Editor’s note: Updated June 2019.

Drip. drip. Drip. That’s the sound of digital marketing gold.

Every marketer worth his or her salt knows that email drip campaigns can keep prospects engaged and maintain open lines of communication even when you’re not directly interacting with a sales lead.

But, like anything else with digital marketing, there’s a fine line to walk with drip campaigns. Take too heavy of a hand with your efforts, and you’ll risk bombarding prospects with content and overwhelming them. Go too far in the other direction, and your leads may forget you even exist.

It’s a delicate dance, but we’re here to teach you the email drip tango.

What is a drip campaign?

Before we get too far into the weeds, let’s back up and give a quick refresher on what exactly an email drip strategy entails. You may have heard it called email marketing, drip marketing, an automated email campaign – among other terms – but they all refer to the same overarching concept: Marketers automate the release of emails to contact potential sales leads on a set schedule.

Pairing marketing automation and email drip campaigns can lead to 20 percent more sales opportunities.

These emails can vary depending on an individual’s recent actions – or inaction, as the case may be. If someone doesn’t respond to an initial contact, a followup email is sent at a later date to reattempt engagement and encourage a particular call to action.

Every response, or lack of a response, kicks off another round of emails. These correspondences trickle out over a long period of time to maintain communication without alienating leads – hence the “drip” in email drip marketing.

Drip campaign flowcharts can be as extensive and complicated as you want them to be, featuring numerous rounds of emails and diverging pathways depending on how recipients respond to each email.

Here’s a helpful visual aid:

Via zapier.com

 

Now, a slightly more complex email drip flowchart might look something like this:

As you can see, this particular rabbit hole can run pretty deep if you let it.

Drip campaigns don’t exist in a vacuum. The good ones play complementary roles in overall marketing strategies, aligning with current messaging to drive engagement.

The modern form of B2B communication

So why go through all of that effort to write emails for every conceivable interaction? Because, when done right, drip campaigns are a fantastic and unobtrusive way to reach out to your prospects and provide contextual information that’s specifically geared to their unique situations.

Did they sign up for a newsletter? Download a white paper? Peruse certain landing pages? All circumstances that could easily lend themselves to customized emails to cultivate engagement and take some of the heavy lifting out of building a relationship with potential sales leads.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, that’d be pretty helpful for lead nurturing,” well, you’d be right on the money. A sophisticated drip campaign can support lead-nurturing efforts by being contextually based. If someone just signed up for a newsletter, send them top-of-funnel content to establish your brand. Keep those more in-depth pieces in your pocket until they display behavior that suggests they’re nearing a decision.

Driving engagement on easy mode

By proactively sending relevant material directly to your prospects, you remove a lot of the legwork they need to do to find your content. Essentially, you shorten the sales cycle by accelerating engagement and moving leads more quickly through the sales funnel.

It also asks very little out of the recipient. CTAs may offer a sales demo, webinar, eBook or even an invitation to contact a representative directly, but there’s no pressure on the individual to respond. More and more, that’s how people like it today: 86 percent of business professionals prefer to communicate over email rather than over the phone or face to face.

It’s not just about finding good sales leads, either. Good drip campaigns weed out unresponsive site visitors early on so sales teams don’t waste time and energy trying to make contact. Better to reserve those resources for the prospects who are actually receptive to your outreach efforts.

The results speak for themselves: Targeted drip emails generate 18 times more revenue for businesses than general email blasts.

Where does content come into the picture?

Glad you asked. Email’s the delivery vehicle, but content is the carrot, laying the foundation and providing the initial touchpoint and enticement for successive brand interactions.

In many cases, your leads will be individuals who filled out a download form to access gated content like white papers or eBooks. Or they arrived on your site via a product or service landing page and/or even blog post.

Using an individual’s trail of activity, marketers can use their drip campaigns to send additional materials and content that will be relevant to the user. Were they browsing a landing page on cloud services? Well, there’s a good chance they would be interested in reading a white paper that provides a more in-depth analysis of that technology and its applications and benefits.

And these kinds of insights continue to emerge throughout the drip email workflow.

The more content a user consumes, the more fleshed out they become as a viable sales prospect. What are their concerns and pain points? What kinds of solutions pique their interest? These critical pieces of information come into sharper focus before a sales representative has even picked up the phone.

The content you include in each email should match where a prospect is located in the sales funnel. Thought leadership pieces and engaging material like infographics are great for those top-of-funnel leads, and then you can start sending links to sales demos and case studies as they move further down the funnel.

How is this different from lead nurturing campaigns?

Good question. It’s easy to conflate any particular type of email marketing campaign since they have a tendency to overlap with one another. But the devil’s in the details, and the key difference between lead nurturing campaigns and drip marketing comes down to personalization.

More to the point: Lead nurturing campaigns have it, drip marketing campaigns don’t.

Lead nurturing campaigns revolve around exposing prospects to certain content and messaging at very specific times during the sales funnel when they’ll land with maximum impact. That entails a pretty keen understanding of who your audience is at a granular level.

Conversely, drip marketing is intended to be almost a self-sustaining machine – once you start it up, it automates email delivery based on how much time has passed since the last interaction. While the content drip marketing targets receive is driven to some extent by their choices and decisions – ie, did they open the last email and click on an enclosed link or disregard the email entirely? – lead nurturing campaigns are much more driven by prospect behavior.

That doesn’t mean you need to choose one over the other or that they should operate in separate silos, of course. The leads you generate through drip marketing can feed directly into your lead nurturing campaigns, culling the most promising sales prospects so you can give them more attention as they move through the funnel.

The hallmarks of a great campaign

There are a lot of moving parts to an email drip campaign, which means there are a lot of chances for something to go wrong. Successful campaigns typically follow these general guidelines:

Email lists are targeted, segmented and well-researched

Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: Always do your homework before launching a campaign.

To increase your odds of engagement, you need to line up content and drip emails that are relevant to the recipients. Segment your email lists accordingly so you’re sending the right message with the right material. Adjust your messaging as needed to match different audiences so your drip emails are always on point and engaging. Soon you’ll have leads flying down the sales funnel.

Contact is consistent but also scattered

Pace yourself when sending drip emails.

Maintain contact, but also leave your audience wanting more. The idea is to slowly nurture your leads and keep them engaged up until they decide to make a purchase. There’s no need to rush things.

That also goes for your messaging and tone. Ignore the impulse to push for a hard sell too early in the process. Cultivate a strong foundation of trust between your brand and the recipient. Otherwise, prematurely going in for the kill will shatter that bond before it even has a chance to form.

Always be testing

Email drip campaigns are not “set it and forget it” strategies. You should always analyze and test your emails to see which perform the best. Even seemingly trivial variations can help gain stronger traction with your audience.

Most drip campaign experts recommend conducting A/B testing to directly compare different emails and how well they resonate with recipients. You may be surprised at the results, but you’ll never know if you don’t take the time to really analyze every aspect of your current strategy.

That brings us to another important question: How do you measure success with a drip campaign? Open rates are good indicators to some degree, but all they really show is that people looked at your emails, not necessarily that they actually read and found value in it.

Click-through rates are better barometers of engagement, since they refer to the percentage of email recipients who clicked on a link, whether it’s a blog, webinar or white paper. What’s a good CTR to shoot for? That can vary by a number of factors, but the average email CTR sits at about 3.42 percent. Anything above that is gravy, obviously.

While 3.42% click-through rates may not appear to be the kind of eye-popping numbers you can wave in front of your superiors to show your progress, it’s better than industry averages for email marketing click-through rates, which hover around 2.61%.

Where drip campaigns go off the rails

For every successful email drip strategy, there are 50 that crash and burn. Why is it so difficult to get it right? As we discussed, email marketing is nuanced, and the slightest misstep could turn away prospects and push them to unsubscribe rather than stay connected.

Where do people go wrong? These are some of the most common errors we’ve seen:

Too much contact

There are many digital marketers out there who will tell you that a prospect’s level of engagement should dictate the frequency of your emails. There’s definitely a limit to how far you can take that idea, though, and brands that go overboard are more likely to send prospects running to the hills than champing at the bit for more content.

Never email a prospect more than once a day.

It’s just a bad idea. I don’t care how much they loved your webinar. It can come off as aggressive, intrusive and even a little desperate.

Generally speaking, you should exercise restraint and limit yourself to no more than one email a day – if that. Pump the brakes and give your prospects time to breathe and digest the content your sending their way.

Resending content to the same contacts

Repurposing is a cornerstone of digital marketing best practices. But there’s a big difference between sharing a blog on your Twitter feed and sending the same newsletter twice in the same week.

Not only do you lose that personal touch that the best drip campaigns tap into, but you give off the vibe of a brand that’s uncoordinated, unsophisticated and not even remotely detail-oriented.

What would you think if a company sent the same materials to you over and over again? Would you want to work with them?

Drip email content should always be fresh, interesting and relevant to keep prospects engaged – reusing the same materials over and over again will have the opposite effect.

Leaving your sales team in the dark

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A marketing team launches an email drip campaign but forgets to loop in their sales department. Prospects wind up receiving both a nurturing email and a sales call in the same day.

That may not sound like the end of the world, but it’s counterproductive to bombard sales leads with emails and phone calls when you’re trying to establish the beginning of a relationship.

Moreover, it’s bad practice to have your marketing and sales teams working in silos, never really knowing what the other’s up to. They are working toward the same overarching goal to bring in new customers and clients and generate revenue, so keep them in lockstep.

Recommended marketing automation tools

Part of the appeal of drip marketing is that it’s so hands-off most of the time. You set up your strategy and templates and let the emails do the rest. Marketing automation tools can further streamline your drip marketing campaigns by simplifying everything from mapping out your drip email flowchart to integrating prospect data with other marketing platforms.

Agile CRM is one of the most helpful drip email marketing automation tools out there because you can use it to quickly and easily plot out your drip campaign. It has a simple, drag-and-drop interface that makes it a breeze to lay out every single email from start to finish.

If you’re already using HubSpot, you can take advantage of some of its drip marketing-focused features that go well beyond simple email automation. Our favorite? The ability to easily customize content that’s featured in your drip emails based on the recipient’s activity and behavior. Remember how we said lead nurturing campaigns had an edge on drip marketing when it comes to personalization? Well, HubSpot’s sophisticated marketing automation tools level the playing field a bit.

There’s also a variety of drip-dedicated marketing automation tools out there, but you’ll want to carefully vet these before going through the trouble of buying and setting one up. Many have a pretty barebones list of features and capabilities, and really only do baseline template generation and email automation. They’re OK for brands that are just getting a handle on this whole drip marketing thing, but they can’t scale along with your ambitions or goals.

Drip campaign examples to inspire you

Need a little extra inspiration to get your first drip email started? There are a lot of different ways to approach things, as these drip campaign examples show:

Drip marketing is often helpful for e-commerce brands that want to reach out to would-be customers who abandoned their shopping carts. Zulily, for instance, alerts site users if they’re about to miss out on a discounted item that’s still sitting in their shopping cart:

The first email is a helpful reminder that time’s winding down, whereas the second one gives the recipient one final chance to make their purchase before the promotion ends. For all intents and purposes, these drip emails are communicating the same thing, but the nuances in each one, combined with their timing, create distinct messages that aren’t pushy or obtrusive.

Trello provides another great drip campaign example – in this case, showing that you can be playful with your content and tone.

Drip emails don’t always need to be wrapped up in rigid, business speak. You can have fun with them, tying in seasonal promotions like Trello did, or even working in pop culture references. It’s OK to show your sales prospects that there are actual people with a sense of humor sending them marketing emails and not just an automated machine.

What to keep in mind when creating a drip template

Well, first of all, should you use email templates if you’re gunning for the most customized content possible?

It’s next to impossible to handcraft every single email you’ll need for every scenario – and besides, drip campaigns are supposed to be about efficiency. So, go ahead and whip up some templates to plug in as necessary.

When it comes to actually creating drip emails, keep it short, to the point and, above all else, relevant:

  • Your opening salvo should be quick and punchy. Grab their attention right off the bat and don’t bore the reader with too many details.
  • Tweak your messaging as needed to react to an individual’s interests and pain points. Try to make it as specific as possible while still being applicable to a long list of contacts.
  • Don’t ask too much too soon with your CTAs. Just because someone downloaded a white paper doesn’t mean they’re ready to sit down on an exploratory sales call or refer you to a decision-maker in their company.

And remember: test, test, test – and then test some more. Always look for opportunities to improve your email drip campaigns and fine-tune your content to gain more traction.

Drip email campaigns require patience, restraint and nuance to strike the right tone and successfully nurture leads throughout the buyer journey.

And you have all three of those characteristics. We know you do.

Jeff Keleher is a writer and editor at Brafton. A man of simple tastes, he enjoys playing guitar, playing video games and playing with his dog - sometimes all at once. He still hasn't gotten over Illinois' loss in the 2005 NCAA National Championship game, and he probably never will.