Email automation: What we've learned and where we're heading

February 18, 2015

Okay, I’m just going to say it: if you’re not incorporating automated messages into your email strategy, you’re missing out on some of the best-performing emails that you’ll ever create. Automation is a robotic-sounding word, but it really means sending timely, relevant messages to customers based on key interactions or milestones in their customer lifecycle – milestones like signing up, making a first purchase, renewing a subscription or even just having a birthday. Stuff that’s actually the opposite of robotic.

Automation is a hot topic among marketers, but it can also be kind of an intimidating one – especially if you’re looking at super-expensive automation platforms built for orchestrating automated campaigns that are more complicated than Pee Wee Herman’s breakfast machine. We’re not that into clunky, unwieldy things (although we are definitely into breakfast machines). That’s why we set out to design an automation toolset that would make it easier than ever to create smart, targeted automated email series. We started rolling it out to customers about 2 months ago, and here’s what we’ve learned so far.

If you build it, they will come

We talked to a lot of customers and marketers while we were designing our new Automation section, and more talked about wanting to trigger a whole series of emails rather than just a single email. This makes a lot of sense for folks who want to educate new customers with a welcome series, remind subscribers of an important upcoming event (like a renewal date) or follow up with customers after a purchase to make sure all is well. So we designed our new workflow builder to make it super-simple to build an automated email series, and we focused on making sure that our workflow response reports told the story of the entire series as a whole.

And boy, are users putting it to use! We’ve seen email series that are designed to run for months, and email series containing more than 50 emails! It’s always encouraging to see customers making use of the tools we build, and it’s even more encouraging to see those tools really working for our customers. Take a look at the open rates that RNevet Publishing is seeing for their innovative signup-based educational series, which shares a new Hebrew word with subscribers every day after signup. Those open rates are three times the average for email newsletters!


Editing your automated email can be a real life-saver

It’s an unavoidable fact of life that just minutes after you hit send on an email campaign you’ll be seized with an idea for a little tweak that could have made it that much better. With our old autoresponders, once they were switched on, they were impossible to edit. This meant that in order to make a change users would have to deactivate the autoresponder entirely, then activate it anew once their edits had been made. In the meantime, users who should have received that email didn't, and the earlier response metrics were lost to the ages. Pretty scary – especially if you’re working with a 50-part email series!

The new platform is much friendlier to editing once an email is automated, so if you suddenly realize that your welcome email would sound better with a personalized greeting, go ahead! You can edit emails in workflows without deactivating, or even delaying them. This has come in handy for many early automation adopters.

Emails should be reusable and easy to sort and find (tab lovers, we hear you!)

Here’s one where we’ve had to adjust our thinking a little bit. When we introduced automation, we wanted to make sure users had the freedom to use any email that they wanted in any number of ways. Have an email that you sent to your customer community in November that would also make a perfect addition to your welcome series? Go ahead! Heck, why not use that email in a few different welcome series that are targeted towards different types of customers?

The only problem: our Campaigns section didn’t behave like that. For a long time, we’ve sorted emails into “Draft” or “Sent” tabs. “Sent” emails couldn’t be edited or reused – attempting to do so would result in a copy of that mailing being created as a new draft. This led to a lot of accounts cluttered with emails that were copies of copies of copies, and their names were just hodgepodges of “copy” dates. So we decided to set all of our emails free. No more walls between “Draft” emails and “Sent” emails. No more telling users which emails they could and couldn’t send. They would have one clean and simple list of emails with no tabs.

We loved the simplicity, but some of our longtime users struggled with it. Displaying the status of emails as “Idle” and “Automated” didn’t resonate with people who weren’t automating – all they saw was an undifferentiated list of “Idle” emails. Some users reported that they were having trouble finding their most recent email draft in the list, or that they were having trouble collaborating in their account because it wasn’t always clear which users were working on which emails. It turns out that those little tabs were handier than we’d realized.

So we went back to the drawing board, and we’ll soon be rolling out a modified version of our tabbed “Campaigns” view. You’ll still be able to send an email as many times as you want to, and use it in multiple workflows to your heart’s content. But soon, you’ll see your emails sorted into “Unsent” and “Sent” tabs. And if you have any scheduled or automated emails, you’ll see separate tabs for those, too.

More trigger options means more happy marketers

One of the fun things about working on our new system is that it’s easier than ever for us to add new trigger types to the system. This means that we can keep finding new ways to say “yes!” to the question, “Can I automate an email message when my customer does this?” In a few weeks, we’ll be rolling out new click-based triggers (a returning favorite from our old system), and after that, we’ll be expanding our “field change” trigger type to support multi-option contact fields.

Okay, that last one sounds kind of boring, but it’s super exciting if you have a contact field for “account type” and you want to automate a message when it changes from “trial” to “active,” or if you want to automate messages based on a lead in your integrated CRM who is moving through stages like “not yet contacted” to “contacted.” You know, customer lifecycle stuff. The stuff that really powers a strong email automation strategy.

We’ve got big plans for automation in 2015, but we’d love to make sure they’ll meet your needs. Join us in this Community conversation to let us know what you’d like to see in automation’s future!

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