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.


Folding paper boats as symbol for onboarding email

Practical Examples of Onboarding Email

Your app has sung “Hello world!” Awesome! And now, customers are signing up. High fives all around—you deserve it.

But what now? Getting users to sign up is a big step, but it’s still only the start. Asking them to come back, get engaged, and convert into loyal customers takes more than a killer app. It also takes just the right onboarding flow.

Considering the onboarding experience is critical when introducing users to your product. Get it right, and you might nurture the next superfan. Get it wrong, and, well… crickets.

Fortunately, all of us already have one of the most effective onboarding tools out there: email. And building onboarding emails aren’t as hard as you might think. What they really take is empathy for your users’ point of view, a clear understanding of the problem your product solves, and a genuine and welcoming “voice” for your brand. Put those together, and you’ll find you have the recipe for success.

Here are five effective examples of email onboarding that will inspire you to start writing your own. I’ll tell you why they work and how you can apply them to get your own users on board and engaged.

1. The Opt-In

The first email you should send someone who’s just registered for an account is the email verification note. This serves two purposes. First, it’s a key way to verify that the email address the user provided is valid and working. Second, it serves as a confirmation that the user is choosing to sign up for your product (and opt-in for email communication related to your product).

Onboarding Email: Trello Opt-In

  • Who: Trello
  • Why it works: Starting with a clear and unambiguous subject line, this example gets right to the point and makes it easy for the user to perform the required action. The first name personalization and “If you didn’t…” explanation also reassures the recipient that this is a legitimate email. All the while, it stays true to Trello’s brand voice.
  • Room for improvement: An actual return address would be better than the do-not-reply sender address.

2. The First Step

Once a user has confirmed an email address, you’ll have a relatively limited window to get her or him engaged. The longer the delay between sign-up and action, the less likely your user is to become an active customer. So, make it easy to get started and reinforce the things that prompted him or her to sign up in the first place. There’s no time like the present to take the first step!

Onboarding Email: Pinterest First Step

  • Who: Pinterest
  • Why it works: An eye-catching subject line, clear prompting headline, and easy-to-click button all ensure this email is focused on encouraging a newbie user to give Pinterest a try. And even if the user puts off taking action, this email strongly reinforces Pinterest’s core brand voice, from subject line through the copywriting and the visual design. Bonus: the [email protected] sending address is smart enough to handle a wide range of possible user replies.
  • Room for improvement: I’d like to see first-name personalization in the copy. That personalization is an important driver of engagement—and something at which Pinterest truly excels.

3. The How-It-Works

Now that your customer has taken that first step, another key role of onboarding email is to explain how your product works, and what your user should expect. Don’t be tempted to provide a lengthy tutorial! Helping your customer see what to do at a glance goes a long ways toward simplifying the learning curve.


  • Who: ExpenseIt (from Concur)
  • Why it works: The visual design and copy—simple to scan, but deceptively substantive—work to keep this message easy to read. At a glance, the user can see how ExpenseIt works… and then dive in if interested. Throughout, key brand messages and the benefits of getting started are communicated. As a bonus, the checkmarks at the top of this email use a psychological incentive called the “endowed progress” effect to help motivate customers through a multi-step goal like getting started using the ExpenseIt app. Finally, [email protected] is a real address that can handle customer responses. No bounces for you!
  • Room for improvement: The subject line, though blandly pleasant, doesn’t create a clear incentive to open the email. It should be tweaked to create a compelling motivation to learn more about using the product.

 4. The Incentive

Subtle cues are all well and good, but at some point in the process of user engagement, it will be time to put your money where your mouth is. When used sparingly, rewards can be powerful motivators and communicate that that getting started with your product has tangible value. That incentive could take many forms—virtual currency in a game, a developer-friendly tchotchke, or even cold hard cash. It all depends upon what motivates your users and what their action is worth to you. (At SparkPost, for example, we offer a free t-shirt to new customers who have signed up for a free account, but who haven’t taken the key action of sending their first email within a certain amount of time.)

Onboarding Email: Ebates Incentive

  • Who: Ebates
  • Why it works: Ebates’ core value proposition is all about helping members earn cash rebates and save money as they shop at leading retailers. So, a cash incentive tied to shopping behavior is a perfect fit to help motivate new customers to get started. In addition, this email borrows a tip from “How It Works,” above, and conveys how easy it is to use Ebates and earn that cash back: 1-2-3. Finally, the look and feel of this email is very compatible with the overall Ebates brand: value-oriented, but also easy-to-use and second nature to what shoppers already do. (Props for also providing a working return address.)
  • Room for improvement: There are multiple calls-to-action here: shop now, learn more, as well as retailer-specific offers. Let’s zero in on one that’s most compatible with why users joined. Additionally, though the subject line is cheerful, it doesn’t give a clear message of just how easy it is to get started. For an action-oriented brand like Ebates, “welcome” isn’t what drives user engagement.

5. The Immersion

Finally, what if a site’s user engagement goal really is just that: to motivate engagement with their user experience and brand? More functionally- or commerce-oriented companies take a very pragmatic point of view when it comes to user engagement: has my customer performed action X or committed to transaction Y? However, content or social networking businesses realize long-term value from attention rather than transaction. For these products, reinforcing the brand and experience of the site is the core goal of onboarding email.


  • Who: Medium
  • Why it works: Medium is all about getting engaged with high-quality content. This new user email skips the marketing-talk and draws a reader into the sorts of long-form writing that’s made Medium a top content destination. It also provides an understated call-to-action to download the app or log into the Medium site in a way that won’t detract from the core reading experience. The content-rich, immersive experience of this email already reflects some of the preferences I established in my initial sign-up: when I registered, I had expressed interest in topics like entrepreneurialism. The personalized content in this first email reinforces the one-to-one nature of what Medium does.
  • Room for improvement: Truth be told, there’s a balance to be struck between personalizing and echoing. As a new user, I’d love to see what else Medium has to offer beyond the specific topics in which I expressed an interest. The subject line, though superficially personalized, doesn’t tell me what to expect from this email—there are better ways to draw the user in! Perhaps most importantly, this email doesn’t make a direct mention of how a new user can like, comment on, and create new Medium posts—that’s a missed opportunity for this onboarding email, because interactivity is key part of social networks like Medium. Finally, this particular example exhibits the bugaboo of a “noreply” sending address. Email is a two-way communication medium. Be sure your approach to email onboarding doesn’t leave a user without a means to communicate.

Are You Ready to Get Started with Onboarding Email?

Combined with in-app prompts, UX cues, and psychological incentives like gamification, email is a highly effective piece of the onboarding flow. These five examples show how you can use it at each step of the user engagement process.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful for developing your own user onboarding strategy. By the way, do you have a great example of onboarding email to share? I’d love to see it!



P.S. If you liked this post, you might like these others in my onboarding email series:

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