Adam T. Sutton

Trigger Happy: Why emails are the magic bullets of marketing automation and shopping cart recovery

January 10th, 2012

Triggered emails are rarely discussed as a standalone tactic. Buzzwords like “marketing automation” and “shopping cart recovery” are everywhere, but the automated messages behind them seem to be taken for granted.

After 2011, I am no longer taking triggered emails for granted. I interviewed scores of marketers that used them to achieve fantastic results by:

Through these and many similar campaigns, I have noticed that triggered messages have tremendously higher engagement rates than most other emails. Why is that?


Triggered emails are VERY relevant

Relevance, as we all know, is the guiding principle of email marketing. A relevant email is much more likely to be engaged than an irrelevant one. There are three key factors in relevance, and a solid triggered campaign fits this framework beautifully:

Factor #1. Content – Your email has to deliver a message the recipient cares about. Since triggered emails are based on the recipients’ behaviors, they can speak directly to the recipients’ interests. You know what they’re interested in because they told you (through their actions).

Factor #2. Timing – The time your email reaches a recipient has tremendous impact on its results. With a triggered email, your timing is based on the recipients’ timing. You know when to reach out because you know when they acted.

Factor #3. Audience – Email marketers improve results by segmenting their lists to remove irrelevant contacts. With triggered emails, the audience self-qualifies through its behavior. You can be certain you’re reaching the right people because you can be certain of their actions.

So, does all this “theorizing” actually turn into effective marketing? Absolutely.

For lead-nurturing marketers, let’s say a lead browsed a specific area of your website and downloaded a related whitepaper. You can automatically send a series of emails to continue nurturing the lead with related content. You reach the right person, with the right content, at the right time. This is much more relevant than sending a general newsletter and hoping it’s relevant to your entire audience. (It’s not.)

For direct-sale marketers, let’s say you have a product that expires, such as a software license, or a product that needs service, such as a vacuum cleaner. You know the exact date the person bought the product, so you also know when the product will need to be serviced or renewed. Why not schedule a friendly reminder to reach these customers a few days beforehand? Maybe give them a small discount? You will be reaching the right audience, with the right content, at the right time.


“Set it and forget it” is a myth

Triggered emails can be applied in your marketing in many ways, and they can add a tremendous amount of relevance to your email program. Sure, some might reach a small audience, but they can have phenomenal conversion rates and require very little on-going investment.

But don’t start thinking you can leave a triggered campaign on autopilot forever. That would be ignoring another factor that makes these emails so effective: their “optimizability.”

Yes, that is indeed a silly word. It is a short way of saying that you can take what you know about the audience and use it to optimize the timing and messaging of a triggered email. You can test and tweak to improve results among a very targeted audience.

And the needs of these audiences will change over time. For example, you cannot offer the same whitepaper for years and years. It will eventually be outdated and you’ll be harming your brand by sending it. Similarly, product details change over time, and any triggers that are tied to expiration dates run the risk of becoming irrelevant if those dates change.

You must periodically revisit triggered campaigns to monitor their results, update their content, and test for improvements. Even airplanes have to be taken off autopilot now and again.


A fleet of triggered emails

Triggered campaigns are getting more popular, and I know of at least one company that has eliminated its email newsletter entirely. These companies are devoting more resources to improving, updating and multiplying their triggered emails because they get greater returns than batch-and-blast campaigns.

I won’t be as bold to say that triggered emails will soon dominate the landscape, but I do expect to see a lot more of them. And who knows? Five years from now, you might find yourself managing a fleet of automated campaigns rather than trying to guess what should be in your newsletter.


Related Resources:

Email Relevance: 8 tactics for leveraging timing, segmentation and content

Email Research: The 5 best email variables to test

Email Marketing: How to sprinkle subscribers with a well-timed welcome in 5 steps

Email Marketing: Groupon’s segmentation strategies across 115 million subscribers

Research Update: The state of email marketing testing and optimization


Adam T. Sutton

About Adam T. Sutton

Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter, MarketingSherpa
Adam generates content for MarketingSherpa's Email and Inbound Marketing newsletters. His years of experience in interviewing marketers and conveying their insights has spanned topics such as search marketing, social media marketing, ecommerce, email and more. Adam previously powered the content behind MarketingSherpa's Search and Consumer-marketing newsletters and carries that experience into his new role. Today, in addition to writing articles, he contributes content to the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa blogs, as well as MECLABS webinars, workshops and summits.

Prior to joining MarketingSherpa, Adam was the Managing Editor at the Mequoda group. There he created content and promotions for the company's daily email newsletter and managed its schedule.

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , , , ,

  1. January 14th, 2012 at 17:53 | #1

    Thanks for a great post, Adam. I’m in 100% agreement that timing plays a pivotal role in how likely a recipient is to open. In fact, we recommend that our merchants send their first email almost immediately after an abandoned order occurs. People abandon for all sorts of reasons, but if you can catch them quickly and in context they are much more likely to re-engage.

  2. January 16th, 2012 at 12:14 | #2

    I knew that this was coming.

    It had to.

    Being bombarded by “numbered days” email is old news and it lacks the fluid and interactive motion that the internet is capable of currently, besides that it looks fake and seems too “sales pitchy” to the receiver.

    This is yet another evolutionary step of new technology towards something that works better than it’s predecessor !

    It’s a great time to be a big kid !

  3. January 16th, 2012 at 15:45 | #3

    Hi Guys — thank you for commenting. I, too, am excited to see the future of triggered emails. The most recent interviews I’ve had on the topic further affirm my belief that companies will build them out into lifecycle programs that are tied to customer attributes like behavior and product choice.

  4. February 17th, 2012 at 09:26 | #4

    Thank you, great post Adam. As you say relevance and recency drive better results from triggered emails. We normally see 30% to 45% click through rates. On timing we would recommend testing. You normally find waiting 45 to 60 minutes is best because buyers may still be comparison shopping. Also test a second follow up the next day and/or three days later. The most extraordinary thing is only 15% of retailers do trigger emails such as cart abandonment.

  5. February 17th, 2012 at 10:41 | #5

    I agree relevance is the key to successful triggered email marketing. Segmenting your customer list and integrating behavioral data into email communication can lead you to better results, higher conversion, more customers and improved ROI. You have to nurture and update your information; you can’t just do this once. It is a different view of the world treating customers based on their behavior. Sounds new, but this theory has been around forever. This is direct response marketing at its finest; the more relevant the message the better the response rate.

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