We often talk about the importance of user intent. However, these discussions are typically framed within a PPC or SEO/content marketing context; we talk a great deal about assessing user intent with regard to the audiences we’re targeting with our paid search campaigns, our content, or our keywords.

But what about email marketing?

Email optimization and user intent

Illustration via Frank Ramspott

Far less is said about the importance of considering user intent for email marketing campaigns, but this doesn’t mean intent is any less crucial to the success of your email marketing efforts. In fact, it’s arguably as important – if not more so – than it is in PPC.

That’s why, in today’s post, we’ll be taking a look at how to leverage user intent to make your email marketing campaigns even more effective. We’ll talk about how user intent changes depending on where prospects are in the typical conversion funnel, as well as how to frame your emails to capitalize on user intent depending on what you’re offering or the actions you want email recipients to take.

User Intent and the Conversion Funnel

Before we talk about how to leverage user intent in your email campaigns, let’s take a quick refresher on how user intent changes depending on at which point a prospect is within the typical conversion funnel.

Email optimization typical conversion funnel

What Is a Conversion Funnel?

A conversion funnel is a concept used to represent the typical pathway or flow that a user takes to become a prospective customer into an actual customer or viable lead. It’s referred to as a funnel because, at each stage, the number of people that progress through the funnel becomes smaller, essentially “funneling” a large number of people down into a progressively smaller and smaller sample size.

Although there are many different types of conversion funnel, we’ll focus on a simple funnel representing a typical sales process to illustrate the various stages and how user intent changes at each stage.

The Awareness Stage

The awareness stage is where all prospects and users begin their journey. In the awareness stage, the prospect becomes aware of your business and/or products and services.

Email optimization awareness stage

Image via Sanjay Shetty

Unlike later stages of the funnel, user intent during the awareness phase can be tricky to pin down. However, one thing we can agree upon is that the prospective customer is at least casually looking for a product or service such as those offered by your business – if they weren’t, they may not even enter the awareness stage. It’s also worth noting that, even if prospects do progress further down the funnel, actually moving from awareness to the next stage may take weeks or even months.

Email optimization long sales cycle Dilbert comic

In terms of user intent, prospects in the awareness stage may be unlikely to take action immediately; it’s more probable that users are in an exploratory mindset when evaluating your business alongside your competitors. As such, think of users in this stage as curious, potentially interested prospects that are at least somewhat open to hearing about what you have to offer.

The Interest Stage

The interest stage is, unsurprisingly, the part of the funnel during which prospects become interested in what you’re selling. To clarify, in many sales funnels, the interest stage is the phase during which prospects become interested in your business specifically, not merely exhibiting a casual interest in products and services sold by businesses like yours.

Email optimization customer journey concept

There are many reasons why a user might go from the awareness to the interest stage of the funnel. Perhaps your unique selling proposition is strongly persuasive compared to your competitors. Maybe your competitiveness on pricing piqued their interest. It could even be something as simple as a user’s preference for your website over a competing site. Whatever the reason, the user has gone from being aware of your services to actively interested in your business.

During the interest stage, many customers begin to evaluate how doing business with you could improve their lives and solve their problems – both of which are what customers really want. From an intent perspective, they are likely willing to investigate your business in greater depth as part of the evaluation process. They’re still far from a guaranteed sale or lead, but they’re getting there.

The Desire Stage

Once prospects move from the interest to the desire stage, something about your business has stirred the heart of your visitor and made them want something – a crucial part of the conversion process.

Email optimization desire stage

Almost… there…

In the desire stage, users are much more likely to act on their impulses. They want something – potentially very badly – and now all you have to do is convince them to cross the finish line and convert. However, just because a prospect wants something you’ve got doesn’t mean they’ll do whatever you want them to in order to get it. Your products or services might indeed be exactly what your prospects want, but there’s still every chance you’ll lose them anyway, especially at such a critical juncture.

Remember that in addition to whatever you’re selling, prospects also want a rewarding, easy, intuitive experience on your website. Even though they want what you’ve got, they may also want additional incentives to sweeten the deal, such as free shipping or a no-obligation free trial. There will always be obstacles to the consumer that you can’t preemptively counter, but there are also plenty of ways you can make your products or services even more appealing.

The Action Stage

This is the final (and smallest) stage of the funnel, because far fewer of the potential customers you began with in the discovery stage make it all the way to the action stage.

Email optimization action stage Jon Snow I'm ready gif

The action stage is the point in the customer journey at which the prospect has decided to take definitive action and commit to doing something. They’ve evaluated your offering, possibly weighed it up in comparison to your competition, and decided that your business meets their needs the best. Congratulations!

Although the action stage is certainly the strongest in terms of intent, it’s still not a given that nothing could go wrong. For e-commerce retailers, adding items to a shopping cart could be perceived as a powerfully strong buying signal during the action stage, and yet shopping cart abandonment rates can be as high as 80% in some verticals – a significant loss, to say the least. Similarly, users who genuinely want to download your latest guide or white paper may be reluctant to do so if they’re asked for too much information; they were emotionally committed to doing something, only to be dissuaded at the last moment.

Email optimization shopping cart abandonment

Image via KISSmetrics

For many businesses, the action stage is when a prospective customer becomes an actual customer by buying something. This makes sense. However, although we’re talking about the funnel in the context of sales, each stage can be applied to other offers, such as webinars or content downloads. In this context, the action stage could be whatever your call to action happens to be: sign up for a newsletter, download a white paper, start a free trial etc. That’s why it’s called the action stage, not the buying stage.

Three User Intent and Email Marketing Case Studies

Now we know more about how user intent changes greatly depending on at which stage of the funnel they are, let’s take a look at how to leverage this intent in email marketing.

Each of the following emails was sent to various segmentations of WordStream’s email database. Due to the size of the database, the intent and conversion funnel stage of these individuals varies widely. The larger your database, the more tightly you have to segment it in order to provide timely, useful, compelling offers to your audience – whether your audience is made up of loyal brand evangelists or newcomers who barely know who you are.

1. Content Download – Interest Stage

The email below was sent to an audience segment offering a content download.

Email optimization landing page example

Email optimization landing page example 2

The purpose of this campaign was to further qualify potential leads in our database as sales-qualified leads, or SQLs. This is based on a number of factors, and ensures that our campaigns are going to the right people, at the right time, with the right offer.

Where do we stand in terms of user intent, though? At which stage of the typical conversion funnel are most of the recipients of the email above? Well, most of them are in the Interest stage. They’re already familiar with our brand (they wouldn’t be in our email database otherwise), so they’re not in the Awareness stage. However, we’re still not even close to the Desire stage, which answers that particular question.

Email optimization content marketing holy trinity

The Holy Trinity.

It also has major implications for how we positioned the messaging and tone. For example, we know that the recipients of this email aren’t ready to do business with us yet, so there’s no promotional copy, no sales pitch, not even a mention of a product – it’s all about what the guide has to offer them, which in this case is 15 tips for improving landing pages.

As with any content project, we want to give this audience information that’s so valuable that they’re amazed we’re not charging for it. We want to become a trusted source for reliable, actionable content so that, if and when they’re ever in need of what WordStream offers, we’ll be at top-of-mind. That’s the essence of content marketing in a nutshell, including this email marketing example.

2. Webinar Invite – Interest Stage

In this campaign, we emailed another segment of our database with an invitation to attend a forthcoming webinar focusing on the productivity benefits and tools within the 20-Minute PPC Work Week, a core feature of our software product, WordStream Advisor.

Email optimization PPC Work Week webinar example

Email optimization PPC work week example

Again, segmentation was crucial to the success of this campaign. Without going into too much detail, we knew that the recipients of this email were more than familiar with the WordStream brand, had already gone through the sales qualification process to determine them as viable leads, and had expressed interest in similar offers in the past.

In terms of intent, this is an interesting example. It could be argued that recipients of this email straddled two stages of the typical conversion funnel simultaneously – the Interest stage and the Desire stage. In fact, the primary purpose of the webinar is to nudge attendees from the Interest stage into the Desire stage; the audience is already potentially interested in what WordStream has to offer as a brand and a product, and we want the webinar to spur a desire within the recipient, namely a desire to make their lives easier by using our software to manage their paid search and paid social campaigns.

Many emails you may find yourself sending to your subscribers probably fall into this category. We know that email marketing remains an extraordinarily effective way to reach prospective customers, so it follows that many of the emails we send to our databases are sent with the intention of advancing the recipient from one stage of the funnel to another, with the ultimate goal of increasing conversions.

3. Product Announcement – Awareness Stage

In our next example, an email announcing a new product, we can see how user intent and the typical conversion funnel are (or should be) prime considerations for marketers.

Email optimization Facebook ad tool product announcement

Email optimization Facebook email example

This email was sent to a very large segment of our database to announce the launch of WordStream’s Facebook Opportunity Calculator, a completely free tool that tells advertisers how potentially lucrative Facebook advertising could be for their business based on a range of factors. As the tool is completely free to use, the email encouraged recipients to give the tool a shot to see what they thought.

Emails announcing new products and services are among the most common of all marketing emails. Although product announcements are similar in style, tone, and purpose as promotional emails offering incentives such as discounts or seasonal sales, the potential user intent varies widely between the two.

In this campaign, we wanted to focus exclusively on raising awareness about the Calculator, and as such a large segment of our audience was in the Awareness stage; they had heard about our brand in the past, but hadn’t yet crossed into the Interest stage. As before, this email served a dual purpose: raise awareness of the Calculator and help recipients progress from the Awareness to Interest stages of the conversion funnel.

Email optimization Facebook Opportunity Calculator

Of course, since this particular email blast was so large – understandable, given how awesome the Facebook Opportunity Calculator is and how proud we are of it – it was inevitable that we’d also send the email to recipients at other stages of the funnel, including those in the Desire stage (even if what they desire isn’t even necessarily the topic of the email). Generally speaking, though, we wanted this email to raise awareness of a specific product and subsequently stimulate interest in that product.

Think Before You Hit Send

Gauging and matching user intent in email marketing is definitely possible, and may help you increase your open and conversion rates. That said, there’s obviously a lot to consider when preparing your next campaign, especially if your audience segments are comprised of individuals in various stages of the conversion funnel.

Hopefully, this post has given you some things to think about for your next email marketing campaign. If you have any comments or suggestions on how to leverage user intent in emails, let me know below.