A roadmap for taking your email marketing automation to the next level

Email marketing automation is one of the most developed areas of online marketing. There are apps, services, and pricing tailored to every level of online marketer.

As a small business owner, one of the best things you can do to boost your bottom line is take your email marketing automation to the next level. And, if you don’t yet have any email marketing automation going for you, it’s time to take it at least to “level one.”

After getting some experience there, you can start to “level up,” as gamers would say!

I’m going to look at the topic from the entry level of email marketing to the more sophisticated uses and point you toward some of the services most popular with small business owners.


The most simple form of email marketing automation is the use of the autoresponder. Virtually every email provider has autoresponder capability built into it. An autoresponder will send an email when an event takes place. You can send a thank-you email when someone signs up for your email list or makes a purchase from your website.

Good, user-friendly providers like Constant Contact make it easy to use autoresponders. MailChimp is another popular choice with the small business community.

Autoresponder campaigns

If you’re already sending out automated welcoming emails and other simple messages, it’s time to start amping up your email marketing automation. You can “connect” two or more autoresponders to create an automated email marketing campaign.

Scheduled autoresponder campaigns

Often it’s smart to create a series of emails in advance and send them out on a regular schedule. Today these are typically called “drip” campaigns; they slowly drip information to people on your email list.

With a drip campaign, you’re trying to stay “top of mind,” nurture leads, and eventually make some sales. There can be some “branching” within the campaign. For example, if someone clicks on a certain link, it might change the sequence of emails being sent.

These can be very useful and if you do it right, once you create a drip campaign, you can use it forever. The key to this is to load your emails up with evergreen content. For example, the owner of a local nursery might do a year-long drip campaign tied to milestones in the area’s planting and garden tending schedule, e.g. when to plant various seeds, when to watch out for certain pests, when nearby wildflowers are in bloom, and other local garden-related items. Within these emails, there would be special items featured for purchase. Further (and this is important) they could build to various commercial crescendos using sequences like:

  • Email 1: We’re sure looking forward to tomato planting season…
  • Email 2: Your tomato plants should start going in the ground or containers in about two weeks.
  • Email 3: It’s tomato time and we have all the best varieties in stock!
  • Email 4: Now’s the last week you can plant tomatoes and harvest them before frost hits our area. Check out our closeouts on tomato plants.

Sequences like the one above could be woven into a drip campaign that outlines gardening throughout the year.

You can use almost any email service provider (including Drip.co) to build a drip campaign, or you can use many Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems to be the engine of your drip campaign. Another way to go would be to put together your own custom solution using Zapier or IFTTT. This is a topic all its own and Matthew Guay has done a good job talking about which email systems integrate well with Zapier.

Reactive autoresponder campaigns

I haven’t seen anyone use the label “reactive autoresponder campaigns” before, but it really captures the idea behind the next level of email marketing automation. This is a email marketing when the autoresponder reacts to an action taken by a customer or prospect – and the use of the word “campaign” tells us it’s more than a one-shot response…at least in most cases.

Infusionsoft is probably the most well-known Software as a System (SaaS) provider for these kinds of campaigns. HubSpot, Act-On, and Marketo are others that offer similar automation features. The thing to look for when you want to create a more sophisticated automated email marketing campaign is what kinds of actions can “trigger” sending an email – or is the only “trigger” the passage of time.

For more powerful campaigns, the triggers need to be “events” such as viewing a webpage, downloading an item, abandoning a shopping cart, clicking on a link, making a purchase, or other online actions…and maybe even an off line action.

Where do you stand in the progression of email marketing automation? In terms of “degree of difficulty” these go from very simple one-off automated responses, to drip campaigns, to intricate reactive autoresponder campaigns that “sense” a variety of user actions to determine which emails to send.