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

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What to Ask Before Implementing a Triggered Email Program

You’ve been digging into triggered email questions. You’ve learned the basics of triggered emails, mastered the triggered emails every retailer needs, and discovered the secrets of some really innovative triggered emails. What now? If you’re revved up to go, just ask yourself one question: is triggered email a fit for your business?

Well, I’m not going to equivocate. If you’re sending list-based marketing email, you should be sending triggered email as well. The growing ubiquity and affordability of cloud-based marketing automation platforms means the technical and cost barriers to entry have made triggered emails accessible to senders of every size—and no successful competitor is going to stand still.

That’s not to say it’s time to start throwing the switches, levers, and triggers without forethought. Triggered email is a powerful tool for nurturing customer engagement—and with great power comes great responsibility. Here are five triggered email questions you should consider before implementing your program:

  1. Have you optimized your existing email programs? From frequency to design, there may be ways to wring more out of your present efforts, even if you’re committed to a triggered email option.
  2. Who will oversee implementation? It should be a marketing responsibility, rather than IT. So make sure you have a clear understanding of who will manage the program, and give them a voice in picking the right platform to pull it off.
  3. Should you set frequency caps? There’s a hinge point at which a marketer’s emails can move from “informative” to “annoying.” So be sure to tread carefully here; test and re-test, as necessary. And be sure to consider the frequency generated by all your emails, not just the triggered ones: consumers certainly don’t discriminate between them.
  4. Do you have measurement and analytics procedures in place? There can be many adjustments involved in a triggered program. You may want to calculate how many purchases you would have gotten with versus without specific triggered emails, for instance. Or what your shopping cart retrieval rate was, and how it translated into revenue.
  5. How do I stand out from the competition? If others can use triggered email, they probably will. How can your branding and messaging help you? How might your sending times and trigger rules figure into this?

Turning Triggered Email Questions to Action

By putting the right information in front of that person at the right time, triggered email can garner very positive short-term outcomes while nurturing customer engagement over the long term. There are few stronger examples of win-win in email marketing. If your business depends upon customer engagement, triggered emails could be just the strategic tool you need.

What are some of best practices you’ve developed for implementing triggered email? I’d love to hear the questions you asked—and the answers that resolved them.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

P.S. Do you have more triggered email questions? Check out my guide, “Getting Started with Triggered Email,” for a great introduction.

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Triggered Email Secrets Green Dart on Bullseye

Triggered Email Secrets from 7 Successful Marketers

I have a secret: a few days ago, my lunch pretty much consisted of a stop at a hip ice cream shop to enjoy a cone with a scoop of my favorite flavor: “Secret Breakfast,” which mixes bourbon-flavored caramel and corn flakes in a sweet cream base. First of all, yum. But it also reminded me how important creativity and surprise can be as marketing tools. Every scoop shop offers bread-and-butter flavors like chocolate and vanilla, but it’s the other buzz-worthy varieties that define their brands. (And I say this as an avowed vanilla-lover.) But what triggered email secrets can I learn from ice cream? 

Think about workhorse triggered emails. Welcome messages, transaction receipts, and shipping notifications probably come to mind. They’re functionally important, and they form the foundation of any successful email program. That’s why every email marketer needs to understand the basics of triggered emails. If you’re in the retail industry, you’ve probably become familiar with how to use triggered email in retail. But what about some unexpected flavors? Today, I’m going to let you in on seven triggered email secrets that you can use to mix up your vanilla programs and drive increased engagement.

1. Onboarding Nudge

Here’s one of my triggered email secrets: there aren’t many people who love onboarding emails more than I do. In its most basic form, onboarding begins with a staple of triggered email—a simple welcome message. However, onboarding also encompasses many additional opportunities to engage with recipients with triggered emails. Here’s one example of an effective form of onboarding. The message breaks the process into easy-to-digest steps and encourages the recipient to take the first step towards engagement.

Triggered Email Secrets #1: Onboarding by Headspace

  • Who: Headspace
  • Trigger: N-days since account creation without taking action
  • Why it works: This email makes it seem easy to achieve the desired action by emphasizing that it takes just 10 minutes.

2. Customer Preferences Solicitation

Guess what? The second triggered email secret I’d like to share is another onboarding message! In this follow-up to an initial welcome message, the recipient is asked to define her or his messaging preferences and some other key demographic information. The benefit to the merchant is clear: not only has a new customer taken a further step to engage with the site, but also has shared explicit data that serves as a foundation for future successful email marketing.

Triggered Email Secrets #2: Preferences by Steve Madden

  • Who: Steve Madden
  • Trigger: New user sign-up
  • Why it works: To sweeten the deal, Steve Madden offers a discount and call-to-action that feels like a win-win.

3. Second Purchase Thank You

Along with a welcome email, a thank you is a cornerstone of any triggered email program. It’s good manners—and represents a step towards building a personalized relationship with a customer. But the secret of this triggered email from Art of Play is that they noted I recently made a second purchase.

Triggered Email Secrets #3: Thank You by Art of Play

  • Who: Art of Play
  • Trigger: Second purchase
  • Why it works: As a customer, I feel really appreciated. The marketer in me understands that Art of Play is using good segmentation to note that I’ve suddenly become a high-value customer to them.

4. First Shipment Notification

Like thank you notes, shipment notifications are a workhorse of any triggered email program. But look at this follow-up to a first shipment notification from Amazon. The email is actually an optimally-timed onboarding message. Rather than overwhelming me with site features related to order tracking when I first sign up, it’s instead sent just when I first need it. That’s smart, and one of the triggered email secrets of Amazon’s success.

Triggered Email Secrets #4: Shipment Notification by Amazon

  • Who: Amazon
  • Trigger: First order shipment
  • Why it works: Shipment and order tracking tools are introduced to a new user at precisely the time she or he would find that information helpful.

5. Product Feedback Request

There’s no question that customer reviews are an important part of today’s retail marketer toolkit. However, not every merchant takes the time to explicitly ask for that feedback. Even fewer senders ask for feedback at just the right time, when a customer is most motivated and still noticing first impressions of the product. Consequently, an email triggered by order shipment (or better yet, delivery confirmation) is the secret to success with messages like this.

Triggered Email Secrets #5: Feedback by Banana Republic

  • Who: Banana Republic
  • Trigger: N-days after order shipped
  • Why it works: Timing is everything. Banana Republic’s note arrived in my inbox the day after I opened the package.

6. First Date Anniversary

Anniversaries, birthdays, and other key dates are opportunities to send messages to customers in a way that feels delightful, rather than like just one more marketing pitch. They’re also good building blocks for adding emotional qualities to the relationship you have with each recipient. This note celebrates the anniversary of a customer’s first transaction with ModCloth, and the promotional discount and social sharing features work well to drive additional transactions and brand reengagement.

Triggered Email Secrets #6: First Date Anniversary by ModCloth

  • Who: ModCloth
  • Trigger: 6 months after account creation
  • Why it works: Like a thank-you note, this celebratory message helps the customer feel appreciated, while the promotional discount and brand reengagement also happen to be great for business.

7. Inactivity and Reengagement Feeler

One of the best practices for any email marketer is making sure that recipients genuinely want to receive messages from you. That means a lot more than the minimum of opt-in (or even double opt-in). “List hygiene”—the regular culling of inactive and other problematic addresses—is a key part of ensuring high performing, highly-deliverable email that sends all the right signals to ISPs about user engagement. It’s also part of a winning engagement strategy that conveys to your customers that you treat them with respect. That’s why this message from Return Path is so successful. It serves an important functional goal, is highly engaging, and it’s a winning example of the sort of secret triggered email that more marketers should use.

Triggered Email Secrets #7: Reengagement by Return Path

  • Who: Return Path
  • Trigger: Period of inactivity/unread emails
  • Why it works: This message walks the walk of email best practices—and makes a “dull” list hygiene task anything but boring.

Triggered Email Is the Secret to Great Customer Engagement

These seven emails break out of the box. All are great examples of triggered email secrets for driving customer engagement. They overachieve on key metrics such as open rate, because the sender tailors them to the recipient’s needs and context. These examples also demonstrate a commitment to building an individualized relationship with the recipient.

What are some of your triggered email secrets? I want to hear your tips and tricks and what kinds of email are your own secret top performers.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

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Triggered Email 101 Orange Dart

What Is Triggered Email?

Alright students, I have a pop quiz for you. It’s a multiple choice question: Which of the following describes “triggered email?”

  1. An email sent in response to a specific cue.
  2. A silver bullet for customer engagement.
  3. The perfect use case for API-driven email.
  4. All of the above.

I’m sorry that I stacked the deck with answers to make my point! Triggered email is most definitely (d) All of the above. However, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s expand on these statements and be a little more precise:

A triggered email is a timely, relevant, and individualized email automatically sent in response to an action taken by a recipient, or to a data point about that recipient.

What Can Be a Trigger for Email Like This?

The above definition really says that a triggered email needs a trigger! What are examples of this? Well, a straight-forward example is sending an acknowledgement message after someone registers on your web site. Or, the trigger could be a relatively simple database-driven event, like sending a greeting and and special coupon gift if you know a recipient’s birthday. A more sophisticated example might be emails triggered by a series of “checkpoints” that are designed to drive user onboarding and engagement. Or, the trigger could be a highly complex, state-driven data model like those used by growth marketers.

Here are just some examples of triggered emails commonly used by many types of businesses:

  • Post-subscription welcome messages
  • App onboarding and activation
  • Order receipts and shipping confirmations
  • Requests for customer feedback on a product
  • Post-purchase emails with upsells and cross-sells
  • Birthday messages
  • Cart abandonment reminders
  • Replenishment reminders – “it’s time to buy more _______!”
  • Promotional emails for items a subscriber browsed on your website
  • Thank-you emails
  • Unsubscribe emails

Transactional Email vs. Triggered Email

By the way, if you’re familiar with the concept transactional emails, you might notice that this definition implies that transactional emails are a specific type of triggered emails, but not all triggered emails are transactional emails. That distinction matters for managing compliance with best practices and regulations around commercial email.

Why Does Triggered Email Work?

The big advantage of triggered email is its depth of engagement with recipients. Unlike other forms of email marketing, triggered emails…

  • Are expected or anticipated by recipients
  • Are highly relevant, with content and calls-to-action personalized for each individual
  • Are appropriately timed to address their immediate or potential needs, key dates and life events

This depth of engagement is why triggered emails see an open rate 8x that of purely promotional email. That’s why for many types of businesses, including retailers and app or cloud service providers, triggered email has become a key aspect of their customer engagement strategy.

Triggered Email Is Key to a Personalized Customer Experience

The success of triggered email stems from personalization, but it’s personalization on a deeper level than simply knowing the name or preferences of an individual.

Here’s what I mean: open your inbox and you’ll probably see a few examples of personalization. A marketer may insert your name in the subject line or body copy of a promotional email. Maybe there’s some list-based targeting or segmentation at work, too, but honestly, too many of those messages we receive reflect just superficial personalization. It’s not truly behavioral or engaging, and it probably doesn’t really feel like a personal communication from the business.

In contrast, triggered emails are deeply and inherently personalized, since they’re tied to a customer’s actual needs: he or she has searched for a product, or has asked for information, or is expecting an update, or is having a life event. Whatever the trigger, our message is relevant to that person at the moment they receive it. That’s why triggered emails are so powerful, and it’s why we developed SparkPost as an API-driven, on-demand email service: batched blasts of generic emails just don’t work for this sort of need.

By putting the right information in front of that person at the right time, triggered email nurtures engagement. And with that level of engagement, a customer is open to having a lasting, deepened relationship with a business. That’s just another way of saying that triggered emails help customers feel like they’re being treated as an individual, not an email address. And that’s a very powerful motivator.

What are your experiences and challenges with triggered email? I’d love to hear how you use triggered email in your business and the kinds you receive in your own inbox.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

P.S. Want to dig deeper into the why’s and how’s of triggered emails? Be sure to check these out:

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Triggered emails are an essential component of every successful email marketer’s retail digital strategy. They have the benefit of not landing in the spam or junk folder because they are usually sent when someone interacts with your brand. We take for granted the ‘Welcome Email’ because it seems like a no-brainer but it actually behooves you to send one. According to ReturnPath, people that read at least one welcome message read more than 50% of their messages from the sending brand during the following 180 days.

There are many other types of triggered emails a retailer can send that can have just as much of an impact on your bottom line. In addition to the ‘welcome email’, here are seven others that are sure to turn emails into revenue.

Triggered emails every email marketer should add to their retail digital strategy:

  1. Cart abandonment email
    The average cart abandonment during the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend in 2015, according to Barilliance study, was 72 percent, a 7% increase from the prior year. This is money being left on the table that you can reap if you just send a gentle reminder cart abandonment email. Only 35.2% of the 1,000 largest online retailers in North America follow up with at least one email after a customer abandons an online shopping cart, according to a study from Listrak.
    Retail Digital Strategy Abandoned Cart Triggered Email Example
  2. Post purchase email
    The best types of emails are follow-up emails after a purchase. It keeps the dialogue and engagement going with your consumer. Channel the good feeling they already have after their purchase by asking them to stay in touch or follow your social media channels/blog.  Or, encourage them to leave a review of the item after it has shipped.

    post purchase trigger email
    image source: getelastic.com
  3. ‘X’ Days left email
    Sometimes life gets busy and you need that reminder of how many days left until the sale ends or a countdown to the big holiday. These are welcomed and pleasant reminders for the ever-connected busy individual.
    Retail Digital Strategy X Days Left Triggered Email Example
  4. Price drop email
    Who doesn’t love to know something they’ve been wanting is now on sale?Retail Digital Strategy Price Drop Triggered Email Example
  5. Happy birthday email
    Everyone loves it when someone else recognizes their birthday, even if it’s only to wish them a “Happy Birthday” in an email. You don’t necessarily have to offer a discount, but that’s a nice addition. Simply sending a Happy Birthday message to your customer keeps you hopefully top of mind for the next time they need your product or service. And birthday emails have a 342% higher revenue rate than promotional emails.
    Retail Digital Strategy Birthday Triggered Example
  6. Order and shipment confirmation emails for related or suggested products
    Most retailers (57%, according to Listrak) feature similar or related products in cart abandonment emails and 42% feature them onsite. Yet there are missed opportunities such as: shipping confirmation emails, back-in-stock emails, post-purchase emails and welcome series, to name a few. Try to incorporate recommended personalized products in as many places as possible to increase conversions, such as on order or shipment confirmations.
    Retail Digital Strategy Suggested Items Triggered Email
  7. Receipt emails, a great place to introduce new products and get customer feedback
    These are enticing reminders to get people back to your e-commerce site and to introduce a relevant product or service to them. This order below contained olive oil and some other pantry items from Amazon, and they are offering me to try Prime Fresh for free.
    receiptsuggestionexample
    Receipt emails are also a great place to get feedback.
    Retail Digital Strategy Receipt Feedback Triggered Email Example

Regardless of the trigger, there are plenty of opportunities to incorporate customer feedback, introduce new products, personalize and build relationships, and be top of mind the next time someone needs your product or service. Isn’t it time to up your email marketing game and take your retail digital strategy to the next level?

Retail Digital Strategy with Triggered Email