How Automated Workflows 'Work': A Simple Setup Guide

Pamela Vaughan
Pamela Vaughan



"Everything in moderation." When applied to marketing automation, it's the perfect mantra. Even though marketers must be careful not to over-automate, marketing automation can be a great way to manage and nurture your leads so they're more sales-ready. But did you know it can even help you tackle administrative marketing tasks, too?

With the concept of workflows -- series of automated actions that you can trigger to occur based on a person’s behaviors or contact information -- all of this is possible. Workflows go beyond email and take simple marketing automation to the next level, allowing you to send emails, update contact information, add or remove contacts from lists, and trigger email notifications. But how exactly do you set up an automated workflow? How do workflows ... well ... work? In this post, we'll walk you through the typical setup process of workflows, which you can then use to set up various lead nurturing workflows ... and beyond!

Keep in mind that the way you set up your workflows may vary depending on the tools you're using. But for the sake of all being on the same page, this article will explain how a typical setup process works using HubSpot's Workflows tool as our recurring example.

Step 1: Choose a Starting Condition

In order to create a workflow, you need to provide a starting condition, or criteria which, if met by a given lead, will trigger the workflow to begin for that lead. HubSpot’s Workflows tool, for instance, provides three options for a starting condition:

  • A form is submitted
  • A smart list is triggered
  • No starting condition

1) A Sample Workflow When a Form Is Submitted

The first option is to trigger a workflow when a given form is submitted. This is useful when you want to send emails to follow up to a specific download on your site. For example, let’s say you have a landing page with a form to download a specific ebook. Maybe you want to set up a nurturing campaign to engage the people who download this ebook with more content about that specific topic. You can create a workflow with emails tailored to these topics and automatically enter any lead that downloads this ebook into that workflow. Here is an example of what that setup might look like:

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2) A Sample Workflow Triggered By a Smart (Dynamic) List

You can also trigger a workflow when a lead is added to a certain list. You can design these lists to include only leads that meet certain criteria for contact properties or behaviors. In HubSpot, you can create Smart Lists, or lists based on specific criteria that dynamically update to include any leads that come to meet that criteria:

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For example, you could create a Smart List of leads who have visited your website a certain number of times, or a list of leads who have requested a free trial of your product, or a list of leads who live in Texas and have fewer than 50 employees, etc. You can use any information from your contacts database to create these Smart Lists, and then trigger workflows based on those. This gives you a wide range of possibilities for the rules you can set up for each of your workflows.

3) A Workflow With No Starting Condition

Lastly, you should also be able to set up a workflow that doesn’t have a starting condition. This simply means that you only want to add contacts to the workflow manually. For instance, if you host a conference or another type of marketing event and want to create a workflow for the leads you drive from it, you might upload that list and add it to the workflow on its own. Or, if you engage in a co-marketing initiative, you can import a list of opt-ins and nurture them with a specific set of emails.

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Step 2: Trigger the Desired Actions

Now we get to the meat of the workflow -- the sequence of actions that it triggers. Much like starting conditions, there are several different types of actions you can initiate with your workflows:

  • Setting a contact property value
  • Sending an email
  • Adding a contact to a list (or removing them)
  • Sending an email notification

1) Setting Up a Contact Property Value

As we discussed earlier, workflows can be used to change or update information about your leads in their contact records. This gives you an extremely easy way to conduct mass updates to your database, rather than manually making changes to each lead record, one at a time. Let’s say you have a handful of new contacts that you want to mark as subscribers in your database. You can simply create a list of these new contacts and enter them into a workflow that updates their lifecycle stage property value to “Subscriber.”

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For example, maybe you have a contact field that indicates whether or not a lead has requested a demo of your product. You can immediately set these contacts apart in a way that demonstrates they are high-quality leads. For instance, you can create a workflow that essentially says, “If a lead’s 'Demo Requested' property value is equal to 'True,' change that lead’s lifecycle stage to 'Marketing Qualified Lead.'” In this case, you have a starting condition of a Smart List (as a member of a Smart List of people who request a demo) and an action (set their lifecycle stage value to 'Marketing Qualified Lead').

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Or maybe you want to create a workflow that changes specific pieces of contact information of your contacts. For instance, you can take a list of leads whose company name value is blank, and change them all to the value 'unknown.'

2) Sending Automated Emails

The second type of action that you can trigger in a workflow is sending an email. This is probably the most intuitive use case for workflows because it allows you to nurture your leads with a targeted series of emails. For example, with HubSpot, you can take emails you’ve already created and save them specifically for automation, which then allows you to select those emails when you’re setting up a workflow. So now, you can create each of your emails ahead of time, and build workflows to schedule these emails to be sent in the order you want and with the timing of your choice. You can include as many steps in a workflow as you’d like -- you can build a nurturing campaign with two follow-up emails and another one with six follow-up emails, etc. The campaigns can span five days, two weeks, or three months, etc. No matter how you choose to set them up, your workflows will take the pain out of lead nurturing by simplifying and automating the entire process.

3) Add a Contact to a List (Or Remove Them)

The third type of action that a workflow can perform is adding a contact to -- or removing a contact from -- a list. This is another great organizational tool to simplify the way you handle your lists of leads by automating the otherwise manual process. For example, you might be hosting a webinar and have a landing page with a form that lets people register for that webinar. You could set up a workflow that takes any leads who submit that form and adds them to a list of webinar registrants. Again, here you have a starting condition (submits webinar form) and an action (add to webinar registrants list). Couldn’t get much simpler than that!

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4) Send Email Notifications

The last type of action you can add to a workflow is sending an email notification. This feature allows you to send a notification to a specific address the minute that something important happens to one of your contacts. This has a vast number of possible uses. You could set up a notification email to alert a sales representative when someone submits a key form, like a pricing information download or a bottom-of-the-funnel offer. You can also use this feature to notify a sales rep when a lead becomes sales qualified, hits a specific lead score threshold, or when any other property on their contact record changes.

You could even set up a notification for your social media manager to trigger when a lead who is a “social media influencer” comes into the system, based, for instance, on their Twitter follower count. Workflows make it easy to keep track of these important changes, so you know which of your leads are warmest, and can act on that information immediately.

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The great thing about workflows is that you can add multiple actions to a given workflow in whatever order you choose -- and they don’t all have to be the same type of action! You could create a workflow whose starting condition is “submits webinar form,” in which the first step is “add to webinar registrants list,” the second step is “update lifecycle stage to 'Lead,'” and the third step is “send demo offer for webinar registrants email.” Now you’re all set to perform three distinct actions for every single lead that fills out that form, without having to do a thing once you’ve set up that simple workflow.

Step 4: Set Time Delays

Workflows should allow you to select the timing of each action they trigger. For every step you add to a workflow, you can say something like, “I want these leads to receive this email two days after they fill out this form, and the next email five days after that.” You can update contact properties or add them to a list as soon as the leads are entered into the workflow by setting the time delay to zero. You can spread out the actions over as much time as you’d like, and specify timing down to the number of days, hours, or even minutes.

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Time delays are unique to each individual lead. So when John Doe enters your workflow on a Monday, he’ll get the email two days later on Wednesday, but Mary Jane, who entered the workflow on Tuesday, will get the email two days after her workflow began, on Thursday. You weren’t really going to send John an email on Wednesday and send Mary a separate email on Thursday on your own, were you? That would be a total pain. You probably would’ve just picked one of those days to send the email to the entire list of your leads, and sacrificed the effectiveness of aligning the timing of your marketing with your leads’ needs.

With workflows, you can just schedule everything to send automatically, and you don’t have to worry about keeping track of who needs to get what on which days. And more importantly, you can time your marketing based on what’s best for your leads, not what’s easiest for your busy schedule.

Step 5: Identify Your Preferred Settings

The last main component of a workflow is its settings. There are various settings you can arrange to refine the way your workflows operate, and you can use these to your advantage to make your workflows more effective. In HubSpot's Workflows tool, for example, one option is to set your workflow to execute steps on business days only. If you don’t want to be emailing your leads on the weekends, you can turn this setting on, and it will override the time delays you’ve selected when necessary. In other words, any steps that are scheduled to occur on a Saturday or Sunday (say, an action is set to trigger one day after the previous one, which occurred on a Friday), will be rescheduled to occur on Monday.

You should also be able to modify your settings to execute steps only within a certain time range. In HubSpot, for instance, this setting also overrides the time delays you’ve selected when necessary. Let’s say you’ve done some research into the effectiveness of your email marketing, and you’ve found that your highest clickthrough rates occur in the morning. With this in mind, you could set your workflows to only send emails between 7 a.m. and 12 p.m. If your time delays are set to send an email in the afternoon, the workflow will reschedule it for the following morning.

Are you leveraging workflows to make your marketing more effective? What unique workflow ideas have you put into play?

This article is an excerpt from our ebook, Going Beyond Email: How to Use Workflows for Better Lead Nurturing. To learn more about how to do smarter lead nurturing with workflows, you can download the ebook for free here.

Image Credit: Walt Stoneburner

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