Get into the email automation game

If you haven’t yet set up an automation program for your email marketing, now is the time. Contributor Ryan Phelan walks through the key steps that will help you build a successful marketing automation program.

Get into the email automation game

Only 33 percent of marketers who use automated programs rate their efforts as “very successful,” according to a recent study (PDF) that Adestra, my employer, did in partnership with Ascend2 research. Because I’m a big believer in marketing automation, I worry about the 67 percent of marketers who aren’t seeing the same results. How can you beat the odds to achieve success?

In my experience, the way a marketing automation program is conceived and set up often dooms it to failure. Such a failure doesn’t indicate that it’s not worth investing the necessary time and money into automation. Instead, it shows that the marketer didn’t think the process through, tried too many things, didn’t test it or didn’t give it enough time to take hold.

Why build a marketing automation program?

I’m a big believer in automation, and I have two reasons why automation belongs in an effective marketing program:

  1. It’s a money tree.
  2. It makes your life as a marketer easier and gets you out of the office earlier (when it works the way it’s supposed to).

If those are important to you, too, keep reading. If not, see my alternate message.

Simply put, marketing automation takes the actions in your email program that are repeatable and predictable and puts them into a program you can automate. How you build your automation will depend on many factors: your data, your objectives, the resources you can call on, management priorities and other things.

Use my two-phase plan below to sketch out a basic course to follow. Then, fill in your own details and modify it to meet your needs. One caveat: You likely will add steps that I haven’t listed. Just be sure not to cut any corners. That’s where you set yourself and your automation program up for failure.

How to build a marketing automation program

Phase 1: Assess what data you have, what you can automate and what your greatest needs are.

A marketing automation program can be as simple as a triggered welcome email or as complex as a multilevel drip campaign. But it all starts with the same process: figuring out what you can do.

  • Look at the actions your customers take that are repeatable and which you can reasonably predict given your customer journey and behavioral data.

In my previous Marketing Land column, I wrote about a marketing program called “Next Logical Product,” in which you can accurately predict which products your customers will buy next after a specific purchase. When your data shows which products are the next logical purchases, you can use that information to set up post-purchase follow-up emails that promote those next purchases.

When you define your list of things that are repeatable and predictable, consider these actions:

    • Common purchases
    • Common actions
    • Requests for data or information
  • Document all of your ideas.

Write these ideas down, no matter how simple or complex. A strategy day away from the office can help you collaborate with your team members without distraction. But, even if you don’t have the luxury of leaving the campus, take an hour when you can shut your office door, turn off your phone and concentrate.

  • Figure out what data you need to achieve each automation and where it would come from.

Automations, even the simplest ones, run on data. Audit your data sources and note where you’d have to go to get it. Does it reside in your transactional data? Is it locked away in your e-commerce engine that someone else has the keys to? Does your ESP (email service provider) house it? A partner or a combination of sources?

  • Rank your automation ideas on their ease of data access.

Once you know the sources for the data you need, score each automation idea from 1 to 5. Here, 1 means “I have access to the data I need to create this automation,” and 5 means “I need to bribe IT with pizza every day for a month to get the data I need.”

Factor in how much effort you need to expend to get the automation program up and running — not just the data but also how complex the messages should be to move recipients to action.

  • Figure out how much money your automation could generate.

You’ll need to be able to estimate how often the actions that drive your automations occur, how much revenue the actions could raise, and what percentage of your customers are likely to buy.

Phase 2. Create, test and launch your automation.

  • Whittle down your list of options to two or three possibilities.

These should be automations you can work up quickly — the simpler the better. It’s tempting, once you start thinking about all of the possibilities that automation opens up for your email marketing, to go a little crazy and try to develop 15 or 20. But curb your enthusiasm and settle on two or three that you can implement the fastest.

Look for actions that are most vital to your business operations, whether from a profit perspective, converting from a free to paid service or other crucial points that move your business forward. Develop your automation program based on purchaser action, subscriber actions, email or similar factors.

  • Create your project plan.

Once you settle on your automations, figure out how long it might take you to set it up, from data access to creative and testing. Give your information to your creative team to work up email samples. Give it a high priority on your task list, but don’t try to cut corners to get it into the testing stage quickly.

  • Roll out your automation program.

Once you pull your program data — get access to your data, develop a set of email templates and test your assumptions — you’ll be tempted to roll it out right away to start recouping your time and expenses.

Resist the impulse! Tee up your program as expected, but then test it manually over the next weeks. It sounds like a contradiction in terms — manually send an automation program — but this will help you work out the bugs before it goes live in front of your customers.

Test and tweak these potential issues:

    • Timing: Should you send your follow-up email right away or after a certain interval?
    • Creative content: Test subject lines, images, calls to action and supporting copy.
    • Automation logic: Are you seeing the follow-on actions you expected?
    • Revenue potential: Are you seeing the numbers you expected, or is there a glitch in the works somewhere?

Once you have your first round of numbers back and finish your manual testing, you’re ready to go live. Push that button!

  • Check up on your program every so often.

You might have heard one of the big lies about marketing automation: “You can just set it and forget it!”

No, you can’t. Although automation runs in the background while you do other things, you can’t let it run unchecked. If you do, you could end with a program that goes haywire, like the automated win-back program that sent me emails like clockwork, every three months.

The money tree takes careful planting

Setting up a basic automation program can be a simple process, but it takes time and careful thought. Once it’s running, though, it’s as if you could go out and pluck bills right off the money tree.

And that’s just one automation! When you get enough of them off the ground, then you can start moving the needle and making your email marketing program achieve even greater potential.


[Article on MarTech Today.]

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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