Auto-Responders: What Are They, and Why Should you Have One?
Did you know that Charles Dickens, arguably the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, was the first person to have an auto-responder series?
Of course, he didn’t have emails, so it wasn’t exactly the same – but the principle was. He wanted as many people as possible to read his stories, as often as possible. And his publishers wanted people to keep buying his books.
So he did something very simple. He broke his often lengthy books into bite-sized articles, and published them in a newspaper. At the end of each article, he left his public with a cliff-hanger.
Why would he do that? Wouldn’t it have been more sensible to make a lot of money from publishing the finished book?
Possibly. But Dickens was no fool. His goals in publishing by instalments were to:
- create fans who couldn’t get enough of his writing
- judge how they were responding
- keep them happy by altering his content in response to that feedback
- create a ‘buzz’ so that more people would buy
- make money – he was paid per instalment.
It worked. He created a loyal following in Britain, and within a short time became an international celebrity. Not everyone liked his books, but everyone knew they were there.
And to top it all, he became a leader in his field: within a few years, serialisation was the way most authors presented a new book to the public.
All Very Interesting – But How Does This Apply to You, Now?
Here’s one definition of what an auto-responder series means now:
Let’s think about it in terms of what you’re aiming to achieve from your website. It’s not dissimilar to Dickens.
You want to:
- identify your audience’s problem, need or want, and write excellent content about it, both on your website and in your emails
- make sure as many people as possible see that content
- take note of what works and what doesn’t, and alter your writing accordingly
- keep a ‘buzz’ going so that your public (that is, your subscribers) are excited to know when the next instalment’s coming
- make sure visitors keep coming back for more
- create the kind of loyalty and trust that makes people want to buy from you.
That’s where an auto-responder can help.
If you’ve never had an online business before, this might all sound a bit daunting. Don’t worry! It’s not difficult, and we’ll walk through it step by step.
Let’s start by taking one very simple step: looking at how other people keep their subscribers coming back for more.
Step 1 – Subscribe to Some Newsletters Yourself
What exactly is a newsletter? It’s a publication written for people who have a common interest which is sent at regular intervals for an indefinite length of time. How often it’s sent will depend on the author. It aims to keep those who subscribe up-to-date with current developments in its niche.
Auto-responders are different. They’re sent (as the name suggests) automatically, and their content is ‘evergreen’ – in other words, the information doesn’t change over time.
Later in this article, we’ll consider how using these together is a strong tool for any webmaster.
Even if you already subscribe to a few newsletters, start looking at them critically – and consider some outside your niche too. Have fun with this – choose a random topic that interests you, find a website, and sign up. Choose three or four – you can always unsubscribe later.
When you start to receive emails, think about what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a downloadable worksheet to help you keep tracks on your findings. Use it to make brief notes about what you think of the newsletters you receive.
Don’t over-think it – first impressions are best. Your observations will be useful later, when you consider how you put your own emails together.
Now let’s get Into the swing of your own auto-responders by starting with a very simple example.
Susie has visited your site and loves the look of the e-book you’re giving away as an incentive for signing up. She fills in your contact box, confirms her subscription, and downloads the book from the “thank you” page.
Then what? Your newsletter’s not due for another week and the e-book only takes a short time to read. Susie sits twiddling her thumbs, waiting to hear from you again.
A week later, she’s still waiting, because your newsletter’s late. Well, life happens, and newsletters sometimes have to take a back seat. But Susie is starting to forget, because her life happens, too.
Twelve days later, and still nothing. Your newsletter has completely slipped your mind and by now, it’s completely slipped Susie’s, too.
Two weeks on, you suddenly remember – eeek! – and send out a newsletter, pronto. You didn’t have time to plan it so it’s short, not very well put together, full of apologies and explanations. And guess what?
Susie unsubscribes. She doesn’t remember why she signed up for it in the first place. It doesn’t seem to contain any content which helps her – and she doesn’t want more useless emails in her inbox.
You have just lost a customer.
Step 2: Create an Auto-Responder
Instead of leaving Susie hanging, why not create an email message to be sent automatically to her as soon as she’s signed up to your list?
Let’s call this a “welcome campaign”. “Campaign” sounds a bit daunting, but there’s nothing difficult about it – it just means a series of messages.
To create a “welcome campaign”, or any other kind of auto-responder, you’ll need to check that your email provider has the necessary tools. Not all do, although reputable companies like MailChimp and Aweber have excellent programs which make setting up an automated response a breeze.
Once you’ve investigated that, compose your welcome mail.
Write as though you’re talking to a friend, not an anonymous group of people. Remember: Susie has placed great faith in you by giving you her email address. She’s allowing you to have a place in her busy life. Acknowledge that in this very first email.
Make Susie feel important. Make her feel that signing up to your list is the best thing ever to have happened to her.
This first email needs to be “evergreen”. Don’t include content which will need updating, and don’t overload your new subscriber with a lot of information.
Here’s some ideas to start the ball rolling. You don’t need to include all these sections – pick and choose those you believe Susie will appreciate.
- A personalized welcome message, using her given name. This isn’t as hard as it might sound – good email providers can insert names automatically.
- Information about what she can expect in your newsletters – make her want to come back for more!
- If you promised a free download for signing up which she’s not yet received, link to it in this mail.
- If she’s had your free download previously, refer to it here with another link.
- Make clear how Susie can contact you to ask questions or give feedback.
- If yours is a bricks-and-mortar business, include information about how to find you.
- Link to an article on your website which is in some way connected with your free download, so you know Susie will be interested in it.
- Invite her to join your social media platforms by adding the relevant buttons.
- Make sure there’s a friendly sign-off, looking forward to your future contact.
And that’s it, done! Now all you have to do is use your provider’s scheduling tool to send the message automatically as soon as she has signed up. It’s off your to-do list, and Susie will no longer be miffed that you’ve forgotten about her. Your relationship is off to a flying start – and you’ve created your first auto-responder!
But it doesn’t end there.
Step 3: Create a Series
Do you remember your first boy/girlfriend, and how important it was that s/he kept in touch often? Those nights waiting for the phone to ring, or the text to arrive, and the disappointment when it didn’t?
It’s the same with any new relationship. Regular contact between you and Susie is important to build confidence and trust. You’re helping her get to know you as a person she relies on for expert advice and information, and from whom she’ll later be willing to buy.
So a “welcome campaign” should have more than one follow-up email in addition to your newsletter. Otherwise Susie might feel she’s been dumped.
But – “how many is ‘more than one follow-up’?” I hear you ask.
Good question. And, as ever, that depends to a large extent on your audience, and the way in which you’ve planned your newsletters (because you have planned them, right?)
Think back to Dickens. You not only want to create a buzz, you want to train your audience to look forward to your emails. Then, when your regular newsletters appear in her mailbox, Susie will not only remember it’s you – she’ll be excited to open them.
But this is a balancing act. On the one hand, you want your subscribers to remember you. On the other hand, you don’t want to flood them with emails so they feel they’re being hounded – that’s a sure way to make them hit the “unsubscribe” button.
As a rule of thumb, and bearing in mind that you know your audience best, for a limited amount of time consider sending out two emails per week as well as your newsletters.
Your aim is to help your subscribers form a habit – the habit of opening emails which come from you. To make sure that happens, you need to help them through what Jason Selk(1) refers to as the ‘Fight-Thru’.
That’s just a fancy way of saying you’re helping Susie through the “twiddling thumbs” phase. While she’s getting used to receiving your newsletters, you’re helping her get to know you, and sustaining her interest in what your business has to offer.
But – and it’s an important but – think about your niche and, as ever, make a judgment according to your knowledge of your audience. As a large study conducted by MailChimp found:
“The optimal send frequency varies based on your audience and their expectations for your content.”(2)
Look at it this way:
- if you’re a dentist, people probably don’t want to be reminded about you every day, or even every week
- if you’re a travel site, people planning a vacation will look forward to hearing about the exciting places they’re going to visit, and will probably not have a problem with a couple of emails each week
- if you’re a social media expert, your niche can change suddenly and unexpectedly, and your emails will need to be flexible enough to respond to that.
So much for “how often?” What about how long you send welcome campaign emails for? That will depend partly on how often you plan to send your newsletters. If every week, you may only need to send your “welcome” series for two or three weeks.
But if you intend to send newsletters just once a month, you’ll need to send out your “welcome campaign” mails for four weeks, to sustain interest through what is actually quite a large time gap.
Follow-Up Mails: Content
But wait – what to write?
It may seem a little daunting at first but actually, if you step back and think about the goals of this welcome campaign, it becomes much clearer.
At the point of initial contact, Susie is very motivated. She enjoyed your e-book, she found some good content in your first email, and she’s looking forward to the next. Your aim now is to keep that motivation as high as you can, for as long as you can.
Susie doesn’t know much about your business yet. Your website has (let’s say) 100 pages, and she’s seen maybe two or three. She’s found some great information, but she doesn’t know what she needs to know next.
So your job is to guide her through it. It’s as simple as that.
Here’s what you should consider.
- Look back at the worksheet you downloaded in Step 1 (if you didn’t get round to doing it then, here it is again.) What does that tell you about what works in a newsletter and what should be avoided?
- Look at your site statistics. Which pages are popular? Plan to link to one from the top ten in each of your welcome campaign mails. Make Susie want to read them. Make sure she knows how useful other people have found them. Include a testimonial, if you have one.
- Make sure your mails flow from one to another. Think back to Dickens – look at it like writing instalments.
For example, if you’re a garden design site, your first message might include information about choosing and clearing a space to develop. The next might talk about assessing different types of soil, the next, plants that do well in different environments. After that, you might talk about plants which thrive in different climates, then about colour matching – and so on. Each of these, of course, leading back to a page on your site.
- Tease from one email to the next: let Susie know what’s coming so that she looks out for your email.
- What about selling? This welcome series should be about offering quality content. Some of the pages you’re linking back to may contain products, but don’t do a hard sell this early in your relationship.
After all, would you want to continue seeing someone who tried to sell you her latest e-book on a first date?
- Make sure you’re consistent. If you say you’re going to send an email every two days, make sure you don’t forget and set it up for four.
Step 4: Integrate Your Welcome Campaign With Your Newsletters
Your newsletters are separate to a welcome campaign. They’re known as “broadcasts” – individual mails you send to your subscribers with up-to-date information about your site, your new articles, seasonal information, and products fresh to your market.
The welcome campaign needs to add value to your customer but not overwhelm her. You don’t want Susie being hit by a newsletter and three welcome messages on the same day.
That’s where scheduling comes in.
Your email provider (if it’s a good one) will have a scheduling option. You choose the day and time your auto-responder series and newsletters go out.
How to know when’s the best time to send? Use statistical data such as Google Analytics and Facebook Insights(3) to judge times your audience is online.
Here’s an example of Aweber’s auto-responder scheduling tool:
Simply click on a specific day you want your first welcome campaign message to go out – but work backwards.
You ultimately want your newsletter to be sent on the day your audience is most likely to open it. Let’s suppose you know your audience figures are good on a Wednesday. That’s the day your newsletter will go out.
You’ve decided you want your auto-responder welcome messages to go twice a week for two weeks.
So choose Monday as the first “welcome” message day, and Friday as the second.
For the third message, use a slightly different option: choose “send out xx days after the last message”. Set this to “3” and your third message will go the following Monday. Now set your fourth message to go out 4 days after that and it will be sent the following Friday.
Result? – Your audience gets used to receiving your auto-responder messages on a Monday and Friday. Excellent job!
Now for the newsletter itself.
A “broadcast” message – i.e. your newsletter – has a different scheduling tool. This is Aweber’s:
1. Set the time you want your message to go out, using the same data as before. Choose whichever time zone most of your audience occupies.
- Choose the date you want your newsletter to go – in this case, Wednesday.
- Check the “track clicks” option: this will give you useful data about which links are popular and which aren’t working. Useful feedback for future mails.
- Save your information by clicking “Apply”, or
- Choose to send immediately. You’d use this button if, for example, you were sending Susie a one-off message about a special promotion.
At the end of this process, then, Susie has welcome emails twice each week, and a newsletter once. There are a few days between each, so she is not over-faced, but she is consistently reminded of your website and what it has to offer her.
And the longest she will need to wait to receive a message from you is three days. Not much time for twiddling thumbs!
And Finally: Always Remember That Susie is a Person
You may have heard the saying “the money is in the list”.
It’s not true.
The money is in the relationship you build with your list.
Susie is not a “prospect”. She’s not a walking dollar sign. She’s a person who has feelings, concerns, problems, interests, a family.
She’s liked your website enough to trust you with her email address. She deserves well-written, helpful information in your newsletter as much as on your site itself. If she gets it, she’ll be a devoted return visitor and, potentially, a loyal customer.
Don’t let her down.
Next time, we’ll look at setting up an auto-responder series that’s not connected to your newsletter – and how it can help turn a website into a business.
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Sources and Further Reading
(1) Jason Selk: Habit Formation – the 21 Day Myth