Choose the Right Pardot Automation [+ Interesting Facts]

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Pardot automation is core to linking together Pardot’s capabilities – you could think of automation in Pardot as the glue that makes a set of actions happen. Automation could be triggered by criteria based on data, prospect activity, or a time-based trigger. This flexibility means that organizations use Pardot to automate key marketing workflows.

If you’ve studied for the Pardot Specialist certification, you will know that there’s a big focus on automation, as it’s key to extending your usage of the tool. Knowing what each type of Pardot automation does is a good start – what’s more important, is knowing which Pardot automation to use in a specific scenario.

Types of Pardot Automation

There are four main types of Pardot automation:

  • Pardot automation rules
  • Completion actions
  • Dynamic lists
  • Segmentation rules

Engagement Studio actions can also be considered a type of automation that was added alongside Engagement Studio’s release.

Which Pardot Automation Should You Use?

There is one flowchart that has circulated for years, guiding Pardot specialists to answer the burning question “which automation should I use?” when confronted with a use case in Pardot.

It’s a good time to dig out the classic flowchart, pad it out, and give you four questions to ask yourself.

1. What will trigger the automation to fire?

We know that something needs to happen to trigger an automation to fire, as a result. This ‘something’ that needs to happen, falls into two categories:

  • Interaction: a prospect interacts with a marketing asset (scroll down for a list of marketing assets).
  • Criteria: who a prospect is. Their data stored in Pardot default and custom fields may match (or not match) the criteria you set on rules.

This translates into the following requirements:

  • “I want the automation to fire based on a prospect interaction” → continue reading.
  • “I want the automation to fire based on criteria” → skip to question 2.

The first golden rule:
Marketing asset + prospect interaction = use Completion Actions

Completion actions fire every time a prospect interaction happens, when it happens. You set up your completion actions on the marketing asset itself, for example, to set up a completion action on a form, you will go to the form setup to edit that specific form.

Marketing assets are pieced together to make up a campaign/marketing tactic. These include:

  • Emails
  • Forms/landing pages
  • Custom redirects (AKA. marketing links)
  • Files
  • Web pages

Your marketing assets exist for prospects to interact with, for example: opening an email, clicking on a landing page, submitting a form, downloading a file, etc.

If you would like automation to fire based on criteria, you have other options…

2. Do you need the automation to run more than once?

Now we move on to tackling automation that fires based on a prospect’s data – either matching (or not matching) your desired criteria. As we’ll come to see, ‘criteria’ is a section that’s part of the rule setup process.

​​“I want the automation to fire based on criteria

Criteria tells Pardot who you want to consider – you could think of it as who you’d want to keep in your fishing net.

  • Do you need the automation to run more than once? → skip to question 3.
  • Do you need the automation to only run once? → keep reading.

Golden rule 2:
If you need an automation to run only once = use segmentation rules.

Pardot segmentation rules are designed to pull a one-time list of prospects, then apply the set action/s, such as adding them to a list, or to a Salesforce Campaign with a specific member status.

Dare I say, segmentation rules are the least useful of the four Pardot automations, being the most limited in functionality (once run, you have to copy them to run again). Having said that, they do come in handy:

  • For heavy-duty data management.
  • For account efficiency – remember that multiple rules processing in the background can slow down processing speed.
  • To leverage when you’ve reached your account’s automation rule limit (like a fall-back option).

3. Does the automation need to evaluate all prospects account-wide? Do you want it to run in the background?

You’ve got to this point because your answer to both of these questions is yes: “I want the automation to have the ability to repeat”, and “I want the automation to run, without my intervention”.

What’s your aim? Is it to:

  • Produce a list of prospects? → skip to question 4.
  • Be able to perform other actions (including the option to create a list of prospects)? → keep reading.

Golden rule 3:
Automation rules are the most broad automation. They can be run, paused, and resumed – you have control.

Choice of multiple actions:
This is where I introduce automation rules, the most useful Pardot automation. Using the criteria you have set on the rule (if any), Pardot scans the whole prospect database for prospects that match the criteria, and then apply the action/s you have chosen.


Retroactive and forward-looking:
Automation rules are retroactive and forward-looking. This means that once activated, they will look for existing prospect matches (evaluate what’s already happened) and will continue to look for new matches (changes to existing prospects and new prospect records that enter Pardot). Compare this to segmentation rules, which are only retroactive (evaluate what’s already happened and don’t continue to evaluate once they’ve completed their run.

Repeat automation rules:
Automation rules are able to repeat – after an amount of time which you set during the rule setup, Pardot will rescan the prospect database for further matches and apply the actions.

Many organizations will use automation rules for ‘operational’ processes, such as routing prospect assignments to users.

While automation rules are the jewels in the automation crown, each Pardot account comes with a limit to the number of active automation rules. That’s why understanding which automation rules can actually be other types of automation. One common example is when an automation rule’s only action is to add or remove prospects from a list…

4. Do you need to create a list that updates automatically?

Golden rule 4:
Dynamic lists will add/remove prospects automatically, according to a match/unmatch to the list criteria.

Dynamic lists contain prospects who match the criteria set, and if a prospect’s data changes to no longer match, that prospect will drop off the list.

Refreshed constantly, dynamic lists will always be up to date when required. This way, they help keep your marketing campaigns highly responsive and relevant by constantly refreshing prospect segmentation.

There are many great use cases for dynamic lists, including controlling when prospects join Engagement Programs, and when they should leave (retaining only the audience that’s relevant to the program’s content).

6 Facts About Automation in Pardot (you may not know!)

Now you know which Pardot automation to use when, let’s further our knowledge. Like every powerful and flexible tool, there could be multiple ways to achieve something (in this context, to automate a marketing process).

You’ll also encounter “quirks” which are exceptions that you need to be aware of to ensure you factor them in while designing your Pardot automation, and don’t end up bumping up against them in the flow of buidling!

These are interesting facts I’ve noticed, over the years, while using Pardot. I hope that they will help you maimize your Pardot account.

1. You can fire completion actions on assets not hosted in Pardot

Remind yourself of question 1: “I want the automation to fire based on a prospect interaction” → use completion actions.

We learned that completion actions fire when a prospect interacts with a Pardot marketing asset – eg. emails, landing pages etc created in Pardot. They’re simple to set up because completion actions are added during the marketing asset setup, within Pardot.

What if your marketing asset isn’t hosted in Pardot? Popular examples include:

  • Your website pages
  • Links on 3rd party websites
  • Links contained in social media posts
  • Digital advertising CTAs.

Pardot has connected these externally hosted assets with completion actions, thanks to two other features (as intermediaries):

  • Page actions: a completion action fires when a prospect views a specific page of your website.
  • Custom redirects: a completion action fires when a prospect clicks on a tracked link, that can be placed anywhere (3rd party websites/social media posts/digital ads).

2. Find completion actions in six places

Which assets can you set up this type of action on? Usually, people roll-off three – however, there are others:

  • Emails
  • Landing Pages
  • Forms
  • Files (except images)
  • Custom redirects (AKA Marketing links)
  • Page actions

Don’t forget to explore the full list so that you can connect up the final, missing ‘dots’ with your marketing workflows in Pardot.

3. Conditional completion actions

Completion actions give immediate results, and are isolated to specific marketing assets – however, once you add one, the action will fire blindly when the prospect interacts.

In other words – completion actions don’t take any further criteria into consideration, unlike other types of automation that fire based on one/multiple criteria match.

This has frustrated Pardot users for years.

  • Prospects that submit the form, assign to Hans. Applies to all prospects (not conditional).
  • Prospects that submit the form, from the UK, assign to Tom. Applies to prospects based on their country (is conditional).

Usually, you would detach the automation from the form, and create it as an automation rule – or create multiple forms, one for each country.

However, you can make completion actions conditional! If you are looking for this information, there isn’t much official documentation, there are a couple of options. ‘Form Field-Based Completion Actions’.

However, conditional completion actions have made it onto the IdeaExchange priortization cycle, which means they are put up for product development consideration.

4. Automation rule preview

Automation rules are saved in a ‘paused’ status. This means that to activate them, you have to press the ‘resume’ button yourself.

What may seem like an annoyance is deliberate. Pardot is guiding you towards running a preview of the expected results, before resuming the automation.

Remember, automation rules are the broadest of the automation types (account-wide, most action options), which means there is more chance the automation actions will have a larger impact.

Now, the preview function becomes even more value with repeating rules. You can use previews to reassess which prospects would be processed on that particular day because a different group would qualify from one day to the next.

In short: always preview before activating, especially if you know it’s going to do some heavy data lifting!

5. Prioritised actions (not all actions are equal!)

Actions are what you want Pardot to do when the automation is triggered – the result. In one completion action or automation rule, you can set multiple actions, for example, assign to a user and notify the user and apply a tag.

There are a few actions that will get prioritized above the rest. The general rule of thumb is to ask: ‘is this action likely to affect other automation?’

In our above example, the order would be prioritized as follows:

  1. Assign to User
  2. Apply Tag
  3. Notify User

It’s important to note that actions won’t fire in the order you place them in. Plus, if you are relying on one action to make another work, (eg. a custom field value change for a variable tag in an autoresponder email)… be careful!

6. See how automation has affected prospects…

If you look at a prospect’s Engagement History (prospect activities) on their record, you will not be able to see how automation has made changes to their record. Consider this statement:

A prospect’s score is increased when an automation rules runs. The score change won’t appear in the activity history.

Why? Because the score change was applied by the system (automation rule), not an interaction the prospect made, themselves (a prospect activity).

To view the full picture of automation at the prospect-level, look at the “Audits” tab on the prospect record for the full trail.


Pardot wouldn’t be a marketing automation tool without the ‘automation’. Once wenail down the basics of Pardot automation, there’s a desire among Pardot specialists to stretch our knowledge (and do some cool things with automation!).

So, keep this resource in your ‘back pocket’ for next time you need to ask yourself: which Pardot automation should I choose?

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