Email Automation

Email Marketing’s corner of the Internet — the corner where designers geek out over the latest media queries and marketing  gurus praise the benefits of multivariate testing — would have you believe that if you’re not automating some part of your email marketing operation (if not all of it), you’re doing it wrong.

Now full disclosure, I have a track record of being a little contrarian. I think Sriracha is just okay. I never liked Mad Men. And I don’t think email automation is all it’s cracked up to be.

Now before you take to my village with torches and pitchforks, hear me out.

Email automation is great. There are hundreds of blog posts and case studies that detail the myriad ways that it can increase your email ROI and create a better relationship between you and your subscribers. But it’s just not for everyone, and the danger in all that pro-automation literature — and the Internet, in general — is that if you read something enough times, it becomes gospel, and when it comes to your marketing dollars and your subscriber communications, you shouldn’t let the hive mind dictate your process.

“But Harry, think about the time savings that automation creates! Wouldn’t you rather be [insert sexy marketing thing] instead of crafting a boring old email?”

The dirty little secret that gets swept under the rug whenever someone talks about the benefits of email automation: It takes a while before you can start “saving time” because you have to create all the content, workflows, else-cases, and processes up front. So in order to truly “automate” your email marketing operation, you have to do roughly 33% more work.

I’ve attended so many conference sessions where a presenter touts the time-saving element, and not one of them has ever explicitly said that automation takes more time to execute than the non-automated alternative.

I’ll concede this: If you put in the work, automation will help you do more valuable things with your time because, in theory, the work you’re doing is smarter work. Rather than cranking out the same old email, you’re targeting it to a certain subscriber scenario, which is a proven best practice. But not everyone understands that reality. They hear “automation” and think “less work,” when it’s literally the opposite.

“But Harry, what about all the functionality and tools that automation gives you! Surely that’s worth the cost of admission to email marketers!”

There’s this misconception that automation and its whiz-bang features can suit all business needs, and that’s a fallacy. Most email marketers log into their service, create a newsletter or promotion, update their lists, and then hit SEND. That’s not to say what they’re doing is the best approach, but it’s an approach that works best for them. In that lens, the bells and whistles of an email automation solution are extraneous and wasted on their process. It’s like buying a Soccer Mom SUV after you’ve just had your first child. Down the road with some growth, sure, all those amenities might be beneficial, but you shouldn’t use today’s money to pay for the distant future’s problems.

“But Harry, email marketers are rarely just that. Email automation will help them focus on all the other things on their plate with the knowledge that their email efforts are handled.”

While many email marketers are typically do-it-all marketers that just happen to do email and are looking for ways to optimize it so they can give fair attention to their other responsibilities, I question how much peace of mind email automation can actually give them. Because email marketers are always tending to so many non-email items, they’re already somewhat disconnected from their efforts. One additional avenue to “set it and forget it” could be one layer too many for lots of marketers. What starts out as a way to accomplish more could easily end up with an email plan spiraling into disarray and mismanagement.

I don’t disagree with the statement that email automation can be increasingly helpful as a company grows and scales their email marketing efforts.  There are some robust tools out there that hone in some very useful solutions, including one developed by the company that pays my bills, and I would never dissuade a marketer from going the automation route if they felt it will help them.

Ultimately, it comes down to doing the research to ensure a business is ready for email automation as much as email automation is ready for them. As is the case with most technologies du jour, the opportunity to do that research is being minimized by the industry’s thought leaders. It’s hard to think critically about potential new solutions when you’re being proselytized through success stories and flashy UIs.

If you’re evaluating email automation solutions, do yourself the solid of thinking critically before throwing down the resources, really put the solution through the wringer. If it comes up roses, the good news is two-fold — your email operation is probably in great shape, and there’s no shortage of options out there for you. Happy shopping!

Author: Harry Kaplowitz is a Product Manager for iContact. Follow him on Twitter @Inboxygen.

Art: This post features the original artwork of Rich Barrett.