How to create emails your Users WANT to receive

Generally, people hate to receive emails from businesses. And I don’t blame them. The vast majority of these emails weren’t built FOR the person receiving them. Hardly.

Typically, when businesses design an email campaign or initiative, they look to answer one question:

How can I use email to get people to buy more of my shit?

Or some variation on that (how can I get them to sign up for my event? download my app? login to my software? etc). Whatever the variety, the fundamental motivation is the same. And in reality it’s often more along the lines of, How can I manipulate people into thinking they want to open this email and score myself a few awareness points…and maybe even a click or two.

And as a result, as you could imagine, the attention many of these emails receive is very low. Open rates as low as 5–10% and even lower engagement.

BUT…because email is relatively cheap, even low engagement levels have been able to produce a return for the companies sending these emails. I know it seems crazy to think that an initiative which is rejected by ~95% of the people targeted is considered successful, but in the email game, this is the case.

However, this is really not a sustainable approach for most businesses — especially for those of us in the SaaS/subscription world where thoughtful, long-term user engagement is inextricably tied to success.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for selling more of your shit. That’s what we’re all here for. But I just think that you can achieve that goal in a more sustainable way if you were to….


It may seem crazy to many, but it’s not. It can be done. You can build an email (or email programs) that brings value (and pleasure) to your users. Many companies are already doing a great job at this.

And doing this is becoming easier and easier as more services (like Knowtify) pop up to help business build these “smarter” email initiatives.

This, combined with the fact that more and more companies are starting to realize that email is an essential engagement platform that can’t be treated lightly, is leading to a mini revolution in the practice of business email.

But is doing a great job with your email strategy something that sounds easier than it is? I mean, how does a company going about building these emails that its users want to receive? It sounds daunting!

Have no fear. It can be done. It’s not like turning on a light, but it can be done. While there is obviously no definitive blueprint for it, there are some guidelines that will help get you to the promise land.

Here are a few:

#1 — Ask the right question when creating your email initiatives

This is probably the most important (and hardest step) in building smart, thoughtful email programs. Instead of asking yourself, “How can this email help me sell more shit?”, taking the time to ask yourself,

“Is this an email my users will want to receive?”

is a major, major first step. As you can probably see — it’s not the question itself that is most important. It’s the mental shift from thinking only about how an email program can benefit your business to actually considering the needs and wants of your users. Big shift.

But I might push you to be even more proactive in this process.

Instead of asking, “will my users value this?” after you’ve conceived of and/or designed an email program, I would encourage you, as a part of your early product/feature development process, to ask yourself, “what emails would my users like to receive? And why?

This is a much more powerful and effective approach. It requires that you know your users very, very well. It requires you know what they value from your product; their daily habits, what other products they may use in conjunction with yours; how they define success; etc.

And if you know your users well, creating an email (or series of email programs) they would want to receive becomes much, much easier.

#2 — Personalize, personalize, personalize

Docsend weekly digest — super helpful!

After you’ve made the mental shift and started asking the right question of your email initiatives, the next most important rule (er-guideline) for creating emails that users want to read is to make them as personal as possible.

Users know when your email isn’t meant just for them. It’s not hard to sniff out when one is a part of a general mailing blast. And it doesn’t feel good. It just doesn’t feel great to be a faceless member of a blast campaign.

That’s why — whenever possible, your emails should be personalized down to the individual level (meaning the content of each email is tailored to each reader). And I’m not just talking about {first_name} here. I’m talking about the actual content of email. Daily/weekly digest emails are typically the most engaging emails you can send your users, because they are highly personalized and super thoughtful.

DocSend’s weekly digest is a great example. I send a bunch of documents via DocSend’s service, but never login to see the activity associated to those deliveries. It’s not that this information isn’t helpful or important to me, it’s just that logging in to find this information is not high on my priority list. So, when I get these weekly wrap-ups in my inbox, I am very happy. I’m pleasantly surprised actually. It is definitely an email I WANT TO RECEIVE. It’s an email all about me — my account and activity generated from it. All information that is important to me. I love this email.

#3 — If not personal, be very relevant

I realize that there are times when your emails can’t be personalized down to the individual level, but in these cases, it’s important to still be as relevant as possible.

For example, if you run a content hub, make great efforts to understand what types of articles each of your users would like to receive — and send them emails with just those articles.

If you are an e-commerce platform, craft emails that show each user items that are relevant to his/her taste.

Many smart, behavioral emails fit this bill. While they are not completely personalized, when done well, they deliver information to a user that is tailored to his/her use of the product.

Part of Ghost’s series of onboarding emails.

This email from Ghost is a good example. I received this email one day after I had created an account, but before I created a post. It was very helpful in reminding me to give the platform a test drive. They wouldn’t have sent it if I had created a post.

Smart, relevant stuff.

Think about user-types as well

Another important thing to consider when creating your email programs is the different user types that may be using your app.

For example, if you run a marketplace app, you will have users on both ends of a transaction (vendor and consumer).

Or if you run a B2B collaboration app, you may have Admin-level users, Team Members, Collaborators, etc.

The point is that each one of these different user-types use your app for different reasons. The information they value is different. Therefore you should have different versions of your email strategies to insure that you are communicating with them in the most relevant way possible.

For example, take a B2B CRM app. In many cases with these apps you will have Managers and Salespeople as user-types. Salespeople are constantly using the app to manage and track their activities at a very detailed level while Managers are using the app to get an overview of his/her team’s performance. In this case, you shouldn’t be sending the same exact emails to both groups. You should be tailoring your email strategy to match their behavior with the app as well as the value he/she gets from it. For example, you might want to send Managers a weekly digest email with an overview of team’s pipeline activity, while you would want to send a tactical daily email the Salespeople to highlight activity from the day before and his/her upcoming tasks.

It’s easy to forget about your various user-types when designing your email strategies. If you want to stay relevant and deliver value, you shouldn’t.

#4 — Be Timely

By this I don’t mean be punctual. I mean be strategic about when you deliver your emails to your users. Being strategic about your email timing is a great opportunity to show your users that you understand and care about their preferences. And in many cases, the timing of your emails will determine the actual value of your email.

Obviously, the timing of a check-in reminder email is of upmost important. It’s kind of the point of the email…

And I’m not just talking about finding the right time of day to optimize for “open rates” either. I’m talking about being very mindful about when your users need or want to receive your emails.

For example, sending a reminder email six hours before an event for which your user may need to prepare is an email any user would welcome. Sending that same exact email 10 minutes before that event (or 10 minutes after) would have a much different effect (like…pissing your users off). Same exact email. Same exact content. Different times. Very different results.

Sending an email to alert someone to check-in for their flight 24-hours before the flight is super helpful. Many people love this option to check-in, but without an email reminder, most would never remember to login to do it. Definitey an email you want to receive.

An very welcome immediate email from When you’ve been waiting for a project to finish, getting this email immediately upon its completion is exactly what you want as a user.

Real-time event emails

Some emails need to be sent in real-time — at the moment of an event occurring in your app. Password changes, purchase confirmations, news alerts, friend requests (maybe), etc. Users want to receive these emails, but only if they are delivered immediately.

Having to wait for a purchase confirmation email may destroy trust in your business.

Making people wait for a password change email will cause frustration and may mean they don’t login to your app.

When something important happens that requires a user’s attention — this is an email you’d want to send your users immediately.

In many of these cases, the fact that you are sending these emails immediately is a major part of their value.

The Nuzzle daily digest — one of the best examples of a great daily content wrapup.

Digest emails FTW

Other emails make more sense sent on a regular schedule — daily, weekly, monthly (or any other regular schedule that makes sense for your users). Digest emails are, in many ways, defined by their timing, their cadence.

There are a long list of examples of great digest emails. From weekly analytics emails to daily content emails, these emails are some of the most engaging emails you can send your users (digest emails sent through Knowtify consistently average 40% open rates) — much of that due to their smart, regular timing (as well as their tremendous personalization).

Daily analytics digest email from Hookfeed. Absolutely addicting for those who want a regular snapshot of their SaaS business.

So, when designing your email programs, be sure to keep timing in mind. Be sure to go beyond just want content your user will want to read and ask yourself,

“When would my users want/need to receive this information for it to be most valuable?”

And if you want to take it to yet another level…go ahead and ask your users directly. The smartest companies create default timing for their emails, but offer their users a way to configure preferences for the timing of their emails — real-time notifications, daily, weekly, etc. This is a good way to insure that you are sending emails WHEN your users want to receive them.

#5 — Look good and be readable

One of the best digest emails, the Medium keeps the design very simple, but elegant and very readable.

This may sound shallow, but it’s important. When we say ‘look good’ in the context of email, I’m not necessarily talking about high design. I’m talking more about a smart email design that presents content in a clear, legible and logical manner — across all devices and screen sizes. Because when it comes to email design — if it’s not readable, it’s…well…not going to be read. Let alone loved.

In many ways, the technical constraints of email design force you to keep designs simple. The more complicated you try to get with design, the more likely it’s going to break on different email clients. So, make your emails look clean, nice and, above all else, legible.

One more thing on design—generally emails that contain images have much higher engagement rates. So, we highly recommend using at least one image in your emails.

#6—Use subject line and preview text wisely

Quora has mastered the dynamic subject line with their daily digests

This may seem like a small detail, but it can be super powerful and greatly contribute to the value your users derive from your emails.

Paying attention to your subject lines and preview text (the initial ~100 characters of text that shows up in an email client after the subject line) is more than just optimizing for open rates. It’s actually about being thoughtful about your users’ experience with your email. A subject line and preview text offers a reader a very quick way to get context for what is contained in the email. This gives a user the ability to make a decision on how he/she wants to treat that email. Is it something to read now or something that can be saved for later? This is an important decision for most busy people who receive a lot of emails. Helping someone make that decision without having to open the email is very thoughtful. I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but even if the user doesn’t open your email, he/she may get value just from the subject/preview text. And that is something.

When it comes to subject lines, the more dynamic/personalized you can make them, the better. Quora has mastered the art of the subject line in their daily digest emails. They dynamically insert the title of the first article in the digest into the subject line. This gives the reader the ability to quickly determine whether or not he/she wants to open that email….which, ironically, in most cases is the reason he/she does. A very brilliant strategy that is definitely worth doing if you can.

And in conclusion…

As you can see, just a few small guidelines/best practices can put you well on your way to shipping emails that your users actually WANT to receive. As I mentioned earlier, it can be done. It’s not even that hard. It just takes a commitment to changing a mindset and putting in the effort.

And in the case you weren’t paying attention (or simply prefer the Cliff Notes), here’s a quick recap of the top six guidelines detailed above.

  1. Ask the right question when creating your email initiatives—hint: it’s all about your users
  2. Personalize, personalize, personalize—right down to the individual level, when possible
  3. If not personal, at least relevant—take your users actions and preferences into account when crafting your emails
  4. Be timely—not punctual, but strategic and thoughtful. Don’t just ask ‘what’, but ‘when’ as well.
  5. Look good and be readable—Users do like well designed emails, but keep it simple, clear and legible across devices & clients
  6. Use subject line and preview text wisely—small detail, but they can have a big impact

Bottom line—be thoughtful about your email programs and campaigns. Take the time to consider your users, their daily habits, what kind of information they would want in your emails and when they would want to receive them. And then put in the effort to make that happen.

Your emails (like with any feature you build in your app) should, as their primary purpose, be bringing continuous value to your users.