• General Best Practices
  • Product Best Practices
8 Best Practices for Creating Your First Automated Email Workflows
Andrew Martin

Our recent Independent School inbound marketing Benchmark Report found that only 25 percent of 270 surveyed schools have used some form of marketing automation to make it easier to reach more current constituents and prospective families without hiring additional staff.

Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report graphic

Schools unfamiliar with inbound marketing often ask how marketing automation tools like our recently-released Workflows module can help their school market smarter and more effectively.

The simplest answer is that marketing automation, and inbound marketing as a whole, makes attracting, recruiting, and retaining families significantly easier by increasing productivity, decreasing the marketing overhead, increasing conversions and leads, and saving valuable time formerly spent creating and sending hundreds or thousands of emails.

With so few schools familiar with marketing automation, we’ve prepared eight guidelines to help you construct your first workflows and maximize their effectiveness to increase conversions, improve email open rates, and increase recipient engagement: 

  1. Plan Your Workflows Ahead of Time

  2. Get Personal With Your Messages

  3. Give a Little More Than You’re Asking For

  4. Know When To Use Static and Automatic Entry Triggers

  5. Learn From Past Workflows

  6. Set Workflow Goals

  7. Don’t Spam the Uninterested

  8. Delay Messages

Download your FREE copy of the 2019 Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report!


Plan Your Workflows Ahead of Time

It can be easy to lose track of the overall structure of more complex workflows with dozens of branching paths without first planning ahead and mapping out the workflow’s structure and each message ahead of time.

Try mapping out each workflow ahead of time on paper, complete with all the messages named and branching paths drawn with lines connecting to each message, before even opening your marketing automation software. (I found this extremely helpful when building out a sequence in the Finalsite Workflows module!)

Having a visual representation of each workflow as a quick reference made it easy to understand where and why each path branches, and the amount of emails needed for workflows like admissions, inquiry, and welcome new students/parents workflows.

You may not need to literally map out each workflow ahead of time, but taking some time to plan and think through the workflow will save you a lot of time down the line and make the entire process much easier.

It’s certainly better than realizing you’re missing content or made a mistake halfway through the process of creating a workflow.

Get Personal With Your Messages

Increase the open and engagement rates of your emails through personalized subject lines and body content. You can build the perfect workflow with an impressive number of branching paths, but none of that matters if your recipients aren’t opening your emails.

Recipients are far more likely to open an email from “Sam in Admissions” than they are to open that same email from the “Office of Admissions.” And no one is going to open an email from “donotreply@admissions.com,” assuming that message isn’t sent straight to their spam folder.

Automation is not synonymous with the lack of humanizing elements in emails. Instead, automation makes it far easier to personalize emails since the sender no longer needs to individually address every one of the hundreds or thousands of emails sent.

Personalize the emails sent in your workflows by using personal and conversational subject lines like:

  • Thanks for your interest in our school, [first name]!

  • Want to learn more about our athletics programs, [first name]?

  • [First name], here are 5 tips for picking the right school!

Stick with that personal and conversational tone in the body of the email, too. Just like subject lines, recipients are more likely to read an email and click links if they feel the email was written for and addressed to them.

Give a Little More Than You’re Asking For 

One of the common automation mistakes we see is using every email as an opportunity to make a request or ask for something, be it a donation, subscription, application, or inquiry.

Even marketers outside of the education industry make this same mistake by asking customers or prospects to subscribe to their blog, visit their store, recommend them on social media, or download their catalogue or brochure before they offer them something of value. You can’t reasonably ask for too much, too soon and expect favorable results.   

Instead, send your recipients two to three emails ahead of each request with content they can actually use or content they find helpful in some other way.

For example, if you’re asking your constituents to make a donation, send them two to three emails ahead of that request with helpful information that explains why their donation matters, what their donation will be used for, and even an example of something the school has actually done with constituent donations in the past. 

Giving Campaign workflow

People are far more likely to hand over their hard-earned dollars when they see the tangible effect their donation will have on the students, faculty, and staff. 

And once they do make that donation, send them a friendly, personalized “Thank You” email. We all like feeling like our time is appreciated.

Know When to Use Static and Automatic Entry Triggers 

Finalsite Workflows allows admins to easily add subscribers to workflows through two different methods: Static Entry Triggers and Automatic Entry Triggers. 

Automatic Entry Trigger selection menu in Finalsite Workflows

Static entry triggers are great for manually adding individual subscribers or a small number of subscribers who are not already in an automatic group. For these situations, click on the “+” icon on the bottom-right corner of the entry trigger box and search for each individual in the available constituent search to add each subscriber.

Static triggers can also be used to add groups of subscribers when you don’t want or need to update the membership of the group. This is great for workflows that are used to simply send information to a group of subscribers when you don’t need to move subscribers from one group to another at the end of the workflow.

On the other hand, automatic entry triggers are great for adding a large number of subscribers to a workflow who are already in a group. These automatic subscriptions were built around Group Manager, which makes it easy to compile and manage large lists of people. Workflows draws on that functionality to quickly and easily flesh out your workflows with minimal effort.

Adding subscribers can be further automated with Ravenna or OpenApply integration for admissions workflows. Group membership is automatically updated as the user moves through these types of workflows.

Dynamic subscriber lists and automatic entry triggers also make it easy to more clearly see and manage who’s in your workflow. More on this in the next section.

Learn From Past Workflows

The success of email marketing and marketing automation is often judged on a handful of key statistics: email open and engagement rates, click through rates, subscriptions and unsubscriptions, and conversions.

Keeping a close eye on all of this data and making changes to reflect past successes and failures is just one of the invaluable advantages that marketing automation offers that can have a tangible effect on increasing the email statistics you care about the most.

Workflows makes it easy to monitor changes in data and subscriber activity through the easy-to-understand Activity and Stats tabs available for each workflow.

The Stats tab shows the number of people Enrolled in the workflow, number of Active subscribers, and the number of subscribers who have Completed the workflow, which is determined by meeting the Workflow Goal. More on that in the next section.

The Stats tab also shows a bar that fills over time and a percentage that increases to 100 percent to reflect the number of subscribers who have met the Workflow Goal.

Workflows Stats tab

The Activity Tab shows how subscribers are interacting with the workflow by showing when each individual user was subscribed, when messages were sent, when subscribers open messages, and even when subscribers complete the workflow. 

Workflows Activity tab

These two tabs are invaluable as they accurately reflect how subscribers are engaging (or not engaging) with the workflows you build. It’s a good idea to check in on each workflow every day or so to see how the workflow is performing.

If you notice that a workflow is performing poorly over time with low subscriber engagement and few people making it all the way through the workflow, then there is likely a disconnect between the subscribers and the content they are receiving.

Emails with low open rates likely mean that the subject line failed to interest the recipient or the recipient didn’t recognize the sender’s name. If you discover that people are opening a majority of the emails they receive, but they aren’t clicking on the links within the email, it likely means that the content did not resonate with the recipients. 

Use this knowledge to craft better, more engaging workflows in the future. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” 

Set Workflow Goals

Workflow goals allow site admins to set a completion goal for each workflow that automatically marks users as having completed the workflow once they’ve reached the goal. Seeing that a subscriber has met the workflow goal means it’s safe to manually move that subscriber from one group to another group, assuming that fits the purpose of the workflow.

For example, a user can be marked once they submit an application on your website in an Inquiry to Applicant workflow. Marking the user as having completed the goal means it's safe to manually move that subscriber from the Inquiry group to the Applicant group. 

Goals Settings menu in Finalsite Workflows

You can automate this group-membership process with a Ravenna or OpenApply integration. Group membership is automatically updated as the subscriber progress through those admissions workflows.

You can always view individual subscriber progress and see who has and has not reached the workflow goal by checking the Activity tab of each workflow.

Don’t Spam the Uninterested

We all have flooded inboxes. The last thing we want to see are even more emails that we have no intention of ever opening or reading. If someone isn’t responding to your emails, drop them before they permanently block you.

We recommend removing people from a workflow after three emails go unopened. Three emails is a reasonable amount of opportunity for recipients to engage. If they declined to open all three emails, it likely means they are not interested in what you’re offering, whether it’s because the subject line doesn’t interest them or a more general lack of interest in your school.

You can prevent people from receiving emails if they don’t interact with the previous email by removing them from the workflow or creating a branch in the workflow where “Path A” leads to another email for those who do engage, and “Path B” that leads to a dead end that stops unengaged subscribers from receiving future emails.  

You should also avoid enrolling the same person in the same workflow during a single academic year. You don’t want to spam a subscriber with too many emails, let alone multiple of the same email. An exception would be if someone submits an inquiry to your school a year ago, does not submit an application, but submits another inquiry during the current school year.

Enough time has past that sending this individual similar emails should be fine, especially considering they’ve expressed renewed interest in your school.

Delay Messages

Finally, make liberal use of the optional workflow delays. Delays ensure your recipients aren’t overwhelmed with too many back-to-back messages. The whole point of workflows is to automatically send messages at just the right time to maximize their impact. Sending messages without a delay defeats the whole purpose of creating the workflow in the first place.

Delays can be added to both messages and branches to control how frequently your workflow sends messages. We recommend adding delays to branches to give users that little bit of extra time to open and read the previous message. Workflows will only check once whether the user has fulfilled the condition, at the end of the delay on each step. The system immediately sends all subscribers down the “no” path if there is no delay.

Branch Options menu in Finalsite Workflows with a three day delay

We also recommend placing a delay on each message so users don’t receive one message immediately after opening the previous message. Recipients will see the sum total of the delay on the branch and message once the workflow is active. Unless you’re building a workflow that needs to send out multiple messages in a very short period of time (a week or less), it’s better to give recipients more time than they may actually need. It’s always better to be safe than sorry! 

Key Takeaway

Marketing automation software like Finalsite Workflows allows schools to market smarter and more effectively, save time in every department, increase conversions, and improve email engagement with an automatic series of emails that sends the right content at just the right time.

Maximize the effectiveness of your automated workflows by keeping your messages personal, giving more than you ask, learning from past workflow’s successes or failures, and planning ahead. Follow our recommendations and you’ll see a significant increase in your email open rates, engagement, and click through rates.

Finalsite Workflows Request a Demo


As Finalsite’s Product Marketing Specialist, Andrew writes blogs and creates videos to share information about all the latest and greatest Finalsite products. Andrew has more than 10 years of video production experience and a journalism education from the University of South Carolina. He is excited about bringing his experience and expertise to Finalsite.

  • Admissions
  • Advancement
  • Email Marketing
  • Inbound Marketing
  • Marketing/Communications
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