Inbound email processing diagram

Inbound Email Processing: Examples and Use Cases

When people think of email, images of inboxes flooded with unread messages instantly spring to mind. That’s because the focus is always on receiving email—but there’s a lot of power in sending an email too. At SparkPost, we give you the ability to not only send email, whether it be a transactional 1-to-1 message or a message sent to a list of recipients, but also the ability to receive messages you can programmatically take action on. By utilizing inbound email processing, specifically inbound relay webhooks, you can create some pretty cool interactive features that will push the envelope of what one may expect from email.

Opening this new channel of engagement provides us with new opportunities to interact with recipients. Let’s explore some popular inbound use cases that can be used in conjunction with regular outbound messaging. I’ll finish up with a fun example using both Inbound and Outbound transactional messages.

Cool, but what do I do with it?

When you create an Inbound Domain, you’re giving SparkPost permission to receive email on your behalf. SparkPost will then parse that email into JSON and post it to a target endpoint specified in a Relay Webhook. Once you have the data, what do you do with it? The simplest use case would be to log it to a database, but that’s not any fun. If someone sends you a message, they are most likely going to expect a response. So let’s go over some common inbound use cases.

As I said before, when someone sends a message, they are usually expecting some kind of response. In the simplest form, you can now reply with a canned response. If you want to get a little fancy with your reply, you can use information from the email whether it be the subject line, header information, or something parsed from the body, and pass it into an API to create a more custom response using templates. Whatever the content, you have the power to respond using a transactional message.

Ditch the paper and create a raffle application where all a user needs to do is send an email to enter. Add all of the incoming messages to a database and use your favorite random number generator to pull out a winner. You can even set up triggered transactional messages for confirmation and winning emails. The Developer Relations team has been using a similar solution, check out the project on Github.

Voting System
Similar to the raffle use case, use the inbound messages to tally and track votes by allowing participants to cast votes via email. Again, it’s good to fire back a transactional message confirming that their vote was counted. You can even create a dashboard to show results in real time.

Let’s take the message and do something meaningful with it. We could simply forward it to a mailbox. See our Deployable Forwarding Service. You could go a step further and analyze the content and route it to the right person or department. Or you could push the information into a 3rd party system. A good example is a Help Desk Solution, where senders can email problems to and create tickets for Customer Service.

Double Blind Messaging
You’ve probably encountered this use case on real estate sites, online marketplaces, and dating services. Using a combination of inbound relay and transactional email, you can create anonymous messaging between two parties. Anonymous emails are created on the inbound domain and mapped to real addresses. When someone sends an email to an anonymous address, you can intercept it, forward it to the real email address, and set the reply-to header to the sender’s anonymous address. This case proves useful when you need to preserve the privacy of the senders. See how DwellWell, the winners of the Developer Week 2016 Hackathon SparkPost Challenge, used Double Blind Messaging in their Affordable Housing App.

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A little less talk, a lot more action.gif

Now that we’ve discussed some of the major use cases for inbound email processing, let’s have a little fun with one of them. Animated GIFs are hot right now and has provided a great API. I’ve created an auto-responder that will do a search based on the subject of an email and respond with an email containing 5 animated gifs from the search results. I like to call it Giphy-Responder and you can try it out right now. Just send an email to with some search keywords as the subject. If you’d like to see how it works and possibly set up your own, check it out on Github. It will walk you through all the necessary steps to setup your SparkPost account. I encourage you to fork it and have some fun with it.

Now you know a little more about how Inbound Email Processing can help you better engage with your senders. Hopefully you’re inspired to build something awesome and take your application to the next level.

Let us know what you build using inbound email on Twitter, in our Community Slack channel, or in the comments below!

-Aydrian Howard