One of the hottest topics for marketers is automation through artificial intelligence and machine learning.
I’m here to tell you, automation isn’t always the answer.
I know, blasphemy.
My company, Trust Insights, is all about automating redundant marketing tasks.
It’s one of the core services we offer, and to say that it’s not necessarily the right solution for everyone is tough to admit.
But it’s true.
Automation doesn’t always save you time.
Let’s explore this a bit more.
When is Automation Beneficial?
To set the baseline, here are several examples of repetitive tasks in a process where automation can be helpful:
- Updating a customer record
- Running system diagnostics
- Managing patches and backup processes
- Data transfer/transformation
- Copy/paste data between sources
- Logging/centralizing customer transactions
In a real-life example, last week I realized I didn’t have all our media mentions in one place.
Most companies have a document for company hits or mentions, and we just hadn’t gotten around to that yet.
I was talking to my co-founder, Christopher S. Penn, and he started outlining all of the code he would need to write to automate the process.
This includes scanning the internet for articles that mention our company, pushing the data into Big Query, processing the data with PHP and R to tag and organize it, then pushing it back into a spreadsheet, or database of sorts.
As we talked, what I wanted checked all of the boxes for a process that made sense for automation.
Sometimes It’s Not Worth It
You know how it goes, just because something looks good on paper, doesn’t mean it’s the right choice.
When we did the back of the envelope project plan, the cost and time investment to create the code to automate my process was a lot larger than the time it was taking me to manually update a spreadsheet once a week.
In fact, creating the code would take more than the time I’d need to spend to modify it once a week for a couple of years.
Ultimately, we chose to keep it a manual process conducted by a human.
That human is me.
I would continue to run my query, export the new data, and update my spreadsheet once a week.
The whole process takes about 10 minutes.
The custom project we had sketched out would have been done over a few weeks and would need regular maintenance if code, libraries, and APIs changed.
It wasn’t worth it.
I know, I know—it’s like finding out there is no Santa Claus.
Oh dang, some of you didn’t know that.
Quickly moving on.
I’ve been doing this for a while, so I knew with a quick evaluation whether or not my task was worth automating.
If you’re newer to automation, how do you know if automation is right for you?
Let’s start by answering a few questions.
What is Your Goal?
When I’m evaluating something new, I always want to be able to tie my decision back to a good reason, preferably something measurable.
When thinking about automation, you need to start with the problem you’re trying to solve.
For me, it was making sure all the articles and blogs that mentioned the company were all captured in one place and kept up to date—in the shortest amount of time possible.
If I had gone forward with an automation project, I already knew how long it was taking me to complete the task manually, which was about 10 minutes, once a week.
Any automation that I would put in place would need to be more efficient than that.
For a year, that was just under nine hours of labor.
The project would have taken 120 hours to build the code, plus 40 hours to test.
We would hit the break-even point of time savings in 18 years. It was easy to decide not to go down the road of automation for this one.
When Automation is the Right Choice
If we look at a different example, each week we update our social scheduling software with curated content to share across company channels.
That task manually used to take us a few hours a week.
First, we’d have to find all of the articles that were share-worthy from third-party sources.
Then we’d have to copy and paste the articles into a spreadsheet.
Next, we would need to import the sheet into our social sharing software, double check the headlines and content, and then schedule each post.
That tasks would take a few hours per week and was an established, repeatable process—making it a good candidate for automation.
We were able to develop a system that handles curating the content from sources we’ve identified, selects articles from pre-defined criteria developed, and delivers a .csv file once a week to our email.
We then import that .csv file into the social sharing software and schedule the articles. Automating the curation part of the process cut back the time spent from a few hours a week to about 15 minutes.
Is There an Established Process?
Do you do the same thing, the same way, over and over?
In the two examples I shared, a process was repeated to get consistent results.
When you decide you want to incorporate automation into your daily routine, find a process where automation can simplify your most important criteria.
If you have two or three people who do the same task, but they all do it differently, you’ll need to come to a consensus of how the task is done so that when you program the algorithm, it runs the same way every time.
This cuts down on maintenance from your side and reduces errors in the output.
You can also be assured you’ll have consistent results each time you run the automation.
Does It Take Much Time to Complete the Task?
This is important to be really clear about.
If a task takes you three hours the first time, but only five minutes every time after that, you may have already found all of the efficiencies in the process.
Once you’ve gotten past the planning and working out the kinks, how long does a task take weekly, daily, or monthly?
If you automate a task that would typically take you one hour a day, you’re looking at saving about 260 hours a year.
If you see that savings in terms of labor, you could be saving close to $40,000 a year.
That cost savings could go to more training, software upgrades, or even more staff.
On the flip side, if you’re evaluating a task that takes one hour once a month, you may want to re-evaluate whether or not the task is right for automation.
Because you not only have to build the automation, you have to keep the software and code up to date.
Factor in Maintenance
Keep in mind that automation isn’t set it and forget it.
Ideally, you’d build the automation once, and it would run over and over again forever.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
With software evolving all the time, you have to factor maintenance into your plan.
You also need to consider that priorities change. The automation you build needs to be adaptable.
Let’s say, for example, you’ve built an automation that pulls daily metrics into a pre-defined report that you share with your manager.
What happens when someone comes along and decides that the report should look different or reflect different metrics?
You have a couple of options:
- Update your automation with the new report template and metrics
- Manually update the automated report with supplemental metrics
Either way, you’re going to need to spend more time on the one report than initially planned for.
To Automate or Not to Automate
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move forward with automation, it’s just another consideration when creating your plan.
If the code that runs your automation is straightforward and relatively easy to update, it won’t be a big deal to adapt your automation when things change.
Simple automation generally includes pulling data from one system into a spreadsheet, and pushing it into a report.
If your automation touches multiple systems, has numerous steps, and transforms or recalculates data, factor in monthly or quarterly evaluations of the process.
That way, you can ensure it’s up to date, none of the steps have changed, and it’s working as expected.
Automation is a powerful tool.
It will be around for the long haul and only become more prominent in the marketing industry.
Like any tactic, there are times and places when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.
Before you get caught up in the hype of fancy buzzwords, take a hard look at your goals.
Then, have a plan to incorporate automation where it makes the most sense.
Have you used automation? What have your experiences been?