Email marketing automation is a powerful tool that can help you do large-scale email marketing efficiently and effectively. This quick guide is a jumping-off point for marketers who are considering automated email. We’ll define some key types of email marketing automation, before signposting some tools and resources to help you get started.
What is email marketing automation?
Email marketing automation is the use of technologies to automate email marketing activity. Tasks such as writing, scheduling and sending emails are done automatically, based on settings chosen by the sender.
In most cases, email marketing automation is done using specialised automation tools such as ActiveCampaign, or using automation features of generic marketing services like MailChimp and HubSpot. Some marketing teams with relevant technical capability create bespoke email automation solutions in-house.
Advanced automation users often see email as one of several components of a wider-reaching marketing automation. This involves gathering real-time data on an individual customer across multiple channels (e.g. website, app), and interacting with them at strategic moments using a choice of communication methods, including display ads, notifications, and, of course, email.
What are the benefits of email marketing automation?
There are three key drivers for using email marketing automation:
- Timing of emails
- Optimisation of audience segmentation and targeting
When email automation is set up carefully, it can save you time and effort. The technology does the legwork of sending the right email to the right person, which removes the need for the marketer to do time-consuming chores such as selecting recipients from a database or customising email content to reflect basic details of the recipient.
Another key advantage of email marketing automation is the opportunity to send emails with optimal timing. Automatically generated and delivered emails can reach recipients at strategic moments in the customer journey – e.g. when data indicates that the customer is considering making a purchase or signing up. If you’ve ever received an email from a food delivery service while browsing menus on your smartphone, it’s quite possible that the email was triggered by marketing automation tech. Manual email marketing cannot realistically be expected to operate with such precise timing.
At a more in-depth level, email marketing automation can help marketers to do better audience segmentation of their mailing list, and to target individuals with better-tailored emails. Over time, or over multiple campaigns, the automation tech receives data about how different users respond to the emails delivered. It can then segment the audience based on how each user has behaved, which helps itself and/or the marketer to target each person with a more tailored approach in future emails. This is called behavioural segmentation.
How is email marketing automation used by marketers?
In a nutshell, the most basic use of email marketing automation is to automatically send emails to customers who fit certain targeting criteria. The email automation tool identifies that the criteria have been met, and then it sends an email to the customer without requiring any input from the marketer.
Most automated marketing emails are either triggered to send when a recipient does a certain thing, e.g. buys a product or opens an in-app notification, or they are timed to send after a certain amount of time has elapsed since a specified moment, e.g. seven days after the recipient opened a previous email. Sophisticated email marketing automation tech can identify which triggers/timings are likely to get the best results from a certain person, based on variables such as the person’s customer history and their commonalities with other customers in the sender’s database.
Multiple marketing emails are sometimes sent, using automation tech, in an email sequence. The marketer sets up different paths which the sequence could follow, based on how the user reacts to each email – and the automated email tech sends the appropriate sequence automatically.
There are a few other types of automation used in email marketing that are well worth knowing about. For instance, automated email customisation is a powerful time-saving tool for any email marketing campaign.
In this type of automation, the marketer creates a template of an email that will be sent to multiple recipients, with one or more blank sections that will contain specific details relating to each recipient, such as their name, job title or a relevant detail of the sender-recipient relationship. Automation tech is used to customise the template with details of each recipient. This type of email marketing automation originated as the earliest examples of mail merge in the 1980s. It can be done using commonplace software such as Microsoft Excel.
What are the downsides to email automation?
When used effectively, email automation tools tend to be mostly beneficial, saving the marketer time and hopefully improving marketing outcomes too.
However, there are some situations where an expert human marketer is superior, to such an extent that the cost in time and budget is justified.
Two sorts of email that often need a human touch are high-value PR and premium B2C customer service. If a PR representative is emailing a media contact who might be able to provide valuable coverage of their brand, then the PR rep might decide to send a completely tailored, targeted email based on their established relationship with the contact. And in the case of B2C customer service, if the customer has a specific problem, it may be best to approach this with a bespoke email approach, as receiving a generic email response that doesn’t exactly answer the query would lead to a negative customer experience.
Careless email automation can lead to irrelevant or spammy emails, which may cause recipients to unsubscribe from the mailing list. In some cases, poorly targeted emails can lead to the sender being reported for spam, which could harm their sender reputation and make it harder for the brand to obtain trust-enhancing email features such as BIMI.
A common problem with automated emails is that their content can become outdated – potentially without the brand realising this is the case. Avoid this by setting reminders to manually review automated email content at regular intervals.
What’s the state of email automation in 2022?
As of spring 2022, email marketing automation is a thriving area of the marketing industry. In April 2022, cloud communication company Vercom acquired the email marketing automation startup MailerLite for $90 million.
And looking at the bigger picture, MarketsAndMarkets reports that the marketing automation market will grow from a value of $5.2bn in 2022 to $9.5bn in 2027.
To some extent, email automation remains popular for the same reasons it gained users over the last five-years-plus: its efficiency and targeting benefits.
However, another ingredient in the mix in 2022 is the depreciation of third-party cookies. Recently, major digital players such as Apple, Firefox, and latterly, Google, have taken steps to phase out the use of third-party cookies. This type of cookie, which is placed in users’ browsers by a third-party (e.g. Google or Verizon) when they visit a website, has been central to digital marketing for many years – but it is at odds with the emerging movement towards better data privacy for digital users.
Arguably, marketers need to be able to identify individual customers in order to do effective personalised marketing. The depreciation of cookies raises the question of how this can be done moving forward, and some commentators have pointed to email as a key alternative method for legally gathering audience data. Email automation could play a more important role in gathering and processing the data of consenting users while cookies fade into digital marketing history.
How to get started with email automation
We would advise any email marketer who is just getting started with email marketing automation to start by using a highly-rated email automation tool, which will make automating email activity relatively accessible.
If you already do email marketing using an email platform, such as MailChimp or HubSpot, you may find that the platform includes some automation-focused tools or features. Using these tools will probably be your most accessible way to start experimenting with email automation.
Another option is to use a dedicated email marketing automation tool (or a broader-focused marketing automation tool). This approach may suit marketers who want to put email automation at the core of their campaigns, or who want to keep their automated marketing activity separate from other email activity.
Best email marketing automation tools 2022
Get started with your email marketing automation by trying out an email automation tool. Here are some of the best-regarded options as of 2022:
Setting up email marketing automation is a big deal for any marketer or brand. It takes a chunk of email activity out of the hands of your team, and leaves it “in the hands” of technology. The technology doesn’t always get it right, and you may need some time to get a feel for where human involvement is still required in the automated email process.
With this in mind, we recommend you automate your email marketing gradually and selectively. Choose customer interactions which seem like a good fit for an automated approach, such as abandoned cart reminders or promotions aimed at customers who have been browsing your products/services pages. Automating interactions like these is usually an “easy win”,, and setting them up will give you a good grounding in your email marketing automation tool and process. You can then consider moving on to targeting the more in-depth strategic and efficiency-saving advantages of email automation.