What Every SMB Needs to Know

About Marketing Automation

The term ‘marketing automation’ may sound like an enterprise-level concept, but it can actually be an SMB’s best friend. When implemented correctly, marketing automation enables you to cultivate strong customer relationships while saving tons of time in the process.

Automating your marketing efforts can also grow your customer database more effectively.  Did you know that marketing automation software results in twice the amount of leads than email blast software?

So, in 2018, it’s fair to say that eCommerce retailers who aren’t currently using marketing automation software (or planning to use when they have the budget) are losing out on a lot of sales.

What is marketing automation?

For retailers, marketing automation means automating how you communicate with your customers (typically via email). Where simple email marketing usually entails email blasts and one-to-many messages, marketing automation can factor in individual activity and then tailor your messages depending on their profile.

By automating your marketing programs, you are can your email relevancy, which in turn boosts opens, clicks, and ultimately, purchases.

Marketing automation in action

Now that you have a brief background about marketing automation let’s look at use cases, examples, and tips you can apply to your campaigns.  

Capturing subscribers

The first task you will have to deal with when using marketing automation is capturing subscribers. After all, you can’t automate marketing if you don’t have any contacts. Retailers capture subscribers in two main ways:

  • At the check-out. This method can be used both in physical locations and online. (Think of the cashier asking, “What’s your email address?”)
  • Calls-to-action (CTAs) on a website offering an incentive in exchange for the contact’s email address. (Think of the pop-up box that appears when you’re on a webpage asking for your email address in exchange for a discount or news updates.)

Let’s talk about capturing at checkout. All eCommerce stores require email addresses when the shopper goes through the checkout process – after all, you have to be able to send confirmation emails and shipping updates.

However, depending on a country’s laws, collecting a contact’s email at checkout does not mean they’ve consented to receive marketing emails from you (this is particularly true in Canada and the EU).

It is necessary for you to get explicit consent to send marketing emails. The easiest way to accomplish this is by including a checkbox at checkout with some copy like “I would like to receive discounts via email.”

You can see the screenshot below of how Modcloth does this. It’s worth testing whether pre-checking the checkbox works better than not doing so. Most retailers pre-check, but it’s not always the case.

Having covered the most straightforward method of capturing subscribers, let’s move on to incentivized CTAs. Incentivized CTAs allow you to capture contacts who haven’t bought from you yet. This is typically done via a web form.

Once you have their info, you can use all your marketing automation power to convert these contacts into [loyal] customers.

There are many styles and placements for your capture forms. Here’s a list of the most common:

  • Lightbox pop-ups. These are those forms that pop-up in the middle of a page while you’re browsing. These forms are time-triggered, meaning you can set the form to appear after a contact has been on the page for a certain amount of time. Although people claim to hate these forms, they’re widely considered to be the most successful of all email capture forms.
  • Exit-intent pop-ups. These pop-ups look the same as lightbox pop-up, but rather than being time-triggered, they’re triggered by a reader moving their pointer towards the exit button. (Please note: exit-intents can only be shown on desktop.)
  • Floating bars. Floating bars are one of the least intrusive placements for an incentivized CTA. They are only a few pixels in height and sit at the top of your webpage, ‘floating’ beneath the URL bar. (As a note, many eCommerce companies prefer to use a floating bar to display their free shipping threshold or other current promotions. This may be a better use for the floating bar, because they tend to be low performers in terms of email capture.)
  • Sidebars. Sidebar forms are popular on blog posts, in particular. As the name suggests, these forms sit to the side of a webpage, out of the way of the content. They can sit there permanently (as in, they are on the page as soon as the visitor arrives and appear to be an intended part of the page design). However, because permanent sidebars are less noticeable and therefore often lower performers, many people choose to have their sidebars time-triggered so that they’ll appear and float into position on the page.  
  • Loyalty Programs. Loyalty program forms, such as pop-up widgets, are a quick, easy and mutually beneficial way to collect email addresses. These pop-ups are most effective when they are eye-catching and immediately show benefits of joining i.e., signing-up could instantly earn the customer points, before they even make a purchase.

You should test all these methods out. You’ll most likely end up with more than one on your pages. You may also find that you don’t want to run the same forms and incentives on every page of your site.

Incentivizing people to give you their email address

Now, let’s talk incentives.

The concept behind this practice is that you are asking someone to give you their contact data in return for an incentive (i.e. discount, contest entry, etc.)

The more information you request, the sweeter the incentive should be. Currently, most retailers will only ask for email address up front as other data can be gathered along the way. You will, of course, have to settle on your own incentives based on your brand. And then you’ll have to test those incentives out to see which ones perform best.

ith that said, here are some ideas:

  • Offer early access to new products via email. You may find that you don’t use this incentive all year round, but only around times when you’re about to launch a new line. This incentive, when applied right, can do double duty of winning you new contacts and getting your loyal customers excited about new products. **
  • Offer exclusive discounts via email. Something like weekly deals for email subscribers. This incentive could work well for a brand who generally doesn’t discount. You may be able to keep the prestige of being a full-price brand, while still incentivizing subscribers and making sales. **
  • Run a giveaway. Big or small, giveaways are a great way to collect emails. And you can make a giveaway do double-duty by allowing multiple entries when people follow you on your social accounts, as well.
  • Use your loyalty program. If you’re running a loyalty program, use it to incentivize people to provide their email address. You can, for example, give them instant loyalty points simply by signing up.
  • Offer “back in stock” notifications. Sephora’s online store allows a customer to enter their email to receive an email notification when a particular sold out item is back in stock – it’s a very clever incentive to hand over an email address. If you’re planning to do this on your eCommerce site, see if your platform has a built-in ‘back in stock’ feature or if you can use a plugin that does this for you.  **

Segmentation, the key to relevancy

Once you’ve captured your contacts, it’s time to move on to segmentation. Segmentation is sorting your contacts by data you gather about them. This practice allows you to hone your email messaging, making it highly relevant to each contact.

Here’s a list of some of the data you might want to segment contacts by:

  • Web page view
  • Add to cart
  • Abandoned cart
  • Physical location
  • Item preferences
  • Customer age
  • Buyer persona

Once a contact converts into a customer, you should also segment by the RFM method. (Depending on how your buyer personas are set up, RFM segmentation may fall into your buyer persona segmentation.)

RFM stands for recency, frequency, and monetary. The basic idea is to segment your customers based on how recently they’ve purchased from you, how frequently they purchase from you, and how much money they spend with you. Essentially, you’re able to break out lists of loyal customers, big spenders, sporadic customers, and low spenders.

You create between 3-4 tiers of customers for each of the letters. Tier 1 would represent the best within that tier, while the final tier would have the worst. Therefore, tier 1 for recency would contain those who purchased just an hour ago to two weeks ago (you’ll have to determine for yourself what time period tier 1 should be), while tier 4 might hold those whose last purchase was 8 months to a year ago, for instance. Same goes for the F and M. To demonstrate what this looks like, check out this diagram from Optimove:

The result of RFM segmentation is that you can target customers with messages that are personalized to how they like to spend money. You could, for instance, send customers who spend frequently and a in large amounts emails suggesting big-ticket items. Customers who purchase frequently, but in small amounts could be rewarded for their loyalty with referral promotions. You can easily identify and target customers who need to be re-engaged, as well.

Set up triggers to create automation campaigns

With marketing automation software, there are two types of emails you can send: blast emails and automated emails. A well-rounded strategy includes both, though when executed well, automated messages perform an average of 3 times better than blasts.

Blasts allow you to share a one-time message with new information to a large group of contacts, while automated emails allow you to engage with your subscribers through a flow of emails that you automatically send based on specific triggers.  

Automated emails are set up ahead of time and placed into email flows, where they are sent once a contact triggers them. (As a note, some software providers will call a ‘flow’ a ‘nurture track’ or a ‘drip campaign.’) A workflow can be triggered by two overarching types of behaviors:

  • A contact’s action on your site. Through the cookie it places on your contact at the time of initial sign-up, your marketing automation software will be tracking your contact’s every action on your site. It can see what pages they view, which products are added to their cart, and when they make a purchase, etc. You can trigger emails to your contacts on all manner of actions to speak to them at their point of most engagement.
  • A contact’s property changes or becomes known. A ‘property’ is a piece of data about a contact. All data about your contacts other than site actions will be stored as a property. For instance, a customer’s birth date, address, and phone number are properties. Ultimately, these properties can be used to trigger an email when information changes or becomes known.

Marketing automation triggers in action

What exactly does an automated flow look like? Here are some ways that you can trigger a marketing automation sequence:

  1. Welcome series

A welcome series, as its name implies, is a nurture track that welcomes a subscriber and introduces them to your brand. The first email should, in particular, be the one to give an overview of who you are and what they should expect. This welcome email from the Farmer’s Dog achieves this spectacularly:

The emails after the welcome message would be completely up to you and your goals. You may want to send them some of your most popular content to ‘show them around’ your site. You may want to get a certain piece of data from them, so you focus on getting them to fill out a form. You may be focused on getting them to use a welcome discount within a certain timeframe.

  1. Abandoned cart email

An abandoned cart email is triggered when a contact leaves your site while still having items in their shopping cart. Abandoned cart emails should be a top priority for eCommerce stores, given that 74.52% of shopping carts online are abandoned and emails sent to remind a contact to finish their purchase have a 28.7% average click rate and 5% average conversion rate!

The messaging should be simple and focused on encouraging a customer to finish a purchase, but there are some important best practices:

  • It should be sent within 1 hour of a contact abandoning their cart – while the item is still fresh in the customer’s mind.
  • Include a clear CTA to return to the purchase and have the CTA link right to the checkout page.
  • Offer an incentive to finish the purchase such as a discount or free shipping.

Abandoned cart reminders can be set up as a one-off triggered email, but you may wish to test running a series of emails. You could set the automation up to send another email if the contact hasn’t opened the first email within 24 hours, for instance. You can see the screenshot of such a workflow below. (Please note that the trigger would “contact abandoned cart.)


  1. Birthday email

A popular email triggered by a contact’s property is the birthday email. Sending a contact an email to wish them a happy birthday is a wonderful way of making them feel valued on their special day. Birthday emails with discounts generate 342% higher revenue per email than promotional emails.

As a best practice, send an email on their actual birthday. However, if you choose to set up a multi-email workflow, you may wish to send the first email out a week or so before their birthday that reads along the lines of “Start celebrating now!” with a third email following the actual birthday email as a reminder to use the coupon before it expires. See below for an example of what a birthday workflow could look like.


  1. View product without adding to cart

This email is straightforward: a customer views a single product or multiple products but does not add anything to their cart. A workflow triggers an email containing dynamic content to pull one or all of those items, with messaging to ask the contact to have a second look. You may wish to put a discount or other incentive in this email.

This email from The RealReal, for example, contains products similar to the ones the user browsed on the site without adding to their shopping cart.


  1. Product review request

A product review request is exactly what it sounds like – an email triggered within a short timeframe after a customer has received their purchase asking them to review it. Here’s a great example from Sephora:

A few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Personalize it. You have this contact’s name, so make sure to address them.
  • Remind them of when they purchased. You can use the exact purchase date or, like Sephora, just the general purchase timeframe.
  • Make it easy for your customer to review. Some email templates ask customers to write a review right from the email, but if you can’t make it that simple, include a clear CTA that links directly to the review page.
  1. Win back series

A re-engagement series is triggered when you have determined that your contact has been inactive (on both your site and email) for a certain amount of time. The length of time will depend entirely on your brand. The series will focus on providing personalized content to your contacts to re-interest them in your products. We recommend further segmenting this re-engagement track by RFM methods.

Here’s an example of a re-engagement campaign in action, care of the apparel subscription service, Le Tote:


  1. Educational content (when certain products are bought)

If you sell certain items that require some education to use properly (cookware, for instance), you can have follow-up emails triggered post-purchase that explain to your customer how to use these items to their fullest potential to drive loyalty. You could embed a tutorial video into the email or link to a blog post, for instance.

8. Feedback collection

Shopper comments and reviews can give you useful insights to can help you improve your products and services. Grab every opportunity for feedback by creating an email series inviting customers to rate and review their recent purchase or experience.

The skincare brand Prodermal, for instance, encourages feedback by including a survey to their loyalty points email, making it incredibly easy for shoppers to respond.

Coming up with engaging content for your email editorial calendar

Blast emails are important for retailers because you can’t really automate the sharing of the latest news on your site, whether that’s a launch of a new line or a blow-out sale. With excellent segmentation though, you can send out relevant, personalized blasts regularly.

  1. The promotional announcement campaign

An evergreen classic, the promotional announcement campaign is a must-do for retailers.

The basic idea behind these emails is simple: announce you’re running a promotion and continue to follow up with emails until a customer makes a purchase or the promotion ends.

These emails should be segmented fairly broadly, perhaps even not at all if your audience is already rather specific. For instance, a men and women’s clothing retailer running a promotion on only the men’s clothes would want to segment and send only to the men. But a men’s only clothing retail running a store-wide sale would want to send to all their customers.

However, segmentation doesn’t have to apply only to sending the email. You can serve different dynamic content within the email depending on a contact’s properties. For instance, if the men’s and women’s retailer mentioned above were to run a store-wide sale, they might choose to dynamically serve women links to women’s products and vice versa for the men on their list.

  1. The new line launch announcement

Similar to the promotional announcement, a new line or product launch email lets customers in the right segments know that you’ve got new things for them!

Here’s an excellent example from Stitch Fix. When they launched their kids line, Stitch Fix invited a select group of customers (likely those who requested styling services when they were pregnant) to try out their new kids’ collection before everyone else.

  1. The local event email

When you segment your customers by location, you can send emails to them about events happening near them and why your products are relevant. A few specific ideas here:

  • If a major weather event is predicted to occur in an area, you can let your customers in that area know which of your products will help them through that.
  • Run holiday campaigns for local holidays.
  • Announce that you’re going to be running a pop-up shop or opening a new physical location within their radius. Check out the email Total Wine & More sent to nearby shoppers when they opened a store in Pasadena,  CA:


  1. Data-gathering entertainment blasts

If you don’t have enough data on your contacts, you may want to send out an email with something designed to collect their data. Style quizzes are a great example of this. If you run a style quiz, you can receive answers from contacts on preferred style types, clothing sizes, favorite colors, all sorts of helpful information. And in return, they can find out from you which Disney princess they are.

  1. Newsletters with your blog content

Run a blog? Send out a weekly or monthly newsletter with links to your new articles to drive site traffic and engagement.

That’s something that Dollar Shave Club does quite well. DSC regularly sends emails with links to their original content.

  1. Particular product promotion

During periods where you aren’t running any promotions or launching new products, you should send out highly segmented blasts about particular products a contact might be interested in. For instance, you could segment by past purchases, and send an email with items relevant to what the customer previously bought.

  1. Holiday emails/campaigns

Around the holidays, you’ll want to create one or more campaigns pushing products and promotions. Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the December holidays are great for gift-giving reminders and product recommendation emails, while other holidays such as the aforementioned Memorial Day tend to be good times to run promotional campaigns.



Reporting metrics

There are plenty of metrics you can report on for your marketing automation system, but which ones really matter?

  1. Open rates and CTRs

If you’ve done any email marketing at all, you’ll know to pay attention to the open rates and click-through rates (CTR) of your emails to discover how engaging your emails are. Open rate is the percentage of people who open your emails while CTR is the percentage who click them. There’s also the click-to-open ratio, which tells you the percentage of clicks out of just those who opened the email.

According to MailChimp, the benchmarks for eCommerce companies are a 15.66% open rate and a 2.07% CTR.

  1. Unsubscribes and Spam Complaints

Unsubscribes and spam complaints are basically the opposite of clicks. These numbers measure the people who dislike your content enough to do more than ignore it. (The industry benchmark for unsubscriptionbe rates, by the way, is 0.24%.)

If unsubscribes or spam complaints go up on certain emails, it will tell you that you shouldn’t be sending that type of content. If you see an email with a high CTR and a high unsubscribe rate, you should take that to mean you’re not segmenting correctly. You can investigate the qualities of those who clicked and those who unsubscribed to see how you should segment in the future.

There’s another reason, though, that you’ll want to keep an eye on spam complaints: too many spam complaints will lower your deliverability rate. And on that note, you should keep an eye on bounces for the same reason.

  1. Subscriber Rate

There are a number of things to measure with subscriber capturing. First, you could track your total number of subscribers, along with the number of subscribers you’re getting from different forms. You should also measure the conversion rate of each form so you can optimize them.

As a note, you may not necessarily have subscriber goals at first. Small businesses with a tight budget may not be interested in accelerating subscriber growth before ROI is proven due to the fact that most marketing automation providers charge per contact.

  1. Email traffic to the site

Email traffic to the site is an important engagement metric. If your emails are driving strong traffic to the site, they’re doing what they were supposed to do. Having high email traffic with low site conversion numbers can tell you that something on your site needs to be changed to drive purchases.

  1. Revenue Generated from Email

Measuring this metric can be done in two ways: you could track the total revenue generated from your email program, or you could measure the amount spent per campaign. Total revenue generated will help you determine the ROI of your marketing automation tool. (With hard work, your revenue should increase an average of 77%, so you should be seeing an excellent ROI.) The amount spent per email campaign allows you to see which email campaigns perform the best, and which should be scrapped or optimized.


  1. Customer Lifetime Value

Customer lifetime value is a metric that your business should be reporting on already. (If you’re not, see this stellar infographic on how to calculate CLV from Kissmetrics to get started.) Breaking your CLV down by those who have been involved in your marketing automation program (or a loyalty program) gives you a very solid idea of how engaging and successful your marketing automation program is overall.

Wrap Up

Marketing automation is an amazing tool that will allow you to personalize your customers’ experiences and conduct a “dialogue” with them. When you’re just starting out, work slowly and strategically. It can be tempting to try all the new things at once, but it’s better to test out a few drip campaigns in addition to your current email blast programs and add on as you see what works well.

If you need help implementing the email flows discussed in this post, be sure to check out Marsello, a marketing automation platform designed with busy retailers in mind.

Marsello is like a trusty virtual assistant that can automate your email workflows, serve up smart product recommendations, assist you with advertising, and so much more. Whether you’re looking to drive more sales, increase loyalty, gather customer, or all of the above, Marsello has the tools to help you make them happen.

Contact us today to learn how Marsello can take your marketing automation efforts to the next level.

Sell More With Marsello