Call it what you want, it’s the future of email marketing

Stop letting your prospects leave without checking out their baskets

Some call it triggers, others re-marketing, personally I prefer the term I first coined 10 years ago – behavioural email. Whichever name you put it under, it is the future of email marketing.

So what is it?

Simply put, it’s the delivery of emails to specific segments of people based on the actions they perform on a website, i.e. it’s about delivering emails to the user based on information gathered about their user habits, the classic example being people that abandon a basket.

A Very brief history lesson

First introduced 10 years ago, behavioural email has evolved from a simple registered and not deposited email strategy for a gambling website in the UK, into a multitude of triggered programs specifically targeted at individual users to help improve ROI and conversion.

In those ten years it has been picked up by multiple sectors, insurance being the next one to really exploit the discipline for quotes both completed and abandoned, before eventually travel and latterly retail jumped on board. Whilst the last to really get the concept, it is actually retail that is the flagship sector, mainly because of the mass market potential of a basket abandonment email.

Tip #1

In today’s email world it is the integration of behavioural email with properly segmented email marketing that enables you to produce a lifecycle email marketing strategy that will maximize revenues and optimize communication. Make sure that whatever you do with behavioural email it is integrated with your overall email strategy – too often I see email run by marketing, behavioural email by ecommerce managers or IT and they never maximize the crossover.

But enough of the history lesson (promised it would be short!), let’s look ahead.

It’s not mass market – yet…

So let’s jump forward to today, where despite most sectors having caught up with gambling by introducing behavioural emails, it’s fair to say that it still has a long way to go before it’s a standard element of every email program. As evidence of this you only have to look at an e-consultancy email marketing census report stating only 12% of respondents use vendors for behavioural response marketing and only 31% for automated campaigns.

However, the encouraging news is people know they need to start moving down this road. In the same study behavioural targeting based on web analytics proved to be the biggest area for growth in email marketing with 47% of people saying they plan to do it and 14% saying they already do it.

In the past few years behavioural email has become one of the most effective forms of email marketing. Resulting in ROI figures as high as 750% and open rates of 70% it is certainly a strategy that online marketers are realising is essential to their online marketing (not just email) strategies.

Tip #2

All this should tell you that whilst behavioural is a fast growing area, you still have the chance to get ahead of your competitors and steal a critical advantage if you act quickly and evolve even quicker.

Grow it beyond cart abandonment

The really important next steps for me are taking people beyond the simple initial triggers and building a full program of emails that interlink with your entire online strategy. One way to do this is to consider all key actions on the site and any content viewed as a potential to communicate with your customer and improve their user experience and thus increase site conversion.

To help you understand this, below are some key examples of popular behavioural emails across multiple different sectors:

Basket / booking abandonment; registered & not purchased; welcome programs; incomplete quote / form; quote not purchased; saved quote follow up; deposited not spent; purchase anniversary emails; back in stock emails; purchased X and not Y etc…

The list could go on for a very long time, I have one client I have worked with for over 5 years that has achieved over 300 behavioural emails across their multiple products and different site actions, the message is really that the more you look at your site, the more ideas you will generate, see below for how simple it is to turn one basket abandonment email into a multi-level program.

Turning a simple email into an effective, multi layered program

Automated response and process abandonment triggers are the most popular one’s out there right now, which is unsurprising as they don’t require much in the way of data from different sources thus are easier to implement. One sector that does cross selling through behavioural email extremely well is insurance and in particular aggregator sites like These guys have been doing integrated cross sell programs, renewal follow ups etc… for years. If you’ve ever used an aggregator (and statistics say that at least 80% of us will), you’ll have had emails 1 month before renewal time, emails about travel insurance, emails about home insurance etc… However, the next level is to drive these cross sell messages based on what people actually look at on subsequent visits to the site. This has started in areas like travel, and will become more frequent in the future.

Looking further ahead, one trigger not used much right now but where we’ve been able to implement for our clients it has proven very successful is content based emails.

These emails relate to people after they visit specific sections of a website, with creative targeted around what you already know they are interested in, for example if a user has just been on a gift site and looked at the baby gifts section, you need to communicate with them quickly and efficiently about that subject. Often this information would get lost in the simple triggers that many people have in place because they didn’t perform a specific action, rather than just looked at a part of the site

Tip #3

If you don’t already (and if you use this fine site you should understand the importance of this) then you need to have listed your micro goals of the site. Use these micro goals and work backwards to how they are achieved; this will give you a great start as to the potential trigger points on your site.

Listen to your customers; less is more

As we move towards more triggers based on behaviour, we will begin to put the control of email into the hands of the customer and out of the marketing department. In short; less push and more pull. The web overall has been going down this road for years (social media is a prime example) and its natural email is following this trend. Ultimately, the future of email will be about sending less and making more – more revenue that is – from targeted emailing, based on what the consumer wants to buy.

Interestingly, I’ve been set a target recently by a client, effectively asking to measure email getting smaller.

“Over the coming months I want to see the percentage of our overall email volume move from bulk / tactical email towards purely automated, behavioural email and for the overall volume to be lower, with the results higher

Whilst this is unlikely to become the common theme in the immediate future, companies will be thinking like this as they understand the power of behavioural email and its inherent strengths over standard bulk sends. Clearly tactical email will not be replaced completely, but will evolve itself into more targeted and segmented cells.

One area that makes behavioural email a staple requirement in the future, is where it has already helped hugely in the last 12 months; deliverability. Ultimately deliverability will be impossible without behavioural email, because closely targeted email based on user needs is the requirement all ESP’s will be pushing for. With ESP’s clamping down on spammy senders, getting into the inbox is becoming harder and harder. The only way to guarantee delivery is through sending emails wanted by your customers and the only way to guarantee this is through behavioural email.

Tip #4

If you want to be a hero in your business then measure the following as you start to do behavioural email – number of overall email programs; number of emails sent; number of sales (and revenue) from email; cost and time of running email. If you are introducing behavioural email correctly, you’ll be able to graph over time that you are doing less, spending less, sending less, but being more targeted and making more money!

When is real time really intrusive?

One incredibly important element of behavioural email is really around timing, when is the best time to send these types of emails?

It’s no longer one size fits all in the online marketing world

Unfortunately, one size does not fit all in this case, in fact the classic mantra from direct marketing applies as always – test, test and test again. However, whilst it’s fair to say that testing is the only way to truly know for your site, audience and program, some best practice guidelines can be followed.

  • Be timely, it’s critical you don’t leave the response for a few days when they will have forgotten what they were doing on the site
  • However, don’t assume everything must be real time – I’ve seen too many examples of complaint rates going through the roof when the ‘big brother’ mentality takes over, you don’t know they have abandoned within 5 minutes; they could still even be on the site!
  • Make the creative relevant without being scary – if someone looked in the baby section, sending them an email about offers in the baby section is fine, sending them an email saying that “8 minutes ago you were looking at product X123F” will scare them….
  • Don’t throw money away. It’s very rare that you should be giving offers away in the first email, save that for the follow ups (talking of which)
  • Ensure it’s a program of emails and time the sends accordingly. The ideal is normally a swift email on the same day, followed up 1 or 2 days later based on the initial response

It’s not just for the big boys

So by now I’m sure if you weren’t already I have convinced you that behavioural email is the only option for the future of your email, however you might also be wondering if this is really just the domain of the big boys and that it requires a lot of expensive kit, lots of new (and expensive) suppliers and sophisticated web set ups – Simply not true.

Aside from the fact that it’s actually very simple to set up (just tying up web analytics/CMS data with an email platform), solutions exist nowadays for all levels of businesses to enable this to happen without you doing the work yourselves and you could be doing it with a free set up and as little as £500 / month

Tip #5

Most companies offer a free trial to test it for yourselves, but be warned that free often forgets to mention set up costs, email integration etc… – please check all the detail before you commit too far.

Let’s make the future about the users

There is really only one way to end a blog like this and it’s talking about the future and build a checklist to ensure you are maximizing your email to increase conversion.

  1. Assess your site and see what trigger points you might have
  2. Use a calculator to see how much money you could be making off different behavioural programs
  3. Get a few simple programs in place (don’t try and do too much too soon)
  4. Grow your simple programs, checking the incremental gain at each point
  5. Keep the emails short and to the point and don’t give away offers and discounts too quickly
  6. Test, test and test again

Now try it for FREE

Just to show you how much I believe in this and in a blatant attempt to sway the judges on choosing the top blog post here on unbounce, let me offer you all the chance to go to either or and register for a free trial of behaviour email. It’s a chance to run one of these problems for 30 days with NO COMITTMENTS and NO HIDDEN COSTS – see if it can work for you and if it doesn’t, please send me your thoughts

— Garry Lee

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About Garry Lee
Garry has worked in online analytics for over 12 years, with the last 10 years at RedEye, where he is Director of Analytics & Usability working across many leading industry names like Marks & Spencer, HSBC and, as well as the British Government. He launched behavioural email in the UK, as well as launching new media attribution systems and is currently focused on improving websites through conversion rate optimization.
» More blog posts by Garry Lee


  1. Kristi Hines

    Not many businesses are using this strategy, although I do know of a few that, after the registration process where the only reason you’d register is if you were about to buy, they would send a personalized email asking if there were any questions they could answer for you since you didn’t complete the checkout. I took them up on their offer and completed a sale I might not have otherwise. So it definitely could work!

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  3. Yomar Lopez

    You know, Gary, I was about to mention the matter of timing and paranoid consumers.. And then you nailed it right after. Good stuff!

    I’ve been seeing more complex formulas for the automated e-mailings lately. Surprisingly, the cart abandonment bit was one that I have not see as often personally, at least not in a more linear implementation. I *have* seen e-mail messages go out when you abandoned a cart or you saved items to buy later, and then they go down in price.

    By sending you that e-mail message, there is just the right amount of pressure to buy while the price is at it’s lowest. I usually don’t respond to such gimmicks but this is a case where it has made me click “Buy Now” (followed by a celebratory two-step pseudo-dance).

    The possibilities here are endless because you can cross-reference data and create more accurate behavioral profiles to cater to. Of course, like you said, you can’t get TOO specific or else people could get weirded out.

    I personally don’t find the “we miss you” messages annoying. Sometimes, they’re cute enough to get me to check out the site, even if there’s nothing I have in mind for purchase. Still, dripping that information in a timely yet non-spammy manner can help bring customers closer to your business.

    I feel that in this arena, permissions-based marketing is particularly important. Having double, maybe triple opt-ins can help you identify a core audience automatically, perhaps increasing automated efforts further.. At some point, there has to be triggers which tell team members to provide some personal interaction, as long as the customer has specified what type of contact is allowed or preferred, and WHEN. I’ve heard countless stories of companies using Twitter to reach out to customers when other comm channels were an epic fail. Makes you think…

    Nowadays, I HAVE noticed many folks that claim to have no e-mail address or don’t want to give it out.. If they do, they give you a junk one. I wonder what everyone’s success rate is.

    It’s actually funny.. I can meet a gal (I’m spoken for, BTW) and ask her for her information because I feel that there is a a chance to work together somehow. She may think it’s me trying to hit on her so she gives up some personal information that is not as intimate.

    What do you think she’ll give up first? Phone number, e-mail address, social network profile?

    In my experience, I find that folks are giving up their social media profiles first. Perhaps because it is easier to block pests, if needed.. In those cases, folks will tell me to search for them by name and BLANK.. But not e-mail address, unless we really hit it off.

    Now, truth be told, these days I generate most of my referrals online. It works well with my business model and I find myself wasting less time running around… So I can see potential here for e-mail implementations yet I am curious what you think about integration with social media? How much is TOO much automation? Where do you draw a line and say, “It’s time to have some high touch!”

    I can’t wait to read your thoughts on all this, Gary. 8)

    • Garry Lee

      Very interesting comments Yomar, in particular your link to social, which is something we have seen work in specific cases.
      The best crossover of channel that I’ve experienced has actually been the call centre, where a combination of emails and then a call have driven the best response, however this works only in certain cases, normally around a more positive action , for example someone saving a quote for a holiday or insurance.
      To be, the more complicated we get, the more careful we need to be, but ultimately it’s where we get the best results – take cart abandonment, we’ve now got programs for clients that split this simple concept into over 10 different cells and the results reflect the effort put into the set up – but we took great care over the timing and messaging

  4. Chris Schwarz

    Here’s a great example of advanced behavioural email marketing –

    I was looking at Hostels in Vietnam on whilst being logged into my account. I wasnt quite ready to buy, so I left the website.
    Within 12 hours not only had I received an email with a voucher to the exact hostels I was looking at, but they also found my Twitter account and tweeted a voucher to me.

    Ive had a similar example with Amazon, but they but they didnt quite get it right, take a read here

    • Garry Lee

      it is a very good example (nice blog about the amazon one) and I’ve seen this more and more recently. I’ve seen a few complaints recently around this because of lack of permissions to talk via multi channel, I’ll see if I can dig it out, but I do think it’s only going to become more important. We are already running separate programs for social advocates that have much higher ROI than any standard email program

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  9. Jordan Link

    Good thoughts.

    I think there is definitely a balance to walk when venturing into the realm of trigger-based emails: too many sends=unsubscribes and your email list starts disappearing!

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  13. Daniel Daines-Hutt

    Bit late checking this article.
    I’ve been using behavioural response in our retargeting and email sequences, triggering from page visits and actions taken etc

    We used it for a small retargeting campaign that hit over 7000% ROI which was crazy. A follow up did even better so im currently writing the results!

    Very interesting i’m going to have a play with some new ideas!