Marketo vs. SharpSpring: A Marketing Automation Insider’s Take

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March 20, 2020
Thoughts by
Connie Tran

Marketo vs. SharpSpring

When it comes to marketing automation, Marketo easily comes to mind as they’re often regarded as the industry leader, but we’ve found a worthy contender in the burgeoning startup SharpSpring. Though Marketo and SharpSpring are both categorized as marketing automation platforms, I find they are starkly different in capabilities and in use case from my extensive experience with both to build and manage campaigns for clients.

While Marketo’s strength lies in its ability to build complex automation workflows, SharpSpring excels in ease-of-use and integrated CRM capabilities. While both platforms have their own respective pros and cons, depending on the size of your business and your strategic marketing goals, one platform may reign superior over the other. In this article, we’ll compare the strengths and weaknesses of Marketo and SharpSpring based on a number of different features and dimensions.

Ease of Use

When it comes to ease of use, SharpSpring is the winner. It’s a little bit like the comparison between Apple and Microsoft: Apple is easier to use and more intuitive, making for easier training, but Microsoft is more powerful and requires a steeper learning curve. Out of the box, Marketo is much more visually overwhelming, with a blocky layout and icon designs that seem to lag a bit behind modern graphic design trends, while SharpSpring does a better job of visually leading the user through its available tools. Marketo doesn’t have a traditional header menu, whereas SharpSpring’s menu is always pinned to the top, leaving all tools constantly accessible.

Marketo home screen

Sharpspring contact manager

Marketing Automation

Marketo will take your breath away with the level of custom marketing automation flows you can build. It can automate virtually any task you want, however complex, but does require someone on your team to really understand its ins and outs. We were able to build a fully custom lead-sorting, sales-assignment and notification flow that saved one of our clients 20 hours a week in manual work using only the lead’s product interest and postal code. Marketo is also able to show dynamic content in emails and on websites to leads based on specific user interactions or demographics—something not in SharpSpring’s immediate foreseeable wheelhouse.

While SharpSpring has a reasonable ability to handle marketing automation, many of the functionalities that make Marketo’s capabilities so amazing are missing, such as a lack of diverse task operators (if, and, starts with, including, not including, etc…) and restrictions on which triggers or actions flows you can even build around. However, when it comes to visualizing the automation flow you set up, SharpSpring wins. The learning curve of setting up automated tasks and keeping track of them is much less steep than that of Marketo’s, so more team members are able to contribute to flow builds and better understand them.

The two automation systems also prove to interpret automation steps quite differently. Marketo will route a lead from the top of a flow to the bottom, whereas SharpSpring will simultaneously fire a lead through every possible route—this causes some leads to “slip through the cracks” if you don’t write a flow route for every possible outcome for the lead.

Customer Relationship Management

Given that Marketo doesn’t offer any CRM services with their platform, SharpSpring is the clear winner here. Though both platforms offer the ability to track the activities of a lead (a catalog of every move your lead makes from the opening of emails to the time-logged visits on webpages allowing you to see every interaction point a lead has had with your brand), only SharpSpring allocates all of those touch points in an organized way. SharpSpring also has a live notification feature that alerts you when a lead is back and browsing around, enabling you to reach out directly to them when they’re already engaging with your content.

Additionally, SharpSpring lays out a proper profile for each lead, whereas Marketo simply offers you a list of a lead’s raw field data. In SharpSpring, you can take notes about a lead, schedule tasks for yourself to follow up with that lead, and even directly sync your email with the platform to capture emails exchanged with the lead in the system. You can also directly call the lead from your computer, start a video call with them, or schedule a meeting. Marketo offers no such features.

To be fair, Marketo does offer a highly streamlined integration with other CRMs, such as Salesforce, getting the two systems to sync does create some latency that isn’t a factor with an integrated solution.

Sales Pipeline, Forecast, and Tracking

When it comes to following a lead from the beginning of a form fill all the way to a signed service agreement, SharpSpring checks all the boxes Marketo doesn’t. While Marketo is able to track the ROI of specific marketing campaigns, it isn’t able to forecast overall sales in a broader sense. SharpSpring excels at keeping track of an ever-changing landscape of leads and tracks the potential pipeline value across an entire sales team, whereas Marketo primarily functions as a marketer (or only with other marketers, no sales team).

Lead Segmentation and Persona Management

While both platforms offer the ability to automate the creation of groups lists or lead segmentation by any criteria you want, only SharpSpring offers you the ability to assign leads specific personas that you define based on your marketing outreach needs. While you can try to imitate this with user segmentation features in Marketo, you won’t get as nice or as organized as an interface of personas as you would out-of-the-box with SharpSpring.

The identification of personas not only helps keep you focused on the people you want to be actively marketing to, it can also help you determine what your next piece of targeted content should be based on the interactions that persona has had with your brand assets. In line with SharpSpring’s CRM capabilities, whenever you pull up a lead’s profile, the lead’s persona is front and center, offering additional motivational context for your lead. This is not so with Marketo’s segmentation process—you would have to manually search for how a lead has been categorized in their profile of data fields.

Data Visualization

In terms of data visualization, Marketo leaves much to be desired. We’ve found the Analytics section of the platform to be quite bland, mostly relying on giving you raw data in the form of lead fields, sheathed behind uninteresting graphs that don’t permit drill-downs into data. You can only view one type of report  at a time (email performance, website performance, program performance, etc…), whereas with SharpSpring, you can build your own data visualization dashboard, getting a wide overview of the performance of all marketing initiatives (although the widgets aren’t as customizable as we’d want them to be).

Email Marketing

Both platforms are strong in email marketing capabilities. You may run A/B tests, schedule emails, set up drip-nurture campaigns, and easily manage the flow of automated emails. Both platforms offer customizable email templates that are very similar in nature and both usually format strangely if opened through Outlook (we haven’t seen a solution for this yet).

In terms of analytics, you have to do a bit of scrolling, but SharpSpring’s overview of an email send offers more opportunities to drill down into top engaged leads than Marketo does.

Form Customization

Both platform’s codes are JavaScript based, but only Marketo allows you to manipulate the embed code, allowing for custom functionalities like turning a form into a calculator and being able to push those custom fields into email submissions. It is also more capable of handling hidden fields and managing field visibility depending on a person’s response to specific fields in the form.

By comparison, the only customization SharpSpring allows for is CSS customizations.

Mobile Platform Availability

The ability to collect leads and manage leads on-the-go is a necessity at trade shows and other networking events. Unfortunately, only SharpSpring offers an app that supports the sales team on the go.

Protection Against Bot Attacks

I feel that this deserves a section of its own. While managing a large and complex custom automation system built for a client one night, I started to get massive spam emails at 4AM. Bots were filling out forms on our client’s website on a massive scale, drudging down the system and sending email notifications out for every form fill that was submitted. The only way to stop this attack was to go into each custom flow I had built and shut it down. Every single flow. When all was said and done, we asked Marketo why they couldn’t block multiple form submissions from the same IP address or why reCAPTCHA was not in their toolkit. They had no answer for us.

In SharpSpring, to prevent bot submissions, you simply check a box to activate reCAPTCHA.

Platform Scalability and Pricing

Both platforms scale equally well from what we’ve experienced, but we don’t often see small businesses starting out with Marketo, unless there was just that much custom automation necessary. As SharpSpring is a mere fraction of the cost of Marketo when purchased through an agency, it would be odd to start with Marketo first. During our last renewal period with Marketo, they wanted nearly $18,000 for 20,000 contacts for an annual contract. Oh yeah, and there is a surprise automatic price increase of 8% every year written in the fine print. Even if you purchased SharpSpring directly with no agency involvement, comparatively, it’d only be $15,000/year with a month-to-month plan that you could cancel at any time. SharpSpring also continues to impress us with their constant adding of new features without increasing the price. When it comes to pricing, SharpSpring is one of the most inexpensive options out there for marketing automation.

In Conclusion

Choose SharpSpring if CRM is a big part of what you want your marketing automation package to include, and you want to include your sales team in the platform. The marketing automation capabilities are more than enough to support general automation of marketing tasks and data visualization is also superior compared to Marketo. Choose SharpSpring if you want to be able to track sales, assign tasks to yourself and/or your team, or even automate these tasks. Choose SharpSpring if being able to forecast all sales in the pipeline of your sales team is important for you to see.

Choose Marketo if you’ve got complex marketing tasks that you want to be automated and have an alternate CRM solution like Salesforce. Choose Marketo if you have a team of marketers who are ready to write intricate workflows for every imaginable lead action. Choose Marketo if you need to be able to build automation around any lead field.

Connie Tran
Brand Development & Design Manager

Driven by inspiration, Connie is obsessed with any opportunity to master new creative skills. Connie is passionate about stories and discovering the complex layers of every person and of every business. She is passionate about leveraging authentic inner selves to tell new stories in a delightful and surprising way. She believes that the art of great story-telling is at the heart of every powerful brand. At Trig, this is shown in the way Connie helps clients discover their voice, find clarity in their messaging, and speak with a contagious passion about what they do and why they do it.


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