Customer-centric Growth by Lincoln Murphy

Autoresponders are Dead: 5 Types of Follow-up Emails

one-does-not-simply-schedule-follow-up-emailsWhatever the scenario for the SaaS vendor – during a Free Trial, as a free user of a Freemium, for Demo requests or Enterprise Pricing Inquiries, or after a prospect becomes a paying customer, I get asked all the time what the best email follow-up sequence is.

While addressing the ideal follow-up email sequence may seem like low-level tactical drudgery for most SaaS leaders, there’s a higher-level mindset that must be driven from the top of the organization down that ultimately drives the correct tactics.

The mindset of Customer Success and properly aligning processes – including email follow-up – is critical to the success of a modern SaaS enterprise.

C-level executives must fully understand and embrace the SaaS business model and then instill in the organization that understanding as well as the mindset to fully exploit the potentials of the chosen model.

Quite often, tactical choices in the trenches are driven by strategic decisions at the top, and when you find an organization that isn’t Customer Success-focused and that doesn’t fully understand and embrace the SaaS business model, you end up with tactical execution that exposes those deep-seated strategic flaws.

So yeah, this post is about email follow-up… but just like everything I write, it’s about so much more than that!

I must confess that as recently as 2012, I shared with a private group of SaaS executives a PDF mind map of what I believed was the ideal email follow-up sequence.

At the time, it was the best way to think about timed email follow-up sequences.

But… even by the time I shared this, I saw the handwriting on the wall that timed follow-up sequences weren’t working that well.

And when I shared this with the members of a that private group I ran, I had already started to move toward triggered emails based on in-app activity… and I shared the PDF with that caveat.

Now, while activity-based triggered messages has caught-on, this type of functionality still isn’t ubiquitous… far from it, in fact.

In fact, just a couple of years ago this type of behavior-targeting was barely on the radar for most SaaS vendors.

At the time, people wanted a cookie-cutter process to follow (and I wanted to be able to provide it) even though – to be successful – a timed auto-responder sequence would still depend on your understanding how to Successfully Onboard your Customers, which would depend on your product, your customer, complexity, price, position, etc.

But it’s time I put this out there…

Auto-Responders are Dead

At least in SaaS.

The idea of a “best practice” auto-responder follow-up sequence is – or should be – ancient history.

In fact, if you’re still sending emails based on a timed sequence instead of triggered by actual user behavior as it relates to your customer’s Desired Outcome in your Free Trial or Customer Success once they’re a customer, you’re 100% doing it wrong.


Okay, I’ll concede this…

…just having an auto-responder sequence like the ones I laid out in this PDF mind map is FAR better than doing nothing (something way too many SaaS vendors are still guilty of), but just know that 1) it’s far from ideal and 2) you’re better than that.

Seriously… you’re better than that.

I mean it.

This is SaaS… Software-as-a-Service. The Cloud, man. The Cloud.

It’s no longer acceptable to NOT take into consideration the actions of your prospects and customers and to interact with them accordingly.

As Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight told me earlier this year (paraphrased)… “the voice of the customer are the actions of the customer.” Indeed.

So to reiterate, there is absolutely no generic, cookie-cutter Free Trial Follow-up Sequence for SaaS products. Period.

But that doesn’t mean that sequences are dead… on the contrary.

Focus on the right Ideal Sequence

There is a sequence you do need to understand… and in your Free Trial, that’s the process of successfully onboarding your customers mixed with ongoing Customer Success.

You need to figure out what sequence of events will lead your prospects and customers to success with your app and base your email “follow-up” on those events.

Do that, and it will be the ideal sequence.

So timed sequences are a thing of the past… and triggered, action-based emails are the thing to do now.

Okay, got it… but what kind of emails do you send?

Customer and Market-Driven Content

Well, that also depends.

This is where we get a little bit into tactics, but all of this is driven by strategic decisions you’ve already made.

Who your customer is depends on the decisions you made (or didn’t make) about the market you’re doing business in, your position therein, your ideal customer, your price, your product, your sales process, etc.

You must take all of that (and a lot more) into consideration when you start to think about what to send in your follow-up emails.

For instance, did you know there are 5 types of emails you can use when following-up with prospects during a Free Trial and with customers beyond that?

5 Types of Follow-up Emails

Yep, 5 types, and here they are:

  1. Tutorial – about your product directly, or Educational (see below) but closely aligned with use of your product
  2. Educational – about the thing your product helps people with. If you enable content marketing, educating people on how to do better with content marketing in general, beyond your app – fits in here.
  3. Aspirational – Inspirational Use Cases of other customers or your own use of your app to create outcomes your audience would want.
  4. Transactional – From account credentials to daily status updates, and from dunning messages to invoices, these are the most under-utilized messages for driving engagement by far. For many horizontal, lightweight apps where Education / Aspiration aren’t appropriate and Tutorial messages are unnecessary, Transactional email messages can be the key to growth
  5. Personal – Whether automated or done by hand, these are messages that come from an actual person in your organization and are sent (as if) from that person to the individual receiving it. While many messages appear to be bulk or at least individually automated (like Transactional messages), Personal emails are one-to-one communications where the goal is often to start a conversation rather than taking a separate action (i.e. clicking a link).

So which types of emails do you use? Like I said, it depends… you need to know your customer, but it’ll probably be a mix of several types, if not all of them.

When you should send the messages – and even what types of messages to send – must be tied to behavior as much as possible.

During your Free Trial, you should create Success Milestones to track buyer behavior and peg your email follow-up to that.

With customers you should peg email types and timing with your definition of Customer Success.

Stop Round-Hole / Square-Pegging It

I’m done trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to this and I encourage you to do the same.

Remember, SaaS is a business model, not a product category. That means that apps – often even within the same product category/vertical/niche and even in the same price range – are very different from one another and often serve very different customers.

It is critical to understand who you’re doing business with plus all of the characteristics of those customers, and then create an experience around them and their use of your product.

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