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How to Create an Effective Autoresponder Sequence

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This post is part of a series called Email Marketing Jumpstart.
How to Maximize Your Clickthrough Rate in Emails
How to Find Out What Your Email Subscribers Really Want

An autoresponder sequence is ideal for improving your email open and click through rates. That's because an autoresponder sequence:

  • Builds a relationship with your subscribers.
  • Gets your subscribers to habitually open your emails.

Let's take a look at what an autoresponder sequence is, the benefits of using one in your email marketing, and how you can set one up.

What is an Autoresponder Sequence?

An autoresponder sequence is a series of emails that's automatically sent out to people subscribed to your email list. Typically, an autoresponder sequence is sent out to new subscribers.

When you put together an autoresponder sequence, you decide:

  • The content of your emails.
  • When the emails will be sent. For example, daily, every other day, or weekly.
  • Who the emails will be sent to.

Autoresponder sequences aren't a quick fix. You'll likely devote days, or even weeks, to developing an effective sequence. But once your sequence is set up, it will help you build a tribe of loyal subscribers who open every email you send them. You put the work in once, and reap the rewards for years to come.

Why Subscribers Open Your Emails: Relationship

When one of your email subscribers receives an email from you, they'll open it for one of two reasons:

  1. They recognize your name, and they know your emails are valuable.
  2. You've written an enticing subject line, and they want to know more.

Which of these reasons is better for you, as an email marketer? They both have a place in their email marketing, and every email you send out should have a great subject line. But if you've got subscribers who open your emails just because they're from you, then you'll find it easy to keep your open rate and click rate high.

Looking at my own inbox, there are about five email lists I'm subscribed to that I will always open the emails for, just because of the person that sent them. Take a look at your inbox, and you'll probably find that there are some marketing emails from brands or individuals that you always open.

How can you get your subscribers to open your emails based on your name alone? Answer: Build a relationship with your subscribers.

Does that sound scary? Maybe you're thinking "I've got enough friends already". Don't panic. Having a relationship with your subscribers doesn't mean you'll become best buddies. You're building a relationship in a less intense way. We all have favorite TV shows, radio hosts or novelists that we "relate" to, and that we'll always watch, listen to or read. You're building that kind of relationship.

Why Subscribers Open Your Emails: Habit

There's another reason subscribers might open your emails when they see your name. They click automatically, out of habit.

You can use an autoresponder sequence to teach your subscribers the habit of opening your emails.

Habits are created through a psychological process known as operant conditioning. As psychologist Kendra Cherry explains, operant conditioning:

is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

In other words, when a particular behavior is rewarded, you're more likely to repeat it. Over time, the rewarded behavior becomes a habit.

Habit formation specialist James Clear says that habits are formed through the repetition of three steps:

  1. Trigger (a stimulating event).
  2. Behavior (the habit itself).
  3. Reward (the benefit gained from doing the behavior).

Here's what these three steps look like in the context of email marketing:

  1. Trigger - A subscriber receives an email from you, ideally with an enticing subject line.
  2. Behavior - As a result of the trigger, the subscriber opens and reads the email.
  3. Reward - The reward is the value your subscriber gets from the email. This could be something they learn, or something that makes them smile.

What's the lesson here? For operant conditioning to function properly, and for a habit to be created, the reward is the key. By rewarding your subscribers with valuable content, you'll create in them a lifelong habit of opening your emails. Online marketing expert Sonia Simone calls content that's sent as a reward "cookie content":

Every time a reader does something you like [e.g. opens your email], you want to give that reader a reward — a cookie.

We'll look in-depth at what makes good cookie content in a moment. First, let's look at where to start if you're thinking about creating an autoresponder sequence.

Step 1: Know Why You're Creating the Series

So far, we've looked at two reasons for creating an autoresponder sequence. A well-written autoresponder sequence will improve your open rates, because you'll develop a relationship with your subscribers, and because subscribers will develop the habit of opening your emails.

Both of those are worthy goals, and achieving them will help your business—especially if you're using email as one of your main marketing tools. In addition to improving open rates, an autoresponder sequence is ideal for:

  • Following up with new contacts you meet at conferences or online. Rather than throwing new contacts in at the deep-end with your monthly newsletter (or other regular emails), you can use an autoresponder sequence to introduce them to your business, products or services.
  • An alternative giveaway buzz piece. You can give away a buzz piece, such as an ebook, to encourage people to sign up to your email list. Your buzz piece could be an e-course that you deliver via autoresponder.
  • Segmenting subscribers. If you use an advanced email service provider, you can segment your list based on links they click in your autoresponder sequence.

Once you know why you're creating your email series, you're ready for the next step.

Step 2: Decide The Type of Content You Will Share

Whatever your reasons for creating your autoresponder sequence, it's important that all your emails provide value to your readers. Remember what we learned about operant conditioning above? To cultivate the habit of opening emails among your subscribers, they must experience a reward every time they do so.

Here are some ideas for sequences that allow you to share value in every email you send:

  • An e-course with a new lesson every day. This is especially powerful if each new lesson builds on the previous lessons, and if you create anticipation for what's to follow in future lessons.
  • A series of how-to guides. If you teach your reader something new, you're providing value.
  • A series of promotions or special offers. Special offers aren't great for relationship building, but if you told your readers to expect promotions when they signed up to your list, these can make an effective series.
  • A mix of helpful content and related promotions. For example, if you're selling an information product, you could share extracts from the product in your emails, followed by a promotional discount for that product.

Step 3: Develop Your Content

You've decided on the type of content you're going to create. Now you're ready to create it.

Developing an autoresponder sequence is a big endeavor, so I recommend starting small. A five part sequence is ideal. You can always create more content at a later date to extend your sequence.

To save yourself work, you could repurpose content you've already created, such as blog posts or an ebook. Rearrange the content into a series, and you're good to go.

As you're developing content, remember that each piece of content is a reward to your subscribers for opening the email. Internet marketer Sonja Simone calls these rewards cookie content.

Cookie content has three characteristics:

  • It makes life better. In other words, it's useful to the readers.
  • It can be used right away. It's relevant to your readers' lives, and doesn't require any specialist skills or products to put into practice.
  • It's highly readable and digestible. That means using short words, sentences and paragraphs, and having a sense of humor in your writing style.

On that note, the layout of these emails is also significant, especially in terms of how you layout the text. According to Poet and typographer Robert Bringhurst in his book The Elements of Typographic Style:

Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column page... The 66-character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal. For multiple column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters.

When it comes to writing for the web, it's best to aim at the shorter end of this spectrum. Forty five characters per line is ideal.

While you're developing your content, it's worth being aware of how you'll arrange the content, which we'll come to in the next step.

Step 4: Arrange Your Content

There are two key decisions to make in arranging your content:

  • Where you'll share the content.
  • How you'll structure the content.

Let's look at each of these in turn, starting with where to share your content.

Your first option is to share your content inside the emails you write. This is a good strategy if your aim is to build a relationship and boost your open rate. It teaches readers to open your emails, because they'll find goodies inside. It also prevents people from accessing your content without signing up to your email list.

Alternatively, you can share your content on a blog or website, and include an enticing introduction to the content, and a link to the content, in your emails. This is a good option if your aim is to encourage readers to click the links in your emails. If you want to keep the content hidden from the general public, then you can manage the accessibility of your content for search engines.

How should you structure your content? The structure is in large part dictated by the type of content you're sharing. That said, whatever you're sharing, you can incorporate storytelling techniques to keep readers engaged.

These include:

  • Foreshadowing. Don't write each email in isolation. Instead, create links between your emails. If you know the Day Four email in your sequence will rock the world of your readers, let them know on Day One. Then they'll keep coming back to find out what happens on Day Four. The more you can build anticipation in this way, the more engaged your readers will be.
  • Cliffhangers. You must deliver value in every email. But that doesn't mean you have to give away everything at once. Instead, drip-feed information to your readers. The cut-offs you create between emails creates cliffhangers, which will keep your readers engaged thanks to the Zeigarnik Effect.
  • Just telling stories. Including anecdotes in your emails will keep your readers engaged. Everyone loves a good story.

Step 5: Monitor and Tweak

You've created your autoresponder sequence, and you've set it up with your email service provider.

Now you can sit back and relax. Well, almost.

It's a good idea to track how your sequence performs. Look out for blips in performance, as these are signs that you need to tweak things. Does the open-rate drop off after a particular point in the series? Is the click-through rate unusually low in one of your emails? Once you've pinpointed where things are going wrong, you can adjust your content as needed.

Go Create Your Autoresponder Sequence

An autoresponder sequence is a highly effective way of engaging your email subscribers. It's a lot of work to set up, but once you're done, you'll see the effects on your open rate and click through rate. Why not go ahead and start develop an autoresponder sequence today? 

Learn more about jump starting your email marketing in our foundation series.

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