Email Marketing System Planning

The 4 Questions you must ask before you start

…it’s a lovely automation, we just need to add a post send action here if we want to tag them too…

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It’s been said a million times before… “Fail to plan, Plan to Fail”

When most people start with an email marketing system, it’s usually at a very basic level… they just want a way that they send an email to a list of email addresses in one go without using their own email tool, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – in fact many never get beyond this level because they don’t need to.

…but if looking to take the next step and want to start implementing things like automations and triggered campaigns, then you need to start planning, because if you don’t plan it correctly, you might end up doing way too much work… and then having to “rewind” much of it because what you really want to do can’t be done by the way you originally built your system.

…so taking that all into account, what’s the best way to plan your email marketing system?

Having built multiple email marketing systems for clients (on Mailchimp), I’ve identified 4 key questions that must be answered. Having a clear answer for each (and they’re all connected) will ensure that you not only know how to build things for your email marketing system, but the key things you need to take into consideration when you do it.

If you don’t plan accordingly, chances are your system may not work.


Question 1 – What emails do you want to send?

Start with the end in mind is something I try and do whenever I’m doing any form of marketing planning… and it’s no different with email marketing.

If you don’t have an idea of the emails you want to send, then chances are ‘the tail is wagging the dog’ in your system, or rather ‘the technology is driving the marketing’ which is the wrong way around. The emails are what it’s all about, they are the outcome, so knowing the actual emails you want to send will underpin the whole process.

Remember though, you’re not actually building the emails at this point, things like specific content, templates, images and other media doesn’t have to be written quite yet.

OK, so what do you need to know?

You need to understand 3 things about each email to help you move forward.

Firstly, every email you send needs to have a purpose, an over-riding reason for being sent. There are generally 3 types of purpose:

  1. Emails which alert the recipient that something has happened are called transactional emails. They could be as simple as a receipt being sent after a purchase, or a confirmation email that you’ve downloaded something.
  2. Emails which have a goal of getting the recipient to actually do something fall into the promotional basket. Usually for email, this is about getting them to click on something which takes them to the next step.
  3. …and if you just want to send an email to inform, advise or educate and there is no “next step” then that’s a relationship based email.

Knowing the purpose of each email will ensure that when you pull the details together you understand why the email is being sent. But please don’t try and be clever and look to combine more than one purpose for each email… things can get confused and messy.

Secondly, once you have a purpose for each email, you can start to work on the specific objective of that email.

The objective describes the content and information contained in the email. It could be to confirm a signup from a specific form, or to build trust through a welcome style email… or a promotional email highlighting a specific sale or item.

Knowing the objective helps you when it comes to keeping on track with the content you need to produce.

The final thing (and from a technical point of view, the most important) that you need to consider is what’s the ‘trigger‘ for the email.

The trigger is the thing that happens which causes the email to know it needs to send a specific email.

…and there are 3 different types of trigger you can have:

  1. Something changes in the database
    Most, if not all, automated messages are sent because something happens in your database. It could be that a new emails is added to it, or a piece of information is updated or changed. Most email systems will know when this happens and this can be used to trigger an appropriate email to be sent to the email that triggered the change.
  2. Time Delay
    This is similar to the ‘change in the database’ trigger… but I’ve separated it out as usually after the first automated email in a sequence of automated emails gets sent, the ones after are triggered a set time period after the first one is sent – i.e. send this email 2 days after a specific email is sent.
  3. You(!)
    Of course, there will be lots of situations where nothing changes within the database but there is an email you want to send. In this instance, you are the trigger.  It could be sent ‘off the cuff’ or based on a schedule, but ultimately you’re the one wants the email sent.

You need to be clear on the trigger for each and every email because it impacts the next 3 questions you need to ask yourself.

To conclude, and to answer the first question, ‘what emails do you want to send?’, you should look to have 3 pieces of information for each – the purpose, the objective and the trigger.

So, if you want to grab a blank piece of paper and just write down a list with a few columns… and then in the first column, put the “purpose of the email”, and then in the second column, the “trigger” that causes the email to be sent, which can either be you, or something changing.

Once you know what emails you want to send, and more importantly what triggers the emails to be sent, you can start to focus on the next question.


Question 2 – What information do we need to know to send the emails we want to send?

Sending emails requires information and data… and if we don’t have that information somewhere in your email marketing system of choice, we’re not going to be able to send the emails we want to send.

For the purposes of this article we’re going to focus on the information you need to ‘send the email’. Chances are that there will be other information you want in the database which isn’t going to be used to ‘trigger’ an email, such as personalisation information so that each email can have a ‘personalised’ element, or just information that you’re likely never going to use in an email, but would like to have in the database for reference (a good example is surname – most people capture it, but never use it for anything bar reference). Storing this information is fine… but it’s not going to trigger anything.

Focusing on the ‘triggering’ information, and the 3 types of trigger, the ‘time delay’ trigger and the ‘you’ trigger, just need the email address, and in the case of the time delay trigger, a knowledge of the previous email being sent (from which you’re then triggering, after a delay, the next one).

…but you do need to know the specifics of what actually changes in the database which will trigger the email in question.

Triggers are fairly ‘standard’ across any email system, and can fall into the following categories:

  • They joined the database – a regular trigger is someone just joining the database for the first time.
  • Dates – if you’re doing events, or just want to send time related emails (e.g. a birthday message), then you need to have the date stored in the system.
  • Interests – if someone is interested in an aspect of your business, that can be used to trigger an email which relates to the fact they’ve told you they are interested in something.
  • A ‘specific’ entry point – Most systems will have a number of ways of people being added to the system (I call them Entry Points) and knowing which entry point they used (form on website, landing page, uploaded by you etc) can be used to trigger an email.
  • A purchase being made – if you’re in e-commerce, a purchase can trigger an email, be it a receipt, a thank you, or even a feedback request.

…but every email you send will have some form of trigger, and if it’s an automated one, you need to know the specifics of what changes.

Now go back to that list you created and in the column next to the first three, identify the specific information you need for each email you want to send.

Knowing the information you need to send emails is helpful, because it’ll help guide you to how you should store information in Mailchimp… which is the next question to ask.

Need to get the right answers?
Click here to learn about the top 10 Mailchimp questions, and 10 videos that answer them for you. 

Question 3 – How will you store the information in your Email Marketing System?

Knowing the information that you need in your Email Marketing System is one thing… understanding the best way to store it is just as important – and this is where you need to be very system specific.

At this point, we’re going to focus on Mailchimp (and let’s face it, chances are if you’re reading this, then you already use it), but if you are using another tool, then you need to understand how it manages data and triggers emails.

Mailchimp has several different ways of storing data (and if you’re not familiar with them, click here, read the article and then come back) and as you know now (from the previous question) what information you need it’s now a matter of making sure that the data gets stored in the right type of ‘pot’ (I’m sure there’s a more technical term for the different ways of storing information, but I’ve always liked to use the word pot for them).

Referring back to the different types of trigger information (in question 2), here are your best Mailchimp choices….

  • Joining the database – you don’t need to worry about which pot, because just by adding them the data is there and the email goes into the email ‘pot’.
  • Dates – you can store dates in Mailchimp as fields and as either annual dates (just month/day) or full dates (year/month/day). Not complicated, but make sure that you are working in the right date format for you (American – mm/dd/yy vs non-American dd/mm/yy) – I’ve tripped up on this a few times!
    For reference, Mailchimp also automatically keeps the ‘date added’ in the system for you without you needing to do anything.
  • Interests – Interests should be stored as either Groups or Tags – not sure which, here’s an article how you can segment your database in Mailchimp for reference and the differences between Groups and Tags
  • A ‘specific’ entry point – Again, you should use either Grroups or Tags to handle tracking the Entry Point.
  • Purchase being made – Fortunately, most E-Commerce systems that sync with Mailchimp, store this information for you so you don’t necessarily need to get your hands dirty!

Understanding your email system and how it works will allow you to start building your flows and know they’re going to work…. because putting the information you need in the wrong place can undermine the whole exercise.

Take the email list you’re creating and against every email with a trigger, write in the specific field/tag/group which when it changes/gets added will trigger the emails you want to send.

Up to this point, it’s (hopefully) not been too difficult to pull everything together… if only that were true for the final question.


Question 4 – How do we get the information we need, to send the emails we want to send, into the right place in Mailchimp?

So you’ve planned your emails, and you now know specifically what information you need to send those emails… and where that information needs to be stored within Mailchimp (or your email system of choice).

…but how do we get the information we need into the place it needs to be?

Answering the first three questions are actually pretty easy in comparison to this one as they just revolve around the emails you want to send and knowing Mailchimp’s database structure. It’s a ‘closed universe’.

…but as soon as we start working out how to get the information into Mailchimp in the right way, a whole number of different options and tools (and problems) appear… because whereas Mailchimp is just one system… knowing what tools you should use to get information into Mailchimp opens up complete Pandora’s box.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that

the biggest problem most people ever have with Mailchimp is getting the information they need into the right place in Mailchimp. 

…because we all use different form tools on different platforms to capture the information we need.

  • Are you using Mailchimp’s own tools?… and which one, because some of them work differently than others (I wrote an article on Mailchimp’s forms here and if you’re planning on using them, I’d recommend you read it)
  • Are you capturing from a website?… What’s the tool you’re using to capture?… and what platform is the website built on (WordPress, Magento, Wix, Squarespace, etc)?
  • Are you using a completely different system to capture the data like a landing page builder (e.g. Unbounce, Leadpages, Clickfunnels), or even capturing the data elsewhere (e.g. Social Media, FB Ads, a CRM)?

Every single tool out there uses, what seems to be, a slightly different way of integrating with Mailchimp and thus makes it challenging to advise on the best route forward for you and how to ‘connect’ up where the data comes from with Mailchimp.

…but to try and help, here’s a few tips:

  • In many instances, you’re likely to want to trigger emails based on someone being Tagged or put in a Group in Mailchimp.
    • This is certainly the most common trigger I use. If this is the case, then you need to make sure that whatever tool you use can
      • Firstly, actually has the option of adding tags and/or groups to Mailchimp
      • Secondly, which, (tags or groups) it works with.
    • Unfortunately, many tools still don’t let you add tags or groups – and if this is the case, you might need to chose a different tool!
    • …and some tools only work with groups or tags – which means you either need to accept your segmentation will be groups (or tags) or find a new tool.
    • So find a tool that works the way you want it to (let the marketing dictate the technology and not the other way around).
  • Don’t get fooled by date fields that are in American/Non-american format.
  • Don’t compromise on your plan because your tool doesn’t work. The worse thing you can do is think, “I can’t use tags or groups, I’ll just create a new audience for this”… multiple audiences in Mailchimp is a bad idea.
  • To achieve your goal, you might need to pay for an improved tool that does what you need – the cost is not likely to be prohibitive, but be prepared to pay it to get what you want – remember an automated system will not only save you time and money but potentially generate more sales – the payback on your investment is there!

Now you’ve had a chance to think, return to your planning sheet and add a column indicating where the data is generally coming from (e.g. website), and the type of capture (e.g. pop up form, landing page form, standard form, etc) …and make sure that system works for you. 

The bottom line is that Mailchimp CAN do what you want it to do and automate your marketing… but (and this is the same for pretty much every other email marketing tool), you need to have a clear understanding of how to get the information you need into Mailchimp in the right place – if you can’t, your system won’t get off the ground.


Wrapping Up

So there you have it… the 4 questions you must ask when you’re setting up your email marketing system – yes, and they apply to Mailchimp, as well as any email marketing tool.

Knowing the emails you want to send,

…and the information you need to send them,

…and where to put that information in Mailchimp,

…and how to get it there,

They are all fundamental to your email marketing system – and you must have planned and thought through each of them if you’re to ensure you have an email marketing system that actually works for your business.

Don’t let the ‘tail wag the dog’ and start with getting the information into Mailchimp – start with the outcome you want and work back – trust me, it’s a process I use for every client and it works perfectly. 

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Robin Adams

Robin Adams

Robin Adams is a business owner who is passionate about helping businesses build effective marketing systems that work and don't waste money. Having a lifetime of Marketing experience (he's got a degree in Marketing before there were degrees in Marketing!) and having worked for big and small businesses and both client and agency side, he understands not only the theory, but the systems that are required to underpin everything.
51% marketer and 49% Chimp, Robin is the main man behind chimpanswers.com and the Mailchimp Answers Facebook Group - the world's biggest Mailchimp User Group. Connect with him on Linkedin.

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