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Six questions for your trigger emails

Author's avatar By Mark Brownlow 20 Sep, 2012
Essential Essential topic

Trigger emails are great, but they have their issues

My sister calls me Eeyore, as I'm ever-ready to puncture her bubbly balloon of optimism with a pithy "I lost my tail".

One of email marketing's brightest balloons is the trigger email.

We can describe trigger emails as the emails you send out in response to a customer action (e.g. an order confirmation mail) or a specific piece of event-related customer data (e.g. a birthday email with a coupon inside).

They've lovely beasts.

Because they're customised to a tightly-defined action or piece of data, trigger emails tend to be more timely, relevant and valuable than your traditional promotional email.

The results speak for themselves.

For example, for every £1 VIE at home spends on refill reminder emails, it gets £190 back in sales (£243 for cart abandonment emails).

So trigger emails, which vary from the lowly welcome series to emails activated by very specific website browsing behaviours, are a solid bet for those looking to move their email marketing "to the next level".

But that doesn't mean they're not without their issues. So let me channel the spirit of Eeyore with just a sample of questions to ask of your trigger email efforts:

1. Did you optimise your basic email efforts?

In all the excitement of a new shiny toy, it's easy to forget to optimise the emails you already send. Do new trigger email initiatives represent low-hanging fruit or are there more pressing issues you need to address? For example:

  • Are you exploiting your existing, basic trigger programs in full or does the welcome email still use the template provided by IT?
  • Are your order confirmation emails optimised for recognition and clarity, perhaps with sidebar space for relevant marketing messages?
  • And what about your other emails? Before embarking on trigger initiatives, might you simply lift frequency a touch or make those links more mobile-friendly for quick revenue wins?

2. Should/do you have frequency caps in place?

Not every trigger is as easily defined and set up as, for example, the welcome email: "send after someone joins the email list".

As Dave Chaffey writes:

"To setup event-triggered email does need investment in a project to work through the relevant creative treatment and targeting for different customer actions and position in the lifecycle."

One key question is how many times do you send the trigger email?

It's obvious for an order confirmation. But what about emails triggered by website browsing behavior? (Not to mention defining what kind of browsing behavior deserves an email follow-up).

When does repetitive messaging move from persuasive to irritating? My children's Lego Star Wars obsession of early 2011 saw my inbox look like this:

trigger emails

Where is the line between driving incremental response and customer satisfaction through trigger messages and alienating the recipient?

  • How do trigger emails fit into wider frequency requirements or limits?
  • Given their relevancy, should they count toward frequency in the same way an undifferentiated promotional email would?
  • Shouldn't you raise the cap if you're including trigger emails?
  • How do you define frequency caps?
  • How do you calculate optimum frequency anyway?
  • Can you define it for the entire list, segments or individuals?
  • Which triggers would you stop sending if a recipient passes some defined upper frequency limit?
  • Or do you reduce your broadcast email to compensate?
  • Or does it even matter how many triggers you send?

3. Can you modify trigger rules for different recipients?

A set of rules defining when a trigger is sent may not be appropriate for every recipient. Two examples:

  • I always return to my abandoned shopping cart a week later and buy the products: can you exclude me from your shopping cart abandonment email programme?
  • I marked that Lego Landspeeder purchase as a gift: should that change the upsell trigger emails I subsequently receive?

4. What happens when everyone does it?

Trigger emails are popular, but not as widespread as you might assume. For example, RedEye recently found "17% of retailers implement a basket abandonment email".

Does the implementation of a trigger email programme need to change, if and when triggers become more widespread?

When you're the only company sending customers a birthday email, it's hard to get it wrong. But what happens when you're the seventeenth to do so?

Do you need to reassess sending times, copy, content and trigger rules as the email environment and recipient expectations change?

5. Do triggers change recipient behaviour? (And does that matter?)

I'm almost tempted to leave it at the headline question, because it's such an unexplored area.

For example, do regular replenishment emails condition customers to wait for these emails before repurchasing? Is that positive or negative?

Particular care has to be taken where coupons or discounts are involved.

If I know you'll send me a 20% discount coupon for my birthday, do I delay a full-price purchase until I get that coupon?

Do consumers "game the system"? I know I've abandoned a shopping cart just to see if the retailer sends an abandoned cart email with a coupon in it.

6. Are you measuring success properly?

Trigger emails are also subject to the attribution and measurement issues faced by traditional email programs.

In particular, many marketers forget the organic percentage: the people who would have bought anyway.

A proper understanding of the incremental benefits of a trigger email programme accounts for this percentage. For example:

  • How many would have reordered the product from you even if you hadn't sent the replenishment email?
  • How many would have returned to the shopping cart even without your email reminder?

This is where hold out tests are important.

And what about the costs of setting up the trigger program in the first place? You rarely hear about those.

Welcome emails are easy to implement with any self-respecting bit of email marketing software. Integrating website analytics, customer databases and email systems can be a different matter.

And can you account for the intangible and indirect benefits from trigger emails that are as much about service as selling?

  • How do you judge the impact of a post-purchase email with tips on how to best use that new camera?
  • What about the indirect benefits of product review request emails?
  • Just how do you measure the success of a friendly thank-you message?
  • What about those who didn't need to buy from the replenishment email, but were grateful that you thought of them?

None of these questions are meant to downplay the undoubted value of trigger emails. Compared to conventional marketing emails, they are generally far more relevant to the recipient, while driving higher per-email responses for the sender (sales, goodwill, loyalty, reviews etc.).

But they still require more thought than most media and vendor coverage would have us believe!

Author's avatar

By Mark Brownlow

Mark Brownlow is a former email copywriter and publisher of the retired Email Marketing Reports site. He now works as a lecturer and writer. Connect with him via Lost Opinions.

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