Automation, CAN-SPAM, Design, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, HTML Issue, Personalization, responsive design, Subject Lines

The Past Year in Email

Happy New Yer!
Another year has come and gone, and although after the events of last year it seemed like the earth was about to spin off its axis, we’re still here and email is as strong as ever. It’s time once again for our annual look back at the best and worst examples of email of the past year. There are a few old favorites and a few surprises. We’ll start with that old chestnut that never seems to go away: The Bad Mail Merge.

Dear your name here,

bad mail merge

A few years ago, faulty mail merges, like those in the example above above, were the most common mistakes we saw. Attempts to sound personal suddenly have the opposite effect, pulling back the curtain and showing that the email for what it is: a pre-written script with information inserted as needed. This particular template called for both a first name and a company name, neither of which was available. The use of dynamic content instead of a merge could have avoided this problem by given the mailing other options when information was missing. It’s never good when a company that is trying to sell you on their technological prowess can’t assemble an email correctly.

The example below is even more egregious since it purports to be aimed at a specific person. This, coupled with the formatting errors in the apparently meaningless text below the main message (see UTF-8 discussion below), sent this one on a quick trip to the Spam Folder.

bad mail merge #2

While not as bad as either of the errors, another problem that cropped up in a new mailings was the repeat of my first name. Since I’m sure I never put my name in a field twice, I have to assume that the problem is somewhere in the email’s dynamic content structure.

merge error

Aw Gee-Mail

Weather error

Personalization can be a great way to start an email, but it has its limitations. The example above has my name, and a shout out the weather. The only problem, here’s the weather in Moraga for the day this email was sent:

actual weather

Not exactly sunny. I’m not sure if the “sunshine” comment was a dynamic insert based on some erroneous weather predictor, or simply an educated guess on the part of the sender. Either way, receiving this message on the coldest, most overcast day of the summer made us chuckle.

Time’s a-Wastin’!

jumping the gun

It seems like stores push closer and closer to Halloween when it comes to holiday sales. Kohl’s takes it one step further by announcing that you just have a few hours left for your Black Friday deals three weeks before Black Friday! From the content, it looks like this mailing was intended to be sent out on the 1st, but Black Friday threats simply won’t work in that case.

Musicians Who are Pushing

snippet cutoff

Gmail and other email clients like to give you a peek at what to expect before you open the mailing. You can use this your advantage with a preheader. Just make sure that when that preheader is abbreviated, you don’t end up with a different message. Musicbed made use of a preheader, but didn’t take into consideration what happened to the preheader when the window wasn’t big enough to fit the whole thing. They ended up with “musicians who are pushing,” instead of “musicians who are pushing the genre to new place.” Perhaps out of paranoia, Patrick James avoids the problem altogether by using a short preheader message followed by a long series of periods.

Amusingly, this particular problem isn’t limited to email. In 1998, a campaign in New York state to provide schools with pencils that featured an anti-drug message had to be pulled when kids started noticing that the more you sharpened the pencils, the more pro-drug the message became.

too cool to do drugs
Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/12/nyregion/slogan-causes-pencil-recall.html

It’s All Ελληνικά To Me

How you code your email can make the difference between a readable message and gibberish. An email written using 8-bit Unicode characters and then coded for 7-bit ASCII is going to have some problems. Some times you see this immediately in the subject lines:

utf errors

And sometimes it appears in the body copy. Normally, these snippets of code standout, and do little more than interfere with the design, but if you’ve created an email that relies directly on UTF-8 Unicode to get its idea across, you’re going to be in trouble. That’s what happened with ThinkGeek’s otherwise clever mailing:

thinkgeek

The text below the image was supposed to be a humorous paragraph printed upside-down and backwards, as an in-joke to the Stranger Things TV show. If you look at the source code, you’ll find the original message was:

“˙soƃƃƎ puᴉɟ ll,noʎ ‘ɹǝzǝǝɹɟ ǝɔᴉɟɟo ɹno uǝdo noʎ ɟI ˙pǝʇᴉɔxǝ ǝɹoɯ sn ƃuᴉʞɐɯ ʇsnɾ s,ʇɐɥʇ ǝsᴉpuɐɥɔɹǝɯ unɟ ɟo sʇɹos llɐ uᴉ ƃuᴉʇʇǝƃ ǝɹ,ǝʍ pu∀ (˙ɥʇuoɯ sᴉɥʇ sn pǝʇᴉsᴉʌ ǝʌ,noʎ ɟᴉ pǝɔᴉʇou ǝʌɐɥ ʎɐɯ no⅄) ˙sƃuᴉɥ┴ ɹǝƃuɐɹʇS ɟo uosɐǝs ʇxǝu ǝɥʇ ɹoɟ pǝʇᴉɔxǝ ʎʇʇǝɹd ǝɹ,ǝM”

Which, when view right-side up and reversed, reads:

“We’re pretty excited for the next season of Stranger Things. (You may have noticed if you’ve visited us this month.) And we’re getting in all sorts of fun merchandise that’s just making us more excited. If you open our office freezer, you’ll find Eggos.”

Unfortunately, the email was sent without the Unicode specification required to render the sentence, turning the message into gibberish.

Email Tourette Syndrome

unwanted code

Sometimes you can end up with gibberish inserting itself in an email for other reasons. In the example above, it looks like the URL was accidentally and replaced with the ALT tag, leaving only the query string. In the examples below, the problem was a matter of placement of conditional comments. Conditional comments are a way to assign special instructions that only Internet Explorer will read. To everything else, they will appear as comments and won’t display. The problem is that they can sometimes show up as text depending on where they are placed in an email.

While we understand the value of conditional comments, people are beginning to migrate away from IE, in favor of better alternatives. You might want to check your subscriber base and see if you even need them anymore.

A Bad Case of Mono

monograms or monographs?

This image came in an email from the normally exceptional email marketers at Email Monks. For the moment, I’m going to ignore the grammatical error in the ribbon banner at the top and concentrate on the type categories shown. I have no problem with Serif and Sans Serif, but there’s no such type style as “Monogram.” These are monograms:

monograms

What they meant was “monospaced.” Their description doesn’t make much (if any) sense either (and one more grammatical error to boot). A monospaced font is a font in which every characters takes the same amount of space, so a lower case “i” will take as much room as an uppercase “M,” even though the two characters clearly require different amounts of space. While the fourth category (Calligraphy) is a legitimate font category, in this case I would have used the more general category of “Decorative” as the final classification (of which Calligraphic fonts are a subset).

Give Me Some Room!

tanga on iphone

This email from Tanga looks fine on a desktop computer, and even a tablet, but reduce it to iPhone size and it suddenly turns into this scrunched up mess. Looking at the code, we see that whoever designed this is much more comfortable with HTML than CSS. The content is rife with deprecated attributes and the designer has used cells with non-breaking spaces to create margins. Either this was created many years ago, or someone needs to brush up on their CSS.

As bad as this is, at least all the content still appears on the page (albeit in a very squished format). Not so for Vibes’ webinar announcement. While it will appear just fine in most email clients. Something in its code just falls apart when opened in Live Mail. We’ve discussed the problems with Live Mail in previous year-end reviews, but now that Microsoft has abandoned it, maybe the folks at Vibes didn’t think it was worth the effort to fix.

Responsible Responsive

Responsive design was all the rage a few years ago. As we discussed in Part Four of our Responsive Email Design series, if you use a standardized template, then setting up a responsive template has advantages. It will mean a little extra work at the start but will yield dividends later on. Clearly, the folks at BangGoods didn’t read that article, because this is how their mailings appear on an iPhone:

This is a perfect layout for a responsive approach. The three columns across is fine for a desktop monitor, but it is rendered almost unreadable on most phones. Media queries that realigned the three columns and enlarged them according to screen size would do a world of good here.

The British Film Institute (BFI) takes a different approach. They do use responsive design, but they only use one column, so the main purpose of the media query is the adjust the size of the tables based on the screen size. This works well for the iPhone:

But not so well for the iPad:

They had the right idea, but set the size change at the wrong point, leading to an unnecessarily small display on the iPad mini.

Unsubscribe? Fuggedaboutit!

Until this point, most of the mistakes we’ve listed have been embarrassing at worst, but these next two aren’t simply bad mistakes—they’re against the law. CAN-SPAM requires the ability to unsubscribe. That can be accomplished a number of ways, but the most common is with an unsubscribe link. If you put an unsubscribe link in your email, it better work. That’s not the case for Proline Tools and Longchamp. In the case of Proline Tools, clicking unsub takes you to the following page:

This suggests that the problem only was temporary, but a second attempt to click on the unsubscribe link a two weeks later yielded the same result.

Similarly, clicking on the unsub link from Wengtek.com takes you to this page:

On the plus side, clicking on any link in the Wengtek mailing took me to this page, so this might simply be an ESP issue. Since the email purported to be from Longchamp, I would classify this one as Spam and move on.

tl;dr

A related problem occurs when you have too much text in your mailings. Some email clients, such as Gmail, will choose to cut off the message with the following notice:

This particular email is from Kohl’s whose list of caveats and cautions could fill a book. When this happens, the unsubscribe link is not displayed. Does that mean the email is breaking the law? Probably not, but it does mean one more step to get to it. In case you’re interested, here is the entire block of legal notices at the bottom of that email (reduced for the sake of brevity):

At least, in this case, the only thing missing besides the footer is a lot of legalese that no one ever reads anyway. Not so for Touch of Modern, whose email gets clipped like this:

Touch of Modern specializes in expensive products for gadget lovers and technophiles, and their emails are often a solid wall of these products. So much so, that they often get clipped for being too long. So how much is missing? When you click “View entire image,” you not only get the footer, but an additional 132 products are displayed as well. They would have been better off reducing the size of their email, concentrating on a few items each time, and using the website to present additional items.

The Good

This year we also saw some nice use of animated gifs and clever subject lines. The leader this year was EmailMonks, who offered games for Easter and Thanksgiving, an interactive Halloween mailings, and some clever videos and gifs. Where the email clients could interpret the code, the games could be played right there in the message. When that wasn’t possible the viewer was linked to the online version. The also get points for their clever use of poster gifs that do a good job of leading the viewer to the linked video (see Using HTML5 in Email: Video).

Cinemagraphs

One technique we were hoping to see more of this year was the use of cinemagraphs. These are the animated gifs that use animation sparingly to create the effect of a live video image. One company that put the technique to good use is Bourbon and Boots, who used a smoking cigar to draw the eye to the image. Subtle but effective, and it captures the essence of the company’s brand.

One of the cleverest uses of an animated gif came from Netflix, but they didn’t stop there. The design concept started with the subject line:

The blacked out lines and the subject matter make us slightly uneasy, but still curious. Upon opening the email, you are presented with a startling animated gif:

[Note: The original gif only goes through its animation one time, I’ve set it up to repeat to make it easier to view.]

A very clever combination of subject line and content used to create an effect.

Until Next Time

That will do it for this year. As usual, most of the errors could have easily been avoided by a little testing before sending. We were happy to that certain errors that were once very common, now only happen occasionally. Marketers are getting more email savvy and template designs are improving. As an added note, I recently heard from Jordie van Rijn from eMailMonday, who has created this pre-launch checklist you can use to make sure everything in order before you hit the send button.

Happy New Year!

Automation, Content Blocks, Dynamic Content, Segmentation, Workflows

Automated Email Workflows, Part Four: Shopping Cart Abandonment

empty shopping cart parked in a car parking spot
In the retail marketing field, one popular use of email marketing automation is to create shopping cart abandonment programs, and it’s no wonder: Shopping cart abandonment rates are higher than ever, with various sectors reporting an average rate of 75% abandonment. Some sources estimate the amount in lost sales in the billions, although these figures are extrapolated from a scenario where all of these shopping cart sales are completed. In truth, a lot of shopping cart abandonments never amount to anything; they are comprised of people who are just looking, or realize they can’t afford the purchase. But even if only 5% of these abandoned carts are ever fulfilled, 5% of a billion is still 50 million, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. In this, the fourth installment in our Email Automation series, we’ll look at the things you’ll need to consider when setting up an abandonment program.

Shopping Cart Solutions

Before we get too deep into the details of creating a shopping cart abandonment workflow, let’s look at how shopping carts are created and how they work. For most businesses, the shopping carts exist separately from their main websites. They are purchased from third-party vendors rather than made from scratch. For anyone looking to buy a shopping cart solution, there are almost as many of these as there are email marketing solutions, and, as with email marketing solutions, shopping cart programs range in price from free to hundreds of dollars. Not surprisingly, the ones listed as free, are usually anything but, and require additional (expensive) modules to handle things such as shopping cart abandonments. Even some of the more expensive solutions sometimes require additional fees for inclusion of an abandonment extension or module. Some shopping cart software doesn’t include any type of abandonment solution, expecting you to implement it through your ESP either via webhooks or an API.

The Right Tool for the Job

A few shopping cart systems do offer email abandonment programs, but there are some important downsides to this approach. The biggest downside is that it separates the shopping cart actions from the data in your ESP where things such as clickthroughs and opens will have more use for determining shopping behavior. Some ESPs let you import that data in the form of external data tables, and this can help, especially if you plan to combine your shopping cart solution with another program, such as a recommendation engine (a little more on this later).

It is also important to remember that shopping cart software is not designed with email in mind. Its primary function is to process purchases, so features such as personalization, content blocks, and segmentation are either non-existent, or available only in their simplest forms. You might be able to merge a person’s first name and cart details into a mailing, but you won’t have the options of changing subject lines and individual content blocks based on the recipient’s shopping behavior. This can turn into a major downside if you want to tweak the individual abandonment reminders for each customer based on factors such as past purchases or other actions.

Lastly, email marketing software has a distinct edge in deliverability. Deliverability is the bread and butter for any ESP, so most do everything in their power to ensure that the email deliver rates for their clients run into as few problems as possible. For a shopping cart provider, the ramifications of email deliverability are less of a concern, and you may find yourself having to hire a deliverability expert to keep things on track.

Communication Techniques

There are really only two basic pieces of information that the ESP needs to run an abandoned cart campaign. The first is a notification that someone has started a checkout procedure with a shopping cart, but has left the purchase unfinished for a specified amount of time. The second is the indicator that the cart is now empty. This information can come in a number of forms, such as webhooks and API calls, but they all do essentially the same thing. Sometimes these functions are wrapped up in a neat little package and presented as an extension or an app, but these handle the same call-out information as the processes described above, just wrapped in a slightly more user-friendly format.

As far as Goolara Symphonie is concerned (and, presumably, other ESPs that offer automation), the format matters very little. Once Symphonie checks on whether a cart has remained unfulfilled, and learns when it has been emptied, it should be possible to go ahead with a shopping cart abandonment email campaign. The basic structure looks something like this:

  • Did the customer put an item or items in the cart and then leave?
  • If so, send them a reminder.

Some cart abandonments stop at this point, while others continue with three or more reminders. Some will increase the incentive by offering an additional discount, depending on the nature of their business.

Don’t Miss the Bus

You should act quickly on cart abandonments. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that a customer will return to the shopping cart. If you are planning an abandonment program, you’ll need to work more closely with your IT department than you would with other types of automations. Cart abandonment programs need to kick in as soon as it becomes apparent that the person is not proceeding with the purchase of the items in their cart. If you already have systems in place to notify you to the actions of visitors to your site, the process becomes somewhat simpler.

Different Strokes

In research for this article, we tried abandoning carts on various sites, to see what happened. A remarkable number of them sent no notices. Of the ones that did send notices, the strategies were quite varied and, in some cases, were contingent open the type of products they sold. Here are a few examples:

Company A

Company A specializes in high-end, expensive items that appeal to the fashion conscious. They had the most thorough abandonment campaign. It started with a notice that items were placed in the shopping cart as soon as it happened, followed by a reminder the next day. Two days later, another reminder was sent offering $5 off the chosen product. Two days after that, another reminder was sent with the subject line “Last chance for $5 off on that item you liked.” No further notices after that.

Company B

Company B specializes in clever devices for fans of science fiction films and television shows. They took a very different approach. They only sent one notice, which also added a $10 discount to the purchase. After that, they sent one more email that contained suggestions for similar products. This is a very clever approach, but it also means either utilizing a sophisticated recommendation engine as part of the process, or including a field that indicates each recipient’s preferred product line or department. For this type of sophisticated approach, the ability to accept external data tables is a must.

Company C

Company C had the weakest campaign, sending only one reminder two days later, which contained no discount offers. For them, this makes a certain amount of sense. This site specializes in heavily discounted products that are only available in limited quantities, so there is already a built in discount for each product, and the limited quantities discourage one from dawdling too long before purchasing a product.

As you can see, cart abandonment does not have a “one size fits all” solution. The type of commerce your company engages in will determine the best approach. If you are already offering substantial discounts, it might be counter-productive to offer more. If your products fall into specific categories, you might also want to offer alternatives when that is practical, although keep in mind that setting this up, will probably mean more work on your end.

Targeting the Messages

As with any email, the more personal the message, the more likely the recipient is to respond to it. One nice thing about shopping carts is that most sites require a sign-in before a customer can add anything to a cart. You should have a customer’s first name and email at the very least. If your site collects other information about a customer’s shopping habits, so much the better. Additional data can help you decide which messages to send. Here are a two very different examples of ways using an ESP can improve the shopping cart results.

The Serial Abandoner

Everyone has decided at some point to skip purchasing something that they put in their shopping cart, but there are some people who make a habit of it. There are also those who have become aware that you offer discounts when carts are abandoned, and start abandoning carts on purpose to get price reductions. The first group is an annoyance, but data shows that these people are still good potential sources of sales. The second group is a little trickier. Wouldn’t it be nice to know who these people are well before they start loading up their shopping carts with items, and what their previous shopping behavior is like?

Most cart software doesn’t address the issue of serial abandoners, but if your cart is communicating with your ESP, it’s easy enough to store information such as this in your recipient data. Once the information is in the email marketing software, it’s an easy matter to tweak the automation to either skip these people—if they commonly abandoned cart without purchasing—or eliminate or reduce the discounts if they appear to be routinely using abandonment strategies to get additional discounts. You still may want to offer those discounts, but wouldn’t you prefer to know if your doing it for a select group of people and not the general public?

Tweaking the Message

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who buys things regularly. Just as with the serial abandoner, the regular purchaser is a great source of personalized data. If person tends to purchase certain products, then even cart reminders can act as a source for additional sales. This data can also clue you into when a customer has changed their buying habits, switching to other products, or dropping the purchase of certain items completely. Knowing things like this offers some excellent opportunities to sweeten the message with additional offers.

These two extremes point out the main advantage of using an ESP in conjunction with your cart software. Using an ESP with good automation capabilities doesn’t just enhance the shopping cart experience, it supercharges it. Used well, with the inherent advantages of dynamic content and interchangeable content blocks, an ESP automated workflow will not only save you time, it can increase your sales.

Calling it Quits

Shopping Cart abandonment programs kick in quickly, and often end just as quickly. We’ve received abandonment notifications as far as two weeks after the event, although these are rare. Most businesses give up after three days. We certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from a one or two week follow-up notification, but this should signal the end of the process. What happens to the shopping cart after that will vary. Some companies automatically empty abandoned carts while others leave items in the cart forever. Whatever the case, you’ll need to address what happens when a customer comes back to the site and either looks and leaves, doing nothing to empty the cart, or adds new items and leaves again without proceeding to the checkout.

Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

Care must also be taken to ensure that you aren’t sending abandonment notifications to the people who went back and made the final purchases or deleted the unpurchased items from their shopping cart. Once the shopping cart is empty, any notices regarding sales at this point will be met with confusion at best, or hostility at worst. Once the purchases are made, that recipient should drop off the workflow. For this reason, a drip campaign is a poor substitute for a real automated workflow. If a person has emptied their cart, the last thing they want or need is another email telling them that they haven’t. By using automation, you will avoid this problem, ensuring that only those who really do have items in their carts are being reminded to finish their purchases.

Where to Find Help

As you can probably tell, shopping cart abandonment is not something to be taken on lightly. If you need help either setting up a shopping cart abandonment program, or getting your shopping cart software to communicate with your email marketing software, either contact us via our website, or give us a call at 1-888-362-4575. You might also want to take a look at the workflow automation features included in Goolara Symphonie. To find out more, click here.

Automation, Email marketing, Segmentation, Workflows

Automated Email Workflows, Part Three: Event-based Campaigns

event-based email
In the previous article in our Automated Email Workflows series, we looked at on-boarding campaigns and how to use email automation to simplify the process. As we saw, this was a variation on the classic drip campaign, but with some automation added to make sure that the mailings properly reflect the actions and requirements of the recipient. This time we’ll look at event-based campaigns, where the recipient has signed up for a specific event. An event might be online (e.g., a webinar) or at a physical location (e.g., a trade show).

An on-boarding automation has a fairly clear entry point—when new recipients are added to the system, they are automatically added to the on-boarding workflow as well. With an event-based workflow, you first must to decide who to invite, and decide how to handle the entries that come in late. In most cases, the recipients are identified through segmentation, based on what you know about each recipient. Your target audience could be anyone who’s purchased something, anyone who’s downloaded certain whitepapers, or—when it’s expedient and makes sense—everyone on your distribution list.

Where to Start

Once you’ve identified the audience, you’ll next have to decide the point at which the automation workflow begins. Should it start after a the initial invitation, or do you want the invitation to be the first step in the workflow process? It’s really six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sending a mailing targeted to the segment of recipients is easy, and then make the workflow use that same segment. Alternatively, you can start the workflow going with the segment as the target, and then have the first step in the workflow be the sending of the invitation.

Late to the Party

The next thing to consider is what to do with late arrivals. If the event is more than a few days after the initial invitation, there might be new people added to your list that you’ll want to tell about the event. If you don’t care whether or not new subscribers get invited to the event, then don’t worry about it, but if you want to take every opportunity to get the word out, you’ll need to make sure your workflow can properly handle entry at any point.

The basic idea of an event based workflow is to work backwards (or forwards) from the event’s date, sending reminders or confirmations as needed. For example, a webinar might start with an initial invitation three weeks before the event. If no enrollment is received, the recipient could be sent several more reminders before the webinar, and perhaps one more afterward. If we lay this out on a timeline, the flow would look something like this:

Visit goolara.com for more information.Running concurrently is the timeline for the recipients who have registered for the event. Once a recipient registers, the logic of the workflow needs to switch to one where advertising the webinar is no longer the focus, and instead the emails are sent to remind the recipient of the upcoming event. That flow would look more like this:

visit goolara.comThere are several ways a flexible workflow design tool would allow this structure to be diagrammed, and every ESP or digital marketing automation tool has its own method. One straightforward choice is to put each of the email steps shown in the diagrams above into the workflow with conditional logic to determine if it should be done or not. For example, the unregistered path has an email sent at nine days before the event. A logic node (sometimes called a decision diamond) should be put into the workflow to check at this nine-day-out point to see if the recipient has registered. If so, the email node is skipped, since we don’t want to remind recipients about an event for which they’ve already registered. In the same way, at the week-before point, a logic node should check if the recipient has registered, and only send the email if that is true.

Taking Care of Stragglers

That takes care of most of the logic, but what do we do about the recipients who’ve entered the list after the automation has begun? In our example, let’s say a recipient signs up to receive email eight days prior to the event. This is where the initial choice we discussed about whether the first email is sent outside the workflow or as the first step of the workflow makes some difference. If the first workflow step is to send the invitation email, then recipients who are newly added will automatically get that invitation, which could be ideal in this case. But we don’t want to send them the nine-day announcement a few seconds later, even though they would have received it in the standard flow. Workflows that allow entry after an initial invitation has been sent must have another piece of logic before each send node to determine if the timing is right. In this case, since we know the recipient entered at day eight, we should skip the nine-day announcement and let the workflow pick them up again at the four-day point.

Getting Help

With good workflow software these steps should be easy to implement. If you’re using Goolara Symphonie to implement the workflow, we’ll be happy to help you create any workflows you need. If you plan to do webinars or similar events on a regular basis, then you will want to set your automation up with master mailings that you can modify for each campaign. This requires even more forethought and work at the start, but can save hours of work in the long run.

In our last post, we looked at drip campaigns, which start at certain points, based on when the subscribers takes action, then send out regular mailings after that. With event-based workflows, everything revolves around the date of the event. All actions are based on this. While they are more complex than standard drip campaigns, event-based automations can also be quite simple, especially if you don’t allow new recipients to enter the workflow once the initial invitation is sent.

Next: Part Four—Shopping Cart Abandonment Programs

Automation, Email marketing

Automated Email Workflows, Part Two: On-boarding Campaigns

[Note: This is the second in a series of posts about automated workflows for email marketing. In part two, we look at the use of automation to create sophisticated drip campaigns. The examples used in these articles were created using Goolara Symphonie’s Automation features, but the information presented here is applicable to other systems as well.]

One of the simplest forms of automated workflows is an on-boarding campaign for a new client. In its simplest form, it goes something like this: Client A signs up for a product or service (let’s call him “Bob”), and thereafter receives regularly scheduled mailings instructing him in the ways he can use the product or service. Suppose Bob has signed up to use ABC Widgets SaaS inventory control system for his business. The first email he receives welcomes him to the service and explains all the advantages of ABC Widgets. The next mailing teaches him the basics of using the software. A few days later, he receives another email that might ask him to verify that he’s happy with the system and give him some more tips and ideas for using the software more efficiently. Finally, he receives a mailing with the information he needs to get help or move to the more advanced aspects of the system. In flowchart form, that might look something like this:

Simple drip campaign
As you can see from the example above, the only automated aspect of this type of drip campaign is the starting point. After that, everything flows automatically based on the start date. In this respect, it is similar to a standard opt-in set-up, where a mailing is sent as soon as you sign up. Several email marketing software providers offer this particular style of drip campaign, and claim to offer automation, but true automation should offer much more than the ability to start a drip campaign at any given time. Full-featured email automation gives you the ability to get much more specific in what happens at each step along the way. For instance, you might want to branch out to two different results based on something that the client does or doesn’t do. For this, you’ll need to add logic to your automation.

Adding Logic

Suppose simply starting a drip campaign isn’t enough. Maybe you want to make sure that Bob implements the database in the ABC Widgets software as soon as possible. If Bob hasn’t started entering data into the database after a day or two, you’ll want to remind him of the importance of doing so, but you won’t want to remind him to do this if has already done it. Nobody likes to receive a notice like that, and it doesn’t make you look good with Bob either. To do this properly, you’ll need to add a logic point (also called a decision point) to your workflow that looks at Bob’s use of the software and offers different mailing choices based on that information. Here is the same drip campaign shown previously, but a decision point added to the workflow:

On-boarding automated campaignIn our example, the decision point is a yes or no choice, in some software, that’s all you get. With some email marketing software, (such as Goolara Symphonie), you are not limited to this simple yes or no choice. You can branch the decision point in into as many alternative paths as you’d like. You might, for instance, offer multiple paths based on each recipient’s membership level, with each level receiving a different set of mailings.

Time Controls

You can also add additional trigger points that are activated when the client takes specific actions. These are in the form of “wait until” commands that come into play when the recipient makes a specific choice, such as clicking or opening certain pages. In our example, ABC Widgets could notify Bob when he finally does use the database feature, and offer additional tips and instructions after that. There’s no reason this couldn’t be an on-going set-up, with new information and suggestions being provided at different points during the on-boarding procedure and after.

Similarly, you can set up delays that are triggered based on their proximity to specific dates, such as birthdays or membership anniversaries. In our example, ABC Widget may want to notify Bob toward the end of a three-month trial period, or before the annual membership is due. These dates will be different for every client, which makes them ideal candidates for automation.

Split Test, Write Fields, and More

Other possible automation nodes include A/B splits, which is useful for split testing that requires different levels of interaction; write fields, which lets you completely change the content of each mailing based on any data you wish; and jump points, which are primarily used to help keep complicated workflows easy to manage. Not all ESPs offer all these features, but these represent a few of the more common nodes that you’ll encounter with advanced email marketing software.

Now let’s look at our original on-boarding campaign with a few more features added. In the example below, we’ve split the mailings into three different paths based on the subscription level for each client. The automation checks the subscription level, offers the correct email, looks at the actions of the client and proceeds with the automation based on whether or not the client has implemented the database. You could also set this up so that each of the three membership levels receives a completely different set of mailings for every step, but in our example, we’ve used dynamic content to change the data in the first and last mailings, allowing us to consolidate those two mailings. For more on dynamic content see the previous post, Personalizing Your Email Marketing.

more complex automationIf you are new to automation, you should start with a simple workflow and develop more complex ones as you get more familiar with the tools. One thing to be careful about is adding new functions to an existing automation. This is certainly acceptable and even preferable in many circumstances, but you’ll want to use email marketing software, such as Symphonie, that will flag possible recursive operations (operations that endlessly loop back on themselves) to make sure that your automated email workflows run smoothly.

Next: Part Three—Creating an Event-based Email Campaign

Automation, Dynamic Content, Email marketing, Workflows

Automated Email Workflows, Part One: A Primer

Automated workflows
[Note: This is the first in a series of posts about automated workflows for email marketing. In this, the first part, we will look at what you need to know before you get started creating an automated workflow. The examples used in these articles were created using Goolara Symphonie’s Automation features, but the information presented here is applicable to other systems as well.]

Automation is an important part of a complete email marketing program. It allows the person in charge of email marketing to work on other things while the emails that don’t require their attention are sent out automatically. If you are not using automated email workflows yet, you might be leaving money on the table. While they can take some time to set up, studies show that automated workflows improve sales results and pay for themselves in no time.

There are many interesting things that can be done with a flexible automation tool: drip campaigns, on-boarding programs, and shopping cart abandonment, to name but a few. But how do you get started implementing some of these programs? Let’s take a look.

Data is King

Your ability to personalize and tailor a program to an individual depends considerably on what you know about that person. You cannot, for instance, address someone by their first name in an email if you don’t have that information as a field in your demographics. Collecting useful data and providing it to your digital marketing solution is key to the success of any email marketing program. When working with automation, data is also king. A shopping cart abandonment program will only work if the data indicating an abandonment can be transferred from your shopping cart software. That leads us to the next question: How do we get that data into our system?

Real-time vs. Batch Processing

With automations, the sooner you can act on the data you’ve collected, the better. The ideal situation is when data can be transferred immediately. This is generally done through an API call responding to something that happens outside the system, such as a cart abandonment, a webinar sign-up, or a white paper download. If possible, you’ll want your programmers to setup a call to the digital marketing platform to transfer this data and activate the automation as soon as an event has occurred.

If it’s not possible to transfer data in real-time, you can try collecting the data once a day and transferring it to your digital marketing platform. This is an imperfect solution, however. Most people nowadays expect near instantaneous responses, but some examples where a response delay is more acceptable include, a drip associated with a webinar, follow-up to an event, such as a trade show, or something long term, such as a birthday reminder.

When There’s No External Data

If you can’t get real-time or batch data out of your internal systems, don’t panic. There are some situations where you can automate actions based on the data that is already in your digital marketing platform. One example is an on-boarding program. When a new recipient is added, they are automatically added to a drip campaign that provides automated emails to help them get started. Another example is automation based on open or clickthrough behavior. This can be dangerous, as many recipients don’t react well if they feel that their actions are being tracked, but it can be a useful tool to send administrative alerts to the salesperson or follow-up on the recipient’s demonstrated interest.

What Data?

So, what data should be provided in external data tables to facilitate a good automation program? Obviously, the email address. You won’t get far without that one. The email address is also the best identifier of each recipient since it’s the one piece of information that will be unique for everyone. Beyond that, it is a question of which data is actionable by your automation tool. You should be able to offer different paths within the automation flow based on the data provided. For example, knowing the date of the webinar will allow you to coordinate the drips so they are sent at the appropriate dates and times before and after the event.

Data to merge

Another important consideration is what data you will want for merging purposes. As an example, a shopping cart email that references some vague statement like “there are items in your cart” will not be as effective as one that references the specific item(s). The data may be usable in its native form (names, dates, and such), or it can be inserted into the message directly as HTML (as an invoice layout, for instance).

Utilizing Past Data

You’ll also want to look at the capabilities of your automation tool to make sure that it can handle simultaneous workflows for the same recipient, and that previous data is available for decision points in the workflow. If you offer events that have any overlap, like several webinars a month, it is important that your workflow can handle keeping track of which webinar the recipient has and hasn’t signed up for. Additionally, using the data from previous events can help you make the best decisions within a workflow. For example, you may offer a discount for a redeemed shopping cart the first few times a recipient abandons, but after a pattern of abandonments has been established you may want to cut out the discount to make sure recipients aren’t gaming your program. A good automation program should allow you to make decisions based on this previous history.

Next steps

Gathering data for your automation, deciding what data should be collected, and making a workflow that is intelligent based on past behaviors are several of the key things to consider when starting an automation program. After that is specifics of the different types of workflows, which we will look at in subsequent blog posts.

Next: Part Two—Creating an On-Boarding Drip Campaign.