Protips to Discover the Inbox Unicorn


Posted on

Illustration from Histoire générale des drogues National Library of Medicine #2396074R
This post is a narrative, a reflection, and a testimonial; but most importantly, it’s a self-service guide to composing better emails for your readers (complete with #protips!)

Last night, I was perusing my “personal” inbox, as I do during most evenings. Much of my non-work stuff shows up in the “Social” tab of the Gmail inbox, and that’s where I found myself going through the Unread’s – you know, the daily/weekly digests, notifications/alerts, newsletters, etc. While many (if not most) regard these emails as useless, I actually (kinda, sometimes) enjoy them. Why? Because they require minimal action and almost zero brain power, unlike those that I process within my “professional” inbox throughout the day. They represent a nice break from the norm – I can dismiss or engage, depending on what I’m doing and how I’m feeling at the time of opening. Generally speaking, that’s the nature of this category of email, which are typically sent From: a company To: its customers, subscribers, fans, friends/family, community members.

#Protip: be mindful of these psychological tendencies when designing emails to your community/customers

Timehop: What Did I Do Last Year?

One of the daily regulars that I really enjoy comes from Timehop. It tells me about what I was doing last year, two years go, etc…on this day.

#Protip: if I open this email on my iPhone or iPad (and usually I do), I’m led  to the Timehop app, where I can enjoy a far superior experience. Yay for user engagement and retention!

While last year wasn’t particularly exciting, three years ago I was forming quite the memorable experience. The sparking of this particular memory made me think. I initially reflected solely on the memory and enjoyed the following reminiscence…

Right about this time three years ago, I was on my way from San Francisco to Tahoe, from one conference to another. The SF conference: TechCrunch Disrupt. Since that year, I’ve never returned to a TCD event. The other conference: Tahoe Tech Talk (#TTT). Since that year, #TTT has never repeated itself. However, it remains in the top 5 tech events I’ve ever attended. I even wrote about it on my personal blog, which, given the scarcity of content on said blog, this is evidence that I was influenced.

#TTT was a special experience. The brain child of Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk, the attendee list was small (~200 people) and full of great people, the eight speakers were top notch with important messages to deliver, the format was intimate yet brief (read: efficient.)

#Protip: when engaging your community, whether online or IRL, quality > quantity.

OhLife: What Did I Do Today?

As a student of email (by unconscious habit, not by conscious choice), I then started thinking about other emails that impacted me in this same way… Another of my favorite daily emails comes from OhLife. Upon my request, they send me one email per day, which email asks me one thing: “How did your day go?”

I aim to click reply and answer this question every evening. The more diligent I am at telling OhLife how my day was, the more I get out of the experience – because, within that same email, I also receive a reminder that goes something like: “Remember this? One [week/month/year] ago you wrote…”

#Protip: Effective facilitation of repeat engagement allows users to create more value for themselves within your application.

With this very simple, email-driven application, I am able to keep a journal – that’s right, a journal! It’s such a novel idea and something we’d probably all love to do, if it wasn’t such a pain in the *bleep*! If only journaling could seamlessly fit into my daily routine, almost unbeknownst to me. Well, it can. And because I’ve realized that, and because I like helping people and sharing cool things with them,  I’ve told countless people about OhLife and how much I love it (including you!)

#Protip: Exceptional simplicity and a deliberate adaptation to your customers’ habits will turn users into loyal advocates.

What Does it All Mean?

Above are two examples of emails that I welcome with open – uh, eyes – each and every day of my internet life. Yet they’re not from friends or family – they’re from companies! “Whaaaa??”, you say. It’s true; now go see for yourself…

Can you identify emails like this in your inbox? Think about it. Look for it. Recognize which messages, in the slew of spammy stuff and unnecessary cc’s, that really make you happy to open, read, and/or act upon. Maybe they exist; maybe they don’t. If not, keep your eyes out, because these emails are special – they are the unicorns of the inbox. Once you discover one from the recipient/reader perspective, take note, dissect, analyze, and understand what makes that email unique to you.

Next Step: Flip the Script

Apply that understanding to the design of the messages you send to your customers, community members, and prospects. It’s as simple as this: take your regular hat off – the one you wear at your desk when you’re marketing, or selling, or coding. Put your human hat on, and compose an email that you know another human will love to open.

Every email you send to someone should mean something. It should be relevant and valuable. It shouldn’t focus solely on leads or sales, but delivering value to the recipient. The other stuff (customers, revenue, etc) will come in due time, for you have created a magical beast for which everyone is searching.


Director, Developer Relations at @SendGrid. Passionate about bringing people together around things they love. I tweet at @TimFalls.

Tim Falls on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>