The email marketer’s guide to effective marketing automation

Learn smart ways to implement email automation. Use transactional, trigger and journey emails for higher engagement and conversions.

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We email marketers are always searching for easier ways to do our jobs. We don’t want to skimp on quality, but we have had to learn how to do a lot with a little because we’re chronically understaffed and underfunded.

Marketing automation gives you a way to have regular emails that focus on predictable behavior so we can send out an email when a customer achieves a goal or reaches a trigger or intent point. It must be a substantial part of every email marketing program.

I work with major retailers that earn at least 50% of their email revenue from automated emails like triggers, transactional emails and journey emails. That’s because these messages are highly relevant. They’re tied to a customer’s action and deliver value that should lead to a conversion.

As email marketers, we must continually review whether we’re doing marketing automation the right way. So I’ve compiled this guide as a handy way to check your program to see if you’re following best practices. 

It’s not a complete guide to marketing automation. Instead, use it as a cheat sheet for marketing automation, what it means for your company and what you need to think about to do it better and get the results you need. 

3 categories of marketing automation: Transactional, triggers and journeys

Admit it: email marketers are brilliant at using terms that have either lost their original meaning or mean different things for different people in different circumstances. Below are my definitions for these three kinds of automated emails.

1. Transactional email

These mark a transaction – an exchange of value – such as an order confirmation or a payment receipt. They can be financial or contractual. They signify not only the exchange of commitments, such as payment for a service or receipt of that payment but also the fulfillment of that commitment.

Consider two popular transactional emails in retail ecommerce: the order confirmation and the shipping confirmation. The order confirmation is like an electronic receipt, while the shipping confirmation confirms that your purchase is on its way.

Keep this archetype handy as you define what a transactional email is for categorization and legality to be sure you have covered all of your bases. 

For example, under U.S. commercial email laws and regulations (CAN-SPAM), a transactional email doesn’t require an opt-out link like a promotional email does. It is excluded from the regulations governing email because it is a necessary part of the transaction process. 

Here are seven common transactional email examples and see how they confirm a contractual relationship or the company’s part in the transaction:

  • Welcome email (Yes, really. It confirms a subscription.)
  • Order confirmations
  • Shipment confirmations or delays
  • Out-of-stock notices
  • Declined credit cards
  • Warranty delivery
  • Information about guarantee or other purchase protection
  • Recall notices for purchased products

Keep these strategic points in mind as you develop your transactional emails: 

Pay attention to email design 

Design it so the personalized information you add to them is clear, concise and organized logically. It should reflect the brand without distracting from the content and deliver key information such as order or shipment conditions so the recipient can see and understand it.

The design also must scale up for large orders. We don’t think enough about confirmation email design for people who place large online orders. With a dozen items or more, these purchases can break a template or simply look bad.

For example, I might order one or two things at a time from Amazon. My sister, an interior designer, will order 40 items or more for her business. The design must look as good for a 40-item purchase as it does for one or two items. 

Don’t forget to cross-sell or upsell

Have a cross-selling or upselling module in your transactional email to drive additional revenue. Transactional emails can be monetized if your country’s email laws and regulations permit it. You can suggest a related purchase or the next logical product a buyer would want. These can be critical for incremental revenue because customers are already in the mood to buy. 

Send transactional emails promptly

Deliver them in 30 seconds or no more than five minutes after conversion. That’s because people just gave you their credit card numbers on the web, and they are understandably paranoid given all the attention on ecommerce fraud today. Lack of prompt delivery will skyrocket calls to your customer service.  

2. Triggered email

I consider triggers to be one or two emails that launch automatically based on a customer’s action. To me, triggers are the short engagement emails I send when my customer does something to send me a signal. They don’t need to be a series or have major orchestration. I just need to send an email or two.

My definition departs from email convention. We used to think of email triggers as any marketing automation that didn’t involve money. But with the rampant adoption of more data and information, better technology and greater sophistication, we need to rethink.

Below are six common examples of triggers as I define them:

  • Browse and cart abandonment emails 
  • Welcome/onboarding email series
  • Post-purchase upsell or cross-sell messages
  • Review requests
  • Satisfaction surveys

Each of these emails can be a one- or two-shot deal. You might consider testing a three-email cart abandonment series because it’s close to conversion. But no matter what, these are short engagement automated emails.

Now, you might be wondering why the welcome is transactional but not the onboarding. I’m glad you asked! Because the onboarding is to educate you on some facet of the brand, product or service. The welcome, in essence, confirms your subscription.

Keep these strategic points in mind as you develop your trigger emails:  

They must be evergreen

They don’t need repeated changes and updates – and be specific to the purpose or customer action you want. 

Consider who should receive your emails

When you build a trigger, be sure you account for who should receive the message and the ones who shouldn’t. Many marketers make the mistake of trying to include as many people as possible in a triggered email but not whom they should exclude.

For example, you have a customer who browses a product and then exits the site. They come back later and put that product in a cart, then leave the site again. Do you send a browse reminder, an abandoned cart notice, both or neither?

Answer: Send only a cart abandonment email. Why? Because cart abandonment is much closer to intent. 

Every trigger you create should have logic for “includes” (the people who should get your email) and “excludes “(the ones who shouldn’t).

You’ll have to widen your focus, look at your automated messages as an ecosystem and think through everything. Every email automation will have different rules based on your products and audience. But the most important thing is your list of includes and excludes. 

Messages need expert timing

Test to learn when most customers are in their inboxes and in the frame of mind to pay attention to the messages.

3. Journey emails

The email journey is a series of three or more emails that take the customer through a set of information designed to lead them to a micro or macro conversion. 

Each journey email in the series has a specific function but isn’t a string of unrelated emails. They create a conversation across multiple emails. One builds on another with different content, but all remain focused on moving the customer down the path. 

Each journey has branches and complexity based on actions or the lack of action and clicks, purchases and the like. They are, however, unlike transactional or triggered emails, whose messages can be singular and linear. Journeys are generally more complex and dynamic.

Two journey emails B2B marketers use often are onboarding programs and post-purchase education.

Although journeys are common in B2B, they also can be useful in B2C email marketing for some purchases. A B2C email journey might be more simplistic and based on clicks, segments or dynamic content modules that draw on past behavior to present content. 

That level of sophistication makes it a journey. A less-sophisticated series with a linear path is a trigger, not a journey.

Triggers are sophisticated in their targeting, but journeys are sophisticated in their targeting and message, timing and approach.

Audit your email program to find out how sophisticated your post-purchase communications are. If you’re low on the journey scale, focus there because it will help you increase email revenue. (See more on email audits in the next section.)

Look at the balance between those categories to know whether your messages are covered for the customer experience and your customer’s journey with your brand.

Keep these strategic points in mind as you develop your journey emails:  

Why should customers care about your email?

Understand and account for the reasons why a customer should care about the email. We might think we have a story customers need to hear before they buy, but that’s not always true. 

Craft a storyboard

Use what you know about customer motivations to compose a storyboard that includes what your customer segments look like, your includes and excludes (see Triggered Emails above) and the decision points along the journey where a customer can branch off to a new experience.

Dig deeper: 8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

Testing: Because marketing automation is not ‘set and forget’

If I could take back anything people said about the benefit of automated emails, it would be “Set ‘em and forget ‘em.” 

You can’t set up an automated email and forget about it. You set them up and then you test them to see how well they perform. You optimize them based on your testing. Then you test and optimize again. And then you keep checking on your automations to be sure they’re delivering the results you need.

Keep these strategic points in mind for testing your email automations:

Have a testing plan 

A testing plan should be part of your workflow when you’re creating a new automated email or series. In this plan, you’ll define what to test and on what timeline. 

You can test a myriad of things in your automated emails, from design to timing, content to sending order and cadence.

Pay attention to iterations for regular improvement

Could you add a second email to a stand-alone automation? What could you add to a series? How else could you improve it?

Look for ways to add sophistication to an email journey. Review and revise your testing schedule to deliver more results you could use to optimize your emails.

Audit every marketing automation

I learned a great lesson about this from my friend and colleague Andrew Kordek when we worked together in email at a mega-retailer with stores, catalogs and ecommerce.

Andrew would inventory every marketing automation every 3 to 6 months. He printed reports with all the statistics on every email campaign. I loved reviewing those reports and seeing my improvements and what the creative looked like. I could go into any meeting and be ready to report on performance, revenue, audience and more. We kept these reports in binders and checked them regularly. 

You can follow our example to track performance and check that the creative is still in line with your brand. Set this as a recurring team task, not just one-and-done and schedule time for team review sessions.

Dig deeper: 3 ways to avoid email automation breakdowns

Marketing automation: Your cheat sheet to email success

Marketing automation is the ultimate money tree. Once you launch your programs, you’ll find there’s nothing like pulling reports and discovering how much money you made since the day before. It’s the most gratifying part of the job – seeing how the work you did six months before is paying off now.

The more automated programs you set up, the more revenue you’ll take in. But you can’t just flood the zone with automated emails. The best marketing automations are smartly planned to meet a strategic need. Then, they are given time to be developed, tested, optimized, audited and improved regularly. 

Incremental innovation pays off here. Start with something small and build on it to make it better. You don’t have to perfect the entire journey before you launch but look for ways to improve it. And you will always find ways to improve them.  

Here’s my final tip: If you think you’re done improving an automation, you aren’t. But that’s a good thing! Because you’ll be excited about the progress you see and the money you’ll make. 

Watching your programs grow because of the work you put in to help them succeed can be one of the most satisfying parts of your work as an email marketer. Savor it! And then go back and look for one more improvement.

Dig deeper: 6 must-have, underused email marketing automations

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Ryan Phelan
As the CEO of RPE Origin, Ryan Phelan's two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for global leading retail, FinTech and technology brands as well as ESP’s.

In 2023, Ryan received the industry’s top honor of Thought Leader of the Year Award and is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on email marketing.

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