Email 101 for 2021: Trigger-based Automation

two phones that display different email templates

Email 101 for 2021: Trigger-based Automation

In a blog post two years ago, we asked you to look through your email inbox, tally up the emails sitting there, and consider whether you are actually reading all of them. Our point: If you’re not reading all your emails, what makes you think the recipients of your company’s campaigns are?

That’s still the burning question in 2021, and some of the email tips and best practices we offered back then also still apply:

Optimize for mobile

This one is even more important than it was two years ago. Today, more than 80 percent of all emails are opened and read on mobile devices. While that percentage varies a bit by age group, designing your content to be mobile user-friendly can only help your open rates. The most important thing: make sure it’s readable on all devices (Apple iOS or Android) and with any app (e.g., Gmail or Outlook).

Design for clarity

Graphics and imagery—combined with a simplified color scheme and a clean, uncluttered look—will draw readers’ attention and get them to understand your point much faster. In the same vein, make sure the text doesn’t require too much scrolling. If your email delivers a clear message, there’s no need to overexplain.

Get personal

Essentially, your message should sound as if it came from an actual human and not a robot. A “Dear sir or madam” won’t cut it—but neither will simply inserting a first name in the subject line or salutation. The best emails cater to the individual. Segmenting your audience and customizing content as much as possible can help you deliver a message that’s aligned with their needs and more likely to motivate a response.

Be direct

Readers should understand what you want them to do when they receive your email. So, you need to be clear on your purpose and intent as well. These factors influence not only the call to action (CTA) itself but also how you present it in the email. Don’t crowd your content with multiple in-text links and CTA buttons that interrupt the flow and complicate how and when you want people to act.


Now, let’s address the topic of email strategy through the lens of what isn’t the same as it was two years ago—namely, the big changes in how people work, shop, learn, conduct business, and communicate brought on by COVID-19!

If the pandemic did not affect your company’s email practices, you’re probably not paying close enough attention. Most organizations were forced to at least consider rejiggering their email campaign strategies in response to the seismic shift to virtual communication during lockdown.

Statistics bandied about online claim more than 50 percent of organizations have altered their email patterns—increasing both volume and frequency—since the pandemic started. Know what else has increased? The effort required to distinguish your content in people’s overcrowded inboxes.


So, how can you make your emails even more relevant and engaging in the current environment? No surprise, success is data driven. Enhanced personalization, segmentation, and customization have become critical differentiators. And this is turning marketing automation into one of the fastest-growing technologies out there for capitalizing on data.

According to CMSWire, marketing automation is “the process of leveraging software to automate repetitive marketing tasks,” including personalizing and deploying marketing messages more efficiently and profitably. Initially embraced by large enterprises, marketing automation tools have become more accessible and scalable for small and mid-sized businesses. Yet less than half of all organizations have fully engaged. For those still evaluating the value of full-blown automation, trigger-based email marketing serves as a smart gateway.


In 2021, trigger-based marketing is widely considered the de facto strategy for email optimization. Why? Because it allows you to reach already interested people with a relevant and impeccably timed message based on their own actions.

Triggered email campaigns are built using an “if this, then that” logic. Unlike a typical email initiated by the sender, a triggered email is sent if/when—and only if/when—a recipient meets a predefined condition. Those conditions, or triggers, cover a range of actions and behaviors—the most basic being simply opening an email! Other examples include:

  • Visiting a website or landing page
  • Subscribing to a newsletter
  • Signing up for a webinar
  • Downloading content
  • Watching a video
  • Filling out a survey
  • Making a purchase
  • Abandoning a shopping cart
  • Changing purchase frequency or habits
  • Celebrating an anniversary or birthday

Even NOT opening an email can be a trigger, initiating an automatic ICYMI (in case you missed it) redeploy of the original email message.


The payoff for marketers is considerable. Since triggered emails are based on the recipient’s own choices, responses, or behaviors—and not on the instigation or underlying motives of the sender—they offer unique opportunities to:

  • Craft stronger, more persuasive custom messages
  • Increase opens and click-throughs
  • Provide pertinent information or timely solutions at the point of need
  • Demonstrate deep understanding of the customer’s situation
  • Upsell or cross-sell targeted products or services
  • Strengthen customer relationships and loyalty
  • Stay top of mind


While trigger-based emails can be deployed manually, efficiently sending them as soon as conditions are met requires a high degree of diligence—especially if your target audience is sizeable. Automation relieves that burden and does a much better job than a DIY approach!

And there’s another good reason to consider automated alternatives. While you can schedule just a single triggered email in response to an action, a sequence of multiple emails tends to outperform just one email and generate a higher rate of engagement. In fact, studies have shown people often don’t respond until they experience at least three touchpoints. Managing multitouch triggered email campaigns can get complicated without some type of marketing automation to enable the “if this, then that” logic that both triggers new emails and suppresses subsequent emails if a recipient responds or converts.


Automated email campaigns with multiple triggers demand careful planning. To create one, you’ll need to flesh out your strategy—what is your goal, what is your message, who is your audience, what are the triggers, what is the timing, etc.—and then find an email service provider (ESP) or marketing automation platform that can support your choices. There are a lot of email marketing software platforms out there—some more advanced than others. But for all of them, the main function is firing off emails to prospects and existing customers as instructed and without further intervention.

Once you’ve settled on an automation platform and locked down your strategy, setting up a triggered email campaign is relatively straightforward. The exact process will depend on the ESP you are using, of course, but the basic steps are few. Set up your automation workflow— including the if/then conditions and the desired wait times between triggered messages—create and load the emails, and schedule the first deployment in the ESP.


That said, it’s also a good idea to make sure you’re following best practices for launching a truly effective trigger-based email campaign. Here are two new ones we’re adding to the list from our original post:

Remain relevant

Triggered emails themselves seem to guarantee a degree of relevance. But don’t depend on it. Tweak the messaging, content, and format of your emails to keep your communications fresh, interesting, and more likely to get noticed. Intersperse graphic HTML emails with plain text messages that feel more personal. Pique interest via diverse CTAs attuned to people’s preferred ways to consume content—videos, case studies, e-books, webinars, podcasts, etc.

Control the cadence

When it comes to running multitouch triggered email campaigns, a big concern is the risk of sending too many emails, resulting in an increase in unsubscribes. So, setting the proper wait times/frequency caps between emails is important. Timing logic is particularly significant for subsequent touches in a multitouch series after the first interaction. When mapping out your email cadence, carefully consider your timing relative to when the original event (e.g., viewed a video, visited the website, added items to a cart) took place.


While marketers have always focused on getting the right message to the right person, today’s email marketing automation options also make it possible to automatically deliver it at the right time—precisely when that specific person has signaled active interest. Reason enough to update your own strategies and add triggered email campaigns to your 2021 playbook.

At Street Level Studio, our expert web and email automation team, digital design pros, and content creators understand the challenges for small and mid-sized businesses stepping into the new world of marketing automation for the first time. We’d be happy to show you the ropes, explain the process, discuss your options, and help you craft a trigger-based campaign that works for you. Just send our director of new business development, Lexie Markarian, a message to get started!