Litmus is a software company that makes tools aimed at helping email teams design and optimize the emails they send. Their software helps with email layout, QA on design issues, testing email rendering against multiple email clients, and so on.

As a business, they mostly focus on email marketers, but I found the advice shared at the recent Litmus Live event in San Francisco to be useful for other teams that send email as well. If you’re a product manager designing email notifications for your SaaS product, you’ll find these four takeaways from conference sessions helpful.

Personalize to engage and retain users

“The BI [business intelligence] of today is the AI of tomorrow,” said Amazon’s Vicky Ge during her session, “Experimenting with Personalization.” She noted that businesses that personalize messages experience a 27% conversion lift. In fact, 79% of customers expect personalized experiences from the companies with which they interact—and 60% of them don’t mind sharing data if it improves their experience, such as quicker shopping or other incentives.

She also shared this intriguing chart:

Source: Vicky Ge, Amazon

In another session, Litmus employee Chad S. White, author of the book Email Marketing Rules, ran down seven ways you can personalize the emails you send:

  1. Who they are (name insertion is key, but don’t stop there)
  2. Who they care about, such as friends and co-workers (such as the emails Facebook and LinkedIn send to you)
  3. What they did (not just purchases but also browsing and other activity)
  4. What they didn’t do (abandoning their online cart or not completing a profile)
  5. What others did in reaction to their activity (responses to Facebook status updates, or the number of reactions to a product review)
  6. What they have (account balances, or care or service instructions for a purchased product)
  7. Where they are (geolocation-based messaging, such as a message letting a customer know about a sale at their local store)

Although White was talking about personalizing marketing emails, his seven points are frankly essential for email notifications.

Test, test, and test some more

MailChimp’s Alex Kelly advocated for testing not just subject lines and preview text but also the content itself, noting that 48% of her company’s high-performing accounts use a one-column template for their emails. In addition, the lower your text-to-image ratio, the better your click-through rates: 95% of MailChimp’s high-performing accounts use 200 words or less per image.

Source: Alex Kelly, MailChimp

You can also go beyond testing individual messages to testing a series of them, as Prezi’s Bonnie Combs explained. She led a revamp into the company’s onboarding messaging for its presentation software and worked on creating a new 30-day onboarding email series that ordered the content by how Prezi trains its own staff.

Prezi set 10% of its audience aside as a no-email control group and evenly split the rest of the recipients between the old series and the new one. They found that for those who received the new series, time in product increased 100% over the control group and 24% over the old series. Those results helped create a business case for using segmentation and license type data to help create six onboarding flows that match their different user types.

Pay attention to your from, preview text, and emojis

Emilyann Key and Erin Alemdar of digital agency Whereoware ran a session where they noted some intriguing stats:

  • 43% of email recipients click the Spam button based on the “from” name or email address in a message
  • 24% of respondents look at the preview text first when deciding to open an email
  • 56% of brands using subject line emojis had a higher unique open rate

When considering what “from” name or email address to use, think about the purpose of your message and the relationship between your company and the recipient. A presenter in another session elaborated on this point—notifications and other transactional emails should use a different address than traditional marketing emails.

Preview text is crucial because if you don’t use it, you could end up with something like this in recipients’ inboxes, as Key and Alemdar shared:

Source: Emilyann Key and Erin Alemdar, Whereoware

Preview text should complement the subject line and give the reader an extra incentive to open the message. It’s supported by nearly all modern email clients.

Finally, Key and Alemdar noted that emojis should be cautiously considered, but they could work in a subject line if: they’re truly the right fit for your brand; your audience’s email client supports emojis, and the subject line would make sense with or without an emoji or two. If they do make sense, use them sparingly, as in these examples:

Source: Emilyann Key and Erin Alemdar, Whereoware

Just remember that emojis render differently across platforms, so make sure you double-check your choices with a resource like Emojipedia.

Keep these email coding tips in mind

Litmus product manager Kevin Mandeville discussed what he called “alternative email facts,” using them to share his advice about some of the quirks and shibboleths of coding HTML emails.

  • You don’t need to choose between the HTML 4 strict doctype header and the XHMTL 1 transitional header – just use the HTML 5 doctype: <!doctype html>
  • Don’t worry about using attribute selectors – just use regular CSS
  • And while we’re on the subject of CSS, you don’t need to inline your CSS because 99% of email clients support embedded CSS (but ensure you can fall back on an embedded CSS-disabled version)
  • Emails don’t have to adhere to a strict 600-pixel width: designs that are 1200 to 1400 pixels wide work too
  • Responsive email is supported by 80% of today’s email clients in use
  • There’s no need to use tables in your emails because Outlook is the only email client that requires tables

That last point needs some additional explanation. There’s a “ghost table” hack you can use to ensure your table-less emails render properly in Outlook. Here’s what the code looks like. It only works for one-column layouts, but as Alex Kelly from MailChimp noted, that’s something that works pretty well.

Source: Kevin Mandeville, Litmus

(By the way, want to sidestep the vagaries of coding HTML email altogether? HEML is a cool project our team has been working on that removes all of this complexity. HEML is an open source markup language for crafting clean, responsive emails that works… almost like magic. Check it out.)