Mastering Email Marketing Automation: A conversation with Rui Nunes
Written by
Anusha Nambiar
Anusha Nambiar

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Mastering Email Marketing Automation: A conversation with Rui Nunes

Published : July 10, 2023

Welcome to the eighth blog in our ‘Ask the Expert’ interview series, where we bring you industry experts to talk about outstanding practices in email marketing.


Rui Nunes is the founder of sendXmail and ZOPPLY, and a board member of APPM – the Portuguese Marketing Professionals Association. He is also an invited professor for post-graduate degrees at Lusofóna University and a trainer in Flag at Lisbon Digital School. Rui has been working with email marketing since 1998 and has been hands-on with marketing automation since 2004.

In this Q&A blog, Rui Nunes talks about getting started with automation in email marketing and the role it plays in optimizing and enhancing email marketing strategies.

1. First and foremost, we’d love to hear about your journey as a marketer! What ignited your passion for email marketing?

It’s actually an interesting story because, right about when I was choosing my academic path, I met two Spanish entrepreneurs who challenged me to help them start a new venture in the digital space.

It’s important to remind you that this was pre-dot-com-crash, and the opportunities to enter the digital market were limited, especially for a young lad from a small country in southern Europe.

The challenge was to find what seemed to be the most long-term digital channel at the time and very quickly we found that email marketing, done the right way, was the best opportunity.

It became clear it was the right choice when, after 10 years, we had the largest and most active permission-based email marketing lists in Portuguese and Spanish languages in the world. We still had subscribers opening, clicking, and providing us with revenue after 10 years of getting regular emails from several brands within our network.

The lifetime value of this channel was without any comparison.

That’s how the email marketing ‘bug’ clinched into me and never got out. I’ve seen first-hand that it’s the most profitable channel ever, even surviving the never-ending claims about its death. It surpassed many other channels coming and going as the number one conversion and performance channel available online.

Even though I kept growing to managerial positions within the companies I worked with, I never wanted to be away from the operational side of conducting email marketing and marketing automation activities to be in the  loop on what was working and what needed intervention. Maybe that’s why I never lost touch with what we can do best worldwide.

2. Automation has become a crucial aspect of modern business operations, streamlining processes and increasing efficiency. In your opinion, what role does it play in optimizing and enhancing email marketing strategies?

Automation started to see some applications in email marketing with what we consider primary triggers today—birthday compliments, Thank-You notes, etc.

Now, we have evolved a bit more over these simple tactics, and we can apply super-advanced triggers and content hyper-personalization.

From the very beginning, I never saw automation as a way to replace humans, more as an enhancer. Now, we have the tools to reach more people one-to-one without losing our empathy and human-to-human approach.

How do we do that?

Easy if you apply a hybrid approach.

We shouldn’t create cold automated-only flows unless we are talking about transactional messages like standard notifications—purchase/form submission confirmation, shipping information, etc.

The best approach I’ve seen for ages is to mix the automation capabilities with the human behind it. For instance, your sales executive can automate the copy-paste, and tedious repeated tasks through personalized automated processes – like follow-ups, feedback queries, etc.—but it stops as soon as there’s an answer that needs to be addressed personally.

Related to email marketing, the main thing that automation has boosted all performance in is making hyper-personalized emails possible based on triggers like interactions with brand pages or CTAs.

It allows a level of contextual relevance that a human being can never replicate at scale.

3. What are some of the critical factors and prerequisites that businesses should consider while building an email automation strategy? Once they have taken care of the required conditions, what are the initial steps to getting started with implementing automated email campaigns?

Every email automation needs one major critical aspect: data input.

Without some sort of data like an email address, we can’t do a thing.

Then there’s data we ask for and collect without user action, yet we still require their permission. I’m talking about metadata from the pages they have subscribed to, which CTA made them convert, GeoIP, what topics they visit the most, etc.

One of the most challenging aspects is ensuring data matches between all the sources and platforms. For instance, the correct date structure (YYYY/MM/DD or other), the accurate timestamp information, fields matching the right database columns, etc.

You would be surprised by how many organizations have disconnected data sources or corrupted data entries.

The other important thing you need to think about is the fallback information. If you don’t have data for a particular part of your message for some of your audience, what would be the alternative information occupying the voided space? For instance, [firstname, fallback=stranger].

Even before creating an email marketing automation, you should start by asking if you really need to make it automated in the first place. Humans are also guilty of overcomplicating life more than we should, just because we want to follow the trend instead of thinking if it makes sense.

Then, if you’re really starting an email marketing automation, begin by creating a mind-mapping sketch of the ‘conversation flow.’ Don’t forget to place closing triggers that turn off the automation when some things don’t apply. The worst thing you could do is to have endless automation bothering your audience.

4. What types of email campaigns or workflows are ideal for automation, and how can businesses leverage them effectively? What common triggers or events can be used to initiate automated email sequences?

The very best ones are:

  • welcome email sequences
  • drip campaigns (pre-made emails dropping on each specific day depending on your purpose)
  • cart/browse abandonment sequences
  • follow-up sequences
  • review/feedback emails
  • nurturing sequences.

There are more tactics, but these are the major ones that almost always provide positive outcomes.

It can start with leaving the eCommerce cart for X amount of time, filling in a lead form, ending a service or contract, etc.

To answer this question correctly, we would be required to do an entire webinar or course because each has specificities that need some care to be relevant.

5. A common concern with automation is maintaining the human touch and avoiding a robotic or impersonal feel in email communication. How can businesses strike the right balance between automation and personalization? Are there any tips or techniques for creating personalized and engaging automated email campaigns?

As mentioned before, the right way to approach it is through a hybrid methodology.

Depending on the automated sequence, you should send the mail through an identified brand member or quite the opposite.

For instance, for cart abandonment – and depending on your brand’s tone of voice and guidelines, it is best to be sent  from the general brand address.

As for nurturing emails or follow-up sequences, launching them from specific people inside your organization’s email accounts is vital. The reason is not only because of the human-to-human approach but also because you need stop-triggers when someone replies or engages with your coworker.

The other way to keep the human-to-human approach is to leave what’s a copy-paste personalized approach for the machine and reserve the time for what robots still can’t replicate, which is a real conversation between you and your audience.

For example, it makes sense to send an automated personalized email based on what people have filled through a form, contextualized by the landing page content and the intended purpose of that contact. It’s best for a human to be replying to free-form email queries that focus on too many topics because they can better understand the several ‘pains’ that a user wants to solve.

The best thing is that you can trigger or activate another automation when you send a reply to keep an automated follow-up activated and focus your attention on where you’re irreplaceable.

This approach represents a massive boost in your overall performance as a professional because you’re only focusing on what humans should be focusing on and not trying to do robotic tasks yourself.

Whatever the flow you’re creating, remember that the number one teller that we’re receiving something automated or not sent by a person is when it lacks context and relevance. How can you reverse this situation? With structured data, a comprehensive copy and sequences that reflect on when, how, and why you’re even reaching out to them, not forgetting that you’ll stop the automation as soon as there’s something that only a human can answer adequately.

6. What are some effective strategies for segmenting email lists and tailoring automated emails based on subscriber preferences and behaviors?

It’s actually relatively easy to segment subscribers based on non-bias data. Tracking email opens is not a safe measure to segment by. Clicks are a much better source to create segments. For example, people who click on the link of deliverability solution news articles repeatedly indicate that they’re interested in that topic.

Suppose you can track your subscriber even when navigating through your website or landing pages, and they keep checking your pricing page. In that case, it might indicate they’re getting into a buying intent mode, which may activate a trigger to an automated performance marketing campaign.

So, in short, I suggest making a clear map of all the different touch points you can track through your marketing automation tools and see what you can use to trigger contextually relevant messages to specific segments of your audience. Not forgetting about data that people already filled in. Interests, location, etc.

Automation for just one individual may not be profitable unless we discuss high-end B2B deals. So, the best way to conduct automation is by segmenting people according to stages, interests, and behaviors and then creating messages that can be almost hyper-personalized based on all the data you have from them.

7. Are there any specific metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) that companies should track to measure the effectiveness of their automated email campaigns?

This question is a tricky one. It’s tough to answer this because what impacts the bottom line is nuanced.

I’ll try to explain by giving you a real example:

We worked on a flow for a European tourism brand a few months ago. It always starts like this: we use a hypothesis based on previous experience, build the flow, and then keep iterating occasionally.

We can iterate by having A/B tests and seeing if we have enough data that clearly shows if something works better than the previous approach.

In this case, the flow had two messages with a fewer percentage of CTR and engagement overall than the rest. So, we tried to improve them to increase that engagement.

It worked… or so we thought.

In fact, we increased the overall engagement of those two messages but generated fewer conversions and sales.

For us at sendXmail, the main KPI is always the client’s revenue or business optimization:

  • Is the brand getting more sales and revenue using nurturing and follow-up automation? Excellent.
  • Is the brand getting fewer customer support tickets because the guide flow is clearing most of the questions? Amazing.
  • Are the retention rate and lifetime value increasing due to regular follow-up touchpoints? Wonderful.

The best KPIs for any automation are productivity and business gains like sales increase, less customer support spending, more revenue overall, etc. Keeping these macro goals is what matters the most. Then, it is to define micro-goals and KPIs that help us measure small things like message CTR or conversion rates.

8. Are there any limitations or factors to consider when sending automated emails to large contact lists, such as email service provider restrictions or performance issues?

As with any other email marketing procedure, solid email sender authentication for your  automated marketing emails is super important. It might ruin your investment if you end up in some filter or spam box.

The list size for marketing automation doesn’t have a great impact since automation will supposedly only trigger based on specific parameters that rarely send massive numbers of emails simultaneously. For example, cart abandonment flows only trigger when a client spends too much time without closing the purchase of what they already saved in the shopping cart.

The same doesn’t happen when you have activated reminders for a major event like the Super Bowl, a Taylor Swift concert, etc. That’s a considerable amount of emails or notifications deployed simultaneously. To avoid being blocked, it’s essential to play safe and have your ESPs comply with each mailbox provider’s rules of engagement—emails per minute from your IPs, etc.

The Black Friday period is also very intense, so it’s important to keep gradually increasing the volume a few months and weeks before to not scare the mailbox providers of sudden spikes in volumes.

9. Can you provide some final tips or recommendations for marketers looking to maximize the effectiveness of their email marketing automation efforts? Also, are there any additional resources, such as books, articles, or tools, that you recommend for further learning and implementing email marketing automation?

Certainly! Keep automation as simple as possible.

Don’t overdo it and make it more complex than it needs to be because it may impact these situations:

  • The more complicated you make them, the more difficult it will be to monitor what you need to change later.
  • It’s more prone to mistakes and lapses due to your program’s sheer number of flows and sequences.
  • Measuring the true impact of each sequence and series gets difficult.

Having said that, ‘the basic is the advanced’; and quite recently, I’ve shared how simple things like adding a “>” symbol on an automated CTA sequence got a £2.8M increase in revenue for an eCommerce brand in the UK.

Simplicity is the main keyword, if you notice.

If you want to know more about marketing automation, we keep sharing regular articles at sendXmail’s resource centre, like this Welcome Series Template you can download for free.

I also recommend keeping a close eye on what the biggest juggernauts of the Marketing Automation space are doing and sharing, like Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle, and Hubspot, with a special place of honor for ActiveCampaign that democratized advanced automation for SMBs.

Additionally, I suggest you explore the rise of AI  into the marketing automation realm, since it’s like a match made in heaven when you know the limits of the technology today. No, it won’t replace the current automation and marketers yet. Don’t be afraid!

I hope this helped you identify a few things you can start meddling with regarding marketing automation. If you have further questions, contact me on LinkedIn, my personal site, or through sendXmail. I’ll be happy to help you out.

With its ability to streamline processes, increase efficiency, and deliver personalized experiences at scale, automation has become an indispensable tool for email marketing. By automating tasks such as sending welcome emails, nurturing leads, and delivering personalized recommendations and dynamic content, businesses can focus their efforts on creating valuable content and strategies.

At Netcore, we’re constantly improving our AI-led automation, studying trends and forecasts, and bringing innovations to meet the highest achievable ROI in email ecosystems. Connect with us to understand how you can benefit from our expertise and experience. We send over 20 billion emails a month on behalf of 6500+ businesses across 40 countries.

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Written By: Anusha Nambiar
Anusha Nambiar
Executive Product Marketer