The Last Guide to Triggered Emails You’ll Ever Need

Given that email is one of the most used marketing channels and that the average number of emails you get in your inbox continues to increase, you would think that email engagement is on the decline.

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I’ve been living by the Inbox Zero credo with the help of SaneBox and Gmail filters.

Well, let me surprise you by telling you that this is not the case. A 2019 UK Email Benchmark Report from over one billion emails shows that open rates for the last five years have been consistently averaging at 24,80%.

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It’s the same relatively positive report for Delivery rates:

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However…

Things don’t look that optimistic when we look at the average clickthrough rate for the past five years: 3.95%

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Even though the overall clickthrough rate has been gradually increasing since 2015, it is just too low. With the average CTR it means that for every 1,000 of our subscribers, less than 40 are taking any action in our emails. I don’t know how you feel about this number, but in my book, this is simply not enough.

The average clickthrough rate on Google Ads is about 2% (according to WordStream), and that takes into account a substantial amount of cold traffic. At first glance, it may seem that having twice as many clicks on your emails is satisfactory. Still, when you put into perspective all of the work, time, and resources needed to acquire and nurture a new email lead, this number seems like a measly edge over paid search.

Fortunately, email has gone a long way since its first incarnation as a note directory in the early 70s. Today, email marketing campaigns are more sophisticated, relevant, and personalized. While in 2005, you could only send un-targeted one-off newsletters, in 2020, you can use marketing automation tools to segment your audience, personalize your email content, and automatically send event-based triggered emails.

In this guide, I’m going to give you an introduction to automated triggered emails, explain why you should care about them, and give you practical strategies and tactics that don’t require an arm and a leg to implement.

Triggered emails are one of the most effective ways to increase your open rates, clickthrough rates, and, most importantly, deliver the desired outcome for your customers. So let’s dive in!

Who is this guide for?

This guide is for all founders, marketers and product people in charge of email marketing and marketing automation, that are looking to create a positive user experience for their audience and increase the revenue of their business.

Although a lot of the content in this post is relevant to all types of online business, this blog is still primarily geared towards software as a service (SaaS), mobile apps, and other product companies. Therefore we’re not going to explore too deep any eCommerce-related trigger emails for product purchases, abandonment cart, and so on.

Triggered Emails Explained

Triggered emails are emails that are fired by a specific action or actions performed by your website visitors, users, or customers. A lack of action could also fire triggered emails.

Across the web, you could find triggered emails named:

  • Event-based emails.
  • Behavior-based emails.
  • Automated emails.
  • Or product emails.

(Although the last two definitions have a broader meaning.)

Businesses also use “triggered campaigns” and “triggered messages” interchangeably with “triggered emails” in their marketing language. No matter what term you use to call them, they all mean the same thing — emails sent when somebody does or doesn’t do something in your product.

Unlike newsletters and promotional emails which are sent in bulk to your whole subscription base, triggered emails are personalized and typically sent to individuals one at a time.

By using behavioral data, triggered emails allow you to send the right message to the right person, at the right time, and in that way deliver a more effective marketing automation strategy.

What’s the Difference between Newsletters, Promotional Emails, Email Sequences, Triggered Emails, and Transactional Emails?

With so many marketing-related phrases tossed around casually, it can be confusing what everyone really means by behavioral emails, transactional emails, broadcasts, promotional emails, and so on.

I want to help you to establish efficient communication by getting your team on the same page when it comes to terminology. I understand that there are no hard-set definitions of these categories, but I’ll do my best to clarify what each one means in the table below:

Newsletters

Promotional emails

Email sequences

Triggered emails

Transactional emails

Also known as

Broadcasts

One-off emails

Email blasts

Batch-and-blast emails

Marketing emails

Sales emails

Time-based emails

Autoresponders

Drip emails

Event-based emails

Behavior-based emails

Action-based emails

Automated emails

Product emails

System emails

What is it

Newsletters are one-time emails with news and updates that companies send to their whole subscriber base.

Emails that are aimed at completing a purchase or making a conversion.

A time-based series of automated emails. I.e., send email 1 on day 1, send email 2 on day 3, and so on.

Emails sent based on what users do or don’t do in your app

A type of triggered email with a functional purpose.

Goals

Top of mind customer awareness.

Keep subscribers updated and informed.

Increase purchases.

Convert subscribers to paying customers.

Nurture leads.

Inform subscribers about a specific topic.

Varies:

Convert trials

Onboard users

Retain customers

Reactive unengaged users

Trigger

A specific date and time.

A specific date and time.

Varies, but it’s usually when a person downloads a lead magnet or subscribes for a product or service.

A specific (in)action or interaction

When a milestone is achieved

When certain conditions or preferences are met

A specific (in)action or interaction

When a milestone is achieved

When certain conditions or preferences are met

Recipients

The whole customer base or larger segments.

The whole customer base or larger segments.

One person but not personalized.

One person.

One person.

Examples

Weekly digest

Blog post announcement

Product updates

Partnership news

Discounts.

Exclusive offers.

Limited-time deals.

Viral contests

Product launch emails

Lead nurturing sequence

Onboarding sequence

Welcome email

Onboarding emails

Reward email for completed actions

Re-engagement emails for inactivity

Product usage summaries and activity digests

Forgotten password email

Receipts

Confirmations

Account-related alerts


As you can see, there isn’t a super clear separation between the different types of emails:

  • A newsletter could be heavily promotional when you share a new feature update along with a limited-time offer for it.
  • An abandonment cart email is a triggered email that is sent based on inactivity (not purchasing a product), but it’s transactional in nature.

The main goal is for you and your team to have a clear language when talking about these concepts as well as to understand that you need to form a diverse array of messages within a complete marketing automation strategy, instead of just blasting one-off promotional emails.

Statistics for Triggered Emails That You Should Know

Triggered emails outperform one-off email blasts and time-based email sequences by order of magnitude. To prove this point I scoured the internet and gathered some of the most insightful reports from 2019 on triggered emails:

Triggered emails have a 47% higher open rate than autoresponders and a 115% higher open rate than newsletters. Source: GetResponse Email Marketing Benchmarks for Q2 2019.

Triggered emails have a 75% higher clickthrough rate than autoresponders and a 265% higher clickthrough rate than newsletters. Source: GetResponse Email Marketing Benchmarks for Q2 2019.

Check the absolute numbers below:

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Triggered Emails Drive 24x More Revenue Per Send — One-off (batch and blast) emails generate only about $0.04 in revenue per send for the average eCommerce retailer. Behaviorally triggered emails, on the other hand, generate $0.95 in revenue per send.

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Source: Bouncex, February 2019

Triggered emails have, on average, 120% higher open rates, 110% higher click rates, and 410% higher conversion rates compared to newsletters:

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Source: Bouncex, February 2019

Want higher email engagement and better conversion? Use triggered emails. It’s no surprise event-based emails are so effective. These emails get sent at the right moment, precisely when the user is expecting them.

Why Should You Use Triggered Emails?

If you’re still not convinced that you should employ trigger-based emails in your marketing strategy, here are some tangible benefits for your product business:

  • Improve trial onboarding — identify your product’s path to success, and guide trialists. Avoid distractions, i.e. sending irrelevant emails about features that the user has already activated.
  • Boost product adoption — send reward emails when a customer activates or uses a specific feature.
  • Automate proactive support — identify customers that experience challenges with certain aspects of your product and offer proactive help in the form of links to your knowledge base, a personal call.
  • Increase customer lifetime value — identify long-time, high-value customers, and promote an annual plan to them.
  • Identify leads and increase sales velocity — track people that have visited your pricing page a certain number of times, add them to your CRM pipeline, and send an internal team email to follow-up with them.

How to Create a Holistic Triggered Email Campaign Strategy

It’s critical to understand that triggered emails are just a component (albeit a very important one) of your whole lifecycle marketing automation strategy. The mistake most product companies make when working on their emails is to jump straight to the tooling and skip doing any planning.

In this chapter, I’ll give you a step-by-step process to create a holistic triggered email strategy.

This is the typical plan I use with our clients at Encharge as a part of our done-for-you service:

  1. Start with your Lifecycle Funnel and pick a stage.
  2. Choose a goal.
  3. Map the customer path to success and the value moments.
  4. List the events and create an event tracking plan.
  5. Write the customer messaging.
  6. Think about the dynamic blocks (merge tags) in your emails.

1. Start With Your Lifecycle Funnel and Pick the Most Important Stage

There are a myriad of ways to use triggered emails in your customer messaging. Deciding that you’re going to create triggered emails for your whole product in one day is the wrong approach.

To give you an example: we spent a month planning and implementing the onboarding campaigns for one of our customers, Veremark. Building a complete implementation from day one is too much work if you’re a small to medium-sized SaaS, but most importantly, it’s not agile.

Instead, think about the customer stage that would benefit the most from relevant, timely, personalized emails. Where is your product struggling the most, and how triggered emails can help you solve the specific challenges of that stage?

I assume that at this point, you’re already familiar with your lifecycle funnel. If not, please refer to the framework I’ve provided in Create Your First Marketing Automation Strategy for Your SaaS where I share how to design a funnel that looks something like this:

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I highly encourage you to think about your most pressing issue and focus on a single problem that pertains to just one stage of your funnel:

  • Are you struggling to convert more trials to paid customers? (This is usually where the majority of early-stage SaaS companies experience difficulties based on my personal experience.) Focus on the Awareness/Interest or whatever your top of the funnel stage is. Triggered emails could help you reach a larger subset of your audience that is otherwise unreachable with high-touch/sales outreach.
  • Is your monthly customer churn higher than 5%? Focus on the retention stage. Triggered emails could help you with feature adoption and collecting feedback.
  • Are your customer acquisition costs too high? Focus on the acquisition stage. Triggered emails can help you implement an automated system that attracts qualified leads and nurture unqualified leads.

Again, do not try to solve all of your product’s problems in one go. You would have to think about your whole funnel, identify value points for each stage, work with your developers to map all of the events, write thousands of words of email copy, implement and design a lot of workflow automations and emails, and last but not least — track if your campaigns are successful across the board. It’s just going to be too overwhelming.

On the other hand, focusing just on onboarding or retention, for example, would reduce that effort by 5-10 times.

But fear not! Once you’ve created your first set of triggered emails and you’re implemented in a modern marketing automation tool like Encharge, expanding your automations is painless and would take much less time. Once you have improved your most pressing problems, you can always go back to Encharge and change or add to your strategy.

2. Choose a Business Goal

Once you’ve identified the most pressing problem that pertains to a single stage of the funnel, decide what your business goal is with triggered emails.

For example:

  • Increase trial to conversion rate.
  • Increase the CLTV (customer lifetime value)
  • Retain more customers, and so on.

Cool, that was easy!

While these are worthy goals, there are no specific timeframes or actions that guide you on how to reach the destination. Now think of your objectives within this goal. A lot of organizations use the S.M.A.R.T criteria and goal setting method to define and measure objectives. S.M.A.R.T is an acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound.

For example:

  • Increase trial to conversion rate through triggered emails with 15% by 30 Dec 2019.
  • Increase CLTV from $1,800 to $5,000 using feature adoption campaigns and upsells before the end of 2020.
  • Retain 50 more customers each month.

The next part is to figure out what metrics you want to track in order to measure the effectiveness of your emails. Open rates and clickthrough rate are obvious, but you would want to track conversions and goal completions, too.

This is easier said than done. Attribution in email marketing is ridiculously difficult. Let’s say you see an increase in your trial to paid conversion rate of people who have interacted with your onboarding emails — this could be due to the changes you made in your email campaigns, but might as well be due to dozens of other reasons: you’ve launched a winning PPC campaign and an older cohort of qualified trials is converting just now; you’ve improved your high-touch sales processes and are able to deliver more demos; you’ve rolled out a new feature; a competitor has raised prices, and so on.

With that caveat out of the way, there are a few ways to track metrics related to your triggered emails and email marketing in general:

  1. Flow/automation goals — some marketing automation tools allow you to set and track goals for workflow automations. A goal conversion in those cases is usually reached when the user enters a specific Segment. For example: consider a user converted when he or she enters the segment Paying customers. (A similar goal-setting feature is on our roadmap!)
  2. Segment customers that have interacted with your emails — Let’s say you want to track conversion across multiple workflows or see successfully converted people that have interacted with a specific email or set of emails. In Encharge you could do that by segmenting all paying customers (through a tag “paying-user” or a custom field with a specific value) with Email status that is opened (or clicked). With our native integration with Stripe, you can pull payment data like MRR and CLTV for that segment of customers. It would look like this:
    Image 2019 10 31 at 9.21.27 AM
  3. Review the activity stream on a user by user basis — the most precise but least scalable way to track someone’s customer journey is to review their activity. You can see which emails, when, and how many times they’ve opened before becoming a customer. In Encharge the user activity stream looks like this:
    Screenshot 2019 10 31 at 11.53.57 AM

3. Map the Customer Path to Success and Identify the Value Moments

Your product is big; people need to do a lot of things before they get some value out of it. Mapping every single step is going to be an overkill.

As Wes Bush from the Product-led says:

“In my experience, well over 30% of required user onboarding steps are rubbish. (Yes, yours, too.) Tell me if this sounds familiar. There are form fields that you don’t really need to ask people when signing up. There are required steps that first-time users don’t really need to complete right away. And, of course, there are steps that don’t really need to be there at all.”

–Bush, Wes. Product-Led Growth: How to Build a Product That Sells Itself

Map out the specific set of actions that users need to take in order to convert. Also, known as the path to success. Then identify the steps that are absolutely essential for users to get value and the ones that could be omitted.

For example, this is how a typical onboarding path could look like:

  1. User visits a web page.
  2. User downloads a lead magnet.
  3. You send user a time-based email nurturing sequence that promotes your software.
  4. User clicks on one of the CTAs in the nurturing sequence.
  5. User goes to signup page.
  6. User fills in 10 different signup fields
  7. You send a confirmation email to user
  8. User clicks on confirmation email.
  9. You ask user 5 more questions in order to complete the account setup.
  10. User sends a request.
  11. User invites team members, and so on. You get the idea.

There are some steps that we could easily remove from this process or at least facilitate them. For example, instead of asking the user to confirm their email before they enter the site, you could take out that step or at least postpone it until the user has experienced some value after sending their first request.

Let’s take Veremark — a reference check platform for more effective hiring. In Veremark’s case, sending the first Reference check request is the most essential moment of the onboarding journey — the biggest value moment. It’s absolutely necessary that every Veremark user reaches this point. Therefore we could send different triggered emails to nudge people to send a request.

In Encharge we have created a reward email that gets triggered when the user submits their first request and a nudge email that gets sent if the user hasn’t sent a request after four days of trial.

Screenshot 2019 10 31 at 2.57.37 PM

^ Reward email

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^ Signed up, but no request completed.

The goal of this step of the process is to map the moments that are a must for each user in your app and create the shortest possible path for your users to experience the desired outcome — in Veremark’s case that is hire faster, more effectively.

4. List the Events and Create an Event Tracking Plan

In marketing automation technical terms, the value moments are known as Events.

These are actions that users perform in your app: page visits, link clicks, button clicks, email interactions, or things that happen on the backend like successfully sending a request, using a certain number of credits, credit card charges, and so on.

In order to be able to execute triggered emails in your marketing automation software, your developers must record these events and send them over to the marketing automation tool. Then, the marketing automation tool can initiate a flow or trigger a specific email when an event is fired. In other words: trigger emails based on user behavior.

For example: When a new request is submitted > send a reward email.

This is how recorded events look behind the scenes. This is how your developers will send data to Encharge, not something you need to deal as a non-developer:

Screenshot 2019 10 31 at 3.15.12 PM

Event Properties

As you probably notice, there’s a little section named “properties”. Each event has (optional) properties associated with it. Properties help you to send more targeted messages, narrow down your audience, and segment users based on specific attributes.

For example, the event “Sent Request” could have the following set of Properties:

  • requestID – ID of the request
  • numChecks – Number of checks in request criteria (I.e. 1, 2, 5, etc.)
  • referenceCheck – Does this request include a reference check? Boolean (I.e. 1 – Yes or 0 – No)
  • employmentCheck – Does this request include an employment check? Boolean.

That way you can trigger different emails when the Request has a Reference Check or Employment Check or create segments of users based on these properties.

Event Naming Conventions

You might not realize this as you just start with events and trigger emails, but there are many ways to name the exact same event. This screenshot from Segment.com illustrates the problem clearly:

Screenshot 2019 10 31 at 3.40.13 PM

It’s important that you pick a single naming framework and ensure your whole team, including marketers, developers, and product people, stick to it.

Segment.com has a very detailed resource on the topic of event naming conventions that I encourage you to explore. In a nutshell, they recommend using the Object-Action naming framework.

“The idea is simple. First, choose your objects (e.g., Product, Application, etc.). Then define actions your customers can perform on those objects (e.g., Viewed, Installed, etc.). When you put it all together, your event reads Product Viewed or Application Installed.”

framework

As you can see, we’re also using that convention with our customers.

What Events Would You Record?

Again, you don’t want to record every single event in your app. Depending on the size of your user base, you could have hundreds and thousands of different events that generate millions of data points. You only want to record the events that are directly connected with the value moments that you have identified in the previous step.

Who Is In Charge of the Events (and the Triggered Emails)?

We’ve noticed that there’s a confusion when it comes to working with events and triggered emails. Who exactly owns them? Who is in charge of recording events? Who defines events? Who creates the triggered emails? Is it the developer, the product person or the marketer?

I’ll try to clarify and answer these questions:

As a marketer, founder, or product person, nobody knows your product’s customer journey better than you. It’s your job to define the value moments and the specific events you want to record. You need to list these events for your developers (see the next section to learn how).

Once you have the events listed, your engineering team needs to record these events and send them to Encharge (or another marketing automation tool). Your developers can get events in Encharge through Segment.com, Ingestion API, or Javascript tracking. You can forward this page to your development team.

Once the connection is complete, and the events are flowing from your product to Encharge, you’d be able to use these events in Encharge to create powerful triggered email campaigns and behavior-based customer journeys.

Create an Event Tracking Plan

An event tracking plan can help you get started with events. Our good friends at Segment have provided us with excellent Event Tracking Plans for SaaS, eCommerce, and even video.

This is the Event Tracking Plan we have implemented for the onboarding in Veremark:

Screenshot 2019 10 31 at 4.26.42 PM

As a marketer, it’s your responsibility to list the name of the events, why you need to track them (remember — we’re only tracking events related to value moments), and the properties. Then, your developers can take from there and fill in the rest of the columns like Location, Sample Code, and the Status of the event implementation.

Once an event is integrated, the developers go back to the tracking plan and mark Coded / Deployed and Tested as Yes. This means that you can use the event in Encharge.

Do not worry if you mess up event names or properties. The purpose of this plan is to make sure you figure out these things before your developers start implementing them. Even then, you can still make iterations to the plan.

Using Segment.com to Track Events

Segment.com is the most popular data piping tool. With Segment you can collect, standardize, and activate your customer data and events in the marketing and analytics tools, all with a single API. In other words, once your developers have integrated with Segment, you can easily send events to Encharge and hundreds of other marketing and analytical tools without any additional development.

It’s the tool we recommend SaaS companies to integrate with, as we offer a seamless, native integration with Segment.

How to Use Encharge to Create Triggered Emails?

All right, you have your app events connected with Encharge. Now you can unleash your marketing imagination and start building behavior-based workflows!

Building trigger-based events is as easy as one-two-three in Encharge.

  1. Drop the “Event” Trigger shape on to the canvas area. If you’re using Segment.com to send events, then make sure to use the “Segment Event” Trigger.
  2. Configure the step. Enter the name exactly as it’s written in your event tracking plan. For example “Request Sent”
  3. You can filter by a specific property in the Event step. For example, only trigger Requests that have an employment check. In that case, the Property needs to be “employmentCheck” is 1.
  4. Send an email… or do whatever you want to do with that trigger. You can tag the person, show them an in-app Intercom message, add to a custom Facebook audience, and so on.

This is how it looks in practice:

The Last Guide to Triggered Emails You’ll Ever Need

Time to Start Sending Trigger Emails!

I hope this guide will help you wrap your head around triggered emails, events, and the process of implementing them. If you decide to go with Encharge for your product messaging needs, then you’re welcome to book a free marketing consultation call with me, so that we can discuss your marketing automation strategy.

In the next post, I’m going to share with you a few triggered email examples and the potential events and properties that could be used with each email, so make sure to subscribe to our blog and stay tuned.

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