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3 ways to avoid email automation breakdowns

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Back in February, I used a vacation-rental site to book a beautiful house on the water for my wife and me and a group of friends. We read the reviews, scrutinized listings and picked the winner. 

The booking process went well, but if you have ever booked a site without seeing it in person, you might feel a little anxious after clicking “Book now.” 

Will this place that just ate a big chunk of my credit limit turn out as advertised? Will it live up to the photos in the listing, or is it really a shack on a main road with some stranger’s shoes on the deck?

One day after I booked, I got an email. “We saved your search so you don’t miss out on your dream vacation,” it said.

Yes, folks, I freaked out. 

Attack of the browse-abandon emails

I booked the place, so why was I getting this browse-abandon email? My card didn’t go through? The owner refused my booking? My reservation got lost? Somebody else booked it a second before I did? 

Over the next four months, I looked at the property 22 times, and I received 22 follow-up emails. I know exactly how many because I saved them all. 

I won’t mention the site because we all have things in our email programs that we know we need to fix. But there’s an opportunity to learn from it and make sure we’re not making the same mistake.

If you follow me on MarTech, you know how much I love browse-abandon emails (not). But this gave me a whole bunch of teachable moments, which I have narrowed down to three because I just returned from that beautiful house and am in post-vacation-chill mode:

1. Set up or adjust your exclusions 

Browse-abandon emails make sense in travel and hospitality, because repeatedly viewing locations, hotels and attractions can be strong intent signals. The dollar value is higher, and the travel shopper’s mindset is more considered. 

But…

Your marketing automations must build in exclusions for people who don’t need to receive a follow-up message, even if they meet some of the triggering criteria, like a site visit. Yes, they are still showing intent, but has that intent grown or has it waned? Do you need to change the message?

Read next: 8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

You don’t have to include everyone who meets your criteria in your browse-abandon sequence. Think deeper. When should you not send a standard browse-abandon email to someone who visited a site but left without clicking the “Book now” button? When should you change the message? (See the next item.)

Exclusions are just as important as inclusions in marketing automation. If you have no exclusions, you’re doing it wrong. In fact, I can’t think of a single automation that wouldn’t have at least one exclusion.

2. Vary the messages

Remember those 22 browse-abandon emails? They were all pretty much the same. Same headline, same copy, even the same recommended properties. It reflects badly on the brand. 

If you have an automation that executes every time an event happens, you can’t send the same message every time. Set limits. How many emails with the same message is too many? 

You need a good reason to operate an open-ended automation. This particular automation did not have a “converted” exclusion. You also should set a limit – say 10 follow-up emails, and that might even be too much. If I view a property 10 times but your data shows I still haven’t booked, it’s time to change the message.

Escalate me to customer service. Ask if I need help. Give me a number to call. Give me a chance to say I’m not interested any longer or I booked the property. 

It’s all about meeting your customers where they are, based on intent and what you know about them.

3. Resolve your data disconnects 

You’re probably thinking, “Ryan, their order system isn’t connected to their email marketing system.” I understand that disconnect in data. But when your program is so disconnected that it’s not effective, you should limit the impact.

If your browse-abandon email isn’t hooked up to your order history, then you should limit your email series to three or four and test to find out at what point extra emails become annoying. 

This limits the damage to your brand experience and forces you to solve the problem.

Even a manual intervention could have helped. You can implement a range of temporary fixes while you formally integrate the data.


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We don’t always have all the data we need to be successful. But you have three choices here:

  • Create a good enough automation even though you lack data.
  • Wait until you have all the data you need so you can perfect the automation.
  • Launch an email that doesn’t hurt the brand experience but still helps you accomplish a goal (the agile solution).

We all have data problems. But our job is to make do with what we have and not tick off people who just spent a gobsmack of money on our products or services.

Wrapping up

Marketing automation is incredibly powerful. I know companies that make 50% of their email revenue on automated and transactional emails on 4% to 5% of their overall volume.

But with that power comes the responsibility to build programs that enhance customer intent, grow that intent and convert that intent — and, when the customer converts, to recognize that conversion.

This intent gap signals us to review our marketing automations and find out what’s in the data, what’s missing, what’s excluded and what’s included. If your marketing automation just sends an email every time an event happens, that’s not automation, that’s just repetition.

The smart play is to make sure your automations have the right data, you have considered your inclusions and exclusions, varied your messages and limited the impact. 

Sometimes you can send too many emails. Just because you have an event on your website, that doesn’t mean you have to send the email associated with it.

Or, as my friend David Baker says, sometimes email doesn’t work. In my situation, the email the company sent me — and sent me, and sent me — didn’t work. But it serves one useful purpose.

It gave me the opportunity to see where we need to improve our programs and look critically at how we execute marketing automations. 

(Drop microphone, walk off stage. Walk back on, pick up mic.)

If you think I’m writing about your company, print out my column, send it to your team and say, “Ryan just wrote about us! Here’s why we need to fix our automations.” Not that I’m so important, but seeing your problem described publicly on MarTech.org might motivate your team to act. Then write to me and let me know how it went.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

As the co-founder of RPEOrigin.com, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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Being position-less secures a marketer’s position for a lifetime

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Optimove Positionless Marketer Optimove

On March 20, 2024, the Position-less Marketer was introduced on MarTech.org and my keynote address at Optimove’s user conference.

Since that initial announcement, we have introduced the term “Position-less Marketer” to hundreds of leading marketing executives and learned that readers and the audience interpreted it in several ways. This article will document a few of those interpretations and clarify what “position-less” means regarding marketing prowess.

As a reminder, data analytics and AI, integrated marketing platforms, automation and more make the Position-less Marketer possible. Plus, new generative AI tools like ChatGPT, Canna-GPT, Github, Copilot and DALL-E offer human access to powerful new capabilities that generate computer code, images, songs and videos, respectively, with human guidance.

Position-less Marketer does not mean a marketer without a role; quite the opposite

Speaking with a senior-level marketer at a global retailer, their first interpretation may be a marketer without a role/position. This was a first-glance definition from more than 60% of the marketers who first heard the term. But on hearing the story and relating it to “be position-less” in other professions, including music and sports, most understood it as a multidimensional marketer — or, as we noted, realizing your multipotentiality. 

One executive said, phrasing position-less in a way that clarified it for me was “unlocking your multidimensionality.” She said, “I like this phrase immensely.” In reality, the word we used was “multipotentiality,” and the fact that she landed on multidimensionality is correct. As we noted, you can do more than one thing.

The other 40% of marketing executives did think of the “Position-less Marketer” as a marketing professional who is not confined or defined by traditional marketing roles or boundaries. In that sense, they are not focused only on branding or digital marketing; instead, they are versatile and agile enough to adjust to the new conditions created by the tools that new technology has to offer. As a result, the Position-less Marketer should be comfortable working across channels, platforms and strategies, integrating different approaches to achieve marketing goals effectively.

Navigating the spectrum: Balancing specialization and Position-less Marketing

Some of the most in-depth feedback came from data analytic experts from consulting firms and Chief Marketing Officers who took a more holistic view.

Most discussions of the “Position-less Marketer” concept began with a nuanced perspective on the dichotomy between entrepreneurial companies and large enterprises.

They noted that entrepreneurial companies are agile and innovative, but lack scalability and efficiency. Conversely, large enterprises excel at execution but struggle with innovation due to rigid processes.

Drawing parallels, many related this to marketing functionality, with specialists excelling in their domain, but needing a more holistic perspective and Position-less Marketers having a broader understanding but needing deep expertise.

Some argued that neither extreme is ideal and emphasized the importance of balancing specialization and generalization based on the company’s growth stage and competitive landscape.

They highlight the need for leaders to protect processes while fostering innovation, citing Steve Jobs’ approach of creating separate teams to drive innovation within Apple. They stress the significance of breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration across functions, even if it means challenging existing paradigms.

Ultimately, these experts recommended adopting a Position-less Marketing approach as a competitive advantage in today’s landscape, where tight specialization is common. They suggest that by connecting dots across different functions, companies can offer unique value to customers. However, they caution against viewing generalization as an absolute solution, emphasizing the importance of context and competitive positioning.

These marketing leaders advocate for a balanced marketing approach that leverages specialization and generalization to drive innovation and competitive advantage while acknowledging the need to adapt strategies based on industry dynamics and competitive positioning.

Be position-less, but not too position-less — realize your multipotentiality

This supports what was noted in the March 20th article: to be position-less, but not too position-less. When we realize our multipotentiality and multidimensionality, we excel as humans. AI becomes an augmentation.

But just because you can individually execute on all cylinders in marketing and perform data analytics, writing, graphics and more from your desktop does not mean you should.

Learn when being position-less is best for the organization and when it isn’t. Just because you can write copy with ChatGPT does not mean you will write with the same skill and finesse as a professional copywriter. So be position-less, but not too position-less.

Position-less vs. being pigeonholed

At the same time, if you are a manager, do not pigeonhole people. Let them spread their wings using today’s latest AI tools for human augmentation.

For managers, finding the right balance between guiding marketing pros to be position-less and, at other times, holding their position as specialists and bringing in specialists from different marketing disciplines will take a lot of work. We are at the beginning of this new era. However, working toward the right balance is a step forward in a new world where humans and AI work hand-in-hand to optimize marketing teams.

We are at a pivot point for the marketing profession. Those who can be position-less and managers who can optimize teams with flawless position-less execution will secure their position for a lifetime.

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