The difference between email marketing and marketing automation can seem a bit puzzling at times. Are they even different or is one just an extension of the other? (hint: sort of, yes). But the distinction between the two couldn’t be more important as you plan and decide what strategies make the most sense for your marketing program.  

This post describes marketing automation and email marketing more in-depth and provides additional insights and scenarios where one strategy might be more effective than the other.

What is marketing automation?

Marketing automation is a technology that streamlines certain tasks across channels such as email, social media, web (via display or multichannel advertising), and text.

For example, I subscribe to a monthly wine delivery service. When my wines are a few days from shipping, I receive an automated email to let me know and direct me to my account where I can view the recommended wines and make any changes to the shipment. Once the wines ship, I receive a text that lets me knows that my wine is on the way with a link to track the shipment.

And then on the day that my wines are being delivered, I receive another email with recommended food pairings and recipes for each bottle of wine. This sort of lifecycle marketing and customer communications would not be possible at scale without marketing automation. Cheers!

Marketing automation can be a very powerful tool because you can individually track user behavior and provide personalized content (especially helpful when you’re measuring certain elements such as ROI) to improve their experience.

Jacob Hanson, one of many professional email nerds at SendGrid, put it best when he said, “Marketing automation is more than just automating portions of your marketing process because it provides valuable data points that allow marketers to determine who to target within their list of leads with varying outreach methods.”  

Some other goals that marketing automation help teams achieve include driving and nurturing leads, improving customer engagement, and increasing overall productivity while reducing certain marketing-related overhead.

When is marketing automation a good choice?

Marketing automation, on some level, is going to be a good choice for most digital marketers at some point in their marketing program. Some well-known marketing automation companies include Hubspot, Pardot, Percolate, and Marketo (but there’s a lot more out there too!)

Marketing automation might be best for your program if:

  • You have a longer sales cycle that requires more sophisticated lead  tracking methods
  • Your content program can provide targeted content to different segments and personas
  • You have multiple product lines that provide an integrated or stand-alone solution to your prospects’ business challenges

Another key consideration of marketing automation is the price point.

And when I say key, I also mean expensive.

You’d be hard pressed to find a quality marketing platform under $1,000 a month if you’re a small business. And some pricing models have large companies paying out six figures a year for marketing automation!  

That price point can mean different things for different companies depending on your budget and resources. Learn more about marketing automation, and how to choose an appropriate platform here.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing covers a more narrow scope than marketing automation and can be simply defined as a digital marketing channel that engages with mass audiences via email campaigns.

Examples of email marketing include email blasts, newsletters, seasonal promotions, win-back campaigns–the list goes on. For more types of email marketing, you could be using, check out Keep it Simple: 4 Effective Emails for Marketers.

Email marketing may or may not sit underneath a larger marketing automation strategy (this is why the two strategies can be easily confused sometimes). There’s an awfully good chance that if you’re a digital marketer, you’re using email marketing in some form in your program.

As one of, if not the most effective form of digital marketing, email marketing can be a comprehensive solution for many businesses across industries. For example:

  • If you have a simple sales cycle that only requires a few touchpoints before conversion
  • When your resources are limited, and purchasing software is an arduous process
  • When your content marketing strategy is limited and you aren’t able to provide personalized content experiences (based on personas and product offerings)

Although email marketing, in most cases, is a less expensive option as far as software and platforms go, it’s good to be aware that executing email marketing without automation will probably be a bit more laborious when it comes to tasks such as uploading and scheduling.

That’s why marketing automation and email marketing can work so well together.

Using automation strategies within your email marketing program allows you to streamline your welcome and nurture series without having to complete tasks such as manually scheduling email sends and uploading contact lists.

For more on how to optimize your existing email marketing program and start automating your email program, check out Best Practices for Email Automation: A How-to Guide.


Deciding on the right marketing strategy for your program is likely going to combine aspects of both marketing automation and email marketing. But knowing the difference between the two offerings will help better inform your decision-making process and how much you focus on one type of channel.  

No matter what solution you feel best fits your digital marketing needs, as you continue to grow your business, you will likely find benefits to automating portions of your email or greater marketing program.

If you’re looking for ways to automate portions of your email read up on our automated email marketing best practice guide.

As a senior content marketing manager at SendGrid, Kelsey oversees the SendGrid Delivery blog. Her downtime is dominated by either her mountain bike or skis (depending on current weather forecast)–and mixing up a salty marg afterward.