Email notifications are powerful drivers of user engagement with SaaS apps. But not all of these messages are created equal. The best alerts convey key information and make interaction feel almost effortless, while poorly designed notifications are counterproductive and result in decreased engagement or even customer churn.

I’ve received some really effective notifications. But I’ve received many more lackluster ones. I’m sure you have, too. Some were monospaced, plaintext messages spit out by a process deep in the bowels of an ancient ERP system. Others were so overloaded with competing messages, images, CTAs, and other marketing gizmos that the basic utility of the notification was lost in the noise.

So, when it comes to notifications and similar transactional emails, what differentiates the good, the bad, and the ugly? In other words, what makes a great product email? Our team has looked at lots of real-world examples. Here are our takeaways.

1. The subject line is all-important. Email marketers have made an art and science of writing subject lines that yield high open rates, but remember that notifications are different from most marketing messages. While opening a message is a sign of user engagement, the most effective email notifications are written so that the subject line is the message. Even if a user never opens the alert, she or he should get what’s needed just by reading the subject line.

2. Good notifications convey just one idea. Effective email alerts are highly focused messages and a perfect illustration of when “less is more.” While the email body is an opportunity for some elaboration on the core information conveyed in the subject line, but don’t be tempted to stray from that single idea. Extraneous information or visual clutter muddies the value the of the email and distracts your user from the essential message or call to action. Overloaded notifications quickly get relegated in a user’s head to the category of “useless marketing messages” and are a sure route to disengagement, unsubscribes, and even spam flags.

Example Mint Notification
Mint’s account security notification reinforces user trust with a direct, simple message.

3. Alerts should get straight to the point with a direct call to action. Email notifications are immediate, time-sensitive, and relatively frequent. Your user will give them just a glance—you might earn 5 seconds of their time at best—so it’s not the time for subtlety. Express the facts the user needs to know and provide an obvious way for him or her to take action if needed. Done.

Example LinkedIn Notification
LinkedIn’s re-engagement notification has a good value proposition and clear call to action.

4. Email notifications must be highly personalized. A notification is a nearly perfect example a triggered email. It was sent in response to a specific user action or state. So be sure that the content of the message reflects that unique situation. Being personal doesn’t mean inserting a first name and leaving it at that — every bit of the notification should reinforce the user’s specific context, actions, and needs. In fact, any information that’s not specifically personalized is suspect and something you should consider removing.

5. The best notifications reinforce the user experience. Just because email notifications should be direct and succinct, they don’t need to be blandly utilitarian. In fact, the best ones are full of personality and immediately recognizable as part of the user’s overall experience with an app or service. Through tone, voice, and visual identity, email notifications have a significant impact on a user’s impression of a service or app’s style and brand. They should be designed with as much care as any other aspect of a product’s UX.

Example Product Hunt Notification
Product Hunt’s social notification hits all the right notes.

Email notifications have a major impact on any app or site’s user experience, and they’re among the most important drivers of user engagement, retention, and growth.

What’s your experience with email notifications and other messages? Send us a tweet! We’d love to hear your point of view and the sorts of questions you run into.

Brent

P.S. Want to learn more about building a successful product with email notifications? Our recent product manager’s guide to email provides a great starting point. And when you’re ready to dig even deeper into what makes email messages like these click, check out “Designing Transactional Email to Build Brand” and “Building Trust and Loyalty with Transactional Email.”

 

Product Emails That Rock

I recently discussed several core categories of emails that are essential to SaaS applications. Nearly every app needs account activations, welcome and onboarding messages, account and security alerts, and even humble password resets, but how they’re implemented can vary widely. Today I’d like to share a few examples of really effective product emails and dive into why they work so well.

Slack’s Confirmation Email

Slack’s email confirmation makes the task clear without sacrificing a distinctive voice.

Where to find it: Whenever you sign into Slack for the first time (or from a new device), Slack will send you a confirmation email like this one.

Why it’s fantastic: Slack’s confirmation email has a lot going for it. First and foremost, it’s clear what the user needs to do. A direct subject line and headline, along with an obvious call to action and button help a user get to the point without a lot of cognitive overload. But that directness is balanced with clarifying information that puts the ask in context—as well as a style and voice that’s consistent with Slack’s distinctive brand.

Product Hunt’s Social Notification

 

Product Hunt’s social notification drives engagement.

Where to find it: When a Product Hunt user is followed by another user, she or he will get an email like this one.

Why it’s fantastic: Shares and notifications are a staple of any social platform, and they’re a key driver of engagement and growth. A major reason Product Hunt’s take overachieves is that it’s actually full of content that reinforces the site’s social activity and perceived value. And, like Slack’s earlier example, details like the subject line emoji and word choices nicely capture the playfulness of the Product Hunt user experience.

Eatsa’s Transaction Receipt

Eatsa’s receipt is so much more than a generic transactional email.

Where to find it: Eatsa sends patrons a receipt like this one shortly after they order a meal.

Why it’s fantastic: Eatsa is a modern, app-enabled automat. There are few or no staff members in the front of the house; an Eatsa store is all sleek glass and LCD touchscreens. So, it’s really important that the business deliver a great customer experience in other ways. This receipt is a good example of that. It serves the functional need of providing a transaction receipt, but it goes well beyond rudimentary transactional emails by adopting a clear voice, employing crisp visual design, and integrating a live customer survey into the body of the email. One more touch? The “Talk to a human” link at the bottom helps soften any sense of a sterile experience.

SparkPost’s Personalized Data Report Card

 

SparkPost’s personalized deliverability report card uses data to provide high-value information.

Where to find it: Every SparkPost user receives this weekly summary of their basic email delivery performance.

Why it’s fantastic: Here, I’m going to show off one of my own babies. SparkPost’s weekly email deliverability report card is a great example of how SaaS businesses can use data-driven email updates to provide additional value and actionable information to users. In this case, SparkPost provides an at-a-glance weekly review of account performance with health metrics and usage details. In addition to raw metrics, the report shows relative performance to other senders and links to best practices and support resources—at precisely the moment a user is most likely to be interested in the topic.

Learn More

I hope these fantastic product emails have inspired you to think about how email can drive better user engagement with your own app. And if you’re just getting started with notifications and other types of product emails, be sure to check out “The Product Manager’s Guide to Email.” It’s a great resource to help product teams get up to speed.

Do you have an example of a great product email? I’d love to see it. Send us a tweet! Even better—submit it to the Sparky Awards for a chance to win Best Product Email of the Year, with all the glory (and prizes) that go with it!

—Amie

A Product Manager’s Guide to Email Notifications & App-Generated Emails

I recently met up with an old friend who’s the product manager of a growing SaaS application.

Like a lot of product teams, hers approaches app notifications as a core feature of their product platform. However, they’ve been handling the different types of emails their app sends (ranging from onboarding messages to password resets) in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion. Some of those emails were being sent using a marketing-centric tool, others inflexibly hard-coded into the app.

That disconnect was frustrating to her—it resulted in an inconsistent user experience for her customers. It also meant she wasn’t really sure when (or if) they were delivered, and her team had limited visibility into how different sorts of messages affected user engagement.

So, my friend was excited about a new project they were undertaking to bring all of those emails into a shared infrastructure service similar to how they treated other forms of notifications. That was one of the reasons we were talking—she was looking to learn from the experiences of other product teams.

Email Is Essential to Growing SaaS Applications

In that, she isn’t alone. Email is essential to growing SaaS applications. The emails they send are indispensable tools for driving user activity, building trust, and nurturing long-term engagement. But sometimes hard to know where to begin.

That’s why the email experts at SparkPost created a guide to help product teams get started with email notifications and other app-generated emails. It provides a great foundation for teams building fast-growing services to make the most of email in their products.

It’s called (very creatively) “The Product Manager’s Guide to Email.” Check it out and send us a tweet, and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear what kinds of questions your team has about email notifications and other kinds of app-generated emails.

Brent

Introducing the SparkPost Academy for Product Development Teams

The SparkPost team is passionate about helping product development teams build great apps with email. Our email API and delivery service is the most literal expression of that commitment, of course. But it comes in many other forms as well—whether it’s in-depth ebooks and guides, free tools for building and verifying email configs, the HEML responsive email markup language, or this very fine blog.

To that list, I’m really happy to share another resource: the SparkPost Academy. It’s a great way for product managers and development teams to build their skills and knowledge—and successful, growing apps and services. The SparkPost Academy is full of resources that will help you get up to speed and go deep on email technical best practices, user engagement, cloud development, and product growth skills.

Four Paths to Building Skills and Successful Products

Academy articles are focused on four core topic areas:

Email technical best practices: Delivering email to the inbox is surprisingly complex. Understanding technical best practices and standards will help you improve the effectiveness of your app’s email.

Email and user engagement strategies: User engagement is key to SaaS product growth. Learn how features such as email notifications convey essential information, drive app activity, and visits, and nurture user relationships.

Building and scaling cloud infrastructure: Building modern SaaS applications for the cloud is a complex journey that requires not only technical skills but also an understanding of their business impact.

Growth skills for product managers: Product managers have an outsized responsibility for the success of today’s SaaS apps. Developing a growth mindset is an essential part of every product team’s approach.

You’ll learn how to build better apps with email and discover the best practices product teams need to know to nurture user engagement with strong conversion, retention, and growth. It’s valuable information that’ll help you build a great SaaS product and your career.

I think you’ll find the first articles we’ve posted to be an easy way to begin a foundation for your growth. Even better? We’re just getting started with the SparkPost Academy, and we’ll continuously be adding new materials to each course as we go forward. Check it out and let us know what you think!

—Daniel

 

A Lesson on User Engagement From Don Draper

Whether you’re building a consumer app or B2B service, you know how critical user engagement is to your success. Strong user engagement is intertwined with healthy, growing revenue… while lackluster user engagement results in a spiral of churn. That’s a key part of why notifications and other product emails are such a powerful tool in any product team’s toolbox—email’s ability to connect with users and draw them back into apps is unmatched.

Yet, figuring out how to help your users take that plunge and develop an enduring, engaging relationship with your product is more subtle than “build it—or send it—and they will come.” Effective notifications and emails take a mix of technical savvy, great communication skills, and empathy for your users’ needs. If you’re a SaaS product manager or marketer, I’m sure you’ve often felt that it’s sometimes hard to do it all.

But what if we were able to bring in an expert who might have a few good words of advice on the matter…?

Scene 1 Act 1

SCENE: A CONFERENCE ROOM AT AN SAAS APPLICATION PROVIDER

A SaaS product team is gathered expectantly, murmuring, comparing lattes, when DON DRAPER enters the room. He takes a place at the head of the conference table, sits back, crosses his legs, smooths his tie, and surveys them coolly.

Don Draper:

Ladies and gentlemen. I understand you’ve got a problem. I’m here to solve it for you.

Product Manager:

Frankly, Don…is that okay? Can I call you Don? Thanks. Well, we’re stumped. We can’t ––

Don Draper:

Your app isn’t getting any traction. It’s not that it’s simply not selling. You’re not even getting a decent number of trials. Right? But it’s a good product. In fact, it’s a great product. (SPREADS HANDS) Why on earth isn’t anybody interested?

He leans forward, everyone rapt.

I know you’re all feeling the darkness here today. But there’s no reason to give in. No matter what you’ve heard, this process will not take years. In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated, because there is an answer that will open the door.

Product Manager:

Where…that sounds really familiar, for some reason..?

Don Draper:

Season six, episode eight.

Product Manager:

Oh.

Don Draper:

The problem isn’t with your product. The problem isn’t with your market, either. You know in your hearts that people are practically dying to adopt a web-based smart document management system that combines standard tracking, check-in/check-out, inventory controls, rapid elasticity, and ubiquitous network access.

Product Manager:

Wow, you’ve got our platform down pat…

Don Draper:

I have no idea what any of that means. I hate computers. (STANDS UP, GOES TO EASEL) So it’s not the product or the prospect’s interest, the problem is that you’re not connecting the two.

A presentation board is on the easel, covered with a cloth. He whips the cloth away, revealing two columns of various words and phrases.

I’ve said it before, I think when we landed the Ford Edsel account: People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone. Your problem is, you’re not telling them what to do. Instead, you’re not doing much of anything.

Points to the first column of words.

These are the calls-to-action you’re using right now, from your emails, buttons on your website, your PPC ads…wherever. This one, for instance: “Please explore more!” What are you suggesting, that they should sign up for the Boy Scouts? There’s no insistence, or confidence, and certainly no urgency. And we don’t want them to “learn” anything, we want them to go hands-on with the product, right this instant.

What’s a call-to-action supposed to be about? (WAITS) Anybody? Well, the textbook definition is, it’s an instruction to the audience to provoke an immediate response. But what is it really about? It’s really about action, motion, and power. So you use power words that give them a sense they’re doing just that – taking control, taking action, solving a problem, eliminating a pain point.

He points to the second column of words.

“Take your FREE trial now!” Because it’s theirs for the taking, because it’s something valuable we’re letting them have for nothing, and because they should grab it this second. Now! That’s a power word, and so is free, and take.

Or hit their emotions. Are they “worried about locating contracts?” or “sick of losing documents? Get the solution today!”

Give it value. Make the reward they’ll get for taking the action very plain. “Improve your ROI today.” Or if you can attach a real number, do it. “Join 100,000 satisfied users,” or “get 20% off before it’s too late.” If that sounds like retail, get over it. It works with business buyers, too.

Here’s another thing. Keep it short, and unequivocal. This ad banner of yours suggests they should “enjoy our 6-step tutorial series.” Will they be graded on a curve? Your buyer doesn’t have the time to spare to attend what sounds like a deadly dull extension class. Here’s what works: “Watch the video.” With a big “play” arrow graphic. And it takes them to a video that starts playing instantly. Period.

Product Manager:

I’m confused. You’re a guy who comes up with these killer taglines and beautiful slogans…

Don Draper:

No, what I do is convince people to buy your product. Whatever you say has to work in context. A CTA ought to always be short and absolutely clear, and uses power words to tell them exactly what to do next. If it gets any cleverer than that, you’re outsmarting yourself.

Which leads me to my last point. Test your CTAs and see what works, not just in the wording but in the value propositions or offers you put in front of people. I used to hate the account team when they did copy tests, but they had a point. Even the smallest adjustments can deliver a difference.

Product Manager:

Fantastic stuff, Don. Really. You’ve really opened our eyes.

Don Draper:

My pleasure. Mind if I smoke?

Product Manager:

Sure, just not inside the building.

Don Draper:

(SHAKING HEAD) Your century sucks.

What Did Don Teach Us About User Engagement?

So what are the lessons about user engagement our product team should take away from their meeting with our legendary, completely fictional ad man?

1. Never be afraid to bluntly, urgently direct your target into taking the exact action you want – they probably want to be shown the next step.

2. Use “power words” to get your message across.

3. Make sure your calls to action lets the target know there’s a reward for taking that action, whether it’s a clear product benefit or another incentive.

4. Keep it short, sweet, and to the point.

5. We all wish we could be Jon Hamm. Seriously.

Brent

 

 

 

A few days ago, my colleague Dan looked at how email headers can tell you a lot about where a message came from, the path it took to an inbox, and even whether it actually was sent by who it claims to be from.

But the information contained in headers really is just a start. There’s more that can be measured about the journey of an email—and how well it’s working at the job you’re giving it.

Understanding Product Email Performance

Let’s look at a typical SaaS application email. What’s the basic reason your app is sending an email? It’s because your user has done something, and you need them to take an action to complete the task.

Account signup is a common example:

  1. A user signs up for an account
  2. You need the user to confirm her or his email address to complete the signup

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Certainly, making sure that process works is essential to keeping your user happy (and not churning). Whether you’re a product manager or on the developer and devops side, making sure emails like this are working is an important part of measuring and managing your product’s overall performance.

Behind the scenes, though, the path that email takes is not as simple as it might seem. Most teams building SaaS products don’t have visibility into what happens once an email like this account confirmation message is sent.

With this article, I’m beginning a series that looks at the life of an account confirmation email, the stages it passes through on its way to the user’s inbox, and how data can be used to understand its performance at each stage.

Generating and Submitting a Product Email

The first step in our message’s journey is the generation and initial submission of the message. Depending on your application, this could happen in one of several ways:

  • Your app generates a fully-formed email and then submits it via Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to an external mail server for transmission.
  • Your app generates the content of a message and uses a simple mail sending function with a local SMTP server on your application host.
  • Or you can use an API provided by a dedicated email delivery service (in shorthand, an email API). This approach is the most scalable, as it allows your app to submit just the relevant data like name and address, while the specialized service handles message generation and delivery.

In any case, the email message is submitted to a Message Transfer Agent (MTA)—i.e., a mail server—that queues the message and takes responsibility for its delivery to the next hop in your message’s journey.

Why Latency Is a Key Metric for Product Emails

Measuring performance at this stage focuses on two metrics, injection count and latency.

The injection count is how many messages you submitted (injected) to the mail server for a given period of time. By itself this count won’t mean much, but it’s a good baseline against which to measure other data.

On the other hand, latency is a critical metric; when you send messages such as signup confirmations, your user’s experience depends on the timely delivery of the message. That’s especially important for something like an account confirmation email—the longer the message is delayed, the lower the likelihood the user will complete the registration and use your product.

If your message assembly and submission system has latency, you may want to review your code to see if it can be made more efficient, in addition, using an email API service can go a long ways towards improving performance, as it offloads the message generation from your own systems.

Typically, an app will only need to gather the recipient name, email, and other small amounts of personalization data and submit it to the API. The service then takes care of assembling and personalizing the messages and queuing them for delivery.

How to Measure Email Delivery Latency

Another component of email latency is how long it takes for your mail server (MTA) to deliver the message to its next stop, typically the inbound mail server operated by your user’s ISP. (Gmail or iCloud are typical examples.)

At this stage, some factors are out of your control, but latency here is a good indication of the overall quality of your email infrastructure. It’s a function of your infrastructure’s technical architecture and performance as well as its ability to manage delivery to ISPs. Both of these areas are where a high-performing email delivery service typically exhibits a major advantage over in-house email systems.

If your systems are slow at processing messages, or at managing queues, or are simply overworked, you’ll see latency of a minute or more. Efficient systems should be operating with a latency of less than ten seconds on average. There will always be some variation, as is common with all complex systems, but it’s the long-term trends that should concern you.

When you see latency numbers that are consistently high, you need to look at the underlying infrastructure: are there too many systems in the middle of your sending? Even your message generation process could be at fault: pickup directory systems can be relatively straightforward to build, but they are often based on scheduled pickups, which can introduce a long wait for a message submitted just after the last pass of the reader.

Latency after the first attempt is an indication of your reputation with the ISPs. Often an ISP will reject your message on the first attempt as a form of greylisting, refusing the first attempt at delivery to see if your MTA makes a second attempt (many spam bots will try once and move on). This causes the message to be queued and deferred temporarily for a subsequent attempt. The longer it takes to deliver a multi-attempt message, the more likely your sending reputation needs improvement.

How to Measure Latency by Hand

If you don’t have analytics in a dashboard for latency data, you’ll have to gather it yourself. Setting up scheduled jobs that send messages through your infrastructure to dedicated mailboxes that you maintain on the major ISPs, then retrieve the messages and check the timestamps of the first Received header and the Date header to determine the latency (note in the example below the time zones must be accounted for when calculating latency).

Email latency is a very important part of product email performance, but it’s just the start. Stay tuned for our next installment: understanding message delivery and what happens when a product email is delayed or never arrives.

—Mike

I don’t have to tell you that every product team wants users to be successful with their application. That notion of user success is a defining characteristic of nearly every quality we try to deliver: a compelling value proposition, highly functional workflow and features, and a delightful UX.

But that’s rarely enough. “Build it, and they will come” is never a reliable strategy—but for SaaS applications that face the constant risk of customer churn, a disengaged approach to user behavior is a big mistake.

So what’s the alternative? Last week, I shared several examples of effective email notifications from Pinterest and LinkedIn. Now, I’m going to dig further into how other SaaS businesses can make use of email in their products. They’re some of the most powerful tools product management teams have to drive conversion, retention, and growth.

Identify the actions that drive engagement and retention

But where to begin? Whether your SaaS product is B2B or B2C, there are some key moments in your user lifecycle that are essential to their (and your) success. These points might be specifically about user activation and conversion, or reflect potential roadblocks to renewal. But in each case, the more we provide users with the essential information they need to succeed, the more likely they are to take the actions that lead to more engagement and higher renewal rates.

Consider onboarding. As soon as your users sign up, you need to help them hit the ground running. That means making it easy to connect to your value proposition, discover the most important features, and take key configuration steps like confirming an email address or setting up two-factor authentication.

But onboarding is just one example. There are many additional times when alerting a user to take action in the app is essential to their engagement and success. Think about the user lifecycle in your own application. Perhaps a team member needs to assign a task to a colleague. Or a manager needs to approve a scheduled time-off request. Or a user can’t proceed until she acts upon a security notification or password reset.

Product Emails in the User Lifecycle

Situations like these can be make-or-break moments for your service. If the user takes the appropriate step, they’re more likely to integrate your app more deeply in their workflow. But if they miss the alert and work around the obstacle in some other way, they’re more likely to ignore your app… and eventually give up on it and churn.

Essential use cases for product emails 

Product email notifications aren’t generic. They should reflect the unique qualities of the apps and services that send them. However, there are several types of emails that nearly every SaaS app should be sending.

Activation emails: Account activation emails serve two purposes. First, they verify that the email address the user provided is valid and working. That’s essential for future messages. Second, they remind busy users that they chose to sign up for your product—believe it or not, that simple step sometimes makes the difference between an engaged user and a drive-by signup.

Trello Account Confirmation Product Email

Welcome and onboarding messages: Once a user has taken that first step of creating an account, the next logical piece of product email is to help your user actually hit the ground running. But don’t be tempted to provide a lengthy tutorial! Feature-driven onboarding messages are far less successful than emails that reconnect specific user activities to your core value proposition.

Eero Welcome Product Email

User invites and shares: Sharing content and inviting friends to try an app is a viral sort of product email often is associated with B2C social platforms. But the utility of this sort of message applies to almost every sort of SaaS app. Great examples include explicit invitations to colleagues to join a project team as well as implicit invitations in the form of workflow notices that require signups by users that haven’t yet joined a platform.

Asana Invitation Product Email

Activity notifications: For many SaaS products, activity and status notifications are the primary way offline users are drawn back into an app. Whether it’s a reminder to complete a task or a summary of missed highlights in a social media feed, these product emails help passive users reconnect to the problem your product addresses, even if they’re not logged in.

Lattice Activity Product Email

Reports and dashboards: For B2B SaaS products, reports on workflows are very tangible artifacts of the value of your service. Examples might include a detailed summary of a sales pipeline or a high-level overview of team members’ activities during the past week. Information like this is critical to your customers’ business. That means it’s also an essential email your product should deliver.

DocSend Report/Dashboard Product Email

Password resets and 2FA: Password resets are essential for any app. Email notifications also support related features like two-factor authentication. It’s hard to imagine more literal examples of product emails that either make or break user success—an undelivered product email of this sort is a showstopper.

Apple ID Password Reset Product Email

Security and account change notifications: Immediately providing updates to the user when their account information or login details have been changed is an important part of building trust and confidence in a SaaS product. These messages, as well as alerts about logins from new locations, also are crucial for helping users protect their accounts—and therefore your app!—from possible fraudulent use.

LinkedIn Account Change Product Email

How you implement product emails matters

I’d wager your app probably already relies on at least some of these types of product-generated emails, like account activations and password resets. How they’re implemented varies widely, though.

I’ve seen examples of basic messages hard-coded or otherwise treated in an ad-hoc fashion. But SaaS products that really handle their product emails right have generalized into a function to send notifications of any stripe. That gives product teams a lot more flexibility to drive user engagement and activity.

There’s another reason to think carefully about how to manage product-generated email: these messages only work if they’re delivered on-time and to your user’s inbox. Doing product emails the right way ensures that the complexity of handling email doesn’t become a problem that negatively affects your users.

Just think about the impact of three common examples of app-generated email that have gone missing:

  • If a sign-up confirmation is delayed or gets lost in the spam folder, you run the risk that your user won’t even complete the signup process, churning before you even have a chance to show them the value your application provides.
  • Delayed or lost password resets and two-factor authentication (2FA) messages can lock your users out of your application completely, resulting in show-stopping frustration and churn.
  • Even missing notices like status changes or receipts can lead to increased support costs and a gradual erosion of trust and engagement.

This kind of negative impact is why customers churn when messages are delayed or lost in spam folders.

Sending an email is simple, but getting it delivered on-time and to the inbox is not. Moreover, if product teams don’t have insight to what email is arriving (or opened, or clicked), they’re left with little visibility into the impact of these key drivers of user retention, conversion, and churn.

Mitigating that risk is an important part of what product teams (and their development colleagues) should think about when they implement app-generated email. Not sure where to begin? Our Introduction to Email Deliverability section of the SparkPost Academy is a great resource.

—Amie

 

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

best practices customer onboarding

This is going to sound familiar to many product managers. And founders. And product marketers, developers, and….

You spotted a market opportunity, figured out what your customers need, built your product, did some marketing or other promotion. Or, to put it more bluntly, you spent time, you spent money, and you spent a huge dose of blood, sweat, and tears. And—amazingly—you find that people are downloading your app or signing up for an account.

Woot! What a good feeling. But then you realize they’re trying it once and not coming back. Or your conversion rates are uncomfortably low. Now that feeling’s a sinking one. What’s going on?

It might be all about first impressions. And I don’t mean just the bling. Getting started—effecting change to entrenched habits or processes—often is the hardest part.

The first few interactions a customer has with an app or a cloud service—the onboarding experience—arguably make up the most important chance you have to win a customer’s buy-in and engagement. Onboarding profoundly influences a customer’s views of a service, and it can make or break an entire customer relationship.

The discipline of user experience design (UX) in software is focused on usability, affective and emotional aspects of the product, making certain desired user activities intuitive, and so on. Designing the onboarding experience is a big part of that. In-app cues, incentives such as gamification, and triggered emails are all major drivers of the onboarding flow.

Most of these best practices apply to both B2C and B2B contexts. But what happens when requirements for getting started go beyond a user’s interactions with an app? For B2B services like SparkPost that power real-world business processes or that integrate with other business systems, onboarding encompasses broader considerations than getting through a series of steps in the app.

At SparkPost’s recent Insight user conference, our own Clea Moore was joined by a panel of customers who discussed their experiences with onboarding in the enterprise context. These professionals shared their (sometimes hard-won) advice about how to hit the ground running when moving business processes to a cloud-based platform. The discussion was wide-ranging and delivered a lot of insight into how to make migrating to the cloud a reality.

Here are some of the take-aways:

  • The cloud allows the businesses to focus on their strategic differentiators rather than managing commodity infrastructure. On this, the panelists were whole-heartedly in agreement. Seth Weisfeld of Pinterest observed that “cloud infrastructure is a strategic choice for Pinterest. It allows us to focus on our real value in content and experience.” Jonathan To of fashion retailer Tobi agreed, “To be able to focus on our customers and their engagement rather than infrastructure is just so great and so important to our business.”
  • Scalability and elasticity are big wins from an technical operations perspective. Travis Wetherbee noted, “I don’t have to worry about adding IPs, adding boxes, adding drive space to deal with peak volumes or to store and bounces.” Jonathan To added, “We’re not a huge company. We’re trying to stay lean. The cloud is a major win for time to market.”
  • Specialized expertise—for example, SparkPost’s deliverability services team—makes a huge difference among cloud providers. For mission-critical processes, cloud providers have got to back their technology with hands-on account management and real operational and onboarding expertise. Seth Weisfeld described, “It’s really huge to be able to trust our provider on issues like deliverability. We couldn’t always rely on that in the past.” Travis Wetherbee concurred, “Beyond the pure technology evaluation, services like deliverability expertise was a big criterion in our decision-making.”
  • Planning ahead makes all the difference for minimizing the risks of unexpected impacts or disruption. That includes technical legwork—Travis Wetherbee called out making sure DNS changes and suppression lists were managed systematically—as well managing the transition from a business perspective. Jonathan To added that “Thinking about the data you want to store means looking ahead and making conscious choices—even if you can’t use it today.” Seth Weisfeld described the importance of looking at the migration as a process, not something that can be done in one fell swoop. His advice was to begin with small, less critical mail streams and then gradually ramp up to the most strategic pieces as the system is proved out.

Learning from customers always has been the most rewarding part of my job. And, of course, getting information about how people actually use technology to solve problems in the real world is essential to every software or cloud product marketer. So, I was really thrilled to hear what the professionals on this panel had to say about their experiences moving their email infrastructure to the cloud.

By the way, in the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing the role of implementation and services teams in the onboarding experience. What do you think it takes for successful onboarding in the enterprise? Let me know—I’d love to hear about your own real-world experiences.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

 

Like this post? Check out some other Insight 2015 session recaps:

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