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

Tiago Oliveira, the UK's country manager at E-goi, cuts through the noise surrounding email marketing automation and explains how to get purchase and implementation spot on

Marketing automation is all the rage these days. But how straightforward and foolproof is it really? Can you just plug it into your online store, sit back and watch the sales roll in, as the blurb on the website suggests? I’ve bitten the bullet to bring you the nitty-gritty detail about marketing automation. Getting started is... a surprising non-starter.

I was looking for email automation for a mid-size online shop (averaging 30,000 visits per month). Google ‘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 aren'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 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 that 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 ecommerce 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…

There are 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 each month on top of my own email marketing for basic website visitor tracking, which is limited to a few thousand sends and a couple of hundred contacts. Plus a handful of triggers. Paid yearly in advance.

This is not ‘entry-level pricing’, folks. This is 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.


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 into 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 of 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 the ground up, as many vendors won’t include preset automation templates by default and simply hope you’re 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.

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, and 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’re running a small or medium-size 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.