What Is Workflow Automation? Definition, Examples, and Tools

Reduce your workload and boost your business at the same time.

Workflow automation is a straightforward way to streamline essential processes and minimize delays so things get done faster.

If you have reservations about automating processes, don’t worry. Workflow automation doesn’t reduce or eliminate the human element—just the opposite. It puts people at the center by automating recurring functions so that teams can do more planning, strategizing, and thinking.

What is workflow automation?

Workflow automation happens when you take a traditionally manual process and create a set of rules to automate key steps.

The steps that get automated are what some people call “if-then” actions:

  • If a customer makes a purchase, then they get an order notification.
  • If a customer adds an item to their digital shopping cart but leaves before checking out, then they get an abandoned cart email enticing them to finish the transaction.

Because actions like these don’t take much thought, they’re easy to automate. This streamlines the entire process, and you can do more with your time.

Why use workflow automation?

Workflow automation can make almost any process more efficient and effective. By taking simple tasks off your plate, it frees more time and mental energy for running and growing your business. The benefits are visible both on the operations side of things and from a team management point of view.

1. Improve clarity and consistency

Workflow automation standardizes the steps of a process, aligning them in a defined task pathway. Once that pathway is set, it becomes a guide for everyone working on that project. All someone has to do is go back to the workflow design to see what happens first, what that event triggers, what comes next, and so on.

This kind of clarity is important for today’s busy teams. Without it, there’s always the chance that a critical step will be missed. With workflow automation, it’s all there in front of you with specifics and an “if-then” flow—with many outcomes happening automatically.

2. Provide accountability

Accountability is important for any team. When you improve accountability in the workplace, you also improve:

  • Employee performance
  • Participation and involvement
  • Feelings of competence
  • Commitment to work
  • Team morale

When you set up workflow automation, you delegate certain tasks to your automated system. If any tasks need human input or approval, they get delegated to a specific person. People feel better because they know who’s taking care of what.

Plus, with automation taking care of the rote manual processes, the tasks left to real people are much more interesting.

3. Increase work satisfaction

According to Deloitte Insights, meaningful work is one of the most important contributors to employee retention. More than 40% of job-seeking workers said they were looking because their current situation didn’t use their abilities well. Another 27% cited a lack of challenge in their jobs.

When you automate mundane tasks, you increase the amount of time that employees get to spend on stimulating and mentally challenging work. Instead of spending time scheduling messages, they can craft strategic initiatives and research the latest best practices. They end up doing the jobs they were hired to do, and that makes them more likely to stick around.

4. Increase productivity

Every company has a limited number of employee hours available, no matter how big the team. As workflow automation takes redundant tasks off your team members’ to-do lists, they can fill those hours with higher-level work.

The result is better productivity for your team and its members. When professionals answered a survey after their teams automated workflows, 86% reported that the change made them more productive.

5. Reduce the risk of error

Being a human at work means needing a sense of purpose and productivity, but it also means making mistakes from time to time.

Everyone does it. They hit the wrong key and send a reimbursement request to K. Smith instead of J. Smith. They read “8” as “9” and enter it into a spreadsheet incorrectly, throwing off a full set of calculations. It happens, but when it does, it can cost money and time to fix.

When you automate manual processes, you reduce—and sometimes even eliminate—the risk of a clerical error.

Workflow automation in marketing

Workflow automation can improve almost any business process, but some of the most direct benefits to your bottom line happen when you automate your marketing.

For starters, workflow automation lets you deliver the level of personalization that today’s customers demand. According to Dynamic Yield, more than 60% of North American consumers say they’re more likely to engage with an email that’s personalized to their interests. And 80% prefer to buy from brands that personalize customer experiences.

Effective personalization is difficult when you do everything manually. Someone has to check the email list for new subscribers and send out welcome messages to those who’ve recently joined. If you have customers who’ve dropped off your radar, someone has to find their emails and schedule a “we miss you” promotional message.

Automation frees you from manual tasks like these so you can focus more on strategy, analysis, and planning. Instead of spending most of your time executing campaigns, you can work on optimizing the audience experience and determining which messages get the best results.

Segmentation

Audience segmentation is the practice of dividing your audience into subgroups, each with a particular set of shared characteristics. For example, a retail clothing brand could create segments of 20-to-35-year-olds, fitness enthusiasts, or 20-to-35-year-old fitness enthusiasts. The brand could then create personalized marketing campaigns that are relevant to each group.

Automation can allow you to segment contacts without any manual effort. The process is more efficient and accurate because the software won’t forget about a segment.

Drip campaigns

One of the most useful automation methods in marketing is the drip campaign. A drip campaign lets you set up specific messages to go out in a set sequence, based on an event or an audience member’s interaction.

Here’s how it works. A contact interacts with your brand in some way, such as:

  • Signing up for your mailing list
  • Placing an online order
  • Contacting your customer care department
  • Not buying for a while

This action triggers the first email in the drip campaign to go out automatically. Ideally, the email will include personalization with the contact’s name and a reference to the action they took. Their response (or nonresponse) to that initial email triggers the next step in the process.

Say the campaign is a promotional one for a class of products that the person browsed, and the first email offers savings on that product. If they view the email but don’t buy, they might get a similar promotional offer in a month. If they don’t open the email, they might get a “we miss you” email in 8 weeks. If they buy, they go into another drip campaign altogether.

The beauty of this process is that it’s all automated. No one has to spend time deciding whether to follow up with a contact or which message to send. No one even has to schedule an email send—it all happens based on a trigger.

Targeting shopper behavior

Automation also lets you follow up with people who would otherwise escape your reach. Consider remarketing ads and emails, for example.

A remarketing ad is a message that you send to a customer who browsed your site or looked at a particular product but decided not to add it to a cart. Later on, the person gets an ad or follow-up email for that product, possibly with a promotional offer.

You can also use automation to set up abandoned cart emails. Approximately 69% of all online shoppers abandon their carts before they check out, but you can recapture some of those lost orders by reaching out as soon as the cart is abandoned.

Mailchimp users see about 34 times more orders per recipient with cart abandonment emails than with bulk emails that aren’t personalized. You design a message that matches your brand and set it to send whenever someone abandons a cart.

Again, automation does most of the work. You just tell the system what actions you want to target and with what messages.

Why it works

Automated workflows free up time for your team. You can send messages that are more personalized with less effort. Mailchimp makes it even easier by tracking the results of those messages, so you can go into your dashboard and see what’s working best. You’ve got more time to do that when you spend less time scheduling and sending emails.

Also, because automation lets you set up and market to specific audience segments, you can build better relationships with your contacts. Your audiences come to view your messages as relevant and valuable, so they’re more likely to click on them and ultimately convert.

How to build an automated workflow

To start building a workflow automation, think of a process that you could automate. Maybe for your team, that’s building audience segments, creating targeted drip campaigns—or both. Alternatively, maybe you want to start by automating retargeting or abandoned cart emails.

These are just starting points. You can create an automated workflow for any marketing process you have that includes an if-then trigger: If the contact does this, then they’ll get this email, Google ad, or social media ad.

Setting goals

Once you’ve identified your process, decide what you want the automation to accomplish. For example, if you’re automating the abandoned cart email process, is your goal simply to reduce your number of abandoned carts? That’s one possible goal, but it’s not the only one.

You could use workflow automation to increase your average order value. In that case, you’ll want to go a step further and add product recommendations to your “You missed something!” message.

If you’re building a drip campaign, be specific about what actions you want people to take. This is an important step any time you have multiple automations within a process because the recipient’s action will trigger the next step. You’ll know the process has successfully run its course when a contact’s action matches your final goal.

Working with your team

Take your goal to your team and communicate what the workflow automation process will entail. Talk to everyone who will have a role in working with the automated process so they understand what those roles are.

You’ll probably have some people whose responsibilities will change because of the automation. Make sure they know that they’ll be working smarter, not harder. Show them why this change will make their work more satisfying and help them use their skills better.

Creating the workflow

Automated workflows are essentially flowcharts, so they’re best created in a visual format. Many automation programs, including Mailchimp’s marketing automation feature, let you build out your workflow using a drag-and-drop tool. It’s easy and hands-on, and you can edit it as you go.

Just set up the trigger and the triggered action. Then, think about what the contact could potentially do in response. What are your triggers going to be, and what will they launch within your system? Play around with it until it looks right. Remember, you can always change it later based on results.

Moving forward and measuring your results

As with everything else in marketing, it’s important to regularly evaluate how your workflow automations are doing. Are your drip campaigns getting results? If not, what steps aren’t performing?

If everything’s working great, how can you keep it working for you going forward?

The best way to answer these questions is by identifying key performance indicators (KPIs), such as:

The campaign you design will depend on the specific process you’ve automated. Choose a separate one for each process, then keep a close eye on what the numbers do. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can do with the same resources and time.