Product Emails Need a Focused Team

I recently talked with the teams at a couple SaaS businesses who are responsible for the notifications and other emails their products send. It was eye-opening to hear how they think about the infrastructure and business requirements for app-generated email.

Naturally, many aspects of the approaches they’re taking are specific to their particular apps. But one issue they shared was an understanding of the key roles on their product email team. They identified a core group of responsibilities for getting welcome and onboarding messages, user invites, activity notifications, and account management and security alerts specified, implemented, and delivered.

Your Product Email Team’s Starting Lineup

Here’s what that “email dream team” for SaaS products looks like.

  • Product Manager. Even a dream team of all-stars needs a captain. The product manager defines the requirements for a product email team for a very simple reason: the most successful SaaS businesses treat email notifications as a core product feature. For large SaaS platforms, it’s even likely that the product manager’s entire focus may be on developing an app notification service that includes email along with other channels such as SMS or push.
  • Technical Lead. In the most effective product email teams, the technical lead works the product manager to design and build the technical foundation for triggering, generating, and processing data for email notifications. This architect will work a team of developers to implement the framework and functionality needed for product emails. As such, she or he’s responsible for ensuring that issues like reliability and scalability of product emails are addressed.
  • Growth or Product Marketer. Working hand-in-hand with a product leader, these marketers should lead the messaging, design, and cadence of app emails—as well as work with the rich data these emails generate. In many ways, understanding how to drive user action by connecting the content of product emails to the app’s value proposition is the ultimate distillation of their core business responsibility.

Like the classic three-legged stool, these three roles are necessary to support email notifications in just about any SaaS app. The good news is that these roles already make up the core of your product team.

The Product Email Team’s Bench Players

In combination with a cloud email delivery/infrastructure-as-a-service provider that handles the backend message generation, delivery, and data, these leads might actually be all you need. But if your business still operates its own infrastructure, the email team also needs to include some specialized “postmaster” roles that can be challenging to fill.

  • Infrastructure Admin/Ops/Security. The real and opportunity costs required to administer systems in a data center are well understood today. Email servers are especially susceptible to scalability, security, and downtime challenges—even more so when dealing with the performance characteristics needed for product email notifications. It’s important that a product email team understand the trade-offs between managing this themselves vs. relying on an email API.
  • Deliverability Manager. To be honest, email deliverability is a role most product teams are surprised to learn they need. After all, it’s natural to assume that email “just works” once it’s sent. But the reality is that getting messages to the inbox is surprisingly complex. (In fact, recent figures say 28% of all email is undelivered or lost in the spam folder.) Really experienced email deliverability managers are hard to find, but that expertise can make a huge difference for notifications strategy. Having it delivers a lot of value (and peace of mind).

One thing that stands out about this product email team is how much more cross-functional it is than most email marketing groups. But that makes sense—notifications and other app emails serve a different business need and have a completely different technical architecture than classic campaign-based email marketing.

In fact, I was struck that this email dream team looks a lot like the growth teams that have driven social networks and other big B2C platforms. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, when you consider how product emails affect user engagement, conversion, and retention—the key factors that drive growth.

Nearly every SaaS product sends email—does yours? If you’re on a SaaS product team, I’d love to hear how you handle these needs and roles. Ping me on Twitter or leave a comment below. I’d love to chat.

—Brent
@brentsleeper