This post was contributed by Joe Kerns, co-founder of MAJiK Marketing

When it comes to marketing automation, you’ll often find two completely contrasting opinions:

  1. Automation is so impersonal. It feels sleazy and inhuman.
  2. Automation is amazing. It lets me scale and personalize my message.

So, who’s right?

The answer: both.

As with every tool, it all comes down to how you use it.

If you need to need to clean your toilet, bleach works great. But if you try to use it to clean your face… well, that’s a different story.

For many marketers, automation is a tool that allows us to provide incredible, personalized, relevant, and engaging experiences for countless subscribers and customers. In the right hands, automation can be the Archimedes’ lever in your marketing arsenal.

But what happens when we take it too far?

To automate or not-omate, that is the question

All too often, useful technology and tools like automation can get a bad name because a small set of marketers take a good thing and beat us into submission with it.

As Gary Vee says, “marketers ruin everything.”

Find something that works, and you better believe that some marketers will squeeze every drop they can out of it.

Not a bad tactic in theory, but it often leads to unintended consequences.

Most of us make the same classic mistake of “if a little is good, then more must be better!”

If I can automate this, then why can’t I automate that? And that? And that?

It can be intoxicating when you realize just how powerful marketing technology and automation has become in recent years.

You can use amazing machine learning that allows you to send emails at precisely the right time for each individual subscriber… heck, now platforms like ActiveCampaign even allow you to leverage AI to send predictive content to every subscriber!

My friends, the future is now.

With technology like that, it seems like we should be able to automate just about everything, right?

Not quite.

Even though there’s nothing I enjoy more than blowing minds with awesome automation, you’ve got to keep it all in perspective.

The goal of automation isn’t to take the humanity out of your brand, it’s to help you keep the humanity in your brand.

Let me explain…

Automation anarchy

I love features.

My business partner makes fun of me constantly for this, but as soon as I see a new widget, functionality, or shiny new tool in my technological toolbelt, I immediately start looking for ways to use it.

Sometimes, this leads to clever new solutions and an improved experience for the subscriber.

…but sometimes it ends up leading me down the dangerous trail that traps so many well-intended marketers fall into.

Trap #1: The curse of over-automating

It’ll happen. It’s inevitable. You’ll be presented with a relatively minor problem and you’ll start crafting a wonderfully complex and creative solution.

For marketers like myself, this often looks like an elaborate system of different integrations and interworking automations that will allow you to fully automate the task.

…and then you realize you spent a full day automating something that didn’t really need to be done at all.

This is usually caused by focusing on what you can do instead of what you should do.

Just because it can be automated doesn’t always mean it makes sense to.

Too much automation can lead to a labyrinth of automations and even detract from the experience if you over-engineer your system and lose sight of what matters.

Trap #2: Forgetting to be personal

Automation should be the best of you, amplified.

If it doesn’t allow you to do the good stuff even better, it might not be automation-worthy.

In many cases, that simply means taking your customer avatars and creating an exceptional email nurture series that delivers your best content to them at the right time.

But sometimes personal actually means personal.

Even if 99% of your marketing system is automated, you may find that there is a single touchpoint that is so powerful, it’s worth the work of keeping it manual. (More on that later.)

Pro tip: Use powerful (yet amazingly easy to use) tools like Bonjoro, which integrates with ActiveCampaign to automate the entire personal video process other than hitting record. This can turn a manual video outreach into a 60 second task that ends up being worth thousands of dollars and countless raving fans for your business.

Trap #3: Not thinking “experience first”

Even though I’m writing this from a PC *gasp* I’m going to reference the ever-quotable Steve Jobs…

“You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

Creating an exceptional experience should start with the focus on exactly that: the experience.

Looking first at what’s “technologically possible” puts you in the box right from the beginning.

Don’t move from features to function. Start with the “wow” before the how.

Innovation and creativity should find a problem and solve it, not look for the problem-free path.

By starting with the experience in mind, you can then go find (or even create) the infrastructure to break you out of the box and create wow-worthy experiences.

Trap #4: Seeking scale over special

As we already learned, more isn’t always better when it comes to automation.

Well, the same is true for your list size.

As most experienced marketers will tell you, I’d rather have a list of 1,000 true fans over a list of 100,000 disengaged and disinterested subscribers.

Not quite sure you believe that?

How about the example of an influencer with 2.6 million followers that couldn’t sell 36 t-shirts.

Use automation and personalization to capture quality, not magnify mediocrity.

Now let’s get into putting this all into practice.

Using high-tech for high-touch

Time for a story…

Imagine you’re considering signing up for an online course from one of your favorite marketing entrepreneurs. You’ve been getting all the launch emails, you know the doors are closing soon, and you’re stuck…

You’ve been wanting to sign up for the course for a while, but the price has you hesitating.

With each email, you hear about more bonuses, see more testimonials, and watch the countdown timer ticking ever closer to the doors closing.

It’s time. You know it’s now or never.

You make the decision, and now wins.

Credit card comes out. Details go in. Submit.

Next thing you know, you’re on the thank you page looking at a membership full of modules and wonderful worksheets.

With all the enthusiasm only a digital course dork could muster, you dive in and start digging around. After getting a grasp on the layout, you save it to your bookmarks tab and close it down for the day.

You go to bed, nervous about the money you spent but excited nonetheless.

The next morning you roll out of bed and start your daily coffee ritual. While you’re still in a semi-stupor, your pre-caffeine thoughts start circling around the amount of money you just charged to your credit card.

You start to doubt your decision.

While you’re trying to remember the refund policy, you hear the familiar ding of your email app on your phone.

“Welcome to the family, Joe!”

You swipe across the screen and a video pops up.

“Hey there, Joe! I just wanted to send you a huge thank you for signing up for the course! I see that you’re looking to grow your email marketing agency. That’s great! You certainly have good company in the community. I’d love to have you introduce yourself to everyone. Just click the link below this video and let us know your goal for 2020. Can’t wait to meet you on the first coaching call this Friday!’

You’re blown away.

Immediately, your doubts wash away and you know you made the right decision. You feel supported, connected, and assured that this course and community is exactly what you need.

Any thoughts of asking for a refund fall away..

There are a few reasons why this is the perfect example of how even simple automations can provide exceptional experiences.

Where automation succeeded

A launch email sequence can be a beast of a task. There are often dozens of emails that have to go out, potentially each tailored to different segments of the audience.

What automation allows in this case is to make sure the emails are perfectly timed and the case studies and testimonials in each email are relevant and engaging for that subscriber.

Beyond that, including a real-time countdown to the doors closing helps subscribers make a decision. It’s a yes or a no. You’re in or you’re out.

In this example, the automated sequence ultimately did its job of getting the sale. But it wasn’t what prevented the cancellation.

Where the human was needed

The automated email sequence was able to drip out details of the launch, inspire action, and collect the payment. That’s a pretty big win in my book.

But if that customer asks for a refund or simply doesn’t get results… well then we’re going to have to go back and put a big fat “L” on the scoreboard.

With our course connoisseur, it may have been the automation that got the sale, but it was the video that saved the sale, truly made the connection, prevented a refund, and created a fan for life.

Take home message: Scale the scalable, but keep the high-impact personal touchpoints.

Every email going forward will carry vastly more significance and impact now that you have a personal, real connection with the human behind the automation.

Now it’s time to explore where you should be focusing your automation attention.

Where automation works

Reducing manual work

There are a million things to do in your business, and if it’s solely on you to do them all, you’ll probably be left with about 999,998 things left at the end of the day.

The absolutely essential function of automation is to reduce or eliminate manual repetitive tasks.

But automation isn’t just about cutting things out. It’s also about how much it can add back in.

From delivering lead magnets to sending welcome emails, automation can improve the subscriber’s experience by leaps and bounds with personalization.

Purposeful personalization

Nobody wants to read a cookie cutter email that clearly isn’t intended for them. Our time and attention are limited, and that means you better have some interesting and helpful content if you’re going to earn my precious focus from the other 253 newsletters in my inbox.

Personalization isn’t as simple as throwing in the occasional %FIRSTNAME% field.

There’s a key word in personalization that we always seem to overlook: personal.

The entire point of personalization is to tailor your messages in a way that feels more relevant to the person reading it. Addressing them by name is a start, but true personalization gets deeper into the pain points, dreams, fears, and goals of each subscriber.

Knowing in detail your customer avatars allows you to build the automation systems in a way to make your messaging even more powerful than you’d be able to do manually.

Using automation capabilities like lead scoring allows you to track a subscriber’s interests based on what they’re reading, clicking, and downloading. You can then segment your list into different meaningful groups and speak to them in a way that feels like a one-on-one dialogue rather than a marketer-with-a-megaphone monologue.

Well-designed automations actually improve the subscriber’s experience the longer they’re on your list and the more you learn about them. Which brings me to the key concept of good automation…

Automation should listen, not just speak

We already said that automation is a tool. Whenever we think of tools, we immediately think, “what can I create with this?”

That’s a great thought, but what we miss with that question is the equally (if not more) important flip-side to the coin:

“What can I learn with this?”

If you only think of automation as the amplifier, you’re missing the phenomenally helpful capacity to use it as a microphone.

Your subscribers are trying to tell you what they want with every action.

A click is a raised hand.

They’re begging for you to listen, but you can’t do it on your own.

That, my friend, is where automation shines through to capture the voice of your customers.

Making data-driven decisions

“Go with your gut” is great advice when picking a pair of pants. It isn’t as reliable when deciding how to build a booming business.

Have you ever poured your heart and soul into a blog post or piece of content, posted it online awaiting the cascade of compliments to flow in from readers gushing about the life-changing insights in your most recent post… only to end up with the deafening sound of silence?

That can be a painful reality.

What about other times where you rush through a post and think “that’ll just have to be good enough for this week” and move on without expectation. Next thing you know, it’s getting shared and people are telling you they love it.

The fact of the matter is that we can’t always predict what people want. But if you listen, they’re always willing to tell you.

The best part of automation is that you can automatically adapt your message to what your subscribers actually want from you, not just what you think they want.

Take link actions (also called trigger links) for example.

With our health club clients, we allow new gym members to select their desired goal so we can tailor the content toward their interests.

Using link actions, we’re able to automatically apply the specific goal tag based on whichever goal they select.

Not only do we apply a tag that allows us to segment each member, we’re also able to redirect to a survey and collect even more information about the member that we use to provide a totally tailored onboarding experience.

Pro tip: We use Typeform which natively integrates with ActiveCampaign. That means we can send all that survey data directly in with just a few clicks. For the user, this whole process takes less than 30 seconds, but we end up with about 10 data points that allow us to hugely personalize the experience.

Here’s a screenshot from the triggered email automation following that survey:

I’d say that’s pretty good engagement.

Using the data we collect in this process, we’re able to optimize the onboarding email sequence by finding underperforming emails or ineffective parts of the funnel and resolving issues.

Instead of guessing, we gather data and confidently decide what to do.

The payoff?

Absolutely incredible engagement throughout the onboarding automations.

And another…

It’s not often you get 80% of subscribers reading your emails and 40% clicking through, but with highly personalized and engaging content, these are the kind of results you can get.

Aim for automated-ish

Choose the right tools

Getting clever and integrating the right tools can truly lead to an incredible ability to make magic happen. Just like our example integrating Bonjoro and ActiveCampaign, you can use other tools like Typeform to survey your list or even create fun interactive quizzes while sending that data directly into your email platform.

Think of the experience you want to provide, then use as many tools as necessary, but no more than necessary.

Scale the scalable, protect the personal

There are a few categories of emails that you can probably take entirely off your plate with automation:

  • Transactional emails
  • Onboarding flows
  • Automated follow ups
  • Lead magnet delivery emails
  • Cart-abandonment/behaviorally triggered emails

These are typically triggered by a specific action, for example, a purchase. While you should still prioritize making these emails engaging and on-brand, you likely can fully automate the process.

Other parts of the customer journey are often better if you keep a bit of personal touch:

  • New customer welcome video
  • High-risk outreach
  • Personal thank you or invitation
  • Hot lead outreach
  • High-ticket client prospecting

Put yourself in the shoes of your subscriber.

The irony is that the more empathetic and compassionate you’re able to be for the needs of your subscribers, the more likely you’ll be able to create an automated experience that feels anything but automated.

Automation isn’t the answer to everything, but if you take a thoughtful, intentional, and creative approach to how you build your systems, you might just be amazed to find that your inbox is filled with replies from subscribers thanking you for such a “personal” email.

Don’t worry, we’ll keep it our little secret that it was automated.

Joe Kerns is the co-founder of MAJiK Marketing, a creative email marketing agency that helps brands that spread messages that matter. We believe that connecting is better than convincing and relationships drive results. If you agree and want to see how we do it, check us out at majik.co.