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Do a Google search and you’ll turn up more how-to articles on email automation than you can shake a rolled-up copy of your latest Google Analytics report at. Go ahead, bookmark them. Just don’t expect them to transform you into an automation ninja overnight.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Gauge Interactive business analyst DJ Henley says. “There isn’t really a ‘right’ way to do automation.”

“Everybody is figuring it out as they go,” Henley continues. “Think about it. Some of the automation workflows in MailChimp weren’t even an option a year ago. There’s no history to tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Kind of scary, right? But, as Henley points out, it’s also kind of liberating. “It gives you freedom and breathability in how you approach your particular scenario.”

Hypothesize. Automate. Repeat.

Email marketing is an art, but don’t forget the basic principles of scientific discovery, either.

“You have to continually test,” Henley says. “Create a hypothesis, run the automated series, and then look at open rates, click rates, and revenue. Does it match your hypothesis? If not, pivot.”

Henley and his colleagues design, implement, and manage dozens of email campaigns for e-commerce companies that already have tens of thousands of customers. One of those clients is OldTimeCandy.com, which specializes in retro candy and gift packages. After creating a new, Magento-powered website for OldTimeCandy.com, Gauge crafted an email strategy designed to help the online retailer deepen its relationship with its customers.

So far, the result has been pretty sweet.

"You have to continually test. Create a hypothesis, run the automated series, and then look at open rates, click rates, and revenue. Does it match your hypothesis? If not, pivot."

Fix your welcome wagon

Most first-time OldTimeCandy.com customers arrive via Google. Usually, they’re hunting for a specific item — say, an Abba Zaba bar. At checkout, they get the chance to sign up for the OldTimeCandy.com email list. When they do, it triggers an automated welcome series.

Welcome emails are known for their excellent open rates. But that doesn’t mean you can coast on their built-in horsepower. Instead, Henley says, you need to soup them up for optimal performance.

Gauge created a 2-part welcome series for OldTimeCandy.com. The first email thanks the customer, tells them what to expect from future emails, and gives them a 10 percent discount code.

The 2nd email, which arrives 2 weeks later, is what Henley calls a “training” email. Basically, it teaches the recipients the ropes of being an OldTimeCandy.com customer. “Most first-time customers aren’t familiar with the brand. So the second email educates them on what the site has to offer — personalized gift boxes, gifts for different occasions, a pack-a-bag feature.”

The open rates of OldTimeCandy.com’s welcome series are twice as high as open rates for its other emails. But getting it just right took some time. Henley warns against approaching automation with a “set it and forget it” mindset. Instead, keep an eye on the data, and make adjustments based on what you learn.

Automate customer happiness

Email marketers tend to think of automation as a conversion-driving machine. But it serves other important purposes too, like soliciting customer feedback.

When OldTimeCandy.com launched a new feature on its website that allowed customers to personalize the tops of gift boxes, Gauge sent an automated email to every customer who used the tool. “We wanted to know how user-friendly it was,” Henley said. The feedback the email garnered allowed OldTimeCandy.com to provide a better customer experience.

When you use automation to drive better customer experiences, you’re doing it right. Automation should never annoy or cajole your audience. It should surprise and delight them.

Take, for example, the automated “Happy Birthday” emails that OldTimeCandy.com sends its customers. Each one includes a 15 percent discount code. The offer is key — you shouldn’t automate a “Happy Birthday” email without including something of value. That’s like giving your nephew a birthday card without any cash inside.

OldTimeCandy.com also includes dynamic discount codes in all of their automated abandoned cart emails. The click rates on those emails are twice the list average. That’s what happens when you deliver good experiences and valuable content.

Find the sweet spot

All of the automated emails discussed above have one thing in common: They reach the customer with relevant and valuable information at the right time.

You just used a new tool on our website? Tell us how to make it better. It’s your birthday? Here’s a little something special for you. You went shopping and left something in your cart? Here’s some incentive to finish the job.

But what if a customer has lapsed and you want to activate them with a re-engagement campaign?

Tread carefully. You don’t want to hit your recipients with such a hard sell — or with so much frequency — that you drive them straight to the “Unsubscribe” button.

“If your strategy makes your list decline, something isn’t right,” Henley said. “It can be difficult to balance, because you can often realize significant revenue gains while also losing members. But that is only a short-term win.”

So how do you re-engage customers without alienating them? A strong offer is a good start. But the secret ingredient to a great re-engagement campaign — and to all types of automated email campaigns, really — is excellent content and design.

5 do’s and don’ts from DJ Henley

1. Do know your customer inside and out. More to the point, know your customer lifecycle and average customer lifetime value. “If you can become familiar with the average customer lifecycle, and their value along that time, then you can get familiar with the steps of the customer journey and use automation to hit them at critical points along that lifecycle.”

2. Don’t flood inboxes. People already get way more emails than they really want. Automation shouldn’t mean inundation. “We make a point to tell the customer up front that we’re not going to flood their inboxes.” Along those same lines: If new list members are likely to receive transactional emails based on a first-time purchase, then consider setting your first welcome email to go out a few hours after signup.

3. Do automate customer feedback. If you want to find out how a new product is being received, or how customers feel about your recently redesigned website, then set up an automation workflow soliciting feedback based on users’ website activity. “It’s not a revenue driver, but it gives you valuable information that can help you provide a better customer experience in the long run.”

4. Don’t send emails with multiple goals. “We prefer to always have just one goal for each email.” If your first email includes a coupon code, make sure all messaging leads the customer to use the code to make a purchase. On the other hand, if the goal of an email is to teach the customer about all of the other things your e-commerce store has to offer, it’s probably not a good place to try and pitch a deal.

5. Strive for balance. In any automated marketing program, you are trying to increase revenue and grow your list. “Often, these goals are at odds with each other. Maybe you can squeeze a little more revenue out of your list if you send more email, but then you’ll lose members.” But the better you know your list members — their tendencies, preferences, and tolerance level for email — the better you’ll get at striking a balance that allows you to increase both revenue and your list size.