What marketers need to know about robotic process automation

We delve into the technology that may ensure your next marketing team member is a software robot

It is many a marketer’s dream to free up their people from boring, repetitive and low skill tasks. Because despite vendors’ promises of seamless integrations and data flows, manual data handling is an inescapable outcome when implementing new digital tools and processes.

These outcomes aren’t restricted to marketing, however, with similar tales told in finance, IT, HR and other prominent business functions.

It was the pain felt by professionals in those functions that first led to the emergence of a set of tools that have come to be referred to as robotic process automation, or RPA (not to be confused with the reality TV series related to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital).

Forrester principal analyst, Leslie Joseph, describes RPA at its most basic level as the ability to use software robots that understand user interface elements on websites and applications to string those into a workflow, effectively mimicking what a human operator would do. Hence RPA bots are often referred to as digital workers.

“The typical low-hanging fruit for RPA has been any sort of repetitive task that humans have to do,” Joseph tells CMO. “Things like moving data from ‘place a’ to ‘place b’ or creating a case out of a Salesforce ticket. In that sense, it is a very versatile tool, because it is UI-centric screen scraping.”

This versatility has meant RPA can be seen applied in a vast array of applications. The most effective and most obvious places to start have been in back-office finance or procurement processes, where the application sets themselves were legacy, Joseph says.

“From a CFO’s point of view, it made sense to give a ‘digital worker’ entry and access to those kinds of workflows, because otherwise they would have to modernise the system, which would take capex away from other things they needed to do more urgently,” he says.

But while RPA-based digital workers might now be commonplace in finance and IT workflows, Joseph said to date their application in marketing has been minimal, primarily because most modern marketing platforms include strong API-based integration capabilities which minimise the need for RPA-based processes. However, several recent announcements point to an increase in the utilisation of RPA within marketing.

RPA and marketing use cases

In August, Salesforce announced it had purchased German RPA company, Servicetrace, to integrate with the existing API-based integration capabilities it acquired when it purchased MuleSoft in 2018. In the same month, another provider, MoEngage, raised US$32.5 million to help develop its RPA technology for optimising customer engagement.

These events are just the latest in a string of raisings, mergers and acquisitions for RPA providers, which have included multiple acquisitions by Microsoft, SAP, IBM and ServiceNow, as well as the public listing of RPA specialist, UiPath. The latter’s value has now lifted above US$35 billion.

With so much money splashing around, it was only a matter of time before the problems of marketers started to become of interest to RPA providers, especially those problems associated with data flow in customer engagement.

"We definitely see opportunities for any company with an online community where users share information to solve problems,” says head of marketing for A/NZ at RPA company Blue Prism, Jennie Subratha. “Digital workers improve the user experience and minimise the workload on the marketing team.”

Blue Prism itself uses digital workers for community management tasks.

"When a Blue Prism community becomes inactive for six weeks, our digital worker, Albert, places it in a dormancy queue and emails the community managers to prompt them to post,” Subratha explains. “If nothing happens for another two weeks, Albert closes the community and merges the content.

"We've also explored using digital workers for keyword directory, which helps identify when a thread is in the wrong community and moves them accordingly. It can also help root out spam from the system.”

Joseph also sees strong applications for RPA in customer management by stitching together data from systems that otherwise did not easily integrate.

“If I wanted to connect a customer journey up to a different data set that provides information on customer churn or something like that, there is no easy way to do it using integration between applications,” Joseph says. “That is typically where RPA proves really effective.”

He also sees potential for RPA in improving the efficiency of marketing spend.

“If you are looking at streamlining processes relating to digital advertising, you can actually consider using a digital workforce and applying it in those situations, so it is not humans sitting and spending hours and hours of creating those optimisations or running those workflows,” Joseph says. “It is still easier to put an RPA bot in there and get it to run through an entire set of processes and data and just produce an output.”

A third possibility for the introduction of RPA exists in lead automation.

“A lot of that is amenable to RPA because it sits in that area where you have applications that are able to do some of these things in an automated fashion, but you still need external data to be moved from place a to place b, or you need qualitative information that might be coming in from emails or somewhere else,” Joseph says. “So RPA is a great tool to just mechanically move and merge data.”

Finally, another marketing task well suited to RPA is in providing information to chatbots. “A chat bot on a website is typically there to provide you with information,” Joseph says.

“But what if the chatbot would actually take information from the customer and then pass it on to a downstream RPA bot that can get stuff done on behalf of the customer, like resolve a ticket or create a ticket?”

RPA’s evolution

RPA technology is evolving quickly, thanks in part to advances in machine learning, which are expanding the complexity of the tasks digital workers can undertake. UiPath and Alteryx, for instance, have come together to create a no-code data manipulation tool that enables uses complex data from different systems and applies ML techniques before passing it downstream to an RPA bot. Joseph says this is leading to the emergence of a concept know as intelligent automation.

“The RPA bot can now embed ML components that can look at an email interaction or scan a document and extract unstructured information and convert that into structured data that can then be used downstream for customer sentiment or lead intent,” he says.

RPA also sits alongside a number of different options markets can use to pull systems and data together. Aside from the native integrations capabilities in martech tools, vendor, ServiceNow, provides a cloud-based platform that enables users to replace unstructured work patterns with intelligent and automated workflows. There are also a number of providers of Integration Platform-as-a-Service (IPaaS) providers, including Boomi and Jitterbit, which provide an alternate method for creating and managing digital workflows.

“Over the last few years, there has been this convergence between RPA and IPaaS,” Joseph says. “What is happening over time is all these different automation opportunities and techniques are converging into an automation ‘power grid’ that sits between the application and the people using them. That is where all of the workflow and all of the intelligence is happening now.”

But while the opportunities for RPA in marketing are significant, Joseph says marketers have typically had more than enough opportunities to simply to use the tools they already have. At the same time, most RPA providers have not pushed too heavily to engage with CMOs because there have been such significant opportunities already in servicing other business functions.

However, the success of RPA also means many of the easy opportunities in finance, IT and elsewhere having been satisfied.

“We are getting to the point where the major organisations that started RPA and process automation three or four years ago have reached a point where their most basic processes have been automated away,” Joseph says. “Now they are looking at the next set, and invariably the next set of processes to automate, because of their complexity, are not back office-only processes. They are typically processes that touch the front end and the customer experience in some way.”

While RPA tools eventually lead to the creation of digital workers, there is still a significant skillset needed for their creation and integration, and Joseph suggests this might provide another barrier to RPA’s introduction into marketing in the short term.

“Within marketing the skillset to invest in learning about this technology and finding the places where it makes logical sent to apply RPA has traditionally been not great,” Joseph says. “But coming back to the fact that the tool is so versatile, assuming a marketer had that skillset within their organisation, they could do a lot of interesting things.

“For people who are interested in creating nonstandard ways of looking at analytics or optimising certain workflows that are still fairly manual, RPA is a really interesting technology.”

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