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Shopping for robots is hard. You envision your world filled with endlessly helpful, perfectly efficient automatons performing their tasks without error or complaint. You fall in love with shiny chrome and blinking lights. 

But if you’re not careful, you get something else entirely—broken parts, incomprehensible jargon, and a voice very calmly and coldly saying “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

We’ve already discussed some ways that nonprofits are turning to marketing automation to bolster their digital programs. 

Now, let’s explore a few common nightmares, and what to look for in your ESP or CRM to turn your marketing automations into a dream.

NIGHTMARE TO PREVENT: Stodgy, outdated email content

The beauty of marketing automation is that your communications are set to run automatically. Push a button and then—whoosh!—your robot is doing all the work. But if you leave your marketing automation like WALL-E, abandoned for years, it’ll do what he did: keep stacking trash up long after people stop paying attention. 

Make sure you know which tools your email robot has to keep your marketing automation content fresh and top-of-the-line—without requiring heavy maintenance.

Customized content: Each of your subscribers is special and deserves to be treated like the beautiful, complex human being that they are. Any marketing automation tool worth its circuit boards should allow you to do the basics, like using someone’s first name—but don’t stop there. Look deeper. Perhaps you can reference the reason supporters signed up in their welcome email, or translate their lifetime giving history into impact, or name-check the recipient of their last symbolic goat. Always look at your marketing content through your supporters’ eyes—what will feel relevant to them, what will make them feel special, what will connect with their experience and values?

Changes on the fly: Once you’ve got things up and running, you’ll likely want to make tweaks to your automation on the go, whether that’s updating your content to reflect real-world changes or just giving it a refresh to reflect new learnings. Does your email robot make that as easy as R2-D2 fixing the stabilizer on Luke’s X-wing? Or R2 fixing the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon? Or R2 fixing the shield generator on Queen Amidala’s Naboo Royal Starship? The point is, if your automation doesn’t allow for quick edits, make sure you plan ahead for the inevitable downtime when you need to make changes. (The other point is that R2-D2 is the best and completely indispensable.)

A/B testing: Not sure what content (or sender, or button color) will work the best? Our answer is always the same: test it. But marketing automation can be tricky to test—so many small audiences, so little statistical significance! You need a robot friend to help. Check if your tool has the capacity to randomly split your audience, send variants, and even roll out the winner without breaking stride.

NIGHTMARE TO PREVENT: Right place, wrong time

The goal of marketing automation is to engage with your supporters in relevant, timely ways. If your tool misses out on the “timely” part, I bet it’s short-circuited the “relevant” as well.

Timing: Do messages in the marketing automation flow all send at the same time (say, every Wednesday at 9am)? Or can they be triggered based on user activity (like a welcome message that launches an hour after someone joins)? Some can do both, but many only do one or the other. Make you understand how your system decides when to send messages, and plan your marketing automation accordingly.

Take a break: There are times when you need to stop your marketing automation. You may need to turn off your welcome series during an emergency so new joins get urgent updates instead of evergreen content. Or you may want to pause your lapsed sustainer series while you sort out some database issues. Make sure you understand where the kill switch is to cancel your series, or if there’s a way to hit “pause” for a fixed period of time. If not, your email tool could turn into the marketing automation version of SkyNet, sending out-of-control messages while you desperately wish you had a Terminator of your own. (I think? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the Terminator movies, but I’m pretty sure this was basically the problem.) 

Multi-message flow: “If this, then that”—complicated logic is basically what robots are for! Some marketing automation tools allow you to build out complex journeys right within the system: what to do if someone opens email #1 but doesn’t open email #2, how many days to wait in between actions, etc. Others don’t. Check to see whether the robot’s got it, or if you’ll need to get out your graph paper and your abacus to plan it out yourself.

NIGHTMARE TO PREVENT: Unknown unknowns

Hi, we’re M+R, and we love data. Marketing automation is no exception. It’s important to know what your robots are up to, so check to see what kind of reporting your tool includes.

By message: You’ll want to be able to see how each piece of creative performs overall—do you have one that’s the weak link in your flow? Or another that’s raking in engagements? Message-by-message reports ensure you’ve got the answers and point to where you can make improvements or draw inspiration.

Individual sends: But it’s also important to be able to look at the data one piece at a time—take your automation apart and see how it ticks. Reporting on individual sends allows you to monitor performance closely when a big segment is going through. Checking day-by-day numbers will also help to identify potential problems early (“Why is our open rate suddenly lower than before?”), or allow you to pinpoint where exactly something went wrong (“Opens tanked on Tuesday—the day we added sign-ups from our robot festival. Maybe we should stop emailing that segment until we scrub it for typos.”)

Date ranges: Hopefully you’ll have your marketing automation running for quite some time, so you’ll want to be able to report over periods longer than a day but shorter than years. You’ll want to be able to answer questions like: Did the series do better this month than last? How has the performance changed since you updated the content? Did you see a jump in your open rates while your issues were in the news this week? To be able to answer these questions, you’ll need to be able to pick a set of dates to look at the numbers. Check to see if your email robot allows reporting over specific date ranges and if not, what workarounds you’ll need to get the data you need to evaluate your success.

Marketing automation can be complex, but it’s also a powerful tool to create good in the world. Be prepared to prevent disaster, and you and your robots can celebrate your successful relationship by dancing the robot…together.





When Anne’s not nerding out over deliverability or the newest email tool functionality, she’s doing her best to keep her knitting yarn out of her cats’ claws.


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