In the early days of the Internet, promises that an e-commerce business could sell your products, and therefore make you rich while you slept, were commonplace. “Snooze your way to financial freedom!” seemed to be the theme. As outlandish as it may sound now, the unprecedented access to potential customers around the globe has had many an entrepreneur dreaming of dollar signs and some laughing all the way to the bank.
While it is true that an online business means you can sell your products while you sleep (cha-ching!), in today’s competitive web marketplace the real question might be: Can the Internet market your business—and provide a healthy return on your marketing investment—while your spouse elbows you to stop your snoring? Internet marketing is an ecosystem with many parts, several of which can stand on their own and honestly shout, “Yes!” to that question. Looking behind the scenes illuminates one tool that may just be the unsung hero of online marketing: email.
I’m not talking about the usual monthly shotgun style email that goes out to a broad distribution list and tries to entice everyone to buy something. We’ve all received these emails. We’ve all deleted them. And, we’ve all looked for that “unsubscribe” link as well. The real way to conduct email marketing is targeted, logic based email campaigns sent based on how and when a customer interacts with the company. And yes, they can go out while Mr. Sandman is visiting. The industry term is marketing automation, and it refers to email communications that are specifically selected for individual prospective clients or past customers based on their interaction with the company. Marketing automation works, in fact it works so well that it can—really—sell your product while you sleep.
Whether the term marketing automation is familiar to you or not, if you’ve bought something online from a major retailer you’ve been the recipient (or “target”) of an automation campaign. They can take several forms, but common examples include: order confirmation emails, suggestions of other products you might like, or a re-order reminder for consumable items like beauty products or supplements. These emails were sent specifically to you based on an action you took. Clicking “confirm order” generated the order confirmation email. The “you might also like” message was triggered by the exact items you purchased and a review of the items others have purchased in the same order. The date of your last purchase kicked off the message reminding you to reorder the 60 count bottle of vitamins you bought 53 days ago and may not even realize you will need more of next week. They made your life a little easier as well as a sale for that company, not a bad deal all the way around.
[quote float=”right”]If the customer’s shipping state is Maine, send email “cozy” on August 15th; if shipping state is Georgia, send on October first…etc. [/quote]Even seemingly straightforward email marketing campaigns like one from a department store promoting seasonal items, such as flannel sheets and down comforters, are more effective when they are tailored to the audience. This kind of promotion can begin in August for customers in Maine who are likely already thinking about cooler weather, but might not be appropriate for customers with a Georgia shipping address until October. If you think Land’s End has someone scouring customer data to determine who should receive the “cozy winter nights” email promotion, think again. They have a team (likely at an e-commerce giant) create a series of if-then instructions within their automated marketing system: If the customer’s shipping state is Maine, send email “cozy” on August 15th; if shipping state is Georgia, send on October 1st…etc.
The real power of marketing automation comes into play after the email goes out. Not only will a marketing automation platform like Marketo or SharpSpring track who opened the email, when and on what type of device (oh they know where you are browsing!), but also if any links are clicked on, what website pages are visited, the items viewed, if an item was put into the shopping cart, if that item was purchased, and on and on and on. These systems are so sophisticated that they can even track if you visit the site from both your laptop and your smart phone. There might not be a single light on at the company, but their marketing and sales engine is humming.
For a company, marketing automation is, in essence, a highly sophisticated feedback system for your marketing, promotions, and even pricing. Say you receive an email from a company called Cozy Linens. You bought flannel sheets from them last year and they have sent a promotion about their new down comforters. You open it and look at it but don’t do anything else. The company knows you got the email and are interested in their promotions (you opened it after all), but either weren’t interested in this particular product or weren’t ready to make the purchase. To entice you further to make a purchase, Cozy Linens could send you another email for the same promotion in a few days with a “sale ends soon” message to see if adding some urgency to the equation gets you to buy. They know customers are increasingly distracted, and it may be that you intend to buy but simply haven’t gotten around to it yet. Inside their automation system, the “sale ends soon” email would be triggered when you opened the email and visited some pages, but didn’t put anything in the shopping cart. If you had, a “did you forget?” email would likely have gone out instead. Perhaps a coupon would have appeared in your inbox a few days later. Whatever the flow of messages and interactions, the bottom line is that the exact communication sent to you was specific to your behavior. In fact, your interaction with the company via their emails and their website prompted the next message which was written specifically for where you are in the buying process.
While communicating with customers, upselling, and encouraging repeat business is a great way to help sales come in while you dream, the power of marketing automation actually lies in the data collected. The tracking available through these systems provides a very valuable feedback loop for the business. If emails are frequently opened but not acted on, then perhaps stronger calls to action are needed. If customers click through the site from an email but don’t buy, then it may be that the site isn’t user friendly or shipping charges are too high.
Marketing automation isn’t just for retail companies. Business to business (B2B) companies also need to provide customized communication to prospective customers. Customized emails can be sent to follow-up on proposals, to contact previous prospects at beginning of their budget cycle, or to provide news and updates on the specific product or service a prospect has expressed interest in. For B2B users, the detailed data available on how individual prospects interact with the company can be worth thousands of dollars in sales or contracts. Some marketing automation platforms incorporate lead tracking systems or link with other systems like SalesForce. Interactions with your emails and your website are all tracked by lead. This can provide incredible insight into the decision making process of the consumer. It allows businesses to go back and see what email communications and even pages on the company website led to the sale. Marketing automation can tell you if most buyers viewed the “Our Clients” page on your website before requesting a proposal. The overall traffic to that page might be relatively small and so seem insignificant, but if nearly everyone who ends up buying from you views this page, suddenly this page and the information it contains is a very valuable marketing tool. An email to prospects highlighting past clients with a link to that page would likely be a very effective marketing strategy. The tracking and data available from marketing automation is valuable from a feedback perspective but also allows for clear evaluation of results and return on investment.
So yes, Sleepyhead, you can sell and get shut eye at the same time. Marketing that works round the clock to bring the right message to the right audience can go a long way to make those dream a reality. Targeted, behavior based email marketing might just help you get the richest sleep you’ve ever had. Pun intended.
Adrianne Gordon counseled and trained business owners for over 10 years before joining JB Media Group as director of marketing and operations. She doesn’t speak code but does have an MBA from Western Carolina University.