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The Riverworks Building in Watertown, Massachusetts, traces its history back to the first mills along the Charles River. Today, the building, a meandering complex of old brick and new wood, is illuminated by sunlight from the windowed courtyards. Modern design flourishes abound, but there’s no mistaking its age. This makes it an oddly appropriate home for the web design and digital marketing agency Digital Impulse.

“After going through the dot-com bust and moving around a few digital agencies, I wanted to create something that was sustainable,” Andrew Kolidas, Digital Impulse CEO and co-founder, says. “I wanted to help create something solid—a company that was very employee-centric, and with client-vendor relationships that go deeper. I think that’s a big part of the reason we’ve succeeded.”

Chapin Bennett, director of marketing programs, credits the agency’s success to its adaptable nature. “We’re very liquid,” he says. “When we’re building a relationship with a client, we allow for opportunities to go in the direction they need us the most. So we may start with something like SEO, but find that we can also help improve their email automation. That flexibility helps us earn their trust and become a part of their marketing team.”

To figure out where they can do the most good, Digital Impulse’s first priority is to really get to know the client. As Kolidas puts it, every person on the team—from the designer to the account executive—is tasked with understanding how the client makes money.

Investigating that question has led the team to reconsider what email automation can do.

No More Holy Grail

For most clients, making money comes down to conversions like generating leads, selling products, or downloading software. The processes leading up to that generate a lot of data—but data alone isn’t inherently helpful. It can even be harmful if misinterpreted.

“When companies aren’t experienced with analytics, they tend to stick with a surface reading,” Kolidas says. “So a client might look at something like a lot of time being spent on the site and read that as a positive result, when in actuality it’s indicative of a user who can’t find what he’s looking for.”

Even pure conversion data isn’t as simple as it seems. What seems like a binary choice—did someone convert, or didn’t they—is in fact a lot more complex. “An overall conversion rate tells such a small piece of the story,” Bennett says. “You have to look at the source of the traffic as well. Is it organic, direct, display? So many clients see that figure as their Holy Grail, but they miss other important pieces of data.”

Another problematic trend also emerged as the team at Digital Impulse continued to study their clients. Over and over again, they saw automation being ignored, misused, or misunderstood.

“People think of automation as a way to close dead leads, or get a couple more sales,” Kolidas says. “‘Somebody didn’t buy our product, so we’ll send them a coupon.’ The challenge for us was to think about it more creatively. We began to see it as a tool that could solve just about any problem a client might be having.”

This insight would eventually change the way Digital Impulse did business.

Careful, Constant Monitoring

Effective automation programs, Kolidas says, start by understanding the goal. As an example, Kolidas describes an overtaxed call center where employees are tasked with answering the same questions day after day.

“In a situation like this, you have two goals: Better customer service, and reducing your call volume,” Kolidas says. “So you set up automation to send the information people need after they purchase your product, or send updates about new changes in software. The result is a lighter workload in your call center, and happier customers.”

By taking a goal-oriented approach, the team at Digital Impulse began to see email automation as something more than a way to send weekly newsletters. It became a flexible and powerful component of an overall marketing strategy.

“People often put automation into its own silo,” Bennett says. “But we look at it within the context of everything else we’re doing for a client.”

“Automation is a great way to get information to people,” Kolidas says, “but it’s part of a comprehensive program. It’s a component that has to be carefully integrated.”

For Digital Impulse, careful integration also means careful—and constant—monitoring.

“A successful campaign takes a lot of management. You need to have clearly defined goals and benchmarks, and then improve your campaign accordingly as you see results,” Kolidas says. “One of the mistakes companies make is thinking that once automation is set up, you never need to touch it again. A lot of the value of automation gets lost when that happens.”

And that’s not the only error Kolidas and Bennett see companies making.

“When you know why you’re using automation, the content will flow from your purpose.”

The $40,000 Question

Too often, companies use automation to serve up the same, predictable incentives.

“Companies know that people love a sale,” Kolidas says. “So it can be easy to use automation to start sending out coupon codes. But if you’re lazy in your approach, and people learn they can expect a discount at the same time each month, they’ll start waiting to make a purchase. You’re allowing your automation to turn you into a discount brand.”

Sometimes bad automation is a matter of using the wrong tool for the job.

“Frequently, clients will pay $40,000 for a service that MailChimp could perform better at a fraction of the price,” Bennett says. “Clients buy these expensive tools, but don’t actually get their money’s worth.”

These expensive services don’t always integrate with other tools, either.

“A lot of services don’t play well with things like Shopify, Google Analytics, or Unbounce,” Kolidas says. “What I like about MailChimp is that it’s easy to integrate with different APIs, so we can use it in campaigns alongside other tools appropriate for the client. It gives you a lot of options—you can basically do anything you want.”

That kind of blank canvas might seem daunting at first, but it gets a lot easier when the objectives are clear. “With so much data available, there’s no reason to go into a campaign without a clear, measurable objective,” Kolidas says. “When you know why you’re using automation, the content will flow from your purpose.”

Chapin Bennett and Andrew Kolidas at the Digital Impulse office in Watertown, Massachusetts.

3 Unexpected Uses for Email Automation

It’s time to think beyond the newsletter. Creative email automation can help build relationships, solve problems, and make marketing a whole lot easier. Here are 3 ideas you may want to try.

  1. Generate more positive reviews. It can be tough to get people to leave good reviews on sites like Yelp or Google Plus. But email automation simplifies it. “We’ll send an automated email asking customers to rate their experiences with a company,” Kolidas says. “If they rate it well, they’re put on a track to make that positive review public.” People are inclined to share good experiences online—sometimes they just need a little nudge.
  2. Start a real conversation. In the above example, not every review is a positive one. “When there’s a bad experience, that’s where the automation stops,” Bennett says. “The last thing you want is somebody who’s upset to get another automated response.” That negative review should, however, lead to personal contact with the customer. And in any automated campaign, someone needs to be monitoring responses. If a customer is moved enough to reply to an automated email, a real response is critical.
  3. Make it a customer service solution. When your employees talk to customers, what are they hearing? What are some common pain points for the people who use your products or services? “Automation can be a great customer service tool,” Kolidas says. “Talk to your customer service department. Talk to your accounts team. Find out what your customers are struggling with, then give them the answers before they think to call.”

Illustrations by TRZØWN, an illustration studio of northeast-located, cartoon-watching, skateboarding illustrator/animator/printer Kirk Wallace.