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Blue Water Mortgage was a successful New England mortgage company that found itself in the midst of a changing market. With the rise of email marketing, it became easier for competitors to go after Blue Water’s customers directly, and to send them regular offers for refinancing options, lower rates, and other mortgage and banking services.

Blue Water recognized the danger of their message getting lost in this influx. To make sure that didn’t happen, they chose to partner with the digital agency Vital.

According to Doug Ridley, director of consulting at Vital, it was a classic case of poor communication.

“We wanted to help Blue Water tell their story and keep in close contact with their borrowers,” Ridley says. “It takes a little time for people to be ready to refinance. We needed not just to communicate with borrowers, but to send the right message at the right time.”

What they needed, in Ridley’s view, was automation.

The battle plan

To meet Blue Water’s needs, Vital planned out a 2-year-long nurture campaign consisting of 5 emails. Since the campaign launched, it’s gone to more than 7,500 people and boasts an open rate of 35.4%.

How did Vital arrive at such a successful solution?

“Our first step was to talk to their loan officers and figure out what was important to people,” Ridley says. “We wanted to learn what was going to be memorable to their customers.”

Once Vital had identified the key campaign messages, they were able to work out how and when to deploy them. For the first email, customers received a survey that not only gathered customer information, but also helped Blue Water shore up its online reviews.

“It’s sent to customers 2 days after they close,” Ridley says. “If they leave a 4- or 5-star review, we follow up asking them to post on Google or Facebook as well. So right away, we’re driving people who love Blue Water to spread the word.”

Ninety days later, a second email informs customers how their new mortgage will affect their lives.

“The second email helps customers get their ducks in a row,” Ridley says. “It tells them what they need for taxes, what kind of documents they’ll want to have ready. It also suggests they begin thinking about things like investments and life insurance—and invites them to reach out when they’re ready.”

Email number 3 also lands in customers’ inboxes 90 days later.

“The third email is just a check-in,” Ridley says. “We want to make sure customers understand credit reports, see if they have questions—that kind of thing. But it keeps Blue Water in front of them.”

At the 1-year mark, customers receive a fourth email that asks if they’re ready to refinance. And finally, another year after that, customers receive the campaign’s last email.

“That last email has a 28% open rate,” Ridley says. “All it’s really doing is asking customers if they have questions about refinancing and reminding them that Blue Water can help. But by making regular contact at those milestones, Blue Water is able to do a much better job of retaining their customers.”

Ask the experts

5 emails over 2 years.

It might seem almost too simple, but it worked. And that’s because Vital collaborated closely with Blue Water to get everything right before the campaign’s deployment.

“We see the most success when clients are engaged as much as possible with strategy,” Ridley says. “We present the tactics and deliverables, but we also want to talk to their experts to make sure the actual campaign makes sense for their customers. A lot of research and consultation goes into a project like this.”

Blue Water’s experts were able to help Vital identify both when customers would most want to hear from the company and what milestones would be significant to them in the mortgage process.

By identifying when Blue Water’s customers were most vulnerable to third-party vendors, Vital was able to create an automated campaign geared toward retention that also made sense in the context of Blue Water’s other marketing efforts.

“We have the most success when all the marketing ties back together,” Ridley says. “When we’re looking at automation, what we really want is to look at the top of the sales funnel and think about how we’re driving leads and how automation can fit in.”

“One thing I’ve come to appreciate while working here is how much of an untapped resource MailChimp can be.”

A well-oiled machine

Blue Water’s automated campaign was one of the first projects Ridley worked on at Vital. So he was surprised and delighted when, after 2 years with the agency, he got an email about refinancing his home.

“I’d entered my own email address for testing,” Ridley says. “And 2 years later when that email showed up I just thought, ‘This is so cool. This is still working exactly as planned.’”

In addition to providing reliability, MailChimp also makes it easy to edit campaigns, a feature Ridley sees as a real advantage.

“You can literally pause a campaign and drop new emails in, and that blows my mind in terms of the complexity of what it can do,” Ridley says. “And yet it’s extremely easy to use. One thing I’ve come to appreciate while working here is how much of an untapped resource MailChimp can be. The power of automation is there, but many people aren’t using it to its full potential yet.”

Why? Because nobody wants to end up in the spam folder—or worse, lose subscribers. Yet Ridley encourages people to think a little bigger.

“Everyone worries about unsubscribers,” Ridley says. “But if you can get over that hurdle, you start seeing engagement and open rates. That’s the reward of good automation.”

The automation advantage

Automated campaigns can be a powerful tool, yet people sometimes hesitate. Maybe it sounds too much like spam, or seems like too much work to set up. Here are a few key points that prove it’s a must for every marketer:

  1. Automation does more so you don’t have to. “It’s like another salesperson,” Ridley says. “One who works for free, all day every day.” Unless you’ve got a huge marketing team with nothing to do, automation is a great way to get bigger results without devoting your entire day to email.
  2. It never forgets about your customers. “One trap businesses can fall into is taking their customers for granted,” Ridley says. “You need to follow up with folks.” When things get busy, automated campaigns can help make sure you don’t forget to keep in touch with the people who drive your business.
  3. Automated campaigns are still flexible. Nothing is written in stone with automated campaigns. “One of the great things about automation is that you still get good analytic data from these campaigns,” Ridley says. “So you can continue to test and refine what you’re doing, even though you’re using automation.” Automation doesn’t require any loss in adaptability.
  4. The data backs it up. “We use automation because all the data we have shows that it works,” Ridley says. “We know that we drive more traffic because we’re setting up automated campaigns. When we show that to clients, they get excited.”

Illustrations by Joshua Mulvey, a professional designer and illustrator in the Greater Boston Area.