The ultimate guide to email automation

Are you looking to start using email automation to streamline your business processes and generate more leads? From creating triggered emails to building nurture flows that convert – we cover it all with practical advice and worked examples.

Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Dave Hitchins

Senior Content Marketing Specialist

If you thought that email as a B2C communication channel was making a resurgence, you would be right. Infobip’s 2022/2023 Messaging Trends Report showed that there was 93% more email traffic on our platform in 2022 compared to 2021. It is fair to say that rumors of email’s death have been greatly exaggerated. A key part of the channel’s surge in popularity is the many use cases that email automation is perfect for.

Of course, there are new digital channels for businesses to engage with customers and prospects, but there is still a seat at the top table for email due to its mature set of features and widespread use. The most effective communication strategies leverage the strengths of each channel and cater to the preferences of every individual. For email, the ability to easily automate communications and include personalization is a key strength.

In this in-depth blog we will explain how to do email automation right, providing a step-by-step guide to key use-cases and the mistakes to avoid.

What is email automation?

Email automation is a blanket term for the tech and processes that enable businesses to communicate by email effectively at scale. It means always responding with the right message at the right time, and only with information that is useful and relevant to each recipient. It can be one-off emails triggered by an action that customers take, or a series of emails designed to inform and inspire customers to take a particular action.

If we expand the definition a little it also includes the automation features that enable businesses to optimize their email marketing budgets, for example by using AB testing to test the effectiveness of various email templates, subject lines, and creative assets to find the combination that results in the most conversions.

What are the benefits of email automation?

  • Save time and money: Quite simply, email automation saves you doing things manually so you can achieve a lot more with the same resources. Responding to FAQs, sending reminders, replying to customer requests – all these can be achieved quickly and easily with the help of automation. Crucially, email automation can run 24/7 using send time optimization to deploy messages at the optimum time for every recipient.
  • Useful and effective throughout the purchase cycle: From marketing messages to service alerts and loyalty campaigns, email automation enables you to send useful and relevant messages that are effective at any point in the customer journey.
  • Supports high volume deployments: We are not talking spam, but if you need to send a large number of personalized messages quickly and without breaking the bank then email is the ideal channel. Speaking of banks, when they send out monthly statements to their customers, think of the cost savings involved in sending these by email rather than by physical post.
  • Build solid customer relationships over time: By using email nurture flows to drip feed useful information to customers and prospects over a period of time, you can build trust and loyalty in your brand. Existing customers are more likely to remain loyal if you keep them updated with messages that they are interested in – anything from product updates to special discounts rewarding loyalty. All contribute to keeping your brand at the front of their minds and reducing churn.
  • Easy to manage: Modern email platforms provide all the tools required for business users to build and deploy sophisticated automated email campaigns without requiring technical resource. From automatically selecting the best recipients for a campaign, to including personalized fields and content in email content, to doing AB testing to optimize engagement – all can be done easily via an intuitive no-code interface.

Email automation examples

Email automation is simpler than you might think if you follow some basic best practice guidelines. Here we describe the two primary examples of automation and how to get them right.

1. Triggered emails

Triggered emails are messages that are automatically generated and sent based on actions that a customer takes, for example making a purchase, or associated with specific dates, for example the expiry of a product guarantee.

Numerous studies have shown that people now expect businesses to treat them as individuals. This definitely applies to email communication where people have subscribed to receive emails from a business and can instantly unsubscribe if they feel they are getting messages that are not relevant to them.

The best way to avoid this is to build automated workflows that trigger emails in direct response to a customer action. For example, sending a welcome message when a person signs up for your loyalty scheme, or a thank you note when they submit a review.

As well as being relevant, triggered messages are effective because they allow businesses to capitalize on opportunities in the moment. The best time to induce a sale or promote positive feelings about your brand is when customers are thinking about you. Leave it too late and they will have moved on to other things.

The workflow for a welcome message triggered by a new sign up might look something like this:

  1. Configure audience: This is simple as no complex audience segmentation is required – your audience is simply anyone who signs up for an account on your website. You should ideally be able to send these emails immediately rather than waiting for an overnight data refresh to populate the audience table.
  2. Select email template: You may just have one email template set up for your welcome messages, or you may have a number of them and select the best one depending on the age, gender, language and location of the new customer – or the type of service that they signed up for.
  3. Populate custom fields: These days people expect businesses to talk to them directly in their communication. This can be achieved with some simple personalization based on what you know about them already. For new sign ups, you might only have basic information, but you can still use it to get the relationship off to a good start. Dear [] Welcome to your new [Product.Type] account. Please [click here] to update your preferences….
  4. Schedule: Again, this is a simple step for the welcome message use case as you would want to respond immediately where possible. For other use cases you can use scheduling functionality to send messages when they are most likely to be opened, or to stagger large deployments over a period of time.
  5. Deploy: Set up correctly, the automated workflow should deploy messages immediately. For this use case no throttling would be required as the welcome messages would be a continuous series of single messages rather than a bulk mailing.
  6. Report: One of the key benefits of the email channel is the wealth of reporting data that is natively available. Email opens, clicks, bounces, and unsubscribes are just some of the stats that can help you calculate how engaged recipients are and the overall success of the campaign.
  7. Update customer database: This step is often overlooked but is crucial when building long term relationships with customers. Any relevant customer data obtained by email should be updated in your customer data platform, so that it can be used to improve and refine future interactions with each person.

2. Nurture flows

Rather than a one-off email in response to a customer action, a nurture flow is an automated set of emails that are sent by a business over time (to people that have opted in of course). Nurture flows should be carefully crafted with specific goals in mind. This could be simply to educate customers about products or services, or to encourage them to take an action, for example buying a product.

Flows can be a very basic linear set of emails with no logic – where each recipient gets the same emails in the same order. Or they can be more dynamic with multiple versions of emails and different paths through the flow depending on recipients’ unique attributes and the actions they take once in the flow.

Here we will describe a typical nurture flow for upselling a service to an existing customer – in this case a satellite TV subscription.

  1. Define goal: It is very important to be very clear about the goal of the campaign from the start. When designing a flow, it is easy to get sidetracked or to over-engineer and spend too much time on low value logic. To avoid this, it is best to define one or more unambiguous numeric goals, for example Increase subscription revenue by 20% or Upsell 15% of Tier 1 subscribers to Tier 2 or above.
  2. Configure audience: In our example the goal of the nurture flow is to upsell a satellite TV package to existing customers. The overall audience may be every customer who already has a Tier 1 package, but you might divide this into different groups depending on their characteristics and behaviors to improve the overall effectiveness of the campaign. So, in addition to your Default audience, you might also have Sports Fans, Reality TV Addicts, Movie Buffs and so on. A key step in defining a nurture flow is to specify the exit rules i.e. when recipients should drop out and not receive any further emails. This could be because of something negative like a spam complaint, or something positive like actually buying the promoted product. (No-one likes it when businesses keep trying to sell them something that they already bought).
  3. Build flow: When you start building the flow it is important to remember that it doesn’t have to be complete and perfect from the start. As nurture flow campaigns are usually long running, you will have opportunities to improve and refine over time. Concentrate on the goals you defined at the start and create an end-to-end sequence aimed at achieving them. Remember too that not everyone follows the script – some customers will be ready to upgrade much sooner than others, so you need to make sure that you support this in all your emails with CTAs and links. As your flow gets more complex, if your email automation software doesn’t have a visual canvass then it is a good idea to use a tool like Microsoft Visio or Canva so that you can map it out. Print it out and get in a room with colleagues to step through each branch to ensure it makes sense.
  4. Create email templates: Once you have defined your audience and built your flow you will know exactly how many emails and versions of each you will need. Here you can get creative with designing emails specifically for your different target groups and use AB testing to try out different versions of images and text to find the ones that are most successful.
  5. Define email intervals: You may have already set the intervals between emails when you designed your flow, but it is a good idea to review them to check that they are optimum, and you aren’t coming across as a bit spammy.
  6. Test: The final step before you go live is to thoroughly test the nurture flow. Using a simulation tool allows you to test out every combination in the flow immediately without having to wait for messages to be trigged after the set intervals. When testing make sure you use different devices, screen sizes and operating systems to check that your emails always look as intended to recipients.
  7. Deploy: This should be as simple as clicking the Start button in your email automation tool. This should populate audience tables, set the required parameters, start sending messages, and begin to populate deliverability and engagement reports.
  8. Monitor and Improve: Nurture flows are the opposite of ‘fire and forget’ deployments. Running over long periods of time there is plenty of scope to refine and improve them. This is where an email tool with good reporting functionality is crucial. In addition to standard email metrics like opens, clicks and bounces, you should be able to calculate conversion rates, ROI, and acquisition cost per subscriber to prove the effectiveness of the campaign.

Email automation use cases

Customer service

Automated emails for customer service will usually be triggered by an inbound email from a customer or prospect. This could be anything from an information request, reporting a problem, or dare we say a complaint. Responses should always take the context into account and include appropriate content and wording.

The key is to always be aware of each customer’s history – are they a high value customer in the process of negotiating a new contact? Are they already in one or more email nurture flows? Or on the other extreme, are they a serial timewaster?

Always getting the context right requires the email automation tool to be plugged directly into your customer database so that you always know the latest state of every person you communicate with. This ensures that you can provide a consistent and appropriate experience at every stage of the customer journey.

The best email automation tools will have the ability to set up custom flows with conditions that enable you to formulate a suitable automated response based on the content of the inbound email and the customer’s history.

  • If the email contains keywords like ‘help’ or ‘problem’ then this can trigger a support workflow.
  • If the email contains keywords like ‘complaint’ or ‘escalate’ then this can trigger a management intervention workflow.
  • If the person has a ‘VIP’ or ‘caution’ flag on their customer record, then raise a task for an agent to contact them directly rather than sending an automated message.

Finally, it might be that email is not the best channel for a particular customer service issue. For urgent or more complex issues you should direct the person to other channels like your call center or customer service chatbot if your business has one.

Personalized engagement

Marketing emails are what gave email a bad reputation in the first place. The spam epidemic was at its worst in the 2000’s when unscrupulous brands were firing out millions of emails to whatever email address they could harvest. We all got very annoyed.

Luckily, the advancement of spam filtering technology and enforceable legislation like GDPR in Europe has vastly reduced the volume of unwanted emails and repaired email’s image as a legitimate channel for marketing and customer engagement emails.

We have already covered triggered messages and nurture flows in detail, so here are a few other engagement use cases that you may want to consider.

  • Customer onboarding: Email is the ideal channel for onboarding new customers. There may be a lot of steps and information to cover, which is ideal for email as customers can work through them in their own time. You can also include images and videos to make the experience easier and more engaging. The steps in the process can also be achieved by automatically triggering a new email once the previous step has been completed. This way customers don’t get overwhelmed with too much detail at once.
  • Cart abandonment: An important use case as it is a direct revenue generator. The most successful way of persuading cart abandoners to complete their purchase is with an omnichannel approach – the immediacy of SMS backed up by email with images, videos and testimonials that can help you put across a more persuasive message.
  • Event registration: A bit like a nurture flow, but a bit more nuanced as the person has already shown an interest in the event. You want to them to follow through and sign up to attend and hopefully become a valued customer. If you imagine them at the top of their own funnel, you can use email to learn about them, their background, what they are interested in and what they are looking to achieve. Polls, surveys and the tracking of links that they clicked can help you put together a picture of each attendee as they move down the funnel and help you deliver a CTA that resonates.
  • Loyalty and retention campaigns: As the saying goes it is much easier to keep a customer than win a new one. There are two branches to this sort of campaign – keeping customers engaged and informed, and reengaging with those that have drifted away or been lost to other suppliers. Email can play a key role in both. For the former, automation can help you keep in touch and in the front of people’s minds with newsletters, product updates, and information curated just for them. For bringing lost customers back you might rely on enticements like discounts and special offers based on products they have bought before.

Transactional messages

These days we rely on email to receive important things like bank statements, order confirmations, airline tickets, and even directions to the Airbnb when we get to our destination.

With secure cloud storage and the rich search, filtering, and archiving features of modern email clients, no-one really bothers printing out and filing documents anymore – you can always just find them in your email and pull them up on your phone when you need them. Even if you delete an important email by mistake, unlike SMS, it’s not actually gone – you can just retrieve it from the Deleted Items folder.

Gone are the days when you had to search your entire house for your last three bank statements when applying for a loan – you can now find them in your email in ten seconds.

All these service emails are automated and built into the business processes of the organizations that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. If you are still posting hard copy versions of documents and information to your customers, maybe take a step back and consider if that is what they actually want, and how much it would save you if you didn’t.

Here is just a sample of communications that can easily be sent automatically by email:

  • Welcome messages
  • Copies of contracts and T&Cs
  • Monthly statements and invoices
  • Order confirmations
  • Renewal reminders
  • Warnings of service disruptions or updated opening hours
  • Back in stock notifications
  • Feedback requests

The role of email automation in an omnichannel communication strategy

An effective communication strategy is always greater than the sum of its parts. While email automation is a highly effective tool for certain use cases, it is at its most powerful when deployed alongside other channels better suited to specific stages of the customer journey.

Take this example of a company selling car insurance, although the same could apply to any financial product.

  1. A person is researching a new car purchase online.
  2. As a result, they get targeted in a social media campaign by the company selling car insurance.
  3. Seeing a relevant Facebook post about the insurance they will need, they opt in to receive further information.
  4. The person drops into an email nurture flow and gets a series of automated emails educating them about the best insurance options for their preferred car.
  5. When the person is ready to buy, they call the contact center to finalize the policy they need. The agent has access to all the customer’s history and preferences in the customer data platform and can provide a quick, painless, and personalized buying experience.
  6. Post purchase, policy documents are sent by email i.e. a secure channel that the customer can access from anywhere.
  7. A year later when the policy renewal date is approaching, a reminder SMS is sent, followed up by a discounted offer by email to renew the policy.
  8. At the same time AI can monitor all channels to detect if the customer is exhibiting churn behaviors and take action if necessary – by adding them to an omnichannel retention campaign for example.

With multiple channels involved in the overall customer journey, it is crucial that the various moving parts are orchestrated to work together. This becomes simple when all channels are supplied by the same vendor and can be managed with a built-for-purpose omnichannel engagement solution underpinned by an enterprise customer data platform.

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Oct 4th, 2023
14 min read
Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Dave Hitchins

Senior Content Marketing Specialist