The 3 Flavors of Email Automation

This article is a recap of “Growth Decoded” — a show that investigates the relationship between the customer experience and business growth — one topic at a time. Register here and conquer the customer experience!

What is email automation?

Email automation is a marketing technique that lets businesses schedule and trigger emails based on date, characteristics of their subscribers, or the behavior their subscribers take. It is sending the right email, at the right time, to the right person.

Email automation makes it possible for you to continuously market to your email list in a highly personalized way.

Email automation lets businesses follow up at moments that would otherwise be impossible. Emails triggered by a form submission, an action on a website, or an interaction with an app means that the email arrives at precisely the right time – and includes personalized information that makes it more relevant and valuable to the reader.

Automated emails are (almost always) triggered by 1 of 3 things:

  1. Time
  2. Behavior
  3. Characteristics

Let’s break those down:

Time: when do you want this to send?

Behavior: when someone does (or doesn’t do) something — send an email

Characteristics: all people who are this, this, and this but NOT that — they get this email.

The 3 types of email automation

Email automation comes in 3 different flavors:

  1. Email campaigns
  2. Email automations (also known as email flows or email sequences — choose your verbiage!)
  3. Transactional emails

And, each type of email can take into account the 3 triggers.

1. Email Campaigns

Campaigns are one-off sends to a list of people. This could be:

The automated piece is the sending.

Email campaigns use the time trigger — you decide when to send it. Maybe you’re a clothing company and you want to send an email on Tuesday notifying your audience about a sale on Thursday.

Email campaigns can take into account the behavior — maybe you only want to send the sale announcement email to customers who have bought from you in the past.

Email campaigns can take into account the characteristics of the list — maybe the sale is for women’s jackets, so you only want to send the email to people who have:

  • Bought from you in the past
  • Bought women’s jackets in the past
  • Live in an area that experiences weather conditions that would necessitate such a clothing item

Each additional characteristic you can add to the email segment that corresponds to the content of the email makes that email more targeted, valuable, and likely to yield some sort of action from your recipient.

This is called email segmentation and it goes a loooooong way towards getting the most out of your email sends.

To send an email campaign:

  1. You write the email (or design the email in an email builder… or maybe you use a pre-built email template)
  2. You indicate which list, group, or segment of your contact list you’d like to send that email to
  3. You send the email campaign


2. Email Automations (or flows, or sequences)

In this email type, the automated piece is based on a trigger.

Automation builders vary. But here’s the stuff that can trigger an automation in ActiveCampaign:

nhcqrt9 starttriggersAutomation start triggers in ActiveCampaign’s automation builder — NOTE: the “Sentiment Analysis” start trigger is also available but not pictured.

As you can see, some triggers are based on time — like the “date based” and “RSS updated” triggers.

Some are based on behavior — okay, a lot are based on behavior. The entire top 2 rows, and some beyond that, too.

And some are based on characteristics — tags added and removed, or when a custom field changes.

These triggers might vary depending on your email automation tool of choice, and there are limitless additional options when you start integrating your other tools and pulling in information about your contacts from other tools.

Emails in sequences or automations are sent according to a cadence, or set path. These are also called wait steps.

This might be:

  • Wait a day (or 2, or 3, or (fill in the blank!)
  • If a contact clicks a link in the previous email
  • If a contact visits a certain page
  • If a contact takes a certain action
  • If a contact’s status changes, deal changes, mood changes, etc.
  • Any number of other conditions that can be met before the next email is sent!

The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they’re close enough.

3. Transactional emails

Transactional emails are automated emails that are action or behavior based.

These emails fire when someone:

  • Makes a purchase
  • Signs up to redeem somethingTakes an action where it has been implied that something else will be reciprocated

Boom. Transaction.

But you can still find ways to incorporate the time and characteristics into these emails.

For example:

If someone purchases from you — you’ll want to send an order confirmation immediately. That’s expected — and we know that in order to create a good experience, you must meet or exceed customer expectations.

But what about after that?

There’s a shipping confirmation, but there’s also an opportunity to send an email about the product or thing that someone bought. You can time that email — a day after a purchase? Or maybe 2 days?

Maybe you want to send FAQs that your customers might have once the thing arrives, or maybe it’s a —

“Hey! You bought this thing — you know what goes great with this thing? Some other things! Check these out!”

After all, 49% of U.S. shoppers said that in the past three months they bought a product they did not initially intend to buy after a brand made a personalized recommendation.

Notice how that last example took into account the characteristics of the customer. The transaction could be the trigger for additional emails that bring in the 3 flavors of email automation.

As you can see, there are… infinite email automation options for you to create and incorporate into your email marketing strategy.

Building your email automation program

So… Now what?

How do you:

  • Decide what to automate first?
  • Decide what to automate next?
  • Keep building your email automation program?
  • Figure out what works?
  • Identify and fill in the gaps in your automation strategy?
  • Figure out what to test and determine a winner?
  • Evaluate your individual emails, your automation flows, and your program as a whole?

In the most recent episode of Growth Decoded, we sat down with an email marketing agency founder, and email automation expert to get some answers. He’s Chase Dimond, founder of BoundlessLabs.

Chase outlined some great rules of thumb, strategies, and playbooks for how to approach and improve your email automation efforts.



Email automation best practices

As we know with all things that are marketing-focused, it depends. But there are some best practices and rules of thumb you can follow in regards to your email automation program:

  • Don’t set and forget — revisit your emails, automations, and program every 3 months or so to evaluate, iterate, test, and improve
  • Update your emails — changes should reflect new branding, new tone, any changes to your product design, capabilities, features, or anything!
  • Map out the customer journey in advance — what content, messages, information do your contacts need, want, or expect at each stage of the journey with you?
  • Don’t send your customers too many emails about a similar thing — especially not in a small window of time
  • Don’t send your customers too many emails in general in a small window of time
  • Audit your sending — keep an eye on how many automations might be running simultaneously in addition to your one-off campaigns.

And, as always, manage your contact’s expectations.

What do they expect?

Think about the emails that you expect to receive when you’re going about your daily life.

  • Note the places you receive automated emails and they hit the nail on the head
  • Note the times you don’t receive automated emails but expected to
  • Note the times you do receive automated emails but… there’s a disconnect and they don’t meet your expectations

And finally, and most importantly — know your customer.

When you know your customer well, you know what to send them. You know what problems they have and how you solve those problems. And you know how to answer their questions.

You’ll understand their expectations and how you can meet or exceed them with automated emails.

There are multiple tools in your email automation toolbox.

You can use timing, behavior, and characteristics to your advantage. Make it relevant, make it personal. You can build those into one-off sends, sequential automations, or transactional emails.

The world is your oyster. Go forth, and automate!

This article is a recap of “Growth Decoded” a show that investigates the relationship between the customer experience and business growth — one topic at a time. Register here and conquer the customer experience!

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