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5 Types of Really Good Emails

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If you work at a big enough company, there’s probably a designer or five on the marketing team whose sole responsibility is designing emails.

The important word here: designing.

I, for one, was shocked to discover that those InVision emails don’t just design themselves when Clark emails a hundred thousand designers from his iPhone.

Crazy, right?

So yeah, that means someone is actually responsible for designing these emails and figuring out the best time to drop them in the proverbial internet mailbox to end up in our already-overstuffed inboxes.

Matthew Smith and his squad over at ReallyGoodEmails have been collecting email designs like baseball cards since at least 2014 when the domain was first registered, and ever since then, they’ve featured thousands of emails from all kinds of businesses. It’s funny…it’s kind of like a digital museum of bygone advertisements. I’m sure those exist in the real world.

Really Good Emails – The Best Email Designs in the Universe (that came into my inbox)

This article explores 4 categories of emails that get sent to users and customers. ReallyGoodEmails™ does a ReallyGoodJob™ at categorizing, so we’re just going to formalize those definitions. Credit to them for the categories, credit to me for the [hopefully not terrible] definitions.

But first…

Before we really dive in, it’s important to understand the distinction between transactional emails and one-to-many emails. MailChimp does a smashing job at describing them here, but allow me to summarize:

  • Transactional Emails are sent to a single recipient, generally triggered by their interaction with an app or service. Example: “Thanks for your purchase of 14 Cases of Tennis Balls” 🎾
  • One-to-Many Emails are s̶p̶a̶m̶m̶y̶ marketing emails sent to many recipients to inform lots of people of something. They’re kind of like giant megaphones that only Men in the Pacific Northwest, Ages 25–31 can hear. Example: 96%-Off Entire Store — “Winter Wonderland” by Old Navy

Within each of these blanket categories (sounds…soft), there are different types of emails you can send users to fulfill the goal(s) you’re trying to achieve.

1. Behavioral Emails

  • Type: Transactional
  • Purpose: Emails that encourage or respond to user behavior(s)
  • Examples: New Comments, Product Feedback, Recommendations, Customer Survey, Unsubscribe
  • Style: Short, simple design with one primary action


2. Inaugural Emails

  • Type: Transactional
  • Purpose: Emails that welcome a user to something new
  • Examples: Activation, Onboarding, Registration, Free Trial, Welcome
  • Style: Usually very verbose, with multiple actions the user can take


3. Promotional Emails

  • Type: One-to-Many
  • Purpose: Sellin’ sh*t, lol. But seriously, emails that publicize something to a group of recipients
  • Examples: Contests, Discounts, Giveaways, Offers, Product Updates
  • Style: Large imagery, large text, and usually one primary action


4. Punctual Emails

  • Type: Transactional, occasionally One-to-Many
  • Purpose: For delivering time-sensitive information
  • Examples: Newsletter, Price Change, Reminder, Security, Support
  • Style: No consistent style, but very few actually mention time, which is surprising given the category name


5. Notification Emails

  • Type: Transactional
  • Purpose: Used to inform the user of something specific
  • Examples: User Activity, Error, Order Confirmation, Password Reset
  • Style: Short and simple, showcasing a single detail and/or action


It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you start studying the various flavors of email tactics and design, so it’s advantageous to draw things out.

When I map a user’s journey in and out of the app, I’ll mark every place where I think it would be opportune to email the user.

Would you just look at all those stars:

I’ll then sit with marketing to pitch the communication needs, then they’ll work their magic to design some really good emails.

If I have to do it myself (which is always, since I work at an agency), then I’ll usually design them directly in my concept file so I can match the brand as closely as possible. I built myself a bunch of common email design boilerplates that sync with my Sketch stylesheet so that they look pretty darn good before I even touch them. It saves me a lot of time. I made them available if you use Sketch, and you know, you’re into that sort of thing:

Email Design System | UX Power Tools

When I’m not designing tons of emails, I’m working on Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools to make you a better, more efficient designer.

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5 Types of Really Good Emails was originally published in UX Power Tools on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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