I’ve been through email marketing automation hell so you won’t have to


Marketing automation is all the rage these days. But how straightforward and foolproof is it really? Can you just plug it in your online store, sit back and watch the sales roll in, as the blurb says?

I bit the bullet to bring you the nitty-gritty.

Getting started with email marketing automation is..
a surprising non-starter

I was looking for email automation for a midsize online shop (averaging 30k visits per month). Google up “email marketing automation” and you’ll quickly find the big players, the small-time me-toos and the intriguing newcomers. This should make it simple for you to choose the right one, as there isn’t a whole lot of automation providers on the market (yet). Certainly not as a many as the gazillion ESPs out there.

And then you go and have a closer look at each of them.

Annnd… right back to square one.

Because even though everyone is falling head over heels with marketing automation, it’s such an all-encompassing concept no one is really sure what it means. Some vendors think it’s all about handling inbound customer requests. Others go for sales funnels galore. Most simply offer glorified auto-responders.

With email marketing you know what to expect: send emails. Not so with email marketing automation. All vendors will tell you it’s awesome – the kind of fluffy, feel-good awesome that dreams are made of. Well, I don’t care how awesome you are if you fail at something as simple as explaining what you actually do. I was looking for e-commerce email automation. I got inbound call intelligence suites instead.

The only way to know for sure whether the vendor has the right automation for you? Diving in. And that’s when you find out…

Getting started with email marketing automation is..
a surprisingly expensive non-starter

There’s two things your eyes should furiously dart around for as soon as you land on a marketing automation home page: “pricing” and “try it”.

If one of them is missing, be afraid.

If one of them is “demo”, be very afraid.

If both are missing, take to the hills! Nothing to see here. Unless you enjoy getting ripped off.

Yeah, I get it, behavioural email is the next big thing, it’ll turn your marketing into a powerhouse of cool engagement tricks. What I don’t get is why I should be spending upwards of 1000 quid each month on top of my own email marketing for basic website visitor tracking. Limited to a few thousand sends. And a couple hundred contacts. Plus a handful of triggers. Paid yearly in advance.

This is not “entry-level pricing”, folks. This the Apple way of doing things, except there’s no Apple branding for your remorseful ego to fall back on.

“But automation slashes your email overheads down to near zero!” all vendors will claim. “It’s all done for you. Once you get started and set things up, the right message will engage the right person at the right time, every time.”

OK, let’s get started then.

Getting started with email marketing automation is..
an expensive, hair-raising non-starter

At last! You’ve picked a handful of email automation vendors for your midsize shop. They look cool, they sound cool, they must be cool! You’re about to trial one of them out.

And then it hits you like a thousand bricks.

You must integrate it with your store.

No problem, just run their automated setup script. It’ll take care of everything. Sit back and enjoy your cup of tea.

Oops, a warning pops up. It’ll only run on SugarCRM. Or Magento. Or WordPress. Neither of which my shop is based on.


Fear not, your vendor will come to the rescue. They’ll set the whole thing up for you. They’re experts. They’ll know just how to go about it – whatever shop you use.

For the meagre sum of 800 quid.


OK, you’ll resort to trying to install it yourself. How hard could it be?

Two words: cron job. You’ll follow detailed how-tos, you’ll dig deep into forum postings, you’ll hopelessly tinker around with the automation module – the new face of your nightmares.

Until you just say to hell with it. Next vendor, please. Yay, this one seems a whole lot easier to configure! Simply plug a snippet of HTML code in your site and you should be good to go.

As long as you manage to untangle the knotted mess you made trying to install the previous vendor’s module.

Oh boy…

A couple hours of careful research and testing later, integration is finally, mercifully up. Syncing done, all systems are go! Can’t wait to start automating my re-engagement and shopping cart abandonment emails. And that’s when you find out…

Getting started with email marketing automation is..
just the beginning of your crazy hard work

You see, those engaging cross-selling emails you’d love your store to send out. Those gorgeous drip workflows. Those high-value tracking segments containing your visitors and customers. You’ll need to create virtually all of them from ground up, as many vendors won’t include preset automation templates by default and simply hope you are knowledgeable enough to fend for yourself.

There is a reason for this though. Automation is such a shiny new thing that a lot of vendors are jumping on the bandwagon with a try-and-see approach. This means they’ll focus on getting their automation engine up and running first and foremost, worrying about making it easy for people to use later.

But until then, never fear, your vendor will assist you in designing the perfect automation workflow! For a paltry 500 quid.

What I’ve learned about getting started with email marketing automation is..

Email automation works. Once you manage to get it up and running across your online store, it’ll work 24/7 ultra-personalised on context. You can trigger a full customer lifecycle with just a single visitor or email. And yes, you can actually sit back and watch sales roll in.

As long as you manage to get the whole thing up and running in the first place.

And this is how you make sure you do:

  • Take an in-depth look at what each automation vendor actually does. Forget the home page blurb, go straight to the features/FAQ page. What looks like a shop-agnostic automation suite may just be a SugarCRM module.
  • Take a close look at how the vendor’s automation will be set up in your store. Go for those with the simplest approach.
  • Be wary of vendors with no free trial version. Automation can’t just be demo-ed. You won’t know whether it works for your store until you try it.
  • Watch out for clever pricing schemes. A low enticing monthly fee may hide severe feature cut-downs (eg. no email automation included) or require annual payment. The fine print is your friend, especially if you have a small or medium business.

Advanced automation features are now becoming available to any email marketer (shopping cart recovery is worth it alone), but it’s clear that vendors are still testing the waters. My final recommendation: dip your toes slowly and tread carefully until you find some nice, solid automation footing. Then go off and let it work its magic. But keep your eyes peeled at all times!

Ruben Alvim

About Ruben Alvim

Rúben Alvim is Content and Development Manager at E-goi. He’s also part of the Deliverability Team, breaking down thousands campaign samples a day to gauge email delivery trends and pinpoint what actually takes to make it through the inbox.

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  • http://www.kaleidoscopesmethod.org Elise Winters-Huete

    I am just starting a series of books, and need to get ready for marketing campaigns. Meaning, a total novice (and worse, a violinist). This post, in addition to being VERY helpful, had some of the wittiest lines I’ve read in a decade. Now, my wish list … any useful referrals?

    • http://www.e-goi.com Rúben Alvim

      Glad you we could help you, Elise. If you’re just starting out, an autoresponder should be enough to get you going with your book series campaign. Simply googling up “autoresponders” will bring up some solid choices right on the very 1st results page.

      Then feel free to take a gander at this cool little primer by Jordie Van Rijn on planning your campaign: http://www.e-goi.com/en/resources/blog/how-your-email-marketing-should-align-micro-conversions/

      Emailvendorselection.com are also putting together their own selection tool which may help you further. You can get an invite here: http://www.emailvendorselection.com/esp-selection-tool/

      Don’t worry about being a first-timer. Just keep your campaign (vio)lean and build it from there :)

      • http://www.kaleidoscopesmethod.org Elise Winters-Huete

        Thank you for the links, and I appreciate the response!

        I’ve now had a full day of reading reviews and trying providers (grateful thank-you to TopTenReviews). Perversely, even among the more accessible options I’ve found, one major complaint is that with several providers (Madmimi, GetResponse), you cannot easily see or manage your list … puzzling, as this seems quite basic. Happily, Benchmark has transparent list functionality and a good template builder, at a VERY reasonable price point (their free plan meets all my needs).

        However, still conspicuously absent is an ESP that integrates larger marketing campaign ability alongside a routine, Gmail-style inbox!! The seemingly insurmountable divide between these two functionalities is mystifying to me.

        These providers on the vendor site you suggested seem oriented toward very large companies. Most of these companies don’t even list pricing, and invite you to a “consultation.” (The one company that does list a price is $150/month.) Definitely way more bulldozers than I need to dig up this little anthill.

        • http://www.e-goi.com Rúben Alvim

          Most ESPs just focus on the “sending out” bit, as it’s far easier for them to handle and requires next to no configuration from the user. Still not really the most intuitive way of doing email marketing, though.

          Benchmark is a nice entry-level provider – you should be fine. Best of luck for your campaign!

  • http://becsrivett.com becskr

    Awesome post Ruben. So so true! It’s just ESPs all over – “Buy this, it’s the answer to all your problems!” – then you start using it and it’s just the beginning of a nightmare. And the thing is, in many cases, it’ll be high level management that had the demo and came out all starry-eyed, not the people on the ground that actually have to use the damn thing but you’re stuck with it for the next 2 years because they’ve paid upfront.

    • http://www.e-goi.com Rúben Alvim

      Agreed, Becs. ESPs seem to take Murphy’s law under their wing – I’ve never seen an email vendor pass a simple “hell if I’m going to read your howtos” litmus test. Throw in something a bit more complex into the mix (like e-commerce integration) and the chances of you getting stuck increase tenfold.

      Not really their fault though. Whilst Mailchimp and similar old-timers did pave the way for email marketing to the masses, they also brought along a way of doing things which is bug-prone and quite far from user-friendly. Still, virtually all other ESPs adopted it for fear that people would be put off using them. There’s been some shy attempts to break the trend (especially mobile-wise), but it should take a while for those to gain traction.

      Kudos to your blog (just bookmarked it)! Loved the Jet2 email. Feel free to take a gander at this recent repository as well: http://www.emailnewsletterexamples.com/

  • Udita Purkayastha

    Very valid points (and hurdles), Ruben. And yet, there do exist marketing automation companies that provide a smooth journey to their customers. I believe, it’s more about understanding exactly what you want to achieve from your automated marketing. For example, email automation for eCommerce is one area and an e-store owner should avoid using CRMs and other solutions for B2B.

    I’d suggest checking out Snowflake by TargetingMantra. It is purely for eCommerce players. They provide segmented, one-to-one, and triggered emails. There are multiple features including a super-cool analytics dashboard. This is the link to their homepage: https://www.targetingmantra.com/snowflake

    • http://www.e-goi.com Rúben Alvim

      Yep, in their quest to sell a shiny new thing automation vendors tend to muddy the waters a bit. As long as you take a close look at what you need marketing-wise and what each vendor is actually offering, you should be on the safe side.

      Still, you can’t realise how smooth a journey is without first hitting a few bumps along the way. As with all exciting new technologies, it’ll take some time for automation vendors to figure out how to make the whole thing foolproof, but it’ll happen inevitably – and we’ll be there to cheer them on :)