Mar 31, 2009

5 practical autoresponder ideas


Autoresponders are commonly referred to as "email marketing on autopilot." So when we built MailChimp’s autoresponder tool (going live with v4.1), our goal was to make an "easy button" for the autopilot button. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. Autoresponders can be an extremely powerful marketing tool process for your business. Especially when combined with other powerful email marketing features.

Here are some quick, pragmatic ideas for setting up some autoresponders for your organization…

1. Product-based autoresponders: Look at the products you sell on your site. Are there any big ticket items with a high learning curve? When someone buys the product, offer them a free "tips and tricks" sequence of campaigns. Time them so that immediately after purchase, they receive a few easy "getting started" tips to get going. Then the tips can get more advanced with time, so you can turn them into experts (who want to buy more expert stuff!). Don’t forget to offer replacement parts or accessories. If you know the machine they just bought will need some extra belts or hoses 6 months from purchase, send an email for them.

2. Share your expertise: Small business owner? You’re an expert at something. Otherwise you’d be working for someone else right now. So turn your expertise into an ongoing lesson where you share your knowledge with prospective customers. Write a whitepaper, turn it into a PDF,  and put it on your website. Purchase a Google Adwords keyword campaign (not an email list!) to drive traffic to that whitepaper landing page. Put an email signup form on that page where visitors can get more free tips from you (they get subscribed to your autoresponder’s list). Schedule a series of autoresponder emails that are extremely helpful, show your personality, and build up to your call-to-action.

Tip: use MailChimp’s segmentation tools to target recipients who took action in each campaign. For example, if they opened all your campaigns for that autoresponder list, you know they must be interested in your service. Time to send another autoresponder campaign pick up the phone and call them!

3. Non-profits: At MailChimp, we sponsor a chimpanzee named burritto over at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest. Every year (if I remember), we donate something. And then they send me an update on how Burritto’s doing. The pictures and stories are great, but why not send a few updates throughout the year with photos of our mischievous friend? When it’s that time of year to donate again, send a gentle reminder (nothing pushy, please).

Tip: Use MailChimp’s import by URL tool so that the autoresponder campaign pulls up-to-date content from a web page on your website. That way, you don’t have to log in to MailChimp in order to update each autoresponder.

4. Prep for an event: I hate to travel. Well, being in a strange place and meeting different people is fun. But the hassle of scheduling flights, hotels, knowing what to pack, etc. is a complete p.i.t.a. for me. If you host an event, let attendees sign up for updates and tips, then schedule a series of autoresponders that build up to the event.

Tip: Use MailChimp’s dynamic content merge tags in conjunction with your autoresponders to tailor your content based on which session(s) your attendees are registered for, or what their preference are. For example, a summer camp for kids with different sessions could use different content for their reminders. Just don’t forget to put weather, directions, and agenda information in your very last autoresponder before the event. I need to be able to print that out before I head out the door.

5. Countdown to a big event: You can build a sequence of autoresponders that get sent based on a future target date, to "build up" to the big occasion. For example, if you offer wedding services, offer free planning tips leading up to "the big day." On your signup form, setup a date field (using MailChimp’s handy-dandy form designer tool) asking users for their target date. Then, setup autoresponders that help them plan for the occasion (and offer your services). does something like this, where you can enter your baby’s expected delivery date, and they’ll send you week-by-week updates on how your baby’s developing. Helped me out tremendously when my wife was expecting.

Does your autoresponder pass the Turing test?

All of this automation can be very powerful, but be careful not to get TOO automated. The key to a good autoresponder campaign is to not let the recipient feel like it’s an autoresponder campaign. If your autoresponders start to run amuck, your recipients will respond with the spam button, and potentially get you blacklisted with the major ISPs. Ask yourself if your autoresponder would pass a Turing test.

The Turing test is a way to measure how "intelligent" and "human" a computer can be. It goes something like this (thank you almighty wikipedia):

The Turing test is a proposal for a test of a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence. It proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

Okay, so you’re not going to fool anybody into thinking it’s a human clicking the send button for your autoresponder campaigns. People see through that stuff pretty easy these days. You can thank all that junk mail addressed to "CURRENT RESIDENT" and "VALUED CUSTOMER" for that. But even though your subscribers know your emails are automated, you can at least add some personality to them. Always keep your emails useful and relevant, and always let recipients unsubscribe at any point. It’s what any decent human being would do.