Email notifications are a critical part of any successful SaaS app. But too often, they’re treated as utilitarian, transactional messages that do little to help drive growth. That’s a big mistake.

However, when  treated with more creativity and attention to how users actually interact with notifications, they become powerhouses of user engagement and core tools for driving customer conversion and retention.

Quick definitions

First, a quick definition: Transactional emails are triggered by an individual’s specific interaction with a product or site. For example, when purchase is made in an app, a receipt and thank-you needs to be sent to the user.

These kinds messages have much broader use than just purchases: A user may submit their contact info to you, and you return the favor by mailing them a link to an exclusive upgrade or download. Or they may be triggered by inaction, as when you send an email designed to reactivate a user who’s been dormant for a certain period.

Transactional emails often perform better than promotional emails, because they’re personalized and anticipated by the recipient, which results in improved deliverability. Experian’s Transactional Email Report found transactional emails are more likely to be opened, and are even opened repeatedly, making them a great touchpoint for upselling, social sharing, soliciting feedback, cross-promotion and more.

Here are five examples of how transactional emails can be transformed into powerful points of engagement.

 1. Welcome Email

It’s important to thank a new user or subscriber for buying or doing a trial for your SaaS product with a personalized email. If possible, don’t just insert their name, but customize the message as much as possible by including other data you may have on hand about them or their reasons for signing on.

As with most of the solutions we’ll cover, it’s vital to do A/B testing of alternate welcome emails to see which drive the most interaction. What’s that interaction, you ask? It could be anything from a bonus reward to simply launching the product.

In the case of Skillshare, users who signed up for specific online classes were ushered into their first lesson straightaway:

Not only does Skillshare give them the chance to start their course within the email, it works in some pertinent cross-selling with the “Related Classes You May Like,” too.

2. Onboarding Email

The thing to remember about confirmation emails? They’re “pre-personalized” to the user, because they took the specific action you’re confirming. So they’re more likely to be opened by that user, and more likely to capture further engagement.

Here’s the first welcome message a MailChimp user gets:

It’s clear, simple and direct; its main job is to get them to activate their account, so it puts that front-and-center. But it’s still very branded: its very easy and simplicity are what MailChimp is all about.

3. Reward Email

Moving further forward, we can see how confirmation emails can be customized to each step in customer engagement, helping to expand their relationship (and maximize their value to the brand). Take this example from Vero, for example:

This does several very good things: It walks users through initial use of Vero by demonstrating where they are in what becomes, via email, an onboarding process, leading them to the next step, getting them more and more entrenched in the product. Even the graphic of the “progress bar” makes that process come off as simplified, even gamified for the user.

This email saw a 72% open rate, in fact!

4. Receipt Email

It’s an obvious place to try to do some more selling or promotion, isn’t it? They’ve already bought your product, so maybe it’s good to strike while the iron is hot…or before they have a bad experience with your platform..?

There are a lot of approaches to how to up engagement via the lowly sales receipt, some extremely cluttered with product pitches and promos. It’s all a matter of what you’re marketing, and how receptive your audience may be.

For us, an understated and personable strategy like this one from Skillshare works the trick best:

It gives the user a chance to take advantage of a refer-a-friend offer, but doesn’t overstress it or distract from the purported purpose of the email, which is to deliver a receipt.

One good rule of thumb is to keep sales or promo messages to no more than a quarter or a third of the layout, and make them stylistically harmonious with the rest of the design.

5. Feedback Email

Here’s a place where many of the tactics we’ve mentioned above – cross-selling, upselling, viralization – should go on hold.  They’d only conflict with the dialogue you’re trying to establish by asking for user feedback.

In this case, the “surprise and delight” should come from the very fact you’re asking for their input in the first place, and from the authenticity and clarity of your request, as this Campaign Monitor example demonstrates.

The ultimate transaction: trust

I hope that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic, but it’s true. Transactional emails can be strides in forging stronger relationships with customers who are always searching for a vendor, a provider, or a brand they feel they can trust.

The personalization opportunities implicit in each transaction, and the fact you can elevate them into become more gratifying and interesting points of engagement, can make them indispensable tools for an SaaS team that’s pursuing stronger ties with more users.


SparkPost is introducing a new metric to our email analytics: “initial renders.” It joins the 35+ metrics already available. We’re pretty excited about it, and we think you will be, too. Here’s why.

The goal of most email messages is engagement. Senders want recipients to receive their messages, open them, read them, and ultimately do something: interact with the sender and their product or service in a meaningful way.

Measuring that engagement is a basic function of any kind of email analytics. And of course, a “message opened” metric is a fundamental building block for any sort of engagement analysis. However, measuring opens can be surprisingly tricky.

America’s Next Top Pixel

While the mechanics of tracking opens using a 1×1 pixel image are generally well understood, the results are imprecise due to differences among email clients and other factors. SparkPost’s engagement tracking feature places the standard 1×1 tracking pixel image at the very bottom of the message. This ensures our “rendered” metric records recipients who open the message, rather than simply view a fragment in their client’s preview pane.

A consequence of this approach is the possibility of underreporting engagement because some mailbox providers—notably Gmail—truncate message content that they consider too long. This means a recipient may open and read part of the content, but the open pixel would not render and would therefore not record the open.

To help our customers get a more accurate picture of who is opening and reading their email, we’re adding an additional open pixel at the top of the message. It drives a new metric labeled “initial_rendered” in SparkPost’s reporting dashboard, as well as the companion event named “initial_open” in webhook events and the Message Events API.

Use Initial Renders for Better Understanding of User Engagement


There are times when it feels we’re like a golden age for user-centered technology. I mean, how easy is it to download a personal quantification app that a friend recommended to you, or to bookmark a great new productivity web site to investigate when you have some downtime? Easy-peasy, my friends!

But if you’re anything like me, it’s also awfully easy to forget those downloaded apps and saved bookmarks. Maybe I’ll log in once, then get back to whatever I was working on, thinking to myself that I’ll check out this great tool a little later. Or perhaps I’ll get intimidated by a complex setup process for which I just don’t have time at the moment. Or, worst of all, the basic workflow for a site will be lost on me, and the payoff for figuring it out seems to just not be worth the effort.

Unfortunately for the teams behind these apps, each of these scenarios is a potential death-knell for my engagement with their products. Every time I delay taking a step with an app or service, it becomes decreasingly likely that I’ll become an active, paying, and profitable customer. That’s why the onboarding experience is so crucial—the first few moments with an app can make or break an entire customer relationship.

Welcome On Board!

Onboarding is a multi-faceted occurrence that encompasses a range of functional and qualitative experiences. It spans the very first welcome screen, account creation, introduction of features, and alerts that prompt specific tasks in a workflow. When done right, each of the steps represents an opportunity for increasing user engagement—but if poorly implemented or introduced with little forethought, they become hurdles that risk turning a customer away for good.

No wonder, then, that product teams put a good deal of thought into optimizing each aspect of the new user experience. The most successful apps find a balance that makes it easy—seductive, even!—for users to incrementally increase their engagement in a way that feels natural and self-paced, all the while capturing data and other indicators that feed behavioral models that identify profitable audience segments.

While there’s no magic bullet to solving the onboarding challenge, there are best practices that have emerged over the past decade and that reflect a combination of expert insight and empirical evidence.

One of the best of these best practices is the onboarding email. Once relegated to a simple transactional message that essentially said “hey, you joined, here’s a confirmation of your username,” the onboarding email has since matured into a fundamental piece of a product team’s toolkit. Today, the most successful onboarding emails are designed as a series of carefully-timed and triggered messages that help to accomplish several key goals, including:

  • Serving that original functional need of confirming account creation.
  • Reminding the user of key steps required to complete registration.
  • Validating the user’s email address (and, by the way, enabling double opt-in for email marketing).
  • Introducing key concepts in the features or workflow of the app or service.
  • Encouraging active engagement with and investment in the site or product.
  • Establishing brand voice and personifying the relationship a user has with a product.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be honing in on each of these aspects of the onboarding experience and featuring emails that do a good job of meeting each need. Until then, what’s worked (and what hasn’t) for your product team’s onboarding efforts? I’d like to hear from you.


Email Marketing News Digest

The latest Google Analytics and Adwords updates have a focus on multi-channel attribution and providing marketers with better clarity on what’s driving conversions. These features and the increasing emphasis on both cross-channel and multi-channel marketing strategies highlight the increasing complexity of getting the attention of customers.

The Key to the Inbox is Subscriber Love

The key to the inbox? Strong permissions and relevant emails. ISPs measure user feedback based on how many people are hitting the “this is spam” or “this is not spam” button. Here are four factors to examine when trying to determine why you are not making it into the inbox:

  • Permissions
  • Relevancy
  • Frequency
  • Behavioral Targeting

Of course if you want to hear directly from the ISPs themselves and pepper them with questions, there’s always our all star ISP panel at Interact 2013 – The Digital Messaging Industry Conference. If you have a burning question on deliverability in your mind, register today!

Email design change driving a 61% click increase

Or is it? The DMA recently tested two different email designs in a split test and found that the skinny design had 61% more clicks. But wait – there’s more to the story. While on the surface the mobile optimized version seemed like a clear winner, it seemed that the copy and call-to-action from one particular link was driving the increase since the copy was not standardized between the 2 versions. In a second test where the copy was the same, there was no discernable click rate response difference.

Email Split Testing

Boom Times Still On for Emailers

Experian’s Quarterly Email Benchmark Study shows that email volume in the seond quarter was 17.9% greater than in Q2 2012. Unique open rates rose 7.2%, while unique click rates declined slightly by 0.2%. People who opened only on their mobile device averaged 10 cents per transaction while those that opened on mobile with another device averaged $1.28 per transaction. The results of the study present much food for thought when it comes to multichannel attribution. In the words of Bill Tancer, GM of global research at Experian Marketing Services,

“The path to the consumer is getting increasingly complex… We’re just now at the tip of the iceberg in knowing how to get from the initial contact to the end of the transaction.”

4 Easy Questions: Understanding Engagement to Survive and Thrive in Email and Beyond

How do you define engagement? A one-off spike from a seasonal campaign or ongoing long term interaction from subscribers? Margaret Farmakis from Return Path says it should be the latter. Here are four important questions to ask when evaluating how engagement applies to your email program:

  1. How do you define engagement? Goals need to be clearly stated and the difference between an engaged and disengaged subscriber should be clear.
  2. How do you measure engagement? Define metrics such as those from social, user-generated feedback and those from surveys as well.
  3. How do your engagement metrics compare with the competition?
  4. What is your strategy for improving engagement?

Email: Wanted Dead or Alive [Infographic]

Email Wanted Dead or Alive

Find out more about cross-channel banking and how to make shifting customer behavior work for your bank in our webinar!

Cross Channel Banking Webinar