As a digital marketer, you have likely already initiated a solid email marketing campaign. Email marketing is an important piece of the content marketing puzzle, with promotional emails, newsletters, and more to drive sales and keep customers engaged.

The best emails are personalized ones, because they ensure you're only sending the most relevant content by zooming in on a particular target audience. Targeted emails are absolutely invaluable, especially in response to problems like shopping cart abandonment or for bringing wayward customers back into the fold.

The Problem of Scale

The stats don't lie. Emma, an email marketing platform, found that relevant targeted emails produce 18 times more revenue than globally broadcasted emails, while links within the email body have a click rate 119 percent higher.

The problem is that every customer has different needs. They all hover at different levels of the sales funnel, and it's up to your email campaign to help drive them forward--which means they all require different types of targeted emails.

It's as unrealistic for large businesses with hundreds of thousands of customers to create a personalized email campaign for each client as it is for a small to medium-sized business to waste the resources of their often small group of staff members. One person--or even a team of people--simply can't handle it.

The Power of Marketing Automation

Content marketing experts agree that marketing automation is the best solution. It has almost infinite potential for introducing yourself, onboarding, and engaging with customers. Most automation campaigns involve the sending of triggered emails, usually in response to a user's browsing and purchase behavior on a website.

According to KISSmetrics, companies that use automation see their revenue increase by 10 percent or more over the course of six to nine months. 44 percent of companies using automation see a return on their investment in only six months, and 75 percent within 12 months.

When Automation Goes Wrong

While automation is by far the best solution, it can also be a dangerous one. The problem with automating your content marketing is that a small mistake can trigger the wrong emails, which in turn can severely alienate customers.

Shutterfly had an incident of this sort in 2014, when the company sent out a mass email congratulating recipients on the birth of a new baby. Unfortunately, a lot of people who had had no such new arrival also received the email, including women and couples struggling with fertility issues. A lot of people were upset, and Shutterfly had to apologize.

While this example happened on a much larger scale than most small or medium-sized businesses will experience, it doesn't mean your business is off the hook. Additionally, unless the mistake is massive and obvious, recipients will simply unsubscribe from your emails--and you won't know why.

How to Keep Automation Personal

As much as we'd like it to be different, your leads and contacts aren't following your company's specific sales funnel at the expense of everything else. Automation cannot assume that leads are sitting and waiting around to receive emails. Consumer behavior is multifaceted; if they want to know more about a brand, they'll check social media, look for Yelp reviews on Google, and click around on the company's website.

According to the HubSpot marketing blog, the best thing to keep in mind is that automation is about shifting your thinking--not changing your entire technological approach. Its purpose is to efficiently communicate with your audience and increase qualified leads.

Use It to Deliver Great Content

"Efficient doesn't mean effortless", says Alana Schwamberger, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at YourHearing.com. "A 'set it and forget it' mentality will get you absolutely nowhere. It also doesn't mean that automating a poorly conceived and designed marketing process will make your campaign better." Automation isn't a solution for bad content; it's a different platform for delivering good content--and good content is valuable, timely, and highly targeted.

Don't Sell; Nurture

Automation is not spam. Even the most rudimentary marketing automation allows for some level of personalization. It's not a glorified tool for delivering mass emails--so take the time to segment your audience based on their behaviors and interests.

Nurturing leads doesn't mean selling to them. It means showing your value as a company and letting them choose to opt in. At the top of the funnel, send them useful content about broad topics that align both with their interests and your company's philosophy.

As recipients move through the sales funnel, you'll see higher levels of engagement. If they open emails, visit your site, and read your blog posts, then you can send them more specific product-related content.

Draw Value from Feedback Loops

A feedback loop is the way customers interact with your marketing triggers. With every action, there's a consumer-driven reaction. This isn't always going to be a positive one. According to QuickSprout, things like abuse reports and opt-out forms are the norm, not the exception--and many brands report one abuse report for every few thousand emails sent.

Consumers are sensitive to years upon years of email spam, while others are unfamiliar with the process of unsubscribing or opting out. In fact, many users confuse abuse reports with opt-out or unsubscribe forms. Don't take their reactions personally.

Remember--even negative consumer reactions provide valuable data. A high level of unsubscribe rates and abuse complaints could indicate that you're being too sales-y or aggressive. A low level of click-through rates to your website could indicate that your value proposition isn't interesting enough.

Final Thoughts: Keeping It Human

Human relationships and emotions are the heart of marketing, but they're impossible to maintain and monitor on an individual scale. Marketing automation is an excellent solution, but the key is to balance your strategy with high quality content, brand building, and analytics.

Published on: Jan 19, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.