As a user of modern applications and services, you’ve almost certainly interacted with a variety of email notifications. These messages alert you when your post was shared on a social network, remind you to take a key step in activating your account for a productivity tool, or ask you to approve a scheduled bill payment from your bank.

Email notifications like these draw users back into apps and reinforce trust in services. They’re an important part of a great user experience and one of the most powerful tools product management teams have to drive conversion, retention, and growth.

As VP of Product at SparkPost, I’ve had the privilege of working with best-in-class companies such as Pinterest, Intercom, HubSpot, and LinkedIn. They use email notifications to build user engagement and drive business metrics like conversion and retention. These emails offer great lessons for teams building both B2C and B2B products.

Common use cases for email notifications

Although examples of email notifications are as varied as the apps and cloud services that send them, many uses cases apply to nearly any service.

Security and account changes: providing updates direct to the user when their account information and login details might be at risk is a trusted and strategic way of using email notifications.

Consider this email notification sent by LinkedIn when a new email address is added to an account.

It is direct, factual, and provides clear action steps when required. It employs both detailed information and cues like a security-specific return address to reinforce trust, an essential quality for services like this.

Information that prompts user action: well-targeted notifications to complete onboarding or to take other specific actions are key to increasing metrics such as activation and conversion rates.

Pinterest sends a series of emails to help new users get started using the product, including the following:

It’s effective in two ways. Most directly, it prompts a new user to take an action that’s key to becoming an engaged user of the service. But it also uses design and messaging elements that broadly reinforce qualities users value about Pinterest: a personal voice, striking photography, and what they “love to do.”

Here’s an email notification from LinkedIn to add a new connection to a user’s network of contacts.

This notification works because it prompts an action tied to the service’s core benefit, professional networking. Qualities like personalization and a direct subject line make it more likely to be opened.

Information and status updates: notices about activity that happened on a site while the user was away reminds him or her of a service’s value and can drive re-engagement—or even conversion for additional services.

Notifications like these often psychologically reward a user for their use of the product. This notice from Pinterest that a user’s content was shared is a good example. It provides multiple opportunities for engagement by highlighting the item that was shared as well as providing additional content for the user to explore.

LinkedIn uses a similar sort of notification to drive engagement when a user’s profile was viewed.

This example takes advantage of a user’s natural tendency to want to learn more as an opportunity for conversion on a premium service offering that shows more detail about who viewed her or his profile.

Designing an effective notifications strategy

These effective examples reveal several best practices that other apps and services can leverage to benefit from email notifications. If you haven’t begun thinking about email notifications as a core aspect of your app, now’s the time. Here are some questions a product team should ask to get started.

  • What specific user actions in your app increase conversions (or decrease churn)? These areas are where notifications prompting action will give product teams the most leverage.
  • What kinds of data increase the value your users perceive (or even bring them joy)? Notifications of this sort are a natural way to increase engagement and frequency of use, and drive conversion and upsell.
  • What information reinforces users’ trust and confidence in your service? Account and security alerts are essential notifications that every service needs.

Why email notifications overachieve

Email is accessible on every piece of technology that we own. From phones to computers, voice recognition devices to smart watches, email is there. Email has permanency, with many of us keeping important receipts, confirmation messages and notifications that we may want to refer back to in our inboxes. As a result, email conveys a level of legitimacy that is crucial when reinforcing confidence and trust.

The immediacy and relevance of notifications help these messages stand out from the rest of the inbox. At the same time, email’s performance, searchability, and permanence characteristics can make them more effective and reliable than a push notification, particularly when updating customers of important changes to things like account information.

Email notifications offer high-value functionality: delivering information users need to take action or to reinforce the value and trust they see in a service. As these examples from Pinterest and LinkedIn have shown, they’re also a key tool for drive conversion, retention, and growth.

—Amie

It’s no surprise that LinkedIn has become the go-to social network for professionals over the last several years growing from 60 million members in late 2009 to 277 million members today. Whether you are looking to build out your professional identity, engage with your professional network or search for potential job opportunities, chances are you have logged into LinkedIn recently.

As LinkedIn continues to grow and mature, so do its offerings. Over the past year, LinkedIn has transformed itself into a professional publishing platform with features including LinkedIn Pulse, an aggregation of top news and features specifically tailored to each user, and the LinkedIn Influencer program, which invites top voices in the professional world to reach other professionals through exclusive bylines.

In order to raise user awareness of its increased offerings and keep users up-to-date around content that will be of interest to them, LinkedIn relies on email as a preferred form of communication. And that’s where Message Systems comes in.

Since 2009, LinkedIn has relied on Message Systems’ Momentum Platform to provide unsurpassed sending speeds and high volume capabilities, reliability and leading deliverability rates. Additionally, Message Systems has worked closely with LinkedIn’s postmaster, Franck Martin, to help the company adopt DMARC, the email authentication standard that makes email more secure by protecting users against phishing attacks.

In fact, Franck and the LinkedIn email team were recognized at the Message Systems user conference back in October 2013 with a Customer Excellence Award. LinkedIn was singled out as the customer whose innovative use of the Message Systems solution set the highest example for delivering measurable benefits to its own organization and the wider Message Systems user community. Specifically, LinkedIn was lauded for its leading role in creating and sharing Lua-based scripted policies for the implementation of DMARC-compliant messaging processes.

Accepting the award, Franck said “I encourage conference attendees to build on the work of my team at LinkedIn to spread the adoption of DMARC, and help create a more secure online messaging environment for everyone.”

CEA LinkedIn
LinkedIn postmaster Franck Martin accepts the Customer Excellence Award from Barry Abel, SVP Sales Americas. LinkedIn was honored for setting the highest example for delivering measurable benefits to its own organization and the wider Message Systems user community, specifically for its advancement of DMARC.

The Message Systems team looks forward to continuing our professional relationship with LinkedIn as it continues to grow.

Learn more about DMARC, the email authentication standard that makes email more secure by protecting users against phishing attacks in the Don’t Deprioritize DMARC webinar!

Don't Deprioritize DMARC webinar

Just over a year ago a group of the Internet’s biggest companies announced the Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) working group, an industry-based approach to combatting spam, phishing and other forms of messaging abuse. And on the one-year anniversary last week, DMARC.org announced a rather remarkable accomplishment: the DMARC standard now protects almost two-thirds of the world’s 3.3 billion consumer mailboxes worldwide. The DMARC announcement also noted that the new standard was responsible for blocking 325 million unauthenticated messages in November and December 2012 alone.

Here at Message Systems, we’ve always made it a point to place email security and marketing best practices at the center of all that we do. It’s why we were one of the first email technology providers to throw our support behind DMARC, and why we continue working to help Message Systems customers get up to speed with authentication best practices in general and DMARC specifically. There are lots of great information resources for getting up to speed on implementing DMARC. Here’s a few from the Message Systems community:

DKIM

Our partner, ReturnPath has created a 101 Guide on creating a DKIM record, Protecting Your Brand From Phishing: How to Create a DKIM Record. Here is a summary of the steps to be taken:

  1. Inventory all of your sending domains.
  2. Install and configure DKIM on your email server.
  3. Create a public and private key pair. 
  4. Publish your public key.
  5. Store your private key.
  6. Configure your email server
  7. Test

SPF

As part of that same series, ReturnPath also has a guide to SPF email authentication, Protecting Your Brand From Phishing: How to create your SPF record. Here are the 4 steps you have to take:

  1. Determine the domains that your email campaigns are sent from
  2. Gather the IP addresses that are used to send the emails
  3. Create your SPF record
  4. Publish your SPF to DNS

These steps are covered in a lot more detail in the entries above, so we’d recommend hopping over to check those entries out.

DMARC

Additionally, Franck Martin, Postmaster at LinkedIn and a long-time friend of Message Systems, has developed a set of scripts for implementing DMARC on the Momentum platform. He’s made these scripts available online at GitHub. They provide an elegant solution for filtering incoming emails and rejecting those that fail DMARC. Franck has also developed other tools and scripts for managing and monitoring a Message Systems Momentum cluster.

Thanks Franck for these great resources!

If you’d like to find out more about DMARC, download the How DMARC Is Saving Email eBook!

How DMARC Is Saving Email

If the Interact conference in San Diego back in October taught us anything it’s that our clients and partners have a thirst for information on how they can use our software to boost messaging performance or innovate new service offerings. To that end, we’re planning to publish a lot more customer case studies, how-to guides and use case pieces this year to help our customer base and the wider industry better understand how they can get maximum value from our software.

One of the topics we’ll be addressing in an upcoming piece is preference management. Email marketers for many years have discussed the issue of permissions, and with good reason. A newsletter you eagerly sign up for in January can become an annoyance by April and by June you might consider it spam. Same with offers or notices from retailers or your bank or other business. Many marketers wrongly believe permission is permanent, when that’s simply not the case. Permission is not evergreen, nor is capturing it once adequate for all purposes. A customer may express interest in receiving communications from you, but it is important to note that these preferences may change over time.

Not Just Email Permissions Anymore

These issues of preference management have morphed and expanded over time as social media, smartphones and proliferating message channel choices have created so many more opportunities for businesses to reach out and communicate with customers. For instance, if your prescription is ready at the pharmacy, would you welcome an email notification telling you so? Sure you would. How about a text? Probably, though you might prefer email over text if your mobile plan charges you per text received.

Similarly if you’re conducting a job search, wouldn’t you want to get an email or text if an attractive new job got posted that fits your search criteria? Of course. You might even prefer text over email in this instance since it’s more immediate than email. The point here is that in the age of social media, cloud computing and smartphones, the possibilities for setting preferences and approaching preference management are endless. Eliciting and managing preferences is no longer just a concern for direct marketers. It’s an issue that goes to the heart of core business processes for firms in a large and growing number of verticals.

How Social & Cloud Companies Do It

Companies like LinkedIn, Salesforce and Facebook do a great job of not just allowing their users to tweak their messaging preferences, but also making proactive assumptions about how their customers or users would like to be contacted. Back in September of last year, for instance, Facebook enabled their users to ratchet down the number of messages incoming to their mailboxes by transitioning to a single weekly or daily activity summary email. So instead of getting notified every time a friend followed up on a comment thread you’d joined in on, you’d get only a single email per day or per week. For active users like me, Facebook simply went ahead and implemented the digest automatically.

Proactively implementing this kind of change is somewhat at odds with the email marketer credo that all changes should be based on user permission. But it’s also a realistic recognition that we’re living in an age where the nature of communication is changing so fast that businesses have no choice but to monitor customer preferences, strive to anticipate emerging trends and give customers more choices. Just like email marketers continually refreshed permissions in years past by building interactive components into their mailings, businesses in social media, online retail and cloud-based services need to empower their users to personalize their messaging preferences in ways that best suit their needs.

This is not to say that businesses should aggressively push the envelope and seek to use demographic assumptions or turn to third parties data providers to expand lists and add new users without permission. There’s a term for this, email appending (PDF), and it’s very much frowned upon by MAAWG, the industry organization that governs email marketing and online messaging. So: creative, yes. Abusive, no.

An Issue For All Kinds of Businesses Today

For social media and other kinds of online companies creating a comprehensive preference management capability is a no brainer. Their business models depend to a large degree on customer engagement, so of course they want to empower users to take control over how and when contact is made. To a large degree conventional businesses in sectors like banking, healthcare and retail haven’t had to think about preference management as a core business concern, but that’s changing fast.

If your customer is interacting with your business through a smartphone – and if they aren’t already they will be soon – you very much need to understand how, when and through which channel they prefer to communicate. We’ve got research that proves the point. And we’ll have some more detailed collateral soon on preference management best practices and how Message Systems software fits into the equation.