SaaS Email Marketing Tactics: How 281 Companies Automatically Nurture Leads

The following is a guest post from Adam Henshall, content writer at Process Street.


Email automation has become the standard approach for marketers all over the world. This summer we decided to ask how it is done best.

There’s only so much you can learn from one person self-reporting their own successes, or only examining the cycles of one or two companies.

We decided to go one step further.

We began a research project where we examined the sales cycles of 281 top SaaS companies from AngelList to Zenefits.

We published an overview of this study at the end of August and launched a micro-site (Inside SaaS Sales) along with PersistIQ where users can browse all our data and access all emails and voicemails which we received.

We learned loads about how these companies structure their sales cadences; when they automate, how persistent they are, who is presented as point of contact, etc etc.

In this article, I’m going to pull apart their use of automation in email marketing and dig down into the data to give a few examples of how companies do it in practice.

How many emails do top companies send?

Our analysis was of 1183 emails, so the volume was pretty high to begin with!

But what do we find each company doing?

Companies very rarely send one email before backing off. This kind of soft touch approach negates the purpose of running an email campaign of any sort. Yet, throughout our research, we found that some companies still take this approach.

In fact, 25% of companies we studied only sent one email before backing away and leaving the customer alone. The majority clearly favor a more persistent method, but those readers who aren’t employing email automation can at least take solace in not being alone in that approach.

This article is going to focus more on the 75% – the ones who make an effort to run a marketing campaign, and particularly those which choose to automate segments of that.

The average company attempts to follow up for 9 days. Given a focus on midweek rather than weekend, this accounts for essentially 2 business weeks.

Within this period, we’re looking at an average of one email a day. Companies typically send one email a day until the end of their cycle – which varies depending on the company.

A business like Slack choose to hit a short sharp campaign with 3 outreach emails in quick succession. This is in keeping with the general trends across marketing drip campaigns which we found typically consists of three emails – a radically different approach to the more sales-oriented measures, particularly those utilizing a high touch sales method.

We’ll look a little closer at Slack’s approach later on in the article.

Should I be automating my email marketing?

Automation has quickly become the hot game in town, but not every company is joining in just yet.

We found that 65% of companies hand you over to an automated marketing campaign.

This still leaves a number of companies without an automated approach, but it is clear that the movement is toward greater use of automation potential.

It is important to note, however, that automation and non-automation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we found that 53% of the emails we received were from automated campaigns rather than sales people, but often these would both come from the same company.

If we take the example of Salesforce, we find that the automated emails are sent out and then followed up on by a real salesperson.

If you look at this automated email below, you will see a clear attempt to provide generic value:


Whereas, if you contrast that with this email afterwards, you’ll see a much more personal attempt at outreach from a dedicated sales person:


This demonstrates the importance of remembering to keep a human touch where it is appropriate to your business.

It isn’t necessary to automate every step. For a service like Salesforce which can charge its customers reasonably high amounts of money, it is clearly of value to them to build automated emails while also leveraging the personal attention given by a salesperson.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Use automation wisely.

What email marketing providers are companies using?

When companies did use marketing automation, they weren’t building it all from scratch themselves.

Like you would, they searched the market to find existing tools they could use to improve their automated workflows to deliver value to their customers.

What I found marginally surprising was that these companies tended to use the same tools that we all use, rather than some gold plated premium service.

In order, the marketing automation services used by the companies studied were:

  1. MailChimp – 48.82%
  2. Marketo – 21.16%
  3. HubSpot – 18.74%
  4. Other – 5.33%
  5. Eloqua – 3.77%
  6. Tout – 3.26%
  7. Sidekick – 3.26%
  8. Pardot – 3.26%
  9. Marketing Clout – 3.23%
  10. Sable and Sendgrid – 2.17%

As we can see, MailChimp dominate the list by some distance, seeing off both Marketo and HubSpot despite the two putting up a good fight.

This is a resounding success for MailChimp and suggests that they’re a good option for small businesses who want to get started with marketing automation. I know from experience that the system is intuitive, so maybe it’s a good place to start.

What tone of communication is most common?

Running an email campaign is so much more than just lining up a workflow and clicking send.

Like any other aspect of your product, you need to consider how it is structured, who it is aimed at, and what its purpose is.

If we look again at the Salesforce example given above, we can learn a few small things from a tonal perspective.

The automated email is personal and opens with a clear statement of Salesforce’s value, followed by a straight question directed at the reader. This keeps the email feeling personal despite the automation, and the statements are general enough to apply to anyone with as much as a passing interest in Salesforce and their service.

Salesforce focuses on using clear and easy to understand language with a gentle sprinkling of statistics to help drive the value home. Across the board there was a trend toward clarity and an avoidance of overly technical jargon or typical sales-speak.

One interesting thing we discovered in our study came from looking at whose name was attached to the emails. The Salesforce example has a generic team for the marketing email and “Strategic Accounts” for the more personal sales email. But that isn’t always the trend.

We found, first and foremost, that sales campaigns through email tended to have two potential points of contact. One of those contacts often had “Sales” in their title, and these were likely the first to reach out.

The use of higher positions was interesting, with CEO or Co-Founder being used to give the email more gravitas. I’m personally not sure how well this tactic works as it strikes me as possibly dishonest, but I’m sure some CEOs are hands on with their approach to certain emails – just I’m not sure why the CEO is taking the time out to email me personally…


What is the purpose behind each email?

A further consideration when looking at the content of the emails is the purpose of an email. Ignoring “verify your email” and other miscellaneous items, the purpose of an email was typically split into one of these three categories:

  • Encouraging you to use it more.
  • Upselling you to a premium service.
  • Describing technical capabilities.

We’ve already seen examples of the last two from Salesforce. Describing technical capabilities was left to automation, while upselling was given to a real salesperson.

My favorite example of the first approach comes from Slack:


And a second, but this time with pizzazz:


The emails are both short and sweet with a clear purpose.

Slack have enough faith in their product that they know the most important first step of their customer journey is to get teams onboarded and using it. As such, this is their focus. Their sole focus.

If you contrast this with a company like Epicor, who provide niche industrial services at high rates, you find Slack can stick to a few small emails rather than the high touch email and voicemail sales approach.

Use an email marketing approach suited to your business

So, there you have it.

We’ve looked at how many emails you should send, when you should automate them, what provider you can use, what tone to employ, and what purpose you should put behind your email.

But the key point is this: choose an email marketing strategy suited to your business’ needs.

If you have a small number of very high value clients, don’t operate like Slack.

Tailor your emails to your audience and your business objectives. With a little iteration and effort, you’ll have a campaign flourishing in no time!