5 Emails the Best Apps Send to Their Users

Email remains one of the strongest and effective channels of communications with your users. Mckinsey reports that email is 40 times more effective at customer acquisition than Twitter and Facebook… combined!

If you don’t already have a great email strategy, now’s a good time to start.

For a long time, we have been researching the practices and trends of emails coming from some of the best apps. We've looked at the theory and digged into the practice. We've read all the blog posts and dug into our inboxes, analyzing every email we've received to find good patterns.

Turns out, most successful apps send out some variation of these 5 basic email-types:

  • The Welcome Email
  • The Onboarding Email
  • The Activity Notification
  • The Digest Email
  • The Winback Email

Here are some of the better examples as well as some guidelines for how you can make some amazing automated emails for your app!


1. Welcome email

The welcome email is the first step in a relationship with users. When people sign up for an app, they expect to get a confirmation email so this is a good chance to set expectations and give a positive first impression.

Great examples:

Buffer's welcome email nails the important points: It's personal, suggests an action, and reassures user support. Also, not for nothing, this email is "sent from" the founder/CEO of the company. This is a really nice touch that's definitely worth mentioning.

If I wanted to nitpick, it can be made even better with a picture for a visual break, because people tend to skim over several paragraphs of text. But otherwise it’s great!

Although Squarespace can probably benefit from a warmer welcome message, I love how they reassure me with members (and pictures!) of their support team and a handwritten signature. I also like how they offer the user their account information so that this email becomese a reference for the user. But, I am concerned that this welcome email doesn't offer any concrete 'next step' for the user. This would make this email more effective.

This is our welcome email. We decided to incorporate the warm "CEO welcome" in the buffer email, and because our app is a bit more complex, a few tips on getting started as well.

When designing your welcome emails:

  • DO: Make sure that your brand voice & personality rings loud and true in this email. Your users should really understand what kind of party they are attending from this first email.

  • DO: Establish the path for your users. In this first email, make sure your user gets a clear understanding of what steps will lead to his/her success. Highlighting his/her immediate next step (if there is one) is a great way to move him/her forward.

  • DO: Point the user toward any relevant help assets. It's a good idea to make sure the user knows where to go with any questions, whether that is your help/support email address; your community forum; or simple knowledge center.

  • DON'T: Try to get married on the first date. Don't ask your new users to refer you other users in your Welcome email. This is presumtuous and ineffective.

  • DON'T: Don't take your Welcome emails lightly. These emails very much contribute to your "first impression" - which is...well, kind of important.

  • DON'T: Stuff them full of EVERYTHING. You don't have to say it all at once. You will have other chances to speak with your users over the next few days/weeks/months.

(for a deeper dive on Welcome emails, check out The Art of the Welcome Email)

2. Onboarding email

Also known as behavioral email or drip campaign, onboarding emails are meant to help users who are stuck at some step. These emails are highly targeted and personalized to what users have done. They are meant to get the user to take an action, not to be read so it’s generally simple.

Great examples:

Rdio lists suggests an action, lists the benefits, and provides an obvious CTA. It's simple, direct, and clear.

Dropbox infuses some humor into this with a cute cartoon that probably got a few smiles. Happy people tend to be in a state of "cognitive ease" and are actually more likely to go along with your suggestions (but I doubt dropbox was thinking about that study when they made this email).

Sometimes users aren't moving to the next step simply because... they forgot! People are busy. If you think this might be the case with your users, just send them a simple reminder like Wistia.

When designing your onboarding emails:

  • DO: Simplify it. These emails are only meant to help users move on to the next step, not to be an essay. So be direct and clear.

  • DO: Have an obvious primary call-to-action. You may have secondary links for backup, but it should be clear which action is preferred.

  • DO: Address common questions and objections, or explain the benefits of your request. Take a look at your support tickets and find out why your users have stopped progressing in your funnel. Use this information in the email to help them succeed.

  • DON'T: Overload your users' inbox with onboarding emails about steps that aren't critical to their success. People already get enough junk email, so if they get a few emails from you that aren't useful, they'll be much less likely to open future communications from you.

  • DON'T: Educate a user about your entire app in one email. Onboarding emails are meant to suggest one action with sniper accuracy.

  • DON'T: Continue to send the same email if a user has stopped progressing/responding. Irritating your users is worse than not sending emails at all.

3. Activity Notification Email

Activity emails, also known as transactional emails, are sent when some important happens in an app. The most important aspect of these is timely delivery, because much of this information may be time sensitive and become less valuable when delivery is delayed.

They are known to be used for purchase receipts, social activity, or some other confirmation.

Great examples:

Okcupid sends a notification email every time another user interacts with you. It's a great email for a few reasons: First - these are positive events, I always look forward to seeing them. Second - it's sent as soon as it happens, so I can respond right away. Third - I probably have some sort of subconscious positive associate with OKcupid after recieving dozens of these.

Basecamp here does a great job showing appreciation with a big, hand-written thank you note.

While receipt emails have historically been bland, they’re actually a great opportunity to show users how much you appreciate them. Ryan Hoover wrote about how receipt emails are a great opportunity to inspire smiles and he's right - every piece of communication you send should be a positive experience!

When I book an event a few weeks in advance, I usually forget about until I get reminder from Evenbrite. This email includes everything I need: event title, time, tickets, organizer, and address. It's perfect that I can reference all this from the email instead of having to log in back into the app. Very useful!

When designing your activity emails:

  • DO: Send emails for positive events, ESPECIALLY variable events like social interactions. You want users to associate your app with good emotions.

  • DO: Make historically "boring" emails delightful. This includes receipts, password resets, or any other confirmation. Every email is a chance to build positive rapport with your users.

  • DO: Provide some action to take. When a user opens an activity email they are already primed to do something - you just need to suggest the right action.

  • DON'T: Crush your users with these emails. Know your "high-volume" activities and don't send a single email for every single one. Batch them up in a daily digest (or even send it multiple times per day - when # of events = X).

  • DON'T: Forget the above point. Super important.

  • DON'T: Be be too cute about using these emails to force people to log back into your app. Realize just the information in the emails is bringing value to the user and keeping him/her engaged. You don't need to get too cute about 'hiding' content in order to force the user to login.

(for a deeper dive into the Notification email, read The Art of the Notification Email)

4. Digest Email

Digest emails are a great way to engage your users with regular communication and is a great reminder of your service. Digest emails are becoming increasingly more popular and have become a key feature of many products, including Medium, Quora, Youtube, Twitter, and many many others.

They’re typically used in a few ways:

  • Summarize user activity that may be too overwhelming to be shown in real-time. Invision is actually a great example of this, and wrote about why they started sending digest emails.

  • Show analytics that are useful to the user, but may be buried in your app and rarely visited.

  • Engage users with personalized content from your app.

Digest emails are especially effective when they are highly personalized - right down to the individual level.

Great examples:

Clarity's weekly digest does a great job of surfacing relevant answers, cementing their platform as one that's full of experts. It’s a natural lead-in for me interact with the community or use their service.

Buffer’s analytics gives me feedback about how effective my social media posts are -- the problem is, I use Buffer as a browser extension and I rarely visit the app.

Fortunately, their weekly digest does an awesome job of surfacing this information, showing me exactly how valuable Buffer is.

I've heard from various people, "I ocassionally visit Product Hunt, but I DO read their digest daily." Product Hunt's digest shows the best products from yesterday, but also comes with a small update that's personally written by Ryan... every single day - this keeps content fresh and makes every email a surprise. It's so useful that for some people, it IS the product.

When designing your digest emails:

  • DO: Make your digest emails highly personalized. Every user in your system is unique and your emails should treat them as such. There is nothing more off-putting to a user than receiving a generic, mass email that dismisses their unique usage of your app.

  • DO: Iterate over time. This is very important. As your users and their usage evolve, so should your app. As you app evolves, so should your digests.

  • DO: Make them actionable. This is both good for you AND for your users. For your users, it is very frustrating to receive emails that contain good/interesting information - that they can’t take any action on it.

  • DON'T: Be too wordy. These emails are, generally, much more about the data than they are about the copy. You are updating people on activity and delivering actionable nuggets, so don’t make it hard for your users to access them.

  • DON'T: Fall into the trap of including data just because you have it available. Your team may say, “We have data on how many times people login on a desktop vs mobile - we could easily include this in our digest emails,” but if it’s not going to be valuable to your users, don’t use it.

  • DON'T: Overload your digest. It's difficult to keep oeple engaged with long emails. If there is that much valuable information you want to share with your users, think about breaking it up into multiple digests (not all on the same day, of course!).

(for a deeper dive into Digest emails, read The Art of the Digest Email)

5. Win-back Email

Users may stop using your app for many reasons: you might be missing a critical feature, they might have had a bad experience, or maybe they were just busy! There's nothing to lose by reaching out to inactive users. You might convert some of them back, or better yet, learn why they left in the first place.

Great Examples

I love how Starbucks leads with emotion and offers to listen BEFORE setting up the coupon. If I didn’t see the logo, I'd think this was sent by a local coffee shop!

Groove takes another approach with a text-only email that looks like it came from a friend. I love how they even kept the subject totally informal.

Carbonmade sent this when they re-designed their product. If you want to re-activate users without directly asking, sending a product update is a great way to do it!

When designing your win-back emails:

  • DO: Test subject lines that are out of the ordinary. Try using a more casual tone or emotionally charged words to catch a user's attention.

  • DO: Provide some sort of incentive to come back, whether that's new features, a discount, or free credits.

  • DO: Focus your attention on keeping your users engaged in-app or with other emails. You don't need to win back users if they never leave!

  • DON'T: Beg. It's unbecoming of an email. Remember...users will use your app for their own benefit, not yours. So, just because "We really want you to see you again!" doesn't mean a user should.

  • DON'T: Treat every 'forlorn' user the same. A user who was a heavy user, but hasn't logged in is different than a user that signed up only once. Use different messaging for each case.

Final thoughts

Email is a fantastic medium to communicate with your users and shows no signs of slowing growth. The number of email accounts worldwide is expected to increase from 3.9 billion in 2014 to 4.9 by 2017. If you don’t already have a good email strategy in place, now’s a good time to start.

To summarize, the 5 email patterns we discovered are:

  • The Welcome Email
  • The Onboarding Email
  • The Acitivity Notification
  • The Digest Email
  • The Winback Email

We hope you got some good inspiration for you own email campaign.

And if you found this post helpful, we'd love if you'd share it with others who might too. :)