Email Automation – Starter’s Guide, Provider Comparison, and Practical Uses

12/07/2016 12:28

Email automation - send newsletters like a pro

Table of Contents:


Relevance – The Gold Standard of Email Marketing

I have been working in email marketing for nearly ten years now, and it’s a rare occasion when I actually find myself surprised. Then again, never say never.

I feel like email automation is the first real innovation in years. Obviously the big players (think of Amazon, for instance) know the technology well. But for the longest time, smaller and medium-sized businesses didn’t get to play in that particular sandbox. Now, however, things look a bit different.

Whenever you participate in email marketing, you’re constantly trying to stay relevant: The right message at the right time, read by the right recipient. If you can’t hit that trifecta, your campaign will head to the trash without the slightest chance of being read.

Possible scenarios are a zero percent response rate, an unsubscription, or, in the worst case, accusations of being a spammer – all because your message was irrelevant at the time. Such negative signals can deal a severe blow to your deliverability rating.

Email automation is hailed as the ultimate solution to staying relevant. However, only large corporations have been able to benefit from automation because the software solutions were obscenely expensive for the longest time.

More recently, a few comparatively inexpensive providers have entered the market with cleverly engineered feature sets that go well beyond a classic auto-responder. Which providers, you ask? And how to get the most out of them? Keep reading to find out.


Video: What is E-Mail Automation?



What Kinds of Email Automation Are There?

In order to make the topic a bit easier to digest, let’s divide it into three categories:



These are basically automation solutions for beginners – almost any newsletter tool should be able to handle this, no questions asked. So, nothing new to report here.

Auto-Responder Emails

This refers to an automated series of emails which are sent according to a predetermined schedule. For instance, take a potential customer who downloads a fitness app and fills out a registration form in order to use it. A day later, he will receive an email with information on how to use the app. On day two, you send him workout plans. And on day three, you follow up with diet plans, and so on. All you have to do is get the sequence started, that’s it.


auto-responder CleverReach
Fig. 1: A traditional auto-responder feature in MailChimp


Birthday Emails

These are emails that are sent on a specific date. However, don’t be fooled by the name - the feature is not restricted to birthdays, of course – for example, an auto repair shop can also use it to remind its customers of their yearly inspection date.

As mentioned above – nothing too exciting here. So let’s move on.



These following scenarios are a bit more complex, but still manageable with some of the better-known newsletter tools.

Trigger Campaigns Based On Email Behavior

Let’s assume that our fitness app user (we’ll call him Jim) opens a link in your newsletter – the link is about losing weight. As a result of the click, Jim will receive another email two days later – an email specific to weight loss. Normally, this should be of increased interest to Jim. But we can even go one step further.


If we really want to make sure whether Jim is interested in losing weight, we can also use tags. This refers to a kind of attribute in a database.

For example, the tag “weight loss”. Jim’s interest in this topic is noted (“tagged”) when clicking on at least two articles on the subject in your newsletter. Another tag could be “weight loss – strong interest” – this time for readers who have clicked on such a link at least five times.

By using tags, you can send emails to exactly the right contacts instead of bothering others with topics that they aren’t interested in.

Here’s an example:

activecampaign tagging
Fig. 2: Tagging feature in ActiveCampaign


If that doesn’t impress you, then listen up. By using the right tools, you can take data collection to the next level on your website – before the potential customer even signs up for your newsletter! How does that work? I’m glad you asked.

Website Tracking

Now let’s assume that our fitness fan Jim is taking a look at the fitness app website for the first time. As our newsletter software tracking code is implemented on the website, we can tell that it’s Jim, even if we don’t know his name or his email address. Once he registers for the app or the newsletter, we can connect his visitation data with his contact information. There is no loss of data because a tracking cookie is active from the very beginning.

website tracking activecampaign
Fig. 3: Website tracking in ActiveCampaign

Based on website visitor data, we can send out more intelligent emails. If Jim has visited the pricing page 15 times, but still hasn’t decided to purchase a paid plan, he might think that the app is too expensive. In that case, you can respond by offering a coupon and asking whether there’s any particular reason why he’s hesitating.

Workflows (If-Then-Else Conditions)

But wait – there’s more! Take automatic shopping cart abandonment emails, for instance:

automation workflow activecampaign
Fig. 4: Shopping cancellation workflow in ActiveCampaign

The sky's the limit: Some newsletter tools will even let you adjust your newsletter content to match certain tags or actions – it’s all about dynamic content.

Ecommerce Tracking

You can link up that workflow with your ecommerce store and create dependencies between your newsletters and actual purchases (or even sales figures). While website tracking is easy to implement (just copy a bit of code to your page), ecommerce tracking is a bit more complicated to manage. You’ll need some deeper technical insight to move forward (as an example, here’s the SendInBlue manual on the subject).

follow-up automation GetResponse
Fig. 5: Follow-up email for buyers in GetResponse

Lead Scoring

Every salesperson’s dream is closing a deal with every call. If you use lead scoring correctly, that dream is closer to becoming reality than ever before. You can assign points for each action (visiting the website, making a purchase, etc.). As soon as a contact has hit a certain number of points (without knowing about it, of course), the salesperson can be notified.

And while this is almost moving into CRM territory, you can do this with professional newsletter tools such as ActiveCampaign, too.



Which Providers Should You Look At (And How Expensive Are They)?

Check out this handy table to compare four of the best providers:

  ActiveCampaign GetResponse SendInBlue MailChimp
Auto-Responder ja ja ja ja
"Birthday" emails ja ja ja ja
Trigger emails ja ja ja ja
Tagging ja ja ja(*) nein
Website tracking ja ja ja ja
Workflow view ja ja ja nein
Ecommerce tracking ja ja ja ja
Lead scoring ja ja nein nein
Prices (Cost calculator) From $9/mo. for up to 500 recipients From $15/mo. for up to 1,000 recipients From $0 for up to 9,000 emails/mo. (up to 300/day) From $10/mo. for up to 500 emails
Rating 5 4 3.5 2
Trial version  14-day free trial 30-day free trial  Free plan Free plan

(*) You can automatically change the attributes for contacts after certain actions. Tagging features are particularly useful when a single contact can have multiple tags. This solution, however, requires you to set up an individual database cell for each new tag. While that’s definitely a way that this can be done, it’s not particularly elegant.

There’s definitely a clear winner among these four providers: ActiveCampaign wipes the floor with all the others. Almost anything is possible with them, and even the pricing's on point – apart from SendInBlue, the other tools are more expensive than ActiveCampaign’s Lite plan.

GetResponse offers an exciting range of features, especially thanks to tagging and lead scoring being available right from the start. Now site tracking is also available, which means that you can use certain website activities (e.g. a visit to a specific page) in your workflows.

And newcomer SendInblue also offers solid website integration, which will allow you to use website visitor data to automate your email marketing. Their prices are also enjoyably low.

MailChimp, on the other hand, does a few things right, but feels unnecessarily complicated due to the missing workflow view. Their system is also very inflexible when it comes to changing existing workflows.



It’s fascinating to see what you can do with modern newsletter software. The amount of data you can collect and use for marketing purposes is astounding. However, it’s important to use the data wisely. When you compare the possibilities of automation with the status quo, here’s our conclusion:

Send fewer messages! But make these messages better, more relevant, and more accurate for each specific customer. The results will speak for themselves.

We’re happy to report that more and more DIY tools are moving into automation territory. Among the tools we tested, however, only ActiveCampaign is really ready for prime-time. There may be other professional tools out there, such as Infusionsoft or Ontraport, but they aren’t covered by this test – mainly due to the fact that even their cheapest plans are at least four times more expensive than these four.

We’re excited to see how MailChimp, the biggest among the newsletter service providers, will try to hold its ground in the future. Because when it comes to automation, they aren’t doing too well at the moment.


I hope you liked this article! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave me a comment.

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