Developing Behavioural Email Marketing Campaigns that Drive Sales

Email still remains one of the best ways to reach out to your audience. But how do you ensure your email is read when it is competing for space alongside a hundred others?

In this article I’m going to explain how you can make your email stand out by delivering content they actually want to read by identifying where they are in the buying cycle based on their behaviour.

Businesses typically understand that email is a powerful marketing tool. The fact that someone has given you permission to email them (I hope you are not spamming!) already suggests they have some interest in what you are offering, and you can be pretty sure they will at least see your subject line in their inbox within a couple of days.

So how can you increase your open rate and click-through rate?

Get the basics rights

Before getting into the more sophisticated stuff, you must be doing the basics of email marketing right. Here’s a very brief checklist of items to mark yourself against.

  • Make sure your From name is nicely capitalised and is either the name of a real person at your organisation or the company name. An email from eric banackek looks spammy. An email from Eric Banackek less so.

  • Ensure that the first two lines are short and snappy. Gmail shows these words in the mailbox even before you open the email. Make them enticing to get the user to open your email.

  • Get the subject line right. Don’t make it too long that it gets cut off. Use questions or benefit lead statements. Avoid the word FREE as it sets of spam alarm bells.

  • Avoid using no-reply addresses. Come on people. You want the customer to get in contact with you. Stop making it difficult for them by sending out messages from mailboxes that can’t be replied to or will never be checked. I might be itching to give you a juicy piece of qualitative feedback on your last newsletter, but as soon as I see a no-reply address I won’t go hunting around to find your customer support email. I’ll just not bother talking to you at all. Talking to your customers is how you win business – make it easy.

Nothing ground breaking here, just doing old school style email marketing correctly.

Bring the exchange forward

As the visitor goes through the buying cycle they will move from being an anonymous cookie ID to someone you know a little about (their name and email address), to someone you know a lot about (where they live, their age, what they bought, etc.).

Your website should be allow people to offer up their email address as early on in the buying cycle as possible.

The earlier you can get this information, the more time you have to intervene if the person slips off your path to conversion.

But – and this is very important – don’t abuse the fact you have their email. You shouldn’t imaging yourself in a game of cat and mouse, sneaking around trying every trick in the book to rip this piece of personal information off them when they least expect it.

Instead think of it as an exchange of value. You MUST offer something to them that they consider to be of higher value than the cost to them of giving away their email address. This cost may be time (how long it takes them to fill in your form) and the perceived cost of future pain you might cause them if you start flooding your inbox with junk.

That’s why short forms with just a single field, and a clear message indicating you promise not to spam them will work wonders for your email sign up conversion rate – because you are lowering the perceived cost for them and tipping the scales in your favour.

But ultimately the thing that you promise to give them for signing up (discount code, prize draw entry, free sample, ebook, whatever) must be good! Otherwise they will take one look at it, decide it wasn’t as valuable as they thought it was, and promptly unsubscribe.

Email marketing sign up form

Why should I sign up to the newsletter above? There is no clearly stated benefit for me.

If you give away something that you could conceivably charge for, you are probably doing it right.

The 3 M’s of Targeted Emails

With the basics sorted you can think about how to tailor the email to the person you are sending it to. There are three broad categories of variables we can change, what I’ll refer to as the 3 M’s:

  • The type of Message being sent (branding, promotion, educational, etc).

  • The Method of communicating this message (imagery, words, etc).

  • The Moment the email is sent (morning, evening, weekend, weekday, etc).

Each of these variables change depending on who it is your are communicating with and where in the classic buying cycle they are. At each of these stages (providing you have done the email exchange) you have the opportunity to talk to them. But the type of message you send will vary depending on what stage they are at.

Today we will concentrate on the most important of these three variables – Message.

What message should you send?

The message is the most affected by where the person is in the buying cycle. There’s no point in sending someone a message about lawnmowers when they been looking at the deck chair section of your site for their last 3 visits. And there’s no point in offering someone a 5% discount if they haven’t made up their mind if they need a deck chair or not yet, or whether they want a wooden or metal one.

For those not familiar with the buying cycle, the typical stages are:

  • Awareness of needs. I realise I need something.
  • Research options. I research all the options available.
  • Resolve concerns. I look for information to address any concerns I might have about the product or service.
  • Purchase decision. I decide to buy.
  • Evaluate results. I assess how the purchase went, and possibly consider buying something else.

To increase your sales with behavioural email marketing, you need to:

  1. Determine where in the buying cycle someone is.
  2. Send them a message to move them on to the next stage.

In the table below I’ve listed out different stages of the buying cycle someone will typically go through, along with examples of the kind of messages a retailer might want to send.

Buying Stage Message Example Content
Research options Education 5 things you should look for when buying X
How to choose a Y
What X goes with what Y
Resolve concerns Reassurance Who are we?
Why buy from us?
Price guarantee
Rated 4.7/5 by 1,200 customers
Purchase decision Reminder / Assistance You left something in your basket
Phone us for help
Evaluate results Learn / Retain Please leave us a review
How would you rate your experience
You might want a Y to go with your X

Keep in mind that this strategy of targeting people with different messaging depending upon where they are in the buying cycle needn’t be limited to email campaigns. If you know that a particular person responds better to an SMS, an in app notification, or a direct tweet then the principles can still be applied.

You probably agree that these types of emails, sent at the right time will be useful to the person, and hopefully win us more sales.

But you are probably have two concerns:

  • How can I identify where in the buying cycle a person is?
  • How can I set up my email tool to automatically send out the most appropriate email with the right message?

Both are good questions.

Identifying buying cycle stage

In an offline world, you have sales staff who talk to your prospects and customers to understand what stage they are at. We need the online equivalent.

Basically we are going to develop a series of rules that use on-site activity (and offline interactions if you have those) to estimate where in the buying cycle someone is. These rules will vary depending upon your business sector and will need to be refined over time.

The process would go something like this.

  1. Write a set of rules for each stage of the buying cycle. Here you will have to use your knowledge of your sector to choose good ones. Remember – we are not aiming for perfection. Some people will be misclassified. We are are simply aiming for something better than we have right now (blanket targeting of your entire customer base with boring newsletters they will never read).

  2. Periodically process each rule, assigning a person a 0 or 1 depending upon whether they meet the conditions. I’ve chosen a binary scoring system for simplicity, but you may want to score people on a different scale.

  3. Normalise group scores. For each set of rules (belonging to the same buying cycle group) add up the total score and divide by the number of rules in that group to give a score between 0 and 1. This is necessary as some sets may have more rules in them.

  4. Assign buying cycle based on the group with the highest score. Which ever set of rules has the highest score is how you classify the person.

  5. Deliver the email with the appropriate message. No explanation needed.

An example

Buying cycle stage Rule Score
Research options First visit to site in 30 days 1
Direct or brand keyword not used in this session 1
2+ product pages viewed during session 0
Time on site > 2 minutes 0
Normalised score 0.5
Resolve concerns 2nd+ visit to site in 30 days 0
Visited site directly or through brand keyword 0
1+ help page visited 1
Phone call to call centre made 0
Delivery information page visited 0
Normalised score 0.2
Purchase decision Product added to basket 1
Checkout process started 0
Account created 0
Normalised score 0.3
Results evaluation Purchase made 0
Normalised score 0

The person above visited the site for the first time via a non-brand keyword. They spent less than two minutes on the site, but did view a help page and add a product to their basket.

(Notice that rules should include any important interactions the person has with your company offline. If they visited your site and called up to place an order, you shouldn’t be sending them a research type email.)

After processing you can see that Research options set of rules has the highest normalised scores. Therefore, we predict this person is currently in that stage of the buying cycle.

If they have given us their email address (see the section on ‘Bring the exchange forward) then we can target them. Otherwise we have to go another route, such as on-site personalisation using a behavioural targeting or A/B testing tool to replace banners/text/imagery on the site, but that’ll have to be another article!

Creating the highly targeted email

So we know we have to send them a message that helps them make a product choice. But what exactly should the content be?

This is where we need to look at what the person has been interacting with on our site. Are they browsing through multiple product categories or are they only interested in one? If they are interested in just one category, are they looking at multiple products within it, or are they laser focused.

Sub rule Example email message
Viewed multiple product categories in last session How to choose between a deck chair and a garden bench
Viewed multiple products within single category Should you buy a metal or wooden deck chair?
Viewed single product within single category 5 things to look for when buying a wooden deck chair

Suppose we identified the person as being in the resolve concerns bucket. We might create some sub rules like this.

Sub rule Example email message
Viewed delivery information page 24 hour delivery guaranteed to entire UK
Called to ask if deck chairs can stay out in the rain Caring for your chair in all weathers

These examples are a bit contrived, but you get the idea.

Applying behavioural based emails in the real world

To implement this system in the real world, you need to have the right marketing technology in place. Chances are your existing email service provider will run for the hills as soon as you tell them your plans (because most of them are stuck in the past).

Here’s a very brief summary of how I would go about setting a system like this up.

Option A – Low cost

  1. Invest in an email tool that tracks on-site behaviour such as or Vero. These tools have JavaScript tracking pixels which you place on every page of your site, much like Google Analytics. Via this JavaScript code they track pageviews, and any other event type interactions you wish to notify them about (think ‘Viewed Delivery Page’, ‘Viewed Product Page”, ‘Started Checkout’).

  2. Set up rules within these tools to mimic the rules shown above. You might not be able to do the scoring or normalisation, but you can get a good solution simply by using and combination of AND and OR rules.

  3. Pick your 5 best selling products, or products which you think should be selling but aren’t, and create email templates for each one, for each of the buying cycle stages. Some of the stages will only need one email template because you can load in dynamic content. For example, you would only create one basket abandonment email, but leave placeholders within it to automatically inject the content of the persons basket.

  4. Monitor the performance of each email. Does it get a good open rate? If not change the subject and first few lines. Does it get a good click through rate? If not, try writing some new content and split testing it against the original. Does it help people more onto the next stage of the buying cycle quicker (this is the ultimate point of the email)? If not, you need a rethink.

Option B – An enterprise scale solution

  1. Build yourself a data management platform to store all interactions someone has with your business. This should include every page they’ve ever visited on your site, any key interactions (both online and offline). The DMP should also hold a list of email templates set up in your email tool.

  2. Run algorithms and rules on your data warehouse to calculate where someone is in the buying cycle. Do this as often as you can, ideally real-time, but hourly or nightly may be ok. Set the result as an attribute on the person’s record.

  3. Determine the best email template to use, depending upon what products and categories the person has been looking at.

  4. Send this attribute to your email tool via it’s API, along with any other information the email template needs to fill it’s dynamic parts.

  5. The email tool delivers the email.

  6. Your email tools delivers the performance (CTR, open rate, conversion rate) of the email back to your DMP. You check up on everything using a custom interface sitting on top of your DMP.


So there you have it. Some theory, some practical examples, and some hypothesising to get you thinking about how to revamp your email marketing campaigns by creating more targeted, personalised messages that are sent to the person when you know they are likely to respond.

I encourage you to put some of these ideas into practise, and to look at whether your email vendor is really up to the job of email marketing in today’s data rich world.

Stop sending blanket newsletters with the same boring content. You are treating your customers like you don’t care. Start offering them value. Start becoming a brand that helps them solve the problem they have. This is the real secret of marketing.

Become a meaninful brand in their lives, which in turn will propel your company to success.

Ed Brocklebank (aka Metric Mogul) is an analytics and digital marketing consultant. He helps business of all sizes become more data-driven through measurement, strategy and activation. He works as a Strategic Analytics Director at Jellyfish in London, as well as delivering training on behalf of Google and formerly General Assembly.