COVID-19 forced millions of businesses to pivot online over the last year. Brick-and-mortar retailers built ecommerce stores, gyms and fitness studios moved classes online, and restaurants leaned into delivery services.
With business shifting online, automation has become a necessary skill for everyone to learn.
But knowing how to get started with automation can be daunting.
22% of survey respondents still don't use automation tools and don't plan to. The number one reason? People are unsure how automation could be useful to them right now.
Over the last year, I've helped hundreds of people automate large portions of their businesses or their jobs. But what people always point to as most helpful is not technical expertise, it's knowing what's possible.
Zapier has a whole list of automations to help inspire ideas for new automators. But what I've found more helpful are frameworks for identifying parts of your business you should check for automation.
Here are the three most common categories of tasks ready for automation, followed by a case study in each category.
What is automation?
In the tech world, automation is the process of connecting apps and services to make repetitive tasks happen on ‘auto-pilot’, without code or needing developers to build the sequences involved.
A basic example would be: when someone on your website fills out a form, their details are automatically added to a spreadsheet, then an email sent to that person to confirm receipt, followed by an event added to your calendar to remind you to call that person on the phone number they entered in the form.
Automation sequences like this are commonly built using Zapier, which is arguably the most popular automation tool. Other tools include Integromat, IFTTT (short for If This Then That), and Tray.
Automation sequences can range from the simple to the extremely complex. Many businesses use hundreds — often thousands — of automations to help their business run smoothly every day.
The huge and obvious benefit of automation is the amount of time it saves teams so they can work on tasks that can only be handled manually, like sales calls, writing content, and strategy planning. An added bonus is also the margin for error that is significantly reduced by handing off tasks to the bots.
Frameworks to identify where you can automate tasks
1. Data transfer tasks
Any data you have to handle more than once is a prime automation opportunity. Updating data between sheets. Entering data from a website into a table. Posting the same information across channels, etc.
Saving links from Slack messages to a central knowledge hub
Updating lead status in your CRM from email responses
Saving invoice payments to your accounting software
Manually copy/pasting data from a paginated site to your CRM
Watch these related Makerpad tutorials on automating data tasks:
These tasks are easy to notice in a regular workflow. For repeat tasks, if you’re having to do the same job or set of tasks over and over, it’s worth looking at automating parts. Any parts that you can’t automate can be outsourced or made easier — but that’s for a separate post.
Another way to identify these tasks is by thinking about the most mundane parts of your day. Tasks that need little to no cognitive effort often have repetitive elements you may not even realize.
Filling out forms
Onboarding new clients
Weekly or monthly check-ins
Follow-ups for routine tasks (payment, sales, scheduling conversations)
Automating sequences in this category can be a bit more complex, but also has outsized rewards for your effort.
These are tasks that you typically could forget to do and/or forget to check and thus, introduce human prone error.
For example, if you send a weekly update on the status of a sales consulting project, you have to remember to include new leads, follow-ups on existing leads, updates on the pipeline, experiments in outreach, and more. Automations to gather all your data in one place to pre-build your email, and to remind you of the component elements of your task, can reduce 99% of "forgetful" errors.
Having to log into any reporting system with any sort of frequency
There are many more categories of tasks to get into – but the three above are plenty to get started with. Zapier is a great tool, whether you’re working with more advanced automations or you’re just dipping your toes in.
Automation case study #1: How to create a central knowledge repository for your team through Slack
Tools used:Airtable, Zapier, Slack
Now we’re going to look at a real world example of how automation is used to build a knowledge repository from links shared by team members in Slack.
Like various other messaging tools, Slack is the hub and beating heart of many companies and businesses, especially those that are remote-first. They are vital for communication and collaboration.
But one downside to this lean messaging tool is that it can be easy for information to get forgotten about or simply buried under the huge amounts of messages sent each day. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, finding old links and messages can prove tricky.
Below I’m going to walk you through how we’ve automated a repository from our Slack chats at Lectureless, where we’re currently building the future of online learning. Slack is mission critical to our team communication. An important part of our work is keeping up to date on the latest trends and news in the education world, so we have a #future-of-learning-companies channel that we’ll constantly update with important links, news articles, and more.
While premium Slack allows you to go back and search for messages whenever you want, we’d much rather aggregate all the knowledge that we create in Slack automatically. That way, we have a repository of all the articles we’ve sent whenever we need it.
So we have a Zap built in Zapier that;
Triggers whenever a new message is sent to the channel
Checks whether or not the message contains a hyperlink
If it does, the Zap saves it to our knowledge hub in Airtable
Note that we always rename our Zaps to provide us context for what we’re doing — which makes troubleshooting much easier when bugs happen.
Note: If you send a lot of messages to the channel that aren’t hyperlinks (i.e. you don’t want them in your repository), you’ll quickly run through your Zapier plan. A workaround for this is to change the Zap trigger to be a specific emoji reaction. This way, only messages with that emoji will be pulled through into the repository — though you’ll have to remember to emoji-react to all messages you want saved for it to work!
Automation case study #2: Building a bot that automates personal introductions
Tools used:Airtable, Zapier, Gmail, Alfred
I often find myself making introductions of all kinds. Introductions happen for all kinds of reasons, personal and professional. But most of the time, I find myself using the same text over and over again — and it takes more effort than it should. So why not automate the process?
First, you need to set up an Airtable base as a personal CRM. This gets more valuable over time, as you add more and more of your daily network to it. You’ll need two tabs: one for your contacts, and another for introductions. Screenshots below 👇🏽
Note the fields in each table. Your contacts table will be your master base of everyone you’re in regular touch with. Then, create a relational field from Full Name in Contacts, and use that in the Introductions table. Create lookups for email and first name. The context fields will be filled in by the forms, which are coming next.
Once you’ve set up both tables, create a form for each one. You’ll want one form to quickly add contacts, and another one to make actual introductions, like so:
Bonus: For maximum efficiency, either bookmark your forms or create text expander for them with Alfred (or your tool of choice).
Once you’ve got your Airtable infrastructure setup, make sure you have some test data in your tables, and you’re ready to create your introductions Zap.
First, we’ll trigger the Zap based on the Introductions Form submission. Then, we’ll use Formatter by Zapier to turn the First Names list items into raw text (so we can select them individually to personalize the email). Finally, we’ll draft an email from our Gmail account, filling in the template text as needed. Screenshots of Steps 2 and 3 in detail below.
Automation case study #3: Updating contact status for sales leads
Tools Used: Airtable, Zapier, Reply.io (or Alternative Outreach Platform)
I was the first associate at JJELLYFISH, where we would take over the sales function for early stage startups to help companies scale.
We used Airtable to track outreach metrics and decide on who to reach out to each week. It was a tremendous pain to remember to manually update whether or not a contact had replied to a Reply.io campaign in Airtable.
Sometimes you remember to open up Airtable, sometimes you don’t — and this would lead to data inaccuracies on the reports that we would run over time.
So instead, we built a Zap to connect Reply.io to Airtable, so reporting would flow seamlessly.
I can’t provide many screenshots here for client data and privacy reasons, but here’s the skeleton setup in Zapier:
New email replied to in Reply.io (trigger)
Find corresponding record in Airtable using the contact’s email as the reference
Update the contact record in Airtable — check the “Replied” column
Bonus: send a channel message in Slack notifying the team of the reply (to ensure quick follow-ups to responses)
You can use any other outreach software as a trigger, like SalesLoft or Mailshake. Removing human error (and headspace) allows you to spend your time in more productive areas of the business — and in this example, also has the added benefit of ensuring swift replies to high-profile contacts from the Slack message notification.
If you feel ready to start building your own automations, here are some recommended next steps: