Email autoresponders are the holy grail of marketing.
You set up a sequence of emails once, and you’re done.
Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people will get exactly the same emails from you, in the same order.
This allows you to create an unbelievably consistent level of service.
Perhaps the most underrated benefit of autoresponders is that they exist within email marketing, the most profitable channel of marketing.
Capterra found that every one dollar spent on email marketing resulted in $44.25 of revenue. So, not only can autoresponders save you a lot of time, but they can also be extremely effective in driving profit for your business.
Of course, there are two sides to everything, and autoresponders are no exception: they have some limitations.
If you don’t understand these limitations and take appropriate action, you will end up with autoresponders that suck.
Remember that an autoresponder is just a tool. It’s how you use it that counts.
One marketer can achieve amazing long-term success with an autoresponder, while another will never make a sale.
I want you to be in that first group.
And if you follow the five steps in this post, you’ll be well on your way to efficient and effective communication with your email subscribers.
How does an autoresponder fit into your business
As you might know, there are two main types of emails you can send with any email marketing platform:
Broadcast emails are written to your list and sent once at a particular time.
Autoresponders, on the other hand, are all automated. You create a sequence of emails to send to your subscribers after they sign up for a list.
The downside of using broadcasts to email your list is obvious: it takes time—time to create emails on a regular basis.
Sometimes you should use broadcasts—typically for one-time, time-sensitive events and news.
However, a few situations are perfect for autoresponders, and that’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.
Situation #1 – Introduce new subscribers to your content: In a distant past, any new subscriber you got already knew your content and loved it. They had to; otherwise, they would have never filled out a plain opt-in form.
But now, with the use of tactics like content upgrades, blog owners can double, triple, or even quadruple their opt-in rates.
You offer an attractive free bonus in exchange for a reader’s email address. As a result, you get way more opt-ins.
This is great!
However, there’s a downside to this.
A large portion of your subscribers have only read one or two pieces of content on your site.
So while they might like you, they mainly signed up because of the free bonus. In other words, you don’t really have much of a relationship with them.
To fix this, you want to show them your absolute best content that you’ve written over the years.
Blow them away so that they recognize the value you have to offer and let you start building a relationship.
Obviously, you don’t want to have to send each new subscriber an email of your best posts manually.
And since you want to deliver it soon after they sign up, an autoresponder is perfect.
A great example of it is this email you receive from James Clear after you join his email list.
He sends an email early on dedicated to his best articles:
Not only does he show his subscribers his best content, but he also organizes it by category so that the subscriber has the best chance of finding content they are most interested in.
Situation #2 – Create an automated sales funnel: Selling a product through an email sales funnel is a delicate process.
You need to consider the types of emails you send as well as their timing.
With some launches, you have no choice but to send emails manually. If you open and close a course at specific times, you have to stick to broadcasts.
However, if you’re selling a product or service continuously, you can build it right into your autoresponder (which is what I do at NeilPatel.com).
Situation #3 – Use it as a lead magnet course: In general, the more valuable the free bonus you offer to your new subscribers, the more likely they are to opt in.
The most valuable thing that most bloggers could offer would be coaching or consulting help. But giving that away just isn’t viable. Not only would it take a ton of time, you’d sacrifice a lot of profit as well.
However, with an autoresponder, you can provide a fairly good level of coaching or training and automate it.
Email courses are highly valued in many different niches.
Assuming your course is actually good, you get one more benefit: you’ll “train” your subscribers to anticipate and open your emails.
Step 1: Understand the 4 factors that affect open rate over time
Before even thinking about making any sales through email marketing and using autoresponders, you need to get your emails opened.
There are many reasons why subscribers might want to open your emails:
Your name is an obvious one, but it is often messed up, even today.
If you write all the content on your site under your name, your subscribers expect (and want) to get emails from you.
They don’t want to get emails from “support,” “customer service,” or someone else they don’t know even if that person works with you.
People mainly open emails because of relationships, so always send them your emails using a name they know.
Beyond that, four other factors influence long-term open rates (which is what you should be aiming for).
Factor #1 – Enticing subject lines: In a typical email box, a user will see the subject line of an email, followed by the sender.
In certain emails, they will also see the first line of the message, but it’s not as prominent.
Obviously, the subject line matters a lot.
Somewhere around 35% of email users will open emails based on the subject line alone.
So, how do you create a good email subject line?
First, make is short.
Subject lines with 6 to 10 words get the highest open rate.
This is mostly because most email inboxes only show about 10 words at the max before cutting off the rest of the subject line.
The second important part of a good subject line is that it induces some curiosity—it’s interesting.
Here’s where many email marketers mess up.
They see that they can use certain tricks to get great open rates.
For example, if you send an email with “(No subject)” as the subject line, it will get opened by nearly everyone.
But that’s the wrong kind of curiosity.
With tricks like these, the reader opens your emails just to see what they are.
Unless you have the most interesting, compelling content inside, the reader will feel tricked. Tricked readers are not happy ones and won’t be opening your emails much in the future.
If you’re going to use tricks like these, use them very sparingly.
The alternative, and better, option is to send your readers valuable content they are interested in.
If you’re on any of my email lists, you know that I don’t get cute with subject lines. I simply put the name of the post or topic I’m writing about in the email:
For two main reasons. First, I know you’re already interested in the topics I’m writing about if you’re on my email list. As long as it’s clear that I’m writing about a relevant topic, emails will get opened.
Secondly, I’ve already spent a good amount of time crafting a powerful headline. Because of that, I know that the message will be clear, and there will be some sort of a curiosity gap built-in.
Getting emails opened is not about tricks.
Factor #2 – Your topic matters: Although you may want to send all your most popular posts at once, you can also spread them out over time.
As we’ve discussed, sending information on interesting topics is the best way to build a relationship with your readers and get your emails opened now and in the future.
The best place to get the best email ideas is from your most popular posts.
Go to Google Analytics, and navigate to “Behavior > Site Content > All Pages.”
You’ll see a list of all your posts sorted by pageviews. Make sure that you set the time period to at least the last year.
Use these top posts as your email content, or just give these links to your subscribers. You can be reasonably confident that they will enjoy them just as much as your past visitors did.
Factor #3 – Deliver on your promise: I’ve mentioned that you need to be building a relationship with your subscribers over time.
You need to prove that you can be trusted on an ongoing basis.
As soon as you betray that trust by tricking your subscribers or not living up to your word, you destroy that trust and the relationship.
So yes, sending emails about interesting topics is important. But so is what happens after that.
If I wanted a great open rate for an email, all I would have to do is make a crazy promise in the subject line.
If I delivered, readers would, of course, love it. But if my content didn’t live up to that promise, I would lose a lot of trust immediately.
An email by CoSchedule promised 21 ways to increase an email list by 552%.
That’s a big promise:
Did they deliver?
You bet. You can see so in the comments of the article they linked to in that email:
The next time CoSchedule sends an email, those happy readers will be excited to open it. That’s how you build a relationship.
Factor #4 – Give much more than you take: At the end of the day, email marketing needs to produce sales.
And it can.
But you need to be careful about how often you’re promoting products.
In general, subscribers don’t like pitches, but they don’t mind them as long as the value of your overall communication heavily outweighs the pitches you are sending.
If you look at the emails that someone like Bernadette Jiwa sends, you’ll see they are almost all value, no pitch:
Over time, your subscribers will see that you’re not just trying to make a sale from them, but that you actually care about improving their lives.
Once that barrier of skepticism gets knocked down, your subscribers will start opening your emails without worrying that you’re just trying to profit from them.
Future pitches will be much more welcome because subscribers understand that you want to help them, not take advantage of them.
Step 2: The often misunderstood purpose of emails
The first lesson of all modern copywriting is that you should write to your readers in a conversational tone.
Your blog posts as well as your emails should sound like something you’d send to a friend.
It’s not bad advice, but you need to remember that you can have many different levels of friends.
You wouldn’t talk to someone you’ve just met (even if you liked that person very much) like you would talk to a close friend you’ve known for years.
But, of course, some marketers take this advice way too literally.
They’ll send their new subscribers something like:
What’s up? Just heading out for the weekend to the cottage! :p
If you’re in San Diego next weekend, let’s grab dinner. 🙂
That might be okay if you were writing to a really close friend with whom you talk often.
For a new relationship, this is not even close to being okay. New subscribers would think, “Ummm..okay? What the heck was that?” and be creeped out by it. Unsubscribes would follow.
Bottom line: Be friendly, write in a conversational tone, but remember that there are many stages to a friendship. Your typical email subscriber is a good acquaintance at the most.
Your style reflects you: For some reason, many marketers have a hard time writing good emails.
They write great blog posts, but when it comes to composing an email, they panic and end up producing emails that sound as if a robot wrote them.
Email may be a different from a blog channel, but you should write emails just like you write any of your other content.
Your subscribers opted in because they like how you write.
Why would you change that?
Your emails should both sound and look like you (the way you write on your blog).
Let’s look at an example…
Brian Dean writes in a unique style on Backlinko. He uses extremely short sentences and paragraphs as well as very casual phrases like “I’m pumped”:
You’ll even notice in the above picture that he capitalizes words to add emphasis.
Guess how he writes his emails?
You guessed right—exactly the same way:
He uses short sentences, casual language, and a similar font and even capitalizes “PUMPED!” to add emphasis.
An email doesn’t have to be an announcement: There’s one part of writing a great blog post that is always difficult to overcome.
Blog posts are typically one-sided: the writer writes, and the reader reads.
This can make it difficult to get your readers to engage with your content. Additionally, you can’t build a relationship without having some communication from both sides.
That’s why email is an amazing medium.
It’s designed so that people can respond to your communication—they expect a two-way conversation.
But if all you do is write your content and link to your posts in your autoresponder, you’ll get some replies, but not many.
To fix this, you need to encourage responses and actually reply back to any emails you get. Although this will take time because you can’t automate it, these interactions will help you build strong customer loyalty.
You can encourage a reply by asking your subscriber to either answer a question you pose in your email or let you know something.
For example, in one of the first emails Derek Halpern sends his new subscribers, he asks if there is anything they are struggling with:
He specifically asks his subscribers to reply to him to begin a dialog.
Step 3: You don’t need to sell in your emails
Email is amazing for driving sales, which you probably already know.
The mistake, though, that most marketers make is selling directly in an email.
People don’t really buy in emails.
They discuss ideas, they learn new things, but they don’t buy.
People are wary of email scams these days and don’t want to purchase anything through links placed directly in emails.
So, how do you make money from email marketing if you can’t sell in an email?
You send subscribers to pages, where they can buy safely and confidently.
Essentially, you want to use your emails as a pre-sell to warm up your subscribers before they get sent to a landing page.
That way, they don’t just get a buy button slapped in their face without expecting it.
You can pre-sell in emails in a few main ways.
Option #1 – Link to reviews: If you’re promoting an affiliate product, you can either link directly to a landing page for it, or you can create a review of a certain product and include affiliate links throughout it.
A few weeks ago, Jon Morrow created a new list for subscribers who care about WordPress site speed.
In all his emails about this topic, he linked to a thorough review:
In the article he linked to, there are several affiliate links pointing to the hosting company he is promoting. He gets paid whenever someone signs up through those links:
Option #2 – Link directly to a landing page: Alternatively, you can warm up your subscribers and send them to one of your landing pages.
Talk about the benefits of your product or service, and tell your subscribers that if they want to learn more or to purchase, they can check your landing page.
Instead of feeling tricked or pressured, the subscribers will feel in control. Since you’ve hopefully built a relationship before pitching something, they will typically give your offer a fair shot.
Here’s an example: Peep Laja is a conversion rate expert. When promoting his coaching program, he sent an email with the most important details and benefits of his coaching.
Then, at the bottom of the email, he made it clear that anyone who clicks the link would be going to a landing page about his program.
No one gets tricked, and you still drive a lot of targeted traffic to your landing page.
Step 4: Don’t be the “boring” friend
We talked about the fact that you need to write emails as if you’re writing to a friend.
There’s one part of it that we haven’t looked at:
Don’t you like getting emails from certain friends more than others?
Maybe you wouldn’t tell them that to their face, but I bet you occasionally ignore emails or other types of messages from certain friends (or at least delay your response).
Conversely, you probably get excited when other friends send you a message.
Obviously, you want your autoresponder emails to fall into this second group of emails.
To do so, you need to avoid all the things that your “boring” friends do.
Emails are reserved for value: I realize that everyone is different, but for the most part, email isn’t used for much “chit chat.”
If you want to ask someone about their day, you text them or use some other messaging app.
Over time, you get conditioned to pay attention to those emails that you know will give you some value.
This also means that when you read an email that just wastes your time, you are less likely to open another one from the same sender (your “boring” friend).
Here’s what you shouldn’t do:
- Email frequently about nothing in particular
- Send any email without a point
- Send emails about everyday topics (not of high interest)
My subscribers want to learn about SEO, marketing, and a few other related topics.
Every single one of my emails needs to be about one of those topics.
It’s fine to include some personal details to try to build more of a connection with your subscribers, but you need to always tie those back in with your main topics.
Do you only contact “friends” when you need something? Everyone knows that one person from school or work who only ever talked to their peers when he needed help with something.
The first few times, you’d give that person the benefit of the doubt and just assume they are having an unusually difficult time with something.
However, as time goes on and behavior doesn’t change, you realize that if this person gives you a call, comes up to you, or sends you an email, she wants something.
Don’t be this person.
Everyone gets sick of them at some point and stops giving them any attention.
Instead, be the person who gives others value and offers assistance more often than asks for help.
Fifteen out of the 17 emails in the picture above are asking the subscriber to do something.
If you do that, most subscribers will either unsubscribe soon after they realize what’s going on or just mark your messages as spam.
Step 5: Don’t let your emails lose their impact
There’s one last main problem we need to address.
Have you ever been excited to sign up for a list in the past, only to slowly lose interest?
I know you have because we all have.
As the email sender, you’ll find it’s one of the hardest things to prevent, but it is possible.
Length should match value: When it comes to the length of your communication, you need to consider two aspects.
First is the length of your emails.
Second is the length of your autoresponders.
Despite what some will claim, there’s no perfect length for an email.
The length of your emails should depend on a few key factors:
- How interesting your topic is – the more interesting it is, the more willing people are to read more about it
- What they expect – if you always write short emails, subscribers will expect short emails. Don’t expect long ones to get as much attention as your regular email would.
- What needs to be said – If you’re simply linking to another page that you want your subscribers to visit, less is more. Only include what is necessary to prepare your readers and build up curiosity for that page.
The last point is perhaps the most important.
If you send an email with a lot of fluff in it, you might not realize the problem at first.
Your readers will still read it if the topic is interesting enough.
However, they will lose interest in your emails over time. It will become a chore for them to sort through the junk in order to find the gold.
If you see your open rates decline significantly over time, that means you are driving off your subscribers for one reason or another.
What about the length of your autoresponders?
If you’re offering a course or introduction to your content, your autoresponder has to cover that specific topic.
If it’s a complex topic, it might take 30 emails to cover it.
If it’s a simple product, it might only be a 5- or 7-email series.
Match the complexity of the product and the interest your subscribers have in it with the length of your autoresponder.
If you create an autoresponder course about “how to format a blog post,” don’t send 50 emails.
By the time you get to your third or fourth email on a simple topic, most subscribers will lose interest.
All autoresponders must come to an end: All autoresponders should be about one or two specific topics.
They should be used only for those cases when visitors to your website want to learn about a specific topic and signing up for those targeted emails will give them those answers.
We just discussed what happens if you send too many emails about a topic.
In addition, if you start talking about different topics, most readers will stop reading your emails.
They’ve learned what you have to offer about topic “A,” and that’s what they wanted. They didn’t ask to learn about topic “B,” which is why they are no longer interested.
Whenever you create an autoresponder, determine the scope of what you’re covering, and divide the material into however many emails you think is necessary.
Then, write those emails. Don’t add more emails to the autoresponder in the hope of automating 100% of your email marketing.
What happens at the end of an autoresponder? You’re probably wondering what happens to these subscribers once they hit the end of an autoresponder.
That’s a great question.
There are two main options that you can use either individually or together.
The simplest option is to move your new subscribers to your main subscriber list. Then, you can continue sending them emails when you publish a new post or want to send out another broadcast email.
If you’re on my main broadcast list on Quick Sprout, for example, you get three emails per week letting you know there’s a new post published.
The second option is to give your autoresponder subscribers the chance to join a new autoresponder.
Instead of assuming that they would also be interested in topic “B,” you can send them an email saying something like:
This is the end of your course, and I hope you got a lot out of it.
I also have a few other free email courses you might be interested in. If you are, just click the link below, and sign up for the one(s) you’re interested in:
Email course about topic “B”
Email course about topic “C”
Email course about topic “D”
I mentioned Jon Morrow in this post. He did something very similar.
He knew that a large portion of his broadcast list is interested in WordPress hosting. So he sent a broadcast email that offered a free email course about this specific topic.
So, although all autoresponders must end, that doesn’t mean that a subscriber couldn’t keep signing up for other autoresponders you’ve created.
They’re an easy way to continue to provide value and generate sales without any repeated effort.
Autoresponders are a fantastic tool for businesses to use in their email marketing.
However, it’s still just a tool.
If you want to get great results, you need to know how to use it properly.
If you follow the principles and concepts that I’ve broken down in the five steps in this article, you’ll be able to create an autoresponder that subscribers enjoy and that actually produces revenue for your business.
Creating a solid autoresponder isn’t easy, so if you have a question about any part of the process, leave it below in a comment, and I’ll try to answer it.