Automation to Innovation: Bringing the human touch to your email program

Heidi Olsen
5 min readJan 19, 2022


[Originally posted on eROI]

A hybrid approach that balances templates with one-off campaigns leads to sustainable, scalable email programs that work for internal brand and agency teams.

Email teams (internal and agency-based, both large and small) tend to share a common approach to their email programs: a one-size-fits all system that selects either templates or one-offs. We believe that if teams instead utilized a smart hybrid model, they would be better equipped to create sustainable email programs scaled for growth.

Before we dive into the hybrid approach, let’s run through the template approach and the one-off approach, and review some pros and cons of each.


A pre-built template defines consistent content elements (images, copy blocks) in a set email layout. Emails tend to have same structure from send to send.


  1. Speed and efficiency: Content creators know what is needed; the development and design is usually already baked.
  2. Easier learning curve for non-devs: Anyone from an email marketing manager to an intern can be empowered to handle the build of a templated email.
  3. Less resources required, more affordable: If outside agencies are leveraged to build the template, this is a one-time fee.
  4. Consistency/on-brand: Minimal concerns about whether the template itself being “on brand” as the likelihood of the template being on-brand reduces variables.


  1. Carbon-copies: The template can start to “templatize” an email program, which can lead to user fatigue and disinterest.
  2. Limitations on customization: All content is treated agnostically, which means that customization based around a specific product or content strategy isn’t really possible.
  3. Built to the Email Service Provider: The email will be based around what the ESP can do, which can often be restrictive.
  4. Design drives content instead of content driving design: Any good designer will tell you that designs are driven by the content they comprise. As such, this approach forces users “upstream” to constrict their content to the confines of the template. Either they will, or they won’t; either scenario is not ideal.


Each email campaign is ideated from strategy through deployment. Emails are unique from one another.


  1. Content drives design: As it should be! The design can actually be influenced by the content created. Both can work symbiotically.
  2. Software-agnostic: The software doesn’t define the design.
  3. Customization has no bounds: Custom design and development can lead to more innovative concepts unique to the subject at hand.


  1. Inconsistencies: No technical restrictions can mean that humans are responsible for maintaining style guides (if they exist) and branding consistency.
  2. Requires more resources: Because everything is customized from strategy through deployment, it is likely you will need more individuals with specific skill sets and more time.


A hybrid approach determines what emails make the most sense to be templated/automated, and which emails would benefit from a one-off approach and building the program from there. On our team, we use a hybrid model in conjunction with a learning agenda. A learning agenda streamlines all of the initiatives we want to get after, in what order, and outlines what tools are required to learn that information.

From a creative standpoint, we typically pair the learning agenda and hybrid model with a style guide. An email style guide encompasses anything from voice and tone to CTA length, from digital color swatches to animation guidelines. Email style guides are a labor of love, but the payoff allows disparate teams to share responsibility under one guiding light. Whenever multiple hands will touch an email program, it helps to align around the program through those tools: Definition of hybrid model, Style guide, and Learning agenda.

We have found that all of the cumulative pros of each template and one-off approaches are far outweighed by the pros below in the hybrid approach. The cons are few and far between.


  1. Guardrails for consistency, opportunities for innovation: It can be challenging in an email program to prioritize what’s most important. By setting some “guardrails” around the automated program, you can get some of the branding elements out of the way (header, footer, etc). One-off campaigns can then leverage that work, and build from there. The focus will then be on innovation, not retroactively fitting a one-off email into a system.
  2. Iterative process, supports learning agenda: The hope is with some automation, you can focus your on-going resources into evolving the program as a whole. Our team has found success in establishing a learning agenda, that prioritizes what data we want to collect on our user, and reformulating the email program around that. We can then slot in one-off and templated emails to do the work, and build new aspects as needed.
  3. Flexible, continuing improvement, embracing change, adaptation: Templates lack the ability to really evolve. Evolution in a template basically is a redesign. Instead, the hybrid model encourages continual adaption. Through our learning agenda, we can strategically place small nuances (that fit with our testing strategy for example) as needed. If the client needs to re-pivot the email strategy because of larger campaign shifts, the email program is lean enough to adapt to this.
  4. Consistency and cohesion: The magic of the template is the consistency. This hybrid approach allows brands to look at both templated and one-off sends through the lens of the brand, and determine what that spectrum can encompass.
  5. Shared vocabulary: Strategists, Content, Design and Development are forced to think about how their decisions affect the broader design system. In this approach, no one department is responsible for “enforcing” the rules or restrictions of the approach. Instead, the entire team informs how the hybrid model is created (due to the nature of it being defined by client instead of industry terms).


  1. Nebulous concept, hard to communicate to clients and set boundaries for them as well as the team: One-off and template approaches are usually table stakes, and widely understood by most email savvy clients. Agencies and internal teams can hit the ground running once that binary decision is made. A hybrid approach requires upfront discovery work to determine what the hybrid model will look like for that particular brand or client. As such, teams not versed in this approach can have a hard time formulating the plan and sticking to it.
  2. Long game approach: While the hybrid approach is magical in its scalability, there is a certain economy of scale that is required to make it most effective. Very, very small email programs may find this approach to be too much upfront work for the payout of one email a month, for instance. However, we’d argue that every email program benefits from creating efficiencies. Even if that means creating efficiencies so that you can focus on non-email initiatives.



Heidi Olsen

Senior Developer by day, Fun Professional by night