holiday season? How do you forecast stock and staffing needs, for example?

Ten years ago, when I started, we started our Q4 planning in June. Now, Q4 planning is a year-long activity, from equipment purchases to workflow improvements. When the holidays are over, we’ll immediately go into postmortems. We’ll evaluate the entire model. We’ll go through what went well and what we can improve. Then, the following year, we’re fixing the things we can improve and augmenting the areas that performed well. It’s a full-year planning process.

During planning, what is the cutoff date for implementing new ideas?

As an online digital retailer, we have a code freeze, so we don’t make any changes to our website or workflows after October. All equipment will be installed and tested before then. Labor-wise, we bring in 3,000+ temporary employees in the fourth quarter to augment our workforce. The fourth quarter is the time of year when everything comes together–we bring people in and get them trained to ensure we deliver the best possible experience for our customers.

What role does your permanent staff play in holiday planning?

Everyone takes part in the employee onboarding process. My team focuses on the supply chain, which deals with the transportation side, and manufacturing which makes sure that the equipment runs and that we have the people in the right places. It all comes back to ensuring we deliver on our 100% customer happiness guarantee.

When it comes to postmortems, what kinds of activities do you do in order to single out successes and failures?

Postmortems are key to our continued success and happen in early January, right after the holidays. Our teams hold postmortems at all of our locations and divide them by department: calendars, holiday cards, personalized stationery, photo books and gifts. Those departments will really dig into areas that exceed expectations as well as areas where we can improve.

There’s one challenge I think every company is being faced with. Black Friday and Cyber Monday create huge peaks of demand. I’m sure it impacts the carriers as well. We work really hard to ensure that we can meet our customers’ needs during the rush.

Are there any tactics you use to increase processing speeds around those dates? Since you have customized products, pre-packaging isn’t an option, but what advice can you give to alleviate those demand peaks?

You’re 100% right, everything we do is custom and on-demand; we don’t pre-package or pre-produce anything. What we can do, however, is make sure our workflows and processes are perfect. It’s not only making sure the processes work and the equipment is running right. It’s also making sure we have the technicians on board so that if something does go wrong and a piece of equipment goes down, we can get it up and running right away.

The other thing is, even in our automated processes, we have backup plans. We always have a plan B and in some cases a plan C and D. We know if a piece of equipment goes down, there are ways for us to produce the product and get it out the door without using that piece of equipment. It might require more resources until we can get things working again, but it keeps our process moving.

So one piece of advice you could give is pre-plan and understand where your potential pitfalls are, have plans a, b and c ready. And the second part is to make sure your staff is properly trained, everyone’s on the same page and knows how to deal with potential risk situations.

One of the things we do internally, we call it the five P’s. It stands for: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. That’s what everybody looks at. You have to expect the unexpected, and stay calm and communicate. If we encounter a challenge, it’s best to admit that there’s a challenge and develop a plan to solve it. It sounds cliché, but communication during peak is especially key. We have multiple meetings daily at all hours of the day; we’re always talking, so that everybody is in alignment.

Do you have that level of communication with all of your facilities across the country?

Absolutely, yes. Communication is not just held within the manufacturing facilities, it’s also with the teams working on the website, engineering and promotions.

With such massive operations, with so many moving parts and people involved, how do you keep that communication clear and how do you keep it from overwhelming the system?

In Q4, we have people in each department who are the communicators. You can’t expect a production manager on the production floor to be sitting in meetings all day and managing a workforce. We provide updates as needed so that we’re not inundating our workers.

Let’s change gears and tap into the subject of stock and inventory during the holiday season. Shutterfly has tons of SKUs and a ton of different product offerings. How do you organize your inventory to make it more efficient for processing, picking, packing and shipping?

It’s twofold. If you look at it from a floor perspective, we have what we call “supermarkets.” With raw materials and supplies, we have a visual factory in our locations. Everything is in its place, so you can easily look at it and determine if anything is low on inventory. We also have backup stock in our facilities. Nine months out of the year, I can keep everything I need to run our business within our own production facilities.

When we get into the fourth quarter, it’s all about planning. Our teams are really focused on creating a strong supply-chain strategy. When we get our forecast from our revenue teams, we’ll go through and extrapolate what we need for raw materials. We also calculate scrap, damage, etc. The worst thing I could do in the fourth quarter is run out of paper.

Everyone thinks, “Ok, just make sure you have enough paper,” but that’s easier said than done. People don’t often realize it, but paper is perishable; it has a certain moisture content to it. If you store it in a dry area, it’s going to dry out and it’s not going to print or cut as well. There’s a lot of planning that goes into the process. It’s a very orchestrated model. You just have to manage all the raw materials.

Do you have strong communication with your suppliers and your carriers?

We absolutely do. We know that our partners need to plan out their supply chain as well. For our carriers, we know they need to figure out how many trucks they need on the road, how many drivers to staff, etc. It’s a major orchestrated effort.

In terms of the shipping and carrier component, when do you start talking to the carriers about the holidays?

We give our carriers forecasts as soon as we can. We understand that they need to build their platform internally as well, and we give them a hard commitment of what we think we will be shipping about 3 to 4 months before the season.

It seems like you’ve figured out a way to manage all the obstacles that come with the holidays.

It’s a beautiful thing when everything comes together. When you’re shipping those packages, you’re making a lot of people happy. They’re not just ordering everyday staples. Everything we send out is customized and personal. Sometimes it’s Christmas cards and sometimes it’s a photo book from a special vacation. All in all, it’s things that make people smile and how we share life’s joy.