Email notifications are a critical part of any successful SaaS app. But too often, they’re treated as utilitarian, transactional messages that do little to help drive growth. That’s a big mistake.

However, when  treated with more creativity and attention to how users actually interact with notifications, they become powerhouses of user engagement and core tools for driving customer conversion and retention.

Quick definitions

First, a quick definition: Transactional emails are triggered by an individual’s specific interaction with a product or site. For example, when purchase is made in an app, a receipt and thank-you needs to be sent to the user.

These kinds messages have much broader use than just purchases: A user may submit their contact info to you, and you return the favor by mailing them a link to an exclusive upgrade or download. Or they may be triggered by inaction, as when you send an email designed to reactivate a user who’s been dormant for a certain period.

Transactional emails often perform better than promotional emails, because they’re personalized and anticipated by the recipient, which results in improved deliverability. Experian’s Transactional Email Report found transactional emails are more likely to be opened, and are even opened repeatedly, making them a great touchpoint for upselling, social sharing, soliciting feedback, cross-promotion and more.

Here are five examples of how transactional emails can be transformed into powerful points of engagement.

 1. Welcome Email

It’s important to thank a new user or subscriber for buying or doing a trial for your SaaS product with a personalized email. If possible, don’t just insert their name, but customize the message as much as possible by including other data you may have on hand about them or their reasons for signing on.

As with most of the solutions we’ll cover, it’s vital to do A/B testing of alternate welcome emails to see which drive the most interaction. What’s that interaction, you ask? It could be anything from a bonus reward to simply launching the product.

In the case of Skillshare, users who signed up for specific online classes were ushered into their first lesson straightaway:

Not only does Skillshare give them the chance to start their course within the email, it works in some pertinent cross-selling with the “Related Classes You May Like,” too.

2. Onboarding Email

The thing to remember about confirmation emails? They’re “pre-personalized” to the user, because they took the specific action you’re confirming. So they’re more likely to be opened by that user, and more likely to capture further engagement.

Here’s the first welcome message a MailChimp user gets:

It’s clear, simple and direct; its main job is to get them to activate their account, so it puts that front-and-center. But it’s still very branded: its very easy and simplicity are what MailChimp is all about.

3. Reward Email

Moving further forward, we can see how confirmation emails can be customized to each step in customer engagement, helping to expand their relationship (and maximize their value to the brand). Take this example from Vero, for example:

This does several very good things: It walks users through initial use of Vero by demonstrating where they are in what becomes, via email, an onboarding process, leading them to the next step, getting them more and more entrenched in the product. Even the graphic of the “progress bar” makes that process come off as simplified, even gamified for the user.

This email saw a 72% open rate, in fact!

4. Receipt Email

It’s an obvious place to try to do some more selling or promotion, isn’t it? They’ve already bought your product, so maybe it’s good to strike while the iron is hot…or before they have a bad experience with your platform..?

There are a lot of approaches to how to up engagement via the lowly sales receipt, some extremely cluttered with product pitches and promos. It’s all a matter of what you’re marketing, and how receptive your audience may be.

For us, an understated and personable strategy like this one from Skillshare works the trick best:

It gives the user a chance to take advantage of a refer-a-friend offer, but doesn’t overstress it or distract from the purported purpose of the email, which is to deliver a receipt.

One good rule of thumb is to keep sales or promo messages to no more than a quarter or a third of the layout, and make them stylistically harmonious with the rest of the design.

5. Feedback Email

Here’s a place where many of the tactics we’ve mentioned above – cross-selling, upselling, viralization – should go on hold.  They’d only conflict with the dialogue you’re trying to establish by asking for user feedback.

In this case, the “surprise and delight” should come from the very fact you’re asking for their input in the first place, and from the authenticity and clarity of your request, as this Campaign Monitor example demonstrates.

The ultimate transaction: trust

I hope that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic, but it’s true. Transactional emails can be strides in forging stronger relationships with customers who are always searching for a vendor, a provider, or a brand they feel they can trust.

The personalization opportunities implicit in each transaction, and the fact you can elevate them into become more gratifying and interesting points of engagement, can make them indispensable tools for an SaaS team that’s pursuing stronger ties with more users.