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Email Automation Best Practices: 8 Tips for Getting Started
Andrew Martin

Automated email workflows make attracting, recruiting, and retaining families significantly easier by increasing productivity, decreasing the marketing overhead, increasing conversions and leads, and saving valuable time formerly spent manually creating and sending emails.

What are automated email workflows?

An automated email workflow — also often commonly referred to as an "email drip campaign" or "workflow" — are a staple of a school's inbound marketing tools and strategy. An automated email workflow is a set of emails that are automatically sent based on the subscriber's contact information, behavior, or preferences. For example, an email workflow can be triggered by a contact submitting a form, but it can also be triggered by a parent's enrollment year or persona.

Finalsite Workflows is Finalsite's email automation module. Finalsite Workflows makes building, editing, and analyzing automated email workflows effortless through an intuitive user interface.

What's the best way to build automated email workflows?

While building email workflows will save you time, there is a good bit of set up involved. To help you maximize your use of marketing automation through an email automation tool like Finalsite Workflows, we’ve prepared eight guidelines to help you build effective workflows that directly lead to an increase in conversions, improve email open rates, and increase recipient engagement: 

  1. Plan Your Workflows Ahead of Time

  2. Personalize Email Content, Senders and Subject Lines

  3. Be Cautious With How You "Ask"

  4. Plan the Use of Static and Automatic Entry Triggers 

  5. Set Workflow Goals

  6. Don’t Spam the Uninterested

  7. Delay Messages

  8. Learn From Past Workflows

1. Plan Your Workflows Ahead of Time

There are two critical parts of workflow planning:

  1. Planning what kinds of workflows you want to implement and who your target audience will be;
  2. Planning each individual workflow structure

Planning your workflow types in advance is important to ensuring your efforts are aligned with your goals. For example, if you want to incorporate more email for parent retention, but all of your workflow plans are for families still in the admissions process, this can be identified early on before you start diving in too deep. Additionally, it will help you pinpoint deadlines, priorities, and available resources.

Once you have your list of workflows you'd like to complete, it's start to plan the flow. Workflows can quickly become complex once branching logic (e.g. if Email #1 is opened, send Email #1B) is incorporated. So, this critical first step of "planning" can help "map" out all those twists and turns in advance.

Start by 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 your 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.

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2. Personalize Email Content, Senders and Subject Lines

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.

Increase the open and engagement rates of your emails through personalized subject lines, senders 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.

Personalizing Email Content

Stick with a 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.

Personalizing Senders

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 “” Automation makes it easier to personalize emails since the sender no longer needs to individually address every one of the hundreds or thousands of emails sent.

Personalizing Subject Lines

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

  • 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!

3. Be Cautious With How You "Ask"

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, plan to 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 alumni 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. You can include calls-to-action within those emails, but they shouldn't be the primary focus.

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.

Giving Campaign workflow

People are far more likely to donate when and if they see the tangible effect their donation will have ahead of time. And once they do make that donation, send them a friendly, personalized “Thank You” email. We all like feeling like our time is appreciated, and it could encourage repeat donations.

4. Plan the Use of Static and Automatic Entry Triggers 

With most automated email platforms, you'll have the ability to control how and when individuals enter the workflow. 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.

Automation Through the Forms-Workflows Connector

An additional way to automatically add subscribers to workflows is through the Finalsite Forms-Finalsite Workflows Connector. The Forms-Workflows Connector enables forms submissions to automatically subscribe someone to a workflow, branch workflows based on form responses, complete workflow goals through form submissions, and more.

Choosing between a contact and form in Workflows

This connector sets up workflows to run autonomously, while seamlessly moving subscribers along a predetermined guided path from the very first time they submit a form on your website. 

Branching options in Workflows

For example, you can build a workflow that begins once a new visitor to your website fills out the initial inquiry form. This submission would trigger workflow enrollment. The workflow would likely guide them through a month-long process by sending bite-sized pieces of information about your school, curriculum, and testimonials from current and past students. It could end automatically after a set of emails, or even end once the subscriber fills out and submits the application form on your website if that form is also powered by Finalsite.

What could have previously been months of effort to continuously reach out to each visitor who inquired about your school can now be automated with increased effectiveness through a workflow that sends personalized information to each inquirer to keep them engaged and interested in your school for months at a time, all without any involvement from your staff outside of building the initial form and emails and creating the workflow. 

Subscribers can also be manually added to a workflow by searching for specific constituents, choosing groups established in Group Manager, through contact information, and by uploading a .txt file with subscriber information containing, at least, their email address. Workflows also allows for subscribers to be added through RavennaOpenApply, or Blackbaud integration. Group membership is automatically updated as the user moves through these types of workflows.

Manually adding subscribers to a Finalsite Workflow

5. 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. 

Workflows Goal settings

You can automate this process with a BlackbaudRavenna or OpenApply integration. Group membership is automatically updated as the subscriber progresses 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.

6. 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. 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 multiple copies 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 passed that sending this individual similar emails should be fine, especially considering they’ve expressed renewed interest in your school.

7. Delay Messages

Make liberal use of the optional workflow delays. Delays ensure your recipients aren’t overwhelmed with too many back-to-back messages. Sending messages without a delay defeats the whole purpose of creating workflows that send bite-sized pieces of information over time.

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. 

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! 

8. 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 unsubscribes, 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 advantages that  has a direct effect on increasing your email campaign’s effectiveness. Finalsite Workflows makes it easy to monitor these changes in data and subscriber activity through the Activity and Stats tabs 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. This is also visualized by a bar that fills over time and a percentage to reflect the number of subscribers who have met the Workflow Goal.

Workflow 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. If you notice that a workflow is performing poorly over time with low subscriber engagement or too 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 them. Use this knowledge to craft better workflows in the future.

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. When you follow these marketing automation best practices, you’ll see a significant increase in your email open rates, engagement, and click through rates.

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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.

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