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email notifications

The Savvy Product Owner's Guide to Building a Frictionless Email Notification System

Allie Dyer Bluemel

As applications evolve and move from desktop to web to mobile, communication tools will have to evolve with them. In a sea of emails, notifications relay important messages about accounts, transactions, and actionable items. While notification emails are short and to the point, they still represent your brand and product and carry a huge responsibility to inform users.

Building a successful email notification system is more than just sending out messages. Understanding how to utilize your designers and copywriters (and maybe even developers 😉) to build strong branding and enticing actions into short messages will set you apart. Start with a solid email template, and then add your brand’s identity through writing and visuals—this will engage users through your notifications.

Here’s what we’ll go over in this guide:

  • What is an email notification system?
  • Why email notifications are still relevant
  • How to keep your email notification template on brand while getting straight to the point
  • Taking email notification design to the next level
  • Moving beyond email notification systems to a full notification solution

What is an email notification system?

For the purposes of this article, we’re defining an email notification system as the strategy of email notification building and sending. Email notifications contain time-sensitive messages or actionable requests from your users, and might be sent based on the following:

  • User triggers or actions (navigating to a certain point, filling out a form)
  • Account changes (password resets, user info updates, expiring accounts)
  • Transaction information and receipts
  • New features and product updates

As a product grows, inevitably so do the emails your customers receive. To get into the shoes of your users, create an overview of every possible email a customer might get from you—from newsletters to marketing to notifications. When you visualize this, it might be more than you think. Your customers could end up getting multiple emails a day based on how they use your product. It’s important to think about how customers will react to frequent communication—you don’t want them to get email fatigue from your brand.

Why email notifications are still relevant

In-app and push notifications are messaging royalty at this point. They are timed to be relevant and are pretty much guaranteed to be seen—something emails can’t really compete with. But not every product has an app, and not every product is intended to be used daily. In addition to utilizing emails to re-engage customers, other email notifications are a no-brainer—password resets, transactional summaries, and receipts.

Email notifications have one giant advantage: Users both need and want these emails. Did you buy something on a website? Did your account get logged into from a new device? Do you want that receipt in your inbox, and do you want to be notified of new device logins? Of course, you do. And having them in your inbox means they’re easily searchable—you can find them in a year’s time if you need to refer to them—something you can’t do with other types of notifications.

These transactional and strictly informative emails don’t have to be boring. Integrate your brand into even the smallest (or most transactional) communication. A digital receipt still represents your brand, and good design shows your users you care about how your brand is represented in every aspect of your business.

How to keep your email notification template on brand while getting straight to the point

Notifications are not marketing campaigns or newsletters, so there’s less to work with when building a successful notification template. Notifications first and foremost need to inform the user. Whether it’s account information, a transaction summary, or a security update, it’s crucial to get the information to the user as fast as possible.

Notification Template Elements

When you’re selecting or building your email notification template, messaging, calls to action, and visuals are the key elements to keep in mind. A short message outlining why the notification was sent, a standout call to action with a description of why the call to action is meaningful, and an obvious connection to your brand will give your users a pleasant experience with your notifications.

Image source: Really Good Emails

In this notification email from Airbnb, the messaging gets right to the point and provides the user with additional information in an easy-to-read format. There’s a short description below the main messaging as to why a call to action might be necessary, and the call to action stands out in the brand color, with easy-to-read button text.

A/B testing for instant success

Have an A/B testing environment set up with your email notification system—this can help you make informed decisions when sending in segments, or for future design decisions. If you need to notify every user about an update they need to do, a strategy for these notifications might be to segment your users and run A/B tests on the first batch.

Image source: Litmus

If you need people to click the CTA and update their app, test a different set of CTA copy. Whichever email receives a high click-through rate, chose that one to send to the rest of the user segments.

Takeaway

To thoroughly understand and enhance your email notification system, start by looking at all the communication that exists between you and your customers. Is the tone of all your messaging consistent? Are the same fonts being used throughout? Are visuals and colors being used the same way in your product as in your communication?

If the answer to some or all of those questions is no, make sure to update your email notification templates to keep your messaging and branding seamless throughout your product. And test with segments to learn what your users are responding to best, and update templates accordingly.

Taking email notification design to the next level

Just because notifications need to be short and to the point doesn’t mean email notification design shouldn’t get as much attention as longer-form emails. The code that makes up every email is extremely limited, but there are a lot of tricks designers and developers can utilize to make receiving a notification email a more fun user experience rather than a task.

Bold design and dark design trends are popping up, and emails are no exception. Dark mode is very much a thing, and if you don’t understand how it affects your email design, you could be delivering messy emails.

Image source: Email on Acid

Dark mode is a setting that people could choose to turn on for a number of reasons, from personal preferences to medical reasons. In the example emails above, the automatic dark mode conversion looks pretty good except for the images at the top, including the logo 😩. The white background on the images means the messaging remains readable in dark mode. But it is not the best look. Talk to your designers and developers to find solutions for dark mode in your email notifications.

Subtitles of design

When there are discussions around design, they tend to center around visual elements, color choices, and fonts. But there are other aspects of design, especially with emails, that should be considered.

Responsiveness: Almost half of emails are opened on mobile devices. With a variety of mobile email clients, screen sizes, and devices available to consumers, emails need to look good everywhere. If your images aren’t scaling, or a user has to scroll horizontally on their phone to read unwrapped text, it’s not going to be a good experience (and it makes it seem like you don’t know what you’re doing 😬).

Image source: Email on Acid

Design for mobile. Design for Outlook. Test your emails and make sure they look good across a variety of devices.

Preview text: This might “technically” be considered an element and not a design feature, but the point is, sometimes it’s not even considered at all—and that’s a problem. Preview text is the little bit of text that comes after the subject line when viewed in an inbox. It’s meant to be a literal preview of your email content. If you don’t have your copywriter curate and supply the preview text, it will automatically just be pulled from the first text in your email. The automatic text pull might work out perfectly, but it also might not send the message you want.

Image source: Litmus

The preview text in these emails was either ignored or not implemented correctly, and the result is automatically showing some of the email code. Whoops. Utilize your copywriters, and have them curate preview text for your email notification communication.

Accessibility: One aspect of accessible design requires little effort to incorporate yet is still often overlooked. Using the alt-text attribute for images in your email notifications not only makes sure those using screen readers will understand your communication to the fullest, but it also guarantees context around your images if they fail to load. Images may fail to load for any number of reasons, but users can also actively choose to prevent images from loading in email—Gmail has this option right in the settings. This is also something to think about if you send emails as one giant image element (please don’t do that).

Image Source: Alchemy Marketing

While we’d all love to see a delightful corgi on the beach, this image didn’t load. At least with the context of alt-text we can visualize it. Make sure you or your email person is taking the time to add context to images with the alt-text attribute.

Takeaway

Make sure email templates and designs are tested thoroughly. View the emails you regularly send to your customers on desktop and mobile devices. View them in dark mode. If you’re not happy with the way they look or how they represent your brand, your users probably don’t think much of them either.

Moving beyond email notification systems to a full notification solution

Everyone’s inbox is saturated with emails. We’re required to make accounts to view content or make purchases. We get automatically signed up for newsletters from web shops we used once. And in the mix of the resulting mess is real communication—whether it’s your co-workers, family, or important notifications from products you actually want to hear from. Adding other forms of notifications for your customers can get them acting faster.

Your online reputation

Your sender score represents your email reputation and can affect email delivery. If your emails get delivered, and people delete them without opening them, it negatively impacts your score. If your emails start getting marked as spam, that’s even worse. Your spam rating and sender score don’t care if you have valuable email notifications your users need to see.

If your newsletter and marketing campaigns are too frequent, thereby annoying your users, your notifications might end up in their social, promotion, or (gasp!) spam folders automatically.

Bringing it full circle to email fatigue, it’s important to know all the emails your users get from you. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of sending some of those notifications in other forms, allowing the email inbox to breathe a little.

In-app and push messages

These types of notifications have become the standard. Not only do these types of messages have higher engagement rates than email, but they also reach users at crucial points in their experience. In-app notifications, which don’t require permission to send, can point users to various parts of your product or inform them within specific user flows.

Image source: Leanplum

The ability to show your user a message based on a trigger, like asking them for permission to share future notifications after completing an action, can take you a long way with engagement. If the in-app message below was sent as a follow-up email instead (and Jeff would have to choose to opt-in to email notifications), it would have to make it to the right inbox at the right time. And even then, Jeff might not open the email. Using an in-app notification, Jeff is pretty much guaranteed to see it.

Takeaway

Check your sender score and spam ratings to fully understand how these work and affect the email communication you send to your users. If you haven’t thought about utilizing other types of notifications for the features your products offer, sit down with your teams and discuss how in-app and push notifications can enhance the experience for your customers.

Your notification system with MagicBell

Notification systems can be tricky to get right. From email strategies, to in-app and push messages, there’s a lot of communication to keep track of. It requires an abundance of your designer and developer resources. If notifications aren’t your core product, it doesn’t make sense to dedicate the same time and resources to notification systems as you do to your core features and updates.

MagicBell provides a way to engage users through various notification forms. With plans ranging in features for in-app, push, and email, MagicBell can grow with your business.

Schedule your two-week free trial now.

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