If you're in the marketing industry, then you've probably heard the term "marketing automation" by now - possibly more times than you can count. The automation industry is growing rapidly as more and more B2B marketers realize the benefits of a system that can cut down on manual marketing and sales processes, sync with their existing CRMs, and put time back into their days. In fact, last year's B2B Marketing Automation Vendor Selection Tool report predicted that revenues for B2B marketing automation systems would reach $750 million in 2013. With numbers like that, marketing automation is pretty hard to ignore.

For those new to marketing automation, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. What can marketing automation do for you? Is it really worth the price tag? Let's start by going through a few key features and benefits, so that you can see what a beginning automation user's path might actually look like.

So, what is marketing automation?
Before we get into some of the cool things you can do with marketing automation, it's a good idea to have a solid understanding of the platform itself. Marketing automation is a powerful marketing and sales tool that automates many of your communication programs, lead generation campaigns, and lead nurturing programs, so that you can move prospects through the sales cycle with minimal time and resources. Simply put, marketing automation is email marketing, reporting, lead generation, social media, search marketing, and prospect tracking - all in one integrated system.

What can it do?
The capabilities of a marketing automation system range from simple landing page and email creation to in-depth visitor tracking and reporting. Let's take a look at a few core functionalities below:

  • Email marketing. With marketing automation, you can build emails using a drag-and-drop builder or HTML (if you are so inclined). Emails can be targeted to specific segments and tracked so that you know if they were opened, clicked on, or unread. More advanced email reporting can even give you insight into the devices and email clients that your recipients use to read their emails.
  • Lead generation. By using forms and landing pages to "gate" content on your site, you can collect prospect and visitor information that can be passed along to sales reps for follow-up. Targeted email campaigns can also drive traffic to your landing pages, helping to improve lead generation efforts.
  • Sales intelligence. Marketing automation benefits more than just the marketing team; it benefits sales teams as well. With prospect and visitor tracking, real-time sales alerts, CRM integrations, and insight into prospect social profiles, your sales team will always be up to date on prospect activities and interests, giving them the ability to tailor their sales pitches accordingly.
  • Reporting. Marketing automation systems offer the benefit of closed-loop reporting, which allows you to attach revenue from closed deals to the original campaigns where they were created. This improves marketing accountability by providing additional insight into campaign performance and ROI.
  • Social media. Many marketing automation platforms also give you social media posting capabilities. Post updates to multiple platforms at once, then monitor performance using tracked links. No need to hop between social platforms!

These five bullet points sum up some of the main ways that today's marketers are using marketing automation platforms to increase revenue and marketing productivity. If you're just starting to familiarize yourself with the tool, these are good areas to focus on throughout your product search and implementation.

What other features or benefits do you think beginning automation users should be aware of? Let us know in the comments.