The trigger email (r)evolution: 9 naive questions

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trigger bottleTrigger emails have thrust their way into the online marketing consciousness with a confident swagger and the promise of a brighter future for all.

The positive press has its justification: trigger emails seem to solve the main challenges faced by the modern email marketer. And the campaign results make impressive reading.

I’ve never knowingly sent a trigger email, unless you count welcome messages. So, no, I’m not an expert (not even close to one).

But ignorance lets me discard the marketer hat and don a consumer perspective to ask a few naive questions that trigger email enthusiasts rarely seem to tackle.

But before we lay down a consumer gauntlet or three, let’s see what make trigger emails special…

What is a trigger email?

Sally Lowery defines a trigger email as one that is:

“…generated based on a meaningful change or event in a customer behavior or profile”

We can argue long into the night about definitions, but I think of them as a direct response to an action taken by the recipient, or to a specific piece of data associated with that recipient. A response where the content and timing of the email reflects that action or data.

Typical examples might be:

  • order confirmation
  • shipping confirmation
  • request for feedback on a purchase
  • post-purchase email featuring upsells and cross-sells
  • request for a product/service review
  • welcome message series post sign-up
  • birthday email
  • cart abandonment email
  • “time to repurchase” (replenishment) email
  • promotional email featuring products the recipient recently browsed on the website
  • thank you emails

You’ll find more detailed overviews and examples from Loren McDonald, Carolyn Nye, Amy Africa and Ed Henrich.

What makes trigger emails so interesting?

It’s actually quite hard to be relevant, valuable and timely in email marketing.

Traditional, broadcast emails – however targeted – still rely on a big dollop of serendipity to get a response. Did we guess your interests right? Are you ready to buy right now? Is this topic relevant to you today?

Trigger emails do a much better job of meeting those challenges.

The message is, by definition, customized to a defined action (like browsing a particular website section) or piece of data (like date of birth), making relevancy, value and timeliness far more likely.

Value is also increased by the service flavor to many of these emails.

Now consider that undifferentiated, bulk emails are increasingly sidelined in the minds and inboxes of recipients.

As one-to-one, “individualized”, timely, valuable messages, trigger emails are far more likely to get past those delivery and psychological blocks to get attention and (where relevant) a response.

What results are they getting?

The theory is matched by the numbers. Ignoring the impacts on customer goodwill, branding etc….

  • Bank of America report that event-based trigger emails are 250% more effective than broadcast promotional emails
  • VIE at home get £250 in revenue for every £1 invested on abandoned shopping basket emails
  • 75% of registrations for Roku’s referral program are driven by triggered emails to new customers
  • People who purchase after getting cart abandonment emails spend 55% more than those who buy straightaway
  • “Happy Birthday” emails from Epson produce 840% more revenue per email than the overall email program
  • Gaylord Brothers convert half of their cart abandoners using multiple message remarketing emails
  • Trigger emails sent after relevant on-site searches got 200% higher open rates and 50% higher CTR than’s standard newsletter
  • One study found abandoned cart mails getting 20 times the transaction rates and revenue of standard email campaigns
  • Tafford Uniforms earn 20% higher revenue per email from post-purchase survey emails than through standard broadcast messages
  • S&S Worldwide drive 40% of email revenue through trigger/transactional emails that account for just 4% of email volume

Pretty impressive! My own welcome messages get over double the open rate and three times the click rate of a typical e-newsletter issue.

So, now to my questions. Asked mostly from the perspective of someone who gets a lot of trigger email. And because I’m the consumer here, I don’t have the answers. I hope those with more experience will jump in with suggestions.

1. Are your basic email efforts optimized?

Before you start getting into the database and technology solutions that support sophisticated trigger campaigns, did you optimize what you’re already doing?

Are your basic trigger emails in order?

For example, are your order confirmations optimized for inbox recognition, clarity, and marketing impact? Does your welcome message tick all the right content checkboxes?

And have you optimized the subject line, preheaders, design, layout, copy, calls to action, etc. in your “broadcast” emails?

Dela Quist suggests you may be better off simply sending more email than investing in segmentation technology that gives each recipient a customized email. The argument might extend to trigger emails.

Put simply: are trigger emails low-hanging fruit or are there other areas of your email marketing that need more urgent attention?

2. Can/should you cap the same trigger response?

How many times do you send a trigger email for the same action?

While every purchase needs an order confirmation, does every browse deserve a follow-up email? How many times do you send a request for a product review if I never respond to them?

Consider the emails I get from my favorite ecommerce destination:

amazon trigger emails

Is it me or is there a common theme to the messages?

These emails are triggered (I think) by browsing sessions and past purchases. Yet many have near-identical content.

At what point do these targeted, informative, helpful emails become an irritant? Where is the fine line between driving additional response and customer satisfaction, and forcing me to switch off alerts in my Amazon account?

3. Can you adapt to individual behavior?

The challenge implied in the above question raises another…

Most trigger emails are setup using the same rules for everyone. Is it possible to adapt these rules individually?

If a customer always returns to an abandoned shopping cart to complete a purchase, do they also need a cart abandonment email series?

If I mark a purchase as a gift, do I want a never-ending sequence of follow-up emails with upsell suggestions?

Ryan Deutsch, for example, suggests the next level of email marketing involves moving beyond simple “bulk” trigger rules:

“Right-time messaging occurs when e-mail is made aware of a communication opportunity (purchase or cart abandonment) and then leverages automated decision making with other business systems to determine the content and cadence of communication.”

4. Are triggers taken into account for frequency caps?

If you’ve decided there is some upper limit on the number of emails any one person gets from you in a set period of time, do trigger emails count?

Since trigger emails are more targeted, does that not raise this acceptable frequency limit?

Does optimal frequency then depend on the mix of broadcast, targeted and trigger emails each person receives?

Ryan Deutsch, in another essay, bemoans those who focus on the technology while neglecting the strategy behind using that technology:

“The problem is not the lack of technical capabilities but the lack of a detailed contact strategy for these business systems to act on…most companies tackle the technology first and strategy second – an approach that is doomed to fail.”

5. What happens when everyone does it?

Trigger emails have been around for many years. But there is still novelty value attached to anything that isn’t one of the standard transactional trigger emails.

So how do things change once your trigger email program is no longer a novelty? Can you really “set and forget” them?

If everyone starts sending your customer birthday emails, do you need to send yours earlier? Later? Make it more personal? Put in a bigger gift? Work harder with the subject line?

6. What happens when everyone knows about it?

I won’t lie. I’ve abandoned shopping carts to see if the etailer sends me an abandoned cart email with a coupon in it.

How does familiarity with a trigger email program change consumer behavior? And how does that impact your organization?

  • Do shoppers delay purchases in the days leading up to their birthday in the hope you’ll send a coupon?
  • Do I curtail my visits and browsing session times because your website is bad or simply because your excellent trigger emails now send me the product suggestions I need?
  • Have your replenishment emails trained me to simply wait for the replenishment email before reordering? Is that good or bad?

7. Are you measuring success properly?

Trigger emails are no more immune to attribution and measurement issues than traditional email programs.

How many of those abandoned carts converted through a cart abandonment email would have returned anyway of their own volition?

You need to know that before you understand the value of your new trigger emails.

My son asked me to place a big order for Lego Star Wars after receiving Amazon gift vouchers from friends for his birthday. I wouldn’t blame Amazon for attributing that purchase to those trigger emails we saw earlier.

Except my son never saw any of them. The purchase would have happened anyway. (And now I’m doomed to more Lego Star Wars cross-sells as a result.)

I also see a lot of wonderful data about improved sales, opens, clicks etc. from trigger emails, but rarely anything on the costs of implementing them…particularly the costs and complications of database integration and rule building.

[Not to mention the cost of the incentives that are often used in trigger emails to drive response.]

And what about the indirect benefits (and costs)?

Consider a post-purchase trigger email with product optimization tips. Clicks and sales will be low.

But doesn’t that email contribute to future sales through the value delivered and the goodwill generated? How do you measure the success of a friendly thank-you message?

Once again, we’re probably reliant on control and holdout groups, as explained by Kevin Hillstrom.

8. What are the privacy implications of your copy?

Those Amazon emails begin with the phrase “You’re interested in Lego Star Wars?”

The question mark is critical.

Without it, it’s an assumption that may or may not be true. And it suggests a level of observation I might not be comfortable with.

The question mark makes it a polite, friendly inquiry.

Big difference.

Language matters. As I’ve noted before:

“You can make emails relevant by using what you observe about the recipient…You can make emails scary by telling people that you’re observing them.”

As someone with over a decade of email marketing behind them, I still get big brother goose bumps when an email casually states “we noticed you haven’t opened any recent emails from us…”

9. What design approach should you take?

There are reams of advice on how newsletters and promotional emails should look. Do the same concepts apply to trigger emails? Do different triggers require different approaches?

Is there a balance between a design-rich approach and the simplicity of a personal message? What (if any) common elements need retaining across all emails to maintain a consistent (brand) presentation?

Writing about emails based on past purchases, Amy Africa notes:

“Many companies make the mistake of overdesigning these e-mails – like any other trigger you do, EBOPP’s are meant to look like one-to-one e-mails not overly designed e-mails for the masses.”

No brainers that need thought

Many of the above questions refer to a sophisticated level of trigger email implementation than many won’t have or don’t need. Simple trigger emails (like optimized order confirmations) are a no-brainer and not necessarily difficult to do if you have standard email/ecommerce software in use.

Cart abandonment emails, for example, seem like an obvious win for retail email, especially with the growing corpus of best practice advice out there.

But the challenges grow as we attempt to get cleverer in how we apply trigger emails. So while I remain positive, we need to keep our eyes open…


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10 comments on “The trigger email (r)evolution: 9 naive questions”

  1. Unfortunately the general approach to triggered emails seems to suffer from all the same problems as broadcast email, which makes sense as it is the same people running them.
    For example in my experience most marketers should answer-
    1. Are your basic email efforts optimized?
    They should be but they aren’t.
    2. Can/should you cap the same trigger response?
    We should but we don’t.
    3. Can you adapt to individual behavior?
    We can but we don’t.

    …and so on. People are keen to jump on any new(-ish) technology rather than improve what they are currently doing.

    The shiny lure of the new seems to distract people from doing the basics right. Take social marketing, how many marketers spend their time ‘optimising their facebook strategy’ instead of making sure their boring old campaigns are correct? It amazes me how common it is for people to attempt to instigate some complex marketing mechanism while still failing to proofread their content or check for spam triggers.

  2. Mark Brownlow says:

    “The shiny lure of the new seems to distract people from doing the basics right”

    How right you are Benedict. I’m a victim myself. Why customize the title tags on my old blog posts when I can spend a few minutes browsing Twitter instead…

  3. Yes, trigger emails are most useful if used within a strategy. It’s the strategy that is important – WHY are we sending these messages needs to be answered before the What and the How. If we don’t know why, neither will the recipient.

  4. Mark Brownlow says:

    Agree…I find strategy is an oft-neglected part of email marketing. And often something done early on, then forgotten about. Months and years pass by and we still do the same thing, although circumstances (and even the emails themselves) have changed. I’m as guilty as the next person of doing this.

  5. This is a great article and really thought provoking.

    I agree that triggered emails are an important technique that many organisations should exploit.

    With my clients, I sometimes find resistance to using them because they worry that their customers will perceive these emails as unwanted, uncalled for and intrusive.

    However, when I re-frame triggered emails as part of a wider Customer Service agenda, my clients often have one of those, ‘Aha!’ moments. They suddenly spot new opportunities to use triggered emails in both a useful and, ultimately, profitable way.

  6. Mark Brownlow says:

    That’s a great point Andrew. I think a lot more attention should go on the tone and approach of trigger mails. If I buy Books 1-5 of a series from Amazon and they tell me I can now preorder Book 6, that’s a service, not a sell (from my perspective).

  7. Risk / reward – that is the equation when we try to guess what our clients want and when they want it – I adore the Brads cartoon about moon boots that covers off the risks so beautifully! I always tuck it in the back of my mind when we plan trigger programs for clients…

  8. Lisa says:

    Delivering the wrong content based on a specific action (exiting check-out process) or event(birthday) by a potential customer can entail an “unsubscribe” response.
    In our case, we are not knowledgeable enough to take that risk with trigger mails except for the birthday emails which seem like a safe bet.
    However, it does seem that many visitors do leave an incorrect birthday date so a trigger email could cause mixed feelings in such cases.

  9. Jerry Katz says:

    Great article! I agree strategy always go hand in hand with email marketing.

  10. Robin Thompson says:

    Having just received a “cart abandonment” email last night, I’m now wondering if I should wait and see if I do get a coupon at some point. I wasn’t aware that was even a possibility before reading this report.