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The value of email automation, according to consultant Tim Watson, is increasing the response you get from marketing activity. Not replacing traditional emails and not setting and forgetting a workflow—but upping the number of positive actions taken by your customers, from visiting your website to making a purchase.

Traditional or broadcast campaigns go to your whole list or the segments you select. A popcorn seller might email their entire list to announce a new product launch, or a clothing company message their “parent” segment to promote children’s T-shirts.

Automations are triggered in response to a customer’s action: when you join a list or buy something or fill out a quote form, for example. Your purchase of clipboards on an office supply site might trigger an email in a week asking you to rate the product, or your birthday might land a special discount in your inbox. Inaction can be a trigger, too, like if you open an email but don’t click anything, or add an item to your cart but don’t complete the purchase.

MailChimp’s preset automations have pre-defined triggers, and you can set up custom automations of your own for more flexibility. But where should a small business start, and what are the best triggers to select?

Quantity versus intent

The 2 criteria Tim recommends to choose your highest-value triggers: quantity and intent. Frequent triggers that prompt marketing automations to people who are highly motivated earn the most money. A birthday email is only sent once a year, so that’s a low-quantity trigger. An abandoned cart, on the other hand, happens all the time. Someone who clicks “buy” is far more likely to purchase from you than someone who read a press release, which makes the uncompleted purchase a high-conversion trigger.

The highest-value triggers for you will meet both of these requirements.

frequency vs. intent chart

“The best place to start using automation to increase the amount of marketing conversations is with people who are already engaging with you,” Tim says. A welcome email series is a good example because the customer has just engaged with you in a fairly strong way, entering the customer journey and indicating their interest. Re-engagement or lapsed customer campaigns are “intelligent, but not the place to start. You’re talking to people who may be defecting rather than people who are actively engaged.”

If you’re short on resources and only have the time to invest in a couple of automations, your best bets may be abandoned cart, a welcome series, and, depending on your business, a quote request or other form fill. Any sort of abandoned process indicates a customer with a high intent to convert, whether it’s a purchase, a price inquiry, or a request for more information.

And if you’re wondering whether to send a series or a single email, Tim says that “2 emails almost inevitably beats one email. It’s almost defying gravity for that not to happen.” A sequence can contain any number of emails, but he claims “there is a perfect number.” He recommends starting with 3 and then adjusting up or down based on performance.

Defining the customer journey

What engagement looks like, of course, depends on your business. For an e-commerce company, for example, someone who has just logged into their account, visited your site, or abandoned their cart is engaged. For a hair salon, engagement could be defined as someone booking or showing up to an appointment.

Tim refers to a customer’s “digital body language”—their interactions, however tiny, with your business. “Start with simple things that work,” he says. “Just target people who responded in some way to one of your broadcast emails.” For instance, if someone clicked on a link in one of your non-automated emails for a special offer, you could set up a trigger to send an automated email that keeps the conversation going.

It’s critical to discern the customer journey. Tim’s advice is to start at the decision to buy and work backward—from purchase to signup, instead of the other way round.

“A lot of small business owners have a very good instinct about their customers’ habits,” he says. “You almost know it in your bones. That’s how you grew your business.”

He also recommends a more scientific approach: using Google Analytics to interpret your site data. “Take a look at which pages are most frequently visited, what pages people went through, what clues we can gather about their history. Find out what it was that made up their mind.”

For example, if you were able to discover that everyone who watched a certain video on your site moved forward in their customer journey, you could work on setting up an automation trigger based on video plays.

It’s critical to discern the customer journey. Tim’s advice is to start at the decision to buy and work backward—from purchase to signup, instead of the other way round.

Playing well together

Tim stresses the importance of not neglecting your traditional marketing efforts.

“Don’t turn your back on traditional email,” he says. “Automation relies on a trigger. What happens if the trigger never gets pulled? You stop talking to people. If there is no trigger, there is no email, there is no marketing. That’s a missed opportunity. The point of traditional marketing emails are to remind people about your brand. It’s surprising how quickly people forget about you.”

A better tactic? Using automations to complement your other marketing efforts.

“Triggers on emails themselves can be valuable,” says Tim. If you’re using traditional email to generate demand, for example promoting a lesser-known product line to current customers, you could set up a trigger for a forward, a form fill, or even a click to encourage them to convert. “Keep in contact with people who don’t need you at the moment and open their eyes to what you can do for them.”