domino-triggered Rube Goldberg machine
PHOTO: Wesley Fryer

Email marketing has honed trigger-based marketing to a high art.

Trigger-based marketing usually refers to messages that are personalized based on a user’s engagement with a product, website, mobile app, email message or other marketing touchpoints. It also can refer to triggers from the marketer’s side, like price or feature updates.

For growth marketers trying to drive SaaS user interaction, leveraging specific user behaviors as engagement triggers is critical. Which makes trigger-based marketing the ideal channel to find lessons in how to turn user behaviors into actionable engagement.

A Bounty of Bang for the Buck

Since they’re based on an individual’s particular behaviors, triggered emails are intrinsically personalized, and the recipients are far more likely to engage with them than they are with other emails. In fact, we’re conditioned to expect follow-up messages or offers. At times we may even feel disappointed if they don’t appear.

As opposed to a word salad, here’s a somewhat tastier stat smorgasbord to consider:

  • Triggered email campaigns average a 6.5 percent click-through rate (CTR), blowing away the 1.6 percent CTR of a standard campaign.
  • Compared with nonpersonalized “batch and blast” emails, tiggered emails drive 624 percent more conversions for the same number of sends, propelled by a 381 percent higher click rate and an 180 percent higher post-click conversion rate.
  • Sending a triggered email or notification to mobile users sees a 2,770 percent increase in user engagement.
  • Recent research shows that 77 percent of email ROI comes from segmented, targeted and triggered campaigns.

Triggers (and How to Use Them)

Here’s a look at some of the most prevalent email triggers and how they can play out for SaaS products:

Welcome emails: A “welcome” message is the most-used triggered email tactic in the book, whether the email is aimed at a new user or an existing customer who has signed up for a new platform or app. Welcome emails grab an incredible 29.9 percent open rate and a 10.6 percent unique click rate.

Onboarding incentives: If new users are dragging their feet, give them a push to take the next step and set up an account or begin using your product.

Acknowledgements of milestones or achievements: Congratulate (or even reward) users for reaching specific milestones or plateaus with your application. Or even congratulate groups of users — for an enterprise installation, thank everyone at the company who’s using your platform.

Confirmations: If a user upgrades or orders new products, say thank you. Even downloaded purchases merit a thank-you message. If it’s something that has to be shipped, a confirmation and/or tracking email ought to be mandatory.

Recognition of notable purchases: When users or customers make purchases that are appreciably bigger than usual — say, a big features upgrade or an integration add-on — it’s a good idea to thank them, offer perks and rewards, and make recommendations and suggest cross-sells, since they may be in a buying mood.

Announcements of new products or features: Let users know when you have a fresh-from-the-box product or shiny new feature that’s relevant to their past usage patterns. Or email them after they’ve unlocked a new feature with tips and guidance.

Review requests: Once users have used your product for a certain period, ask them to post reviews. Here’s a hint on timing: The longer they have used it, the more likely it will be that they will have good things to say, because they’re still using it.

Reward redemption reminders: Automatically remind users who are part of a loyalty program to cash in before their rewards expire.

Browsing abandonment responses: Reach out to users who may have browsed a touchpoint and left without buying anything. One example: a game user who visited an e-store but didn’t buy a T-shirt or branded onesie. Try to lure such people back with personalized messages or incentives.

Reactivation outreach: Make an effort to re-engage lapsed users or subscribers who haven’t used your product in a certain amount of time.

Whatever you imagine: It’s your product, and they are your users, so you should be able to come up with unique triggers that are all your own.

Orchestrating Email Experience

In using triggered emails, any marketer has to see the forest for the trees — or, in this case, the total user experience, not just the triggered messages, that’s being delivered.

View each triggered email as one cog in the experience, serving a growth or revenue goal for the marketer without creating dissonance or overload for the user. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you’re planning triggered email programs:

  • Determine which triggers will maximize results: Where will you extract the most revenue, platform engagement or evangelism? Look for the key moments during a product lifecycle where a well-timed behavior-based email will get you the best results, and weight your program accordingly. Just because there may be a number of opportunities for triggered messaging doesn’t mean you ought to use them all, just those that promise to provide you (and the customer, ideally) with the best outcome.
  • Always add value: Every trigger is behavior-based, and there’s a user need behind many of those behaviors. When users unlock new features or pay for upgrades, for instance, those actions are driven by needs, so use triggered messages to show customers how those features or upgrades help them fulfill their needs.
  • Tailor different triggering strategies: Your users aren’t a monolith — how they use your platform or app may vary by industry, role or other variables. Customize how you use triggers to accommodate different targets, and construct substrategies to suit user personas. The matrix of triggers you employ for a CIO at a global bank will be different from the strategy used with a sole proprietor or IT person at a small business. In fact, it had better be.
  • Test. Test. And test again: Triggered emails are no different from any other iterative growth hacking strategy, and email marketers have known the value of A/B testing for triggered messaging for years. Start small, testing a single trigger at a time, and build from there, always focusing on the overall user experience and quality of engagement you’re after.
  • Provide a preference center: Giving users a page or control panel where they can manage their email preferences isn’t just a way of empowering them. It’s also a tool for learning more about your users. Let them pick the types and timing of messages, the content and topic types they’re interested in, and other parameters. That way, you’ll be capturing data that is good for perfecting your segmentation and one-to-one engagement.

Let’s take a look at some bellwether examples of great triggered emails.

5 Proven Triggered Email Tactics

A Welcome Walk-Through

While Uber still has room for improvement in many areas, what it does get right is combining both the “welcome” and “onboarding” tactics into one email, getting users engaged with the platform ASAP. The directness and simplicity of the message is on-brand, too.

Guiding users into quickly taking advantage of your platform or app also shortens the period before they consider add-ons or upgrades. Triggered emails can expand and accelerate monetization in a number of ways.

A Confirmation Upsell

Dollar Shave Club uses its order confirmations as a way to do some shameless upselling, but that’s to be expected from the brand. Besides, maybe the customer forgot to ring an extra item or two up in the first place.

For SaaS marketers, this would be an opportunity to pitch their own complementary products: For a document management platform, for example, you might offer a templates bundle aimed at the user’s particular industry.

GIF’ing Credit

Publishing platform Ghost sent out success notifications to users with celebratory embedded GIFs to let them know they had gotten another 10 percent knocked off their subscription rate for having referred another signup for Ghost(Pro).

A 10 percent discount is a decent incentive on its own, but taking the extra step to make earning it memorable keeps the user motivated, especially if subsequent emails use fresh creative elements and build anticipation for hitting the “completely free” plateau.

Feature Followup

Sumo, a maker of tools to increase site traffic, reaches out to users who unlock new features of its platform, sending them quick tutorials on how to make the most of the upgrade. Some users may not need the help, but they will appreciate the gesture if it’s done right. Less-adept users will probably welcome the help.

Even expert users might get value from this kind of a triggered message if it provides tips and tricks they might not have discovered without spending a lot of time with the product.

Unsubscribing? Unbelievable!

No one would expect surprise and delight to be part of the unsubscription process, but Urban Outfitters adds a grin to its last resort effort to keep people on its newsletter list. For the the retailer's target audience of young adults, the appeal comes in the form of a smart, funny parody of texts from a lovelorn soon-to-be-ex who’s desperately trying to avoid a breakup.

When users terminate your platform or app, you should always make a final stab at retaining them. There’s no reason not to. But in too many cases, they never get a final, earnest appeal from the developer or publisher, which just implies that the company is not that interested in keeping them as customers. Don’t make that mistake!

Get Ready for Ongoing Engagement

To sum up? Those folks in the suits and the cap-toed shoes — the marketers — might have a thing or two to teach SaaS growth teams about behavior-based user engagement. Without requiring anyone to put on a tie.

Triggered emails and notifications, used as components of a well-designed user experience, can deliver potent results. Done right, they’ll open up ongoing engagement with users. Give them their due — and the resources and attention it takes to make them work their best.