If your small business wants more customer conversions (i.e. sales), then learning when and how to use autoresponders is a step in the right direction. These pre-scheduled emails, usually one or more in a series, are triggered by customer behavior and can be used to target, engage and convert prospects to buyers. An individual autoresponder can even become a standalone product by itself.
Though they’ve been around for a while, not all small business owners are familiar with the capabilities that autoresponders offer. To help businesses start reaping the benefits, this post provides important definitions, different types of autoresponders and 13 specific examples of how they can be used right away to increase engagement, leads and sales.
Two Definitions You Need to Know
E-Mail Service Provider (ESP)
An ESP is an online vendor that provides email marketing features such as mailing lists, list segmentation, templates, sign-up forms, reporting and autoresponders. Autoresponder features, add-on apps and third-party integrations vary widely between vendors so make sure an ESP meets your business’ needs before signing up.
An autoresponder is a series of one or more emails that run on a pre-determined schedule when triggered by a specific customer action. The types of triggers available have evolved over time and deserve a more detailed look.
Below, we’ve described each stage along the evolution of autoresponder triggers and for each, we’ve included specific business uses and examples for you to explore.
One frustrating point to watch out for before we move on – many folks online use the terms “ESP”, “Workflow”, Automation and “Autoresponder” interchangeably or with a different meaning in mind. Be sure to read deeper to discover the differences between these terms before making any specific decisions on types of tools.
Different Types of Autoresponders Based on Triggers
From the start, autoresponders have been triggered when a customer is added to a specific mailing list, a feature that enables multiple ways to engage and convert.
In the above example from AWeber , the second email in this autoresponder series has been scheduled to be sent 21 days after the first. You can even specify the exact time the email is sent.
Business Uses for Traditional Autoresponders
Engaging New Email Newsletter Subscribers
The most basic of business uses for autoresponders, a series of personalized emails scheduled out over days or weeks, is the perfect way to welcome your new subscriber.
Start providing value right away by including links to specific blog posts, videos and products. Free content will make customers glad that they signed up and they’ll be more likely to stay engaged.
Include a “Sign-Up Discount” in your emails and you’ll increase the odds that they’ll become a happy customer.
Offering a Free Email Course to Pre-Sell Customer Prospects
Nothing prepares a customer to buy better than a free taste. If you’re a consultant, coach, trainer or any other type of service-oriented business, you can offer a sample course through an autoresponder for free.
Each email in the series should provide real value and include the activities and steps recipients can take to learn something or reach a goal. The final email should congratulate your customers on completing the course and offer discounts on your paid offerings.
Offering a Paid Email Course to Earn Additional Revenue
Many ESPs offer the ability to charge a customer before adding them to a mailing list. This is the perfect tool for offering for-pay courses to customers, a logical follow-up to your free courses.
The best part of offering a paid autoresponder course is the fact that you only have to set it up once, but it can be sold any number of times. Now that’s business value!
Traditional Autoresponders +
Third-party integrations and add-on apps kick the usefulness of autoresponders up a notch. While adding a customer to a specific mailing list is still the trigger, you can now use conditional logic to select the list to which a customer should be added.
For example, in the image below, if a customer buys a “blue bike” they’re added to one list. If they buy a “red bike,” they can be added to another. It’s a handy and very effective feature for targeting your customers.
Image: AWeber 
Business Uses for Traditional Autoresponders +
Offer an Upsell to Increase the Value of a Specific Sale
An upsell is when you try to increase the value of a specific product’s sale. For example, if someone buys the blue bike, you can send an email offering a discounted upgrade to a blue bike deluxe product if the customer acts within a predetermined amount of time.
Offer a Cross-Sell to Increase Sales Volume
A cross-sell is when you try to add a related product to a sale. For example, you can send an email offering the bells that look great on the blue bike’s handlebars or an extended product warranty for an additional fee.
Provide Product Training to Build Customer Loyalty
Product training is always useful and appreciated. Even if it’s content that’s already in a manual, you can create an autoresponder series that highlights important things to know about using the product and links to after-sale content like videos.
“Personal” attention like this is a great way to build customer loyalty and engagement. Your customers will be happy that they purchased a product from you, which makes them far more likely to purchase additional products and recommend your business to their friends and family.
Provide Product Usage Ideas to Promote Positive Outcomes
Encourage your customers to get the most out of their purchase by emailing a series of useful product use ideas.
For example, if you sell a cooking tool, send a series of recipes. If your selling the blue bike we’ve been talking about, send fun ideas such as organizing a family and friend road rally. Really, the sky’s the limit here so let your imagination run wild.
Supporting positive outcomes from a purchase is another great way to build customer loyalty and engagement and will lead to more sales and referrals.
Autoresponders take another leap forward when the trigger moves beyond adding a customer to a specific mailing list. Now it becomes possible to trigger an autoresponder based on time or specific events.
Image: GetResponse 
Business Uses for Autoresponders 2.0
Offer Birthday Discounts to Increase Sales
Everyone loves to be remembered on their birthday so use an autoresponder to send a discount offer to your customer when their birthday rolls around. They’ll be happy you remembered and more open to making a purchase.
Encourage Sales by Serving Up Targeted Offers
Every marketing email you send should contain links back to your products online. When a subscriber clicks on one of those links, you can trigger an autoresponder series with offers related to the products on which they clicked.
For example, if someone clicks on a pair of hiking boots, you can send offers for camping equipment, maps, travel books and more. Since they showed interested in a related product, they’re much more likely to make a purchase.
Build Goodwill, and Additional Sales, by Being Helpful
If you sell time-based products such as tickets to an event, you can set up an autoresponder that sends helpful suggestions right up to the date.
Your emails can include suggestions on what to bring; information on the event venue such as maps, itineraries and menus; and lodging and location information so customers can make the most of their trip.
Being useful will increase customer satisfaction and make them more likely to buy from you again.
Autoresponders – The Next Generation
The final stage of trigger evolution (thus far) is the ability to trigger an autoresponder based on events that occur on your own site such as cart abandonment and the type of content or products viewed.
Using these types of triggers requires a higher level of investment in both time and money, but the returns can be huge in terms of conversions.
Vendors for this type of trigger include companies beyond the standard ESP, specifically those that offer robust marketing automation solutions such as InfusionSoft, Hubspot, and Act-On.
Image: HubSpot 
Business Uses for Autoresponders – The Next Generation
Nurture Leads by Sending Targeted Follow-Up Information and Offers
In the example above, the autoresponder series begins when someone downloads your free ebook. At this point, the downloader becomes a lead and you can use an autoresponder to provide a series of e-mails with relevant information and offers.
Targeted marketing via email is much more effective than e-mails blasted out to your entire list and will increase the likelihood of converting leads to customers significantly.
Increase Conversion by Following Up on Shopping Cart Abandonment
Many times a customer will log into your site and add items to their cart only to leave your site before completing checkout. This is called “cart abandonment” and the ability to recover these “lost” sales is valuable indeed.
To do so, set up an autoresponder that sends a follow-up email. In the email, ask if they have any questions that would help them decide to complete the sale. Make sure to also offer an alternative method of checking out such as a customer service phone line.
This approach has shown significant results for company after company, so it’s certainly worth exploring for yours.
Cancelling a Cancellation to Increase Sales
Lastly, an autoresponder can be used to send an email when a customer cancels an order on your site. The email should focus on common reason that cancellations occur and offer solutions and work-arounds for each.
Holding your customer’s hand through this process builds good will and hopefully converts a cancellation back into a sale.
Email  Photo via Shutterstock