SaaS User Engagement Tips

Increasing user engagement has become a mantra for SaaS product teams, and with good reason. That engagement is an essential quality of a high-growth product that retains customers and minimizes churn.

Recently, my colleague Amie highlighted how emails like welcome messages, activity notifications, and even password resets are an important tool for activating and retaining SaaS users.

But to be successful, product teams need to approach those emails with more care than the simple faith that “if you send it, they will come.” In fact, app teams can learn a lot about engagement from another group of people who’ve been using email to drive customer engagement for a long time: email marketers.

Here are three lessons from email marketing that can help product teams develop more effective email notifications and other app-generated messages.

1. Optimize relevance and deliverability

In email marketing, a basic metric of a message’s relevance to the target is its deliverability—that is to say, whether it even makes it to the user’s inbox. That sometimes surprises folks who aren’t steeped in the world of email, but here’s why it’s an issue.

When email doesn’t reach the inbox, it’s often for reasons more complex than a straightforward bounced email address. Mailbox providers like Gmail and Outlook use complex algorithms to assess whether you belong in user inboxes. These algorithms look at a spectrum of factors to determine whether your message should be tagged as a relevant message, a promotion, or junk.

We’ll drill down into some of these in the future, but there are already great deliverability resources for learning about everything from boosting sender reputation to SPF implementation.

It’s the same as in software design: If an app isn’t user-friendly or lacks sufficient utility, the user will delete it without a backward glance, exactly the same way they (or their email service provider) are hitting the spam button on irrelevant or badly-timed emails.

2. Use behavioral triggers

How do you promote retention as an engagement factor, whether in email marketing or software? By designing your campaign – or your product – to respond to the recipient or user’s behaviors.

In the case of email marketing, one example is to nurture people through the sales funnel by sending emails calibrated to their actions along that path.

Here’s an example from Groove, a help desk software provider. A user opening a trial account was the trigger for an email that welcomed them aboard with a personalized message from the customer support lead.  Did it work? Their conversion of trial users to paid users increased by 10%.

Exploiting behavioral triggers shouldn’t end once your users have been converted. Again, sustaining engagement over the long haul depends on conveying the right prompts at the right times. That’s a key factor in determining  the types of emails your product sends (and when).

In software product design, including unlocks or upgrades that reward trial, regular usage, or other actions is a common way of maintaining user engagement throughout a product’s lifecycle. Apply that same same growth hacking method to your product’s emails.

3. Test (and test again)

Perfecting the user experience—again, whether it’s in product design or email—means constant refinement, and that only comes from testing prototypes. That’s why the onboarding and notification mails your product sends should be tested as rigorously as you test your app’s UX (and your marketing team tests their promotional messages).

I mentioned how Groove used behavioral triggers as part of the email strategy for their product. They provide a good example of how to use testing, too, in how they optimized those behavioral emails:

The version above prompted users to open a free mailbox. The one below nudged them to try a product demo.


In all, according to Optimizely, Groove tested 22 different emails based on user triggers to get to the final six they sent during user trial periods. Testing like this is critical to optimizing an individual message or an entire campaign.

The lesson for SaaS teams? If you don’t test and refine your app’s notifications and engagement messages to make sure they actually connect and meet the real needs of users, you’re leaving a lot of potential engagement (and revenue!) on the table. Ineffective emails—whether marketing or product messages—squander one of your most precious resources: your users’ time and attention.

There’s more!

There are even more lessons to be had from email marketing that can help SaaS product teams increase user engagement via app notifications. In my next post, I’ll look at some of the specific qualities of good marketing emails that also can help product teams develop more effective alerts and notifications for their product.


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.



Every day when I pick up my kids from school, I ask them what they’ve learned that day. They proceed to tell me what they did—in class, after school, what they had for lunch, who they played with at recess. But getting them to articulate what they learned is a lot harder. So in the spirit of setting an example, I thought I’d report on what I learned this year as a product manager for SparkPost.


First, let me back up: it’s been a year of remarkable change and growth for our company. We made the leap from our origins as an established, packaged software vendor to a software-as-a-service operation. We architected an entirely virtualized, cloud-based infrastructure. We built and launched our core SparkPost offering. We expanded upon that foundation to introduce the SparkPost Elite service with dedicated instances and service level agreements to suit the world’s most demanding senders. We built out a world-class operations, deliverability, and customer success team. And, we changed our brand from Message Systems to SparkPost to better reflect all of these changes.

But those are things that we did. What did we learn? Here are four lessons about doing business in the cloud that really hit home for me this year.

  • Offering a cloud service means more than engineering a technology stack. It requires a deep understanding of how customers actually integrate technology into their business processes. It also means publicly staking a claim with the right product/market fit and countering a new group of competitors. All in the open.
  • Another key lesson for us at SparkPost has been just how critically important it is to reduce friction throughout the customer lifecycle, from selling to onboarding to daily ease-of-use and support. In plain language: the cloud means we need, more than ever, to make it easy for customers do business with us. In our market of high-volume, high-value email, we want to make it drop-dead easy for legitimate senders, while freezing out spammers and phishers. Ultimately, dealing with the bad guys in the email world is where our rock-star compliance and deliverability teams give us a real competitive advantage. But as a product manager, I can assure you that it takes a lot attention to detail to get that balance just right.
  • The cloud changes everything, including the business model. If you’ve spent any time in the traditional software industry, you know how big, perpetual license deals are the name of the game. But there’s a reason why the business model for cloud businesses is called “software-as-a-service.” Services aren’t a one-and-done deal; instead, our accountants report recurring revenue as the primary metric for our shareholders. For customers, that’s good news: less up-front capital expenditures, more bite-sized spending, and a real incentive for the company—that’s us—to keep customers happy and earn that recurring revenue.
  • And this brings me to the thing I think about every day of the year. Of course I want to develop a product that has the most compelling features in the industry. Of course I want to see my product beat out competitors on the biggest deals. But the discipline that the recurring revenue model enforces on us means that customer retention (and that really means customer satisfaction) is simply crucial. To be frank, the same simplicity that makes the cloud so compelling also makes it pretty easy for a customer to switch to a new service provider. So, that means that I am always working to make SparkPost better-performing, easier to use, cost-effective, and a step ahead of my competitors in all the ways that matter to our customers, including email deliverability.

That last lesson is the most important thing any company needs to remember, and doing business in the cloud simply makes it all the more obvious. So, what I learned in 2015 (and will keep focused on for 2016) really is a reminder of what I and my colleagues have always believed: keeping our customers happy is the key to our success. It’s not the technology, and it’s not the marketing, or anything else except you. So a heart-felt thank you from all of us at SparkPost and from me personally. I’m looking forward to an awesome 2016.

—Irina, Cloud Queen 👸

[UPDATE: We’ve had a lot of interest in the on-premise vs outsource debate so we’re updating this post with more information to provide some context on the pros and cons of both camps.]

Whether or not a business decides to go with on-premise infrastructure or outsource to email service providers for managing email streams is a critical long-term choice, and one to which there is no singular answer.  That choice depends on a number of factors, including the size of the business, the volume and frequency of sending, the need for data integration, data privacy, and the need for scalability. While you’ll hear voices on both sides advocate for one solution or another, the reality is that different solutions fit different requirements, and the choice comes down to balancing potential upside with cost and risk.

When looking at the upside comparisons, one might take a look at the findings of a survey published by David Daniels, CEO of The Relevancy Group and former VP / Principal Analyst of Forrester in September 2012. The survey explores the impact of technology deployment on marketing effectiveness.

While results of the survey favor the on-premise camp, there are some instances where outsourcing might work for your business.

The Argument For Outsourcing


Most businesses really begin enjoying significant cost savings with on-prem when they send 10 million messages a month or more. The 10 million mark isn’t a sharp line, but a decent ballpark figure. If you’re a start-up that is still growing a fledgling database of subscribers with a small email list, then chances are you’ll be pretty far off from the ten million messages a month benchmark. With a small team that is focused on the development of a core business product, start-ups or smaller enterprises might not have the technical resources in-house to really focus, fine-tune and reap the benefits of the on-premise marketing juggernaut of an email infrastructure.  When you move into high-value messaging, transactional messaging, or have complex data integration or stringent delivery SLA requirements, this guideline may well come down.

Creative Services

Running a tight ship and your marketing department is small? You might want to outsource to an email service provider that offers creative services: a one-stop shop for all your needs. Consolidating all production rather than relying on disparate contractors to first design, then code email is a time-saver and definitely a value-add that email service providers can deliver. With email service providers, a core value is not only the technological capability, but the array of creative services that comes in the packaged deal such as consultancy and production.

Business Model

Greater control and insight into the email process through on-prem can provide a boost in terms of deliverability, but perhaps that is not a core concern of your business. There could be a number of reasons why this is the case. Messaging your customer might not be business critical to your revenue stream. You might not have complex data integration needs for crafting your campaigns. Your sending volumes are manageable.

It all boils down to the issue of your business model. If you are heavily dependent on significant volumes of email to keep your business in the black, you should take another careful look at the on-prem option. However, if the upside potential from managing your own messaging in terms of the factors identified in the Daniel’s research does not justify the investment in building a center of excellence, then that is the clearest indicator that an outsource provider is right for you.

The Argument for On-Prem

The scalability, greater control and better deliverability that on-prem provides are critical factors for businesses that send huge volumes of emails, such as a daily deals site or e-retailers, where service offerings are presented to customers primarily through online channels such as emails. When email becomes a major source of revenue for a business and increasing deliverability just slightly can result in significant financial gains to the company, then it’s time to look at an on-premise infrastructure.

The argument for on-prem hedges mainly on:

  • The pure cost savings that sending in high volumes can present.
  • The control that it provides over data, which you would not be able to obtain immediately, and with ease through an outsource provider.
  • The factors outlined in David Daniels study. The question each business must ask here is if these factors are important enough to justify that spend on messaging infrastructure.


While outsourcing may be a quick-fix to resolving your issues with email in a start-up, when an organization grows to a certain size and begins pumping out email campaigns at high volume, costs, when working with an email service provider, can quickly escalate. In many businesses, a critical part of the workflow includes event-based mails and transactional notifications that ramp up the messaging volume, and corresponding prices too. In the process of evaluating whether on-prem is right for your business, there is simple math you can do to evaluate whether moving from a CPM-driven model to an owned-infrastructure model has a lower TCO (total cost of ownership). Making the switch to on-prem could lead to significant cost savings in the long run.

Control, Visibility & Integration

The story of on-prem is closely tied to that of the greater control it affords users. If your marketing department is large enough that you have in-house designers and in-house web developers, you’re probably comfortable with producing your own branded look and feel of an email. In fact, you probably want that flexibility to make your own tweaks to the template to better customize and personalize it for recipients. Access to such creative resources in-house severely diminishes a critical part of the value that many ESPs bring to the table.

When weighing your options from a cost perspective, it’s easy to say that on-prem is the way to go, if you flat out have a lower TCO when sending significant volumes. Visibility and integration aspects however, are more subtle, and may add value that makes sense to switch to on-prem, even if it is not a direct cost saving. If you are sending in high volumes, and deliverability is critical to the success of your organization as a whole, you will want immediate visibility into sending data that can help to optimize your campaigns. Additionally, visibility into recipient data will allow you to better understand the value of your customers, and help you improve the targeting and relevance of campaigns to increase the revenue gained per customer. From a technological perspective, it also facilitates the integration into other disparate systems.

It’s not that ESPs can’t provide visibility into your email stream and data – they can. But with an on-prem solution you’re going to have greater control over your email data, and you’ll have immediate access to it. Moreover, the Relevancy Group study we reference in our infographic shows clearly that on-premise marketers are able to leverage and integrate more disparate data than marketers using out-sourced email infrastructure. In other words, they are better able to use information such as customer purchase/transaction histories, web behavior and mobile marketing data to shape and optimize their email programs.

And the answer is…

Each business has differing needs when it comes to email. A general categorization is for businesses to look for an email service provider when sending in smaller volumes or seeking one-stop creative services, and to look towards on-premise when they need more sophisticated features to address the gaps in terms of deliverability and visibility.

If you are interested in finding more about on-premise and whether it is right for your business, we’re happy to do a thorough evaluation and address any questions you might have.

And for those that may not have the luxury of time to drill down to the nitty gritty details of David Daniels white paper, we’ve distilled the salient points into an infographic that summarizes the study results. Just remember that the benefits outlined are mostly experienced once a sender crosses a certain threshold in volume. Enjoy!