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Reducing MSP Marketing Costs: Is Automation Really the Answer?

The IT industry is well familiar with the benefits of automation. Increasing IT environment complexity and a need to scale has made automation essential, and ideas like DevOps and digital transformation would be pipe dreams without it. 

That said, automation is not infallible, nor can it work miracles in the budget. In many cases, labor costs don’t disappear, they’re merely shifted elsewhere. Automation can make mistakes, and oftentime those mistakes are much harder to track down and remediate than mistakes made by actual humans. 

These assertions form the core argument in a paper published by researchers at IBM who called into question the sweeping adoration for automation held by most of the tech industry. It’s an older paper, but the findings still hold true: there are important considerations to be made around automation when it comes to using it correctly

I read this paper for its relevance to IT side of the IT channel, but I couldn’t help noticing how many correlations cropped up between IT automation and marketing automation. Let’s take a look:

Limitations and Shortcomings

The first obvious similarity between the topic of the paper and my experience with marketing is the general lack of awareness around the faults and limitations of automation. This is natural, because no one who sells automation solutions is running around talking about what their tool can’t do, or what it does wrong.

Putting specific tools or approaches aside, automation as an idea has several flaws and shortcomings that need to be considered when trying to get the whole picture. So step one is to cast off this idea that automation is innately powerful and effective, full stop.

Not true. There are variables that need to be considered…

Labor Reduction

From a purely fiscal perspective, automation is immediately associated with reduced operational costs because of reductions in labor. 

This is where the authors of the IBM paper were quick to point out that labor costs are rarely eliminated, but rather reduced and reapportioned. Sure, an automation solution eliminates the need to manually execute mundane tasks, but someone still has to provision and configure the automation tools, write scripts, and keep it running.

This immediately made me think of marketing automation software and the false perceptions around it. Those who sell these products like to treat them like a solution to the overall challenge of marketing, but they’re not. Someone still has to set up these solutions. Someone has to make the sequences, write the content, design the graphics, and monitor the metrics. In truth, marketing automation only eliminates labor around the easiest parts of marketing — things like scheduling emails or posting to a social media site. The hardest part, and indeed the most important part, still requires a great deal of human input. 

We see this flawed perception hurting many MSPs. They’re willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an automation tool like HubSpot, but they want to pinch pennies when it comes to the “labor” required to operate it. 

The tools only help with the most trivial, easiest parts of marketing. HubSpot alone cannot get you a lead. There’s no button you can push within SharpSpring or ZoomInfo that says “make me money”. 

The lion’s share of your marketing budget should go towards the people who know how to use the tools, not the tools themselves. 

Hidden Costs

In the paper, it’s pointed out that people tend to think of automation solutions as a one-time investment. Once you have it, you can “set it and forget it” and you’re good for life. That false notion is a sort of hidden selling point of automation — sales people won’t outright confirm this assumption (they can’t) but they’ll certainly let you believe it. 

The truth is that both marketing and IT change at a breakneck pace. In IT automation, scripts and correlation rules need to be adjusted and kept relevant over time. Likewise in marketing, where sequences, templates, content, and approaches need to be constantly adjusted to fit the environment. 

Believing that there is one marketing template, one sequence, or one “funnel” that will now and forever generate leads is like believing someone can create a script for cybersecurity threat detection that never needs to be updated. It just can’t happen. 

So one of the hidden costs of automation is this ongoing research and updating. There is a huge sliding scale of what these costs might look like, but it’s still important to consider that there really is no “set it and forget it” means of approaching dynamic disciplines like IT or marketing. 

Automation is Always Better(?)

There’s another very important point made in the paper. First, consider this:

A rule-of-thumb for answering the question [of whether] automation is desirable if the variable cost of the automated process is smaller than the variable cost of the manual process. But this is wrong. 

Which leads to this:


There is a second reason why the focus on variable costs is not sufficient. It is because the focus is on the variable costs of successful results. [emphasis added]


I can’t tell you how mind-blowingly important this consideration is when it comes to marketing, especially when looking at automation.

Everyone shopping for marketing tools and marketing services makes their evaluations based on the idea that “this is the overall value in relation to the new business it’s going to generate for me”. But they make these evaluations without any foreknowledge of how successful it will be. They assume it will work, but this is a risky assumption.

On the outset, automation looks really affordable because it’s cheaper than hiring a marketing consultant or in-house marketer — but it makes that assumption based on the automation tool or digital marketing solution actually producing results. That’s where the whole process breaks down. 

And that’s why I constantly give the “beware of digital marketing solutions” speech. Digital marketing is a brilliant case of perceptions around automation doing more harm than good. It seems the majority of people think that the epic challenge of marketing is time, not talent. And since automation can save time, it makes sense to push marketing budgets in that direction.

But the truth is that talent is far more important than time. Thousands of MSPs who have seen their budgets dwindle without results can agree now that they’ve seen it first hand. 

Is it better to have a trained and experienced marketing expert send out one email, or a completely clueless person in some overseas content farm send out ten? MSPs need to be looking for solutions that make their marketing better, not solutions that make it easier.

This brings us back to the circular flaw in the perception of marketing automation — decisions are made to automate things on the assumption that doing so will produce results, but the tasks performed by the automation are not the tasks that produce results in the first place. So doing more of it, or doing it faster, has very little direct bearing on generating business. If kicking your car won’t make it start, you won’t have any more luck by kicking it faster, harder, or switching to the other foot.  

The skilled labor is what produces the results. Automation can only enable the skilled individuals to be more productive, but automation cannot replace the most critical roles within a marketing team. This is no different from an MSP, really, so you should be able to grasp this with zero problems. Can someone who knows very little about technology buy a bunch of IT solutions, blindly switch them on, and expect good results because they’re automated?

In the ideal world, you’re going to be using both automation and skilled marketing talent, just as the best MSPs employ great tools and skilled techs. But what happens if you’re trying to juggle a tiny marketing budget?

You’re better off buying someone’s talent — a consultant or expert — than buying a tool. Period. 

Digital Marketing and Automation

Now that I’ve explained that marketing tools only help with the simplest parts of marketing, I hope you’re seeing the associated point…

Digital marketing services are the fastest way to waste money when it comes to growing your MSP.

When I say digital marketing services, I mean marketing services (or tools) that focus on repetitive tasks like sending emails and posting to Facebook, while marginalizing things like creative, copywriting, advertising, and brand strategy.

In 99% of cases, these agencies are charging you to do little more than push buttons within automation platforms. They’re taking the trivial and making it even easier — but their sole focus is time. They want to do things fast and simple because that’s how they scale their own business. And they sell MSPs on the idea of how much time they’ll save by outsourcing their marketing. But at no point is potential for success mentioned, because — again — success doesn’t come from running automations, it comes from the talent. 

Talent is expensive. Talent does not scale easily. MSPs should not be wondering why the latest digital marketing agency they’re trying for $1500 a month isn’t getting them leads — the math is right in front of them. $1500 is enough to cover the tech overhead and a few low-wage souls to push the buttons, but not much else. You’re not getting talent for that price.


There is a widely-held belief that automation will always reduce the high costs of marketing. We’ve explored how this is only the case when the automation is successful, and that such automations (the essence of digital marketing) cannot be successful without the right talent and direction. 

Which means, given the choice, I would recommend choosing talent over technology every single time. Tech alone can’t win the marketing game, but talent can be very resourceful. A talented marketing professional can figure out how to send emails and post to social media without spending any additional money, but an automation platform can’t provide substitutes for creativity and experience. 

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