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Set it and forget it: A guide to email automation

by Kate Lindemann  |  December 30, 2020

7 min. read
Illustration of email automation.

Email marketing campaigns guide customers on a journey of discovery, but only if you time things right. No matter how great the content, generic or irrelevant emails will turn customers off.

Whether you have a hundred customers or a million, designing individualized marketing campaigns for each one wouldn’t be feasible. Fortunately, email automation customizes the timing for you.

In this overview, we’ll show you how email automation creates a personalized experience for every subscriber on your list.

What is email automation?

Email automation is a marketing strategy in which customers’ actions automatically trigger certain emails. Compared to bulk emails sent to a whole list or segment, automation creates a more customized experience, with emails perfectly timed to each customer’s activity. Common triggers include purchases, sign-ups and birthdays.

Advantages of automated emails

Automated emails offer several advantages mass emails don’t, making them well worthwhile. Consider the following benefits as you decide if email automation should be part of your email marketing strategy.

A better customer experience

One of the biggest benefits of email marketing is easy personalization. With automated emails, you sync each customer’s email experience perfectly to their journey with your products. The result: more relevant emails that create a genuine experience and build a stronger relationship with your brand.

More conversions

The benefits of more relevant, perfectly timed marketing emails extend well beyond long-term relationship-building. Automated emails perform better – up to 2.5 times better, according to some estimates. It’s not hard to imagine why. People engage more with content that’s relevant to them.

Automated emails announcing end of free trial and shipped order.

Less work for you

Imagine how much work it would take to manually create personalized email campaigns for each customer. It would be impossible even for a small company doing local email marketing, let alone a multinational company with millions of customers.

Automation makes this intricate level of personalization possible.

Sure, it takes work upfront as you set up campaigns and decide what messaging goes best with which triggers. But once it’s set up, email automation runs itself in the background, and you can turn your attention to other things.

Email automation inspiration

The options for email automation are practically endless. Whatever your business and marketing needs, there’s an email automation for you.

Need some ideas to get started? Here are some of the most common types of automated emails.

Welcome email

Perhaps the most common email automation is the welcome email. Email marketing is all about fostering a relationship with each customer, and a welcome email starts that relationship off on the right foot. You’ll need a few different welcome emails for different situations, for example one for new customers and another for new newsletter subscribers.

Welcome emails from Xfinity and AirBnB.

Follow-up after a purchase

A product purchase is the perfect trigger for all kinds of email automations. Here are some emails to send your customers after they take the plunge and click the ‘buy now’ button.

Purchase confirmation

Communication is key to building trust of your brand, and purchase confirmation emails are especially important.

Imagine this: You decide to order something from a new online store with great-looking products. You enter your credit card details and… crickets. Nothing in your inbox. You’d be a little worried, right?

Keep your communication channels open and send an automated confirmation email for each purchase. Otherwise, your customers may worry they’ve fallen through the cracks.

Post-purchase engagement

The moment a customer makes a purchase is when their engagement is at its absolute highest. Everybody likes new stuff! So tap into that excitement and shape it into an even more positive brand experience.

Got tutorials showing off your software’s most popular features? Send them to new users so they can dive in head first. Just sold someone a handcrafted piece of furniture? Email them some maintenance tips so they can take pride in caring for their new purchase.

Emails from Adobe and Away with tips for how to use products.


Customers’ recent purchases are valuable information you can use to suggest other products they might find useful. You’ll recognize this tactic if you’ve ever booked a flight and gotten hotel and rental car suggestions in your inbox the next day.

Similarly, a customer who just bought a new phone might be in the market for a phone case. Someone who just bought a new sofa might be redecorating. It’s the perfect time to show them lamps and throw pillows in a similar style.


I don’t need to tell you how important reviews are for businesses – or that disgruntled customers are more likely to leave them. Nudging all your customers to leave a review will prompt the happy majority to put in a good word for you too. An automated reminder email a few weeks after purchase helps you time the request just right.

Emails requesting product reviews from Target and Casper.

Repeat business

Remember that automated emails don’t have to immediately follow the action that triggers them. Some – like review reminders – should follow after a few weeks. With others, it could be months.

Companies with a subscription model should ramp up their emails to customers nearing their renewal period. And if you sell a product with a replacement cycle, like running shoes, the best time to encourage repeat business is several months after the initial purchase.

Nurturing during a free trial

An email automation can be as simple as a single email, or an intricately timed campaign. Let’s say you offer a free trial for digital asset management software – something we happen to know a bit about.

Three automated emails sent by Canto during a free trial.

A series of automated emails – triggered when someone signs up for the trial – is the perfect way to guide leads through the trial and make sure they have a good experience. First, welcome them to the trial. Then, follow up periodically with helpful resources highlighting popular features. Remind users when their trial’s about to end, and when it does, point them to their purchasing options.

Abandoned cart email

Another popular automated email is the abandoned cart email. These emails entice users who put an item in their cart (but never checked out) to come back and complete the purchase. It’s worth the effort: Abandoned cart emails have a high conversion rate.

With copy like “Oops! You forgot something!” a lot of abandoned cart emails run the risk of sounding entitled or demanding. I especially like these examples from Everlane and Casper, because they avoid that. The copy is clever, while still keeping things upbeat and positive.

Abandoned cart emails from Everlane and Casper stating "you have great taste" and "come back to bed."

Abandoned carts are rarely an oversight. More likely, the customer just hasn’t made up their mind about the purchase. So considering adding something to your abandoned cart email to seal the deal, like glowing reviews or even a discount code.

Birthday email

A birthday message from an old friend helps keep the connection alive. It’s no surprise lots of successful brands try to replicate this effect with their customers.

Birthday emails tick a lot of boxes for email marketing best practices: There’s an occasion, they’re personal and they offer something of value. So why not ask new newsletter subscribers for their birthdays and send them a little treat once a year. After all, who doesn’t like to feel special on their birthday?

Birthday emails from Subway and Nike.

How to set up email automations

For many types of automations, all you need is an email marketing tool like Mailchimp. These systems automatically integrate welcome emails and other automations into sign-up forms and offer date-trigger features for holiday and birthday emails.

Similarly, any online shop setup will include order confirmation emails as part of its workflow. And if your email system marketing system is part of your CRM (or synched with your CRM) you’ll have even more options for setting up automated emails based on purchase triggers.

If your systems aren’t already integrated, another option is a workflow automation tool like Zapier. This allows you to coordinate between systems, so actions in one program can trigger a response – like sending an email – in another.

Screenshot of Mailchimp email automation menu.

Set it and forget it (for a while)

Once you’ve set up your email automations, you can kick back, relax and focus on other tasks on your to-do list. Done and dusted, right? Not quite.

Just like any other campaign, you’ll need to track automated emails’ performance and make adjustments as needed. So schedule some time to check in now and then to see how things are going.

After all, the point of email automation is to send emails that are relevant and engaging for your customers. Relationship-building can’t be totally automated. So plan your email automations with care and creativity, and listen to what your customers are telling you with their clicks and opens.