The Case for Code: Going Beyond Simple No Code Marketing Automations

No-code automation platforms enable digital marketers to work faster and smarter, but they're not always the best solution. Learn when a custom-built automation makes more sense.

Few things have revolutionized online business technology as much as “no code” and “low code” automations.

Platforms like IFTTT, Zapier, and Make allow users to create powerful links between the different apps in their stack without having to write code or build a micro-application. No code solutions act as force multipliers, helping non-technical employees solve problems that would have required a developer not too long ago.

When no-code automation builders first started appearing in the early 2010s, they shipped with a limited set of integrations. Their future promise was pretty obvious to anyone who was watching, though. Since then, thousands of SaaS companies and platforms have either developed first-party integrations or built webhooks into their applications, allowing no code tools to work with their apps even if they aren’t natively supported.

In case there’s any confusion, I’m not against no-code solutions. When your team needs to automate simple, repetitive tasks that span multiple platforms, no code is the way to go. An example would be taking input from a form, putting it into a CRM, and automatically assigning a salesperson or a support agent.

But no code isn’t without its pitfalls. In this article, we’ll explore some of the reasons you may want to hire a developer for your marketing automation needs. We’ll also look at common business use cases for custom-built automations and integrations.

What is Marketing Automation?

A marketing automation is software that handles important but repetitive marketing tasks automatically, in the background. Well-built marketing automations can save your team time, reduce mistakes, and allow you to focus on the things that require dedicated, focused work.

Some common situations that call for marketing automations include:

  • Integrating a form with a CRM

  • Sending out multi-step nurture sequences to new contacts

  • Automatically sharing files with new sign-ups

  • Appointment scheduling

  • Syndicating content across multiple platforms

Marketing automations work by processing and routing data according to rules that are set up in advance. Particularly advanced automations may also include analytics and reporting and capabilities for A/B testing, so that you can refine and improve your workflows over time.

No-Code vs. Low Code

Marketing automations tend to fall into three categories: no-code, low code, and custom-built.

No-code platforms—like Zapier—let you build automations through a drag-and-drop interface. The benefit of no-code platforms is that you can build powerful automations without having to write a single line of code. They’re designed with the most common situations and use cases in mind.

Low-code platforms are a step up in terms of flexibility and difficulty. In order to use them, you’ll need some basic coding or scripting skills. In exchange, you get a platform that can handle complex use cases, approval workflows, and reporting needs. Kissflow and Retool are probably the best examples of enterprise-grade low-code platforms. You can use them to build simple automations just like Zapier, but you can also use them to build full-fledged internal web apps with their own dashboards.

In general, no-code platforms are friendlier for non-technical staff to solve individual automation needs at work, while low-code platforms are usually brought in to solve organizational automation challenges and managed by a team member with a technical background (IT or web development).

The Pitfalls of a No Code-Only Approach

You may be asking yourself, “If no-code and low-code tools are so powerful and easy-to-use, why would I ever need to hire a developer?”

When they are designed properly for straightforward tasks, no-code and low-code automations can be simple, cheap solutions to everyday problems.

And that’s the key: “designed properly” for “straightforward tasks.” Every now and then, you run across a problem that would be very easy to solve with a few lines of code, but exponentially harder to solve with no-code tools. Relying on poorly-designed no-code workflows can actually cost your team time and money when they fail and need to be debugged.

Here are just a few of the problems organizations commonly face when relying too heavily on no-code and low-code platforms for their automation needs:

Integration Challenges

No-code automation platforms are building blocks—you can create nearly anything that you can imagine by putting them together, but it will never be perfect. Maybe you’re trying to integrate an older or industry-specific piece of software that doesn’t have first-party support. Maybe you’re trying to work with something that doesn’t use webhooks or a standard REST API. In those cases, it might be hard to build an efficient, time-saving solution with the tools that a no-code automation platform gives you.

Scalability and Performance Issues

Every type of marketing automation uses code under the hood, whether you write it yourself or not. A major drawback of no-code platforms is that they often rely on extended “If…Then” workflows. That’s not a problem if you need to perform a couple of logical checks. It’s a huge problem if you need to perform long, multi-step automations that check for dozens or hundreds of conditions. The inefficient code generated by most automation platforms can cause performance issues, bottlenecks, and scalability concerns.

Data Management and Compliance Risks

In heavily-regulated industries, such as healthcare and finance, the use of no-code and low-code platforms can pose additional risks. Many low-code platforms have limited options when it comes to choosing where your data is stored or what parts of it are retained on their servers. Even if they do, you will probably only have a limited window into their underlying data flows and the security practices they employ.

Debugging and Maintenance Nightmares

One of the worst no-code nightmares I’ve ever dealt with was a custom-built HubSpot workflow designed to sync customer records between HubSpot and an antiquated industry-specific CRM. The automation had to map tens of thousands of rows and nearly a hundred columns of data between the systems, and then it was supposed to route leads based on a complex series of RegEx queries.

I’d say the workflow did its job flawlessly about 90% of the time. When something went wrong, though, it required hours of sifting through a long, arcane series of rules to figure out exactly where the problem originated.

No-code and low-code tools are often pretty opaque when it comes to testing and error handling. They have to be; if you’re building a platform that people can literally build any automation on, you can’t anticipate every possible way someone’s individual automation might fail.

No-code and low-code automation platforms are designed to be self-service. Most of them have great knowledgebases and tutorials that can help you solve common issues. They tend to have very limited technical support options if you run into a problem that you can’t fix.

Institutional Knowledge and Succession Problems

High turnover is a reality of the job market these days. While a lot of employees still take off-boarding seriously and will help document their job functions or help onboard a new hire, others will quit immediately—leaving you to figure out how they were getting things done.

Turnover presents a number of special problems when we’re talking about no-code and low-code automations:

  • Important automations might have been created on an individual account rather than a business account, forcing you to rebuild them from scratch

  • Complex workflows that made sense to one person might be indecipherable to another

  • In the case of low-code tools, a technical or semi-technical employee might be replaced by a non-technical one—making it hard to bring them up to speed

Some of these problems can be mitigated by ensuring that all of your automations are built under a company account and requiring employees to document their use of no-code and low-code automations. Multi-seat plans with roles and permissions are often priced in the thousands per month, though, and many organizations choose to simply risk it by putting core automations on individual accounts and passing around sign-in credentials.

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The Case for Involving Developers

As we’ve seen, no-code doesn’t mean problem-free.

While no-code and low-code automation platforms are useful for helping individual employees perform tasks quicker and more efficiently, they aren’t a universal fix for every problem your organization faces.

Thankfully, there’s another option: hiring a developer.

In the days before no-code and low-code automation platforms, most custom marketing integrations were built by developers, either in-house or via a third-party web development agency. Today, this approach is still a great option for many situations and businesses.

Experienced web developers can select from a number of different approaches to build you a digital marketing automation. They can choose from self-hosted low-code platforms, application frameworks, and a variety of other software tools to build you an automation that is reliable, maintainable, and cost-effective.

Robust & Maintainable Solutions

When a developer builds a custom automation for your business, they’re focused on the problem you’re trying to solve, not the limitations of their tools.

Code-based solutions are typically fast and lightweight, capable of high throughput. They can make use of more flexible logic structures, meaning that highly-complex, multi-step automations and integrations can still be human-readable and easy-to-maintain. You can choose where your code-based automation is hosted and who is hosting it.

Most competent developers will document their code (either internally or in a knowledgebase), write custom error messages, and create automated tests. All of these practices ensure that if a problem arises, either they or a future developer will be able to pinpoint the problem and come up with a solution. Compare this to the nightmare of debugging a no-code workflow and you can immediately see the benefit of this approach.

Unlimited Customizability

When using code-based solutions, you can integrate with pretty much any piece of software that’s connected to the internet. Using a proprietary or industry-specific CRM that lacks no-code integrations? If it has an API, you can work with it. Need to keep track of additional data that gets generated along the way? You can easily hook a code-based solution up to a database.

No-code solutions typically only support a limited set of actions for their integrations, making it difficult to build automations for complex situations. What’s worse, no-code integrations are often not kept up to date with new APIs and endpoints. This means that even if the tool you’re trying to build an automation for can support more advanced interactions, you may be unable to take advantage of them via no-code platforms.

Ownership and Control

A seldom-discussed problem with low-code automation platforms is that they lack portability. If the platform you’re on increases its pricing or drops support for a key third-party service, you would have to rebuild your automation workflow from scratch on another platform.

Having a developer build an in-house solution reduces long-term dependence on third-party platforms. You have full ownership over your integration. Automations built on modern web application platforms are portable and can be stored on Github or Bitbucket for version control and hosted by nearly any cloud provider.

Long-Term Cost Savings

It’s easy to assume that hiring a developer to build a custom marketing automation would always be more expensive than employing a low-code or no-code solution. That’s not always the case. When weighing the cost of a developer vs. a no-code or low-code platform, here are just a few of the factors you should consider:

  • Upfront vs. Long-Term Costs Signing up for a no-code or low-code platform involves choosing a plan based on how many automated “tasks” you will need to perform. Most businesses will require a plan costing between $200 and $2,000 a month. Hiring a developer usually means a one-time expense of several thousand dollars, but without the same kinds of monthly charges.

  • Per-Task Charges Platforms like Zapier base their pricing tiers on the number of tasks you need to run each month. Free tiers are usually generous enough for individual users, but for situations where you would need to run thousands or tens of thousands of tasks, you could be looking at a bill of hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month. Custom-built automations don’t come with these recurring usage-based fees.

  • Enterprise Features No-code platforms typically gate features like single sign-on (SSO), roles and permissions, and data governance options behind expensive enterprise plans that can cost thousands of dollars per month. A developer can build these features into your custom solution quickly and inexpensively without locking you into an expensive monthly plan.

  • Support Costs vs. DIY Troubleshooting As we previously mentioned, no-code platforms are designed to be self-service. Technical support options are usually limited and general in scope. While you still have to pay a web development agency for support, there are usually hourly and retainer-based options available, and they will already understand your automation and how it is supposed to work.

When deciding between no-code, low-code, and custom-built automations, it’s critical to keep your total cost of ownership in mind. No-code platforms might seem like the cheapest option at first glance, but the monthly costs can add up.

Striking the Right Balance

For most organizations, the best approach will probably be to leverage the simplicity of no-code and low-code automations for simple, individual workflows while relying on the versatility of custom solutions to solve problems that span multiple platforms or organizational units.

At Amethron, we can help you evaluate whether or not your organization would benefit from a custom-built solution to a specific challenge you’re facing.

No-code, low-code, and custom-built marketing automations all have their place in a modern enterprise. The key to effectively using them is knowing the strengths and limitations of each and choosing the approach that fits your needs.

Dylan Layne Tanner

Dylan Layne Tanner is the CEO of Amethron. With nearly 15 years of experience as a digital marketer and web developer, he has played a key role in managing the digital operations of enterprises in the senior housing, nonprofit, and retail sectors.

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