How to get user feedback like a boss

Have you received a bad email from a company and clicked reply to give them feedback only to find that their email address is “”?

They’re CRAZY! You always want to encourage users to get in touch with you.

User feedback by email is the next best thing to sitting next to real users doing real user testing.

Let’s think about a situation that some of us are all too familiar with. Imagine you released a new feature but not a lot of people are using it.

How do you know if your version of the feature sucks, or if the feature isn’t appropriate for users of your app?

When people check out the feature, but don’t use it, email them and ask “why?”. You’ll know instead of guessing from looking at your metrics.

I’m not going to pretend like writing emails to gather feedback is easy, because it’s not. You’re asking a favor of the recipient, in exchange for making the product better for them. These emails are hard to write.

But the responses you’ll get will make it worthwhile.

Here are a few tips:

A few things you should not do

  1. Don’t punish people or express frustration that they haven’t set up your product
  2. Don’t nag. If you have multiple emails, increase the time from the last email with each additional email.
  3. Don’t ask people to do too many things at once. If you try to focus on one task to accomplish, they’re more likely to do it.

A few things you should do

  1. Use AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) to structure your email. We talked about it last week in The Lizard Brain — and email.
  2. Answer the question “Why is this good for me?” for your recipient (not for you). When asking someone to do something, why should they do it? Even better, show them.
  3. Be personable. Imagine you’re writing the email to a friend of your best friend. Someone you haven’t met yet, but you’ve heard great things about. A friendly message will go a long way.

Here’s an example I put together soliciting feedback about a feature of Pseudo Project

my email like a boss

Do you have a great email to solicit feedback? Or do you want help? Send me a copy. I’d be happy to give you feedback or feature it on

Until next week,


P.S. Wednesday is now email day, so look for an email from me next wednesday. Same-ish time. Same place.

P.P.S* Thanks to everyone who sent in emails you re-wrote using AIDA. I hope you’re enjoying reading “Ogilvy on Advertising”.

The lizard brain — and email

The human brain has three parts. But I’m just going to focus on one part today: The lizard brain. This is the oldest part of our brain. It takes care of our basic needs like remembering to breathe. It is where fight-or-flight decisions are made.

Understanding the lizard brain is really important if you’re writing emails

The lizard brain is the part of the brain that decides to open and read an email.

The lizard brain is the first responder. Imagine you’re crossing a busy street and you hear a car sound its horn. Your lizard brain causes you to turn in the direction of the noise. Your lizard brain helps you decide “Am I in danger”? This time, it’s safe.

Which part is the lizard brain

The lizard brain is hard at work when you’re scanning new emails in your inbox. The subject line “Account overdrawn” from your bank will probably set off alarms in your lizard brain. You should probably open it, read it and get that resolved.

But most companies like yours and mine will rarely be delivering messages of great urgency like a bank account being overdrawn.

And sending messages designed to alarm users into opening them gets tiresome quite quickly.

How should we stimulate the lizard brain?

Beyond responding to alarms, the lizard brain is also curious.

The lizard brain (when not sensing danger) is stimulated by the new or interesting.

Here’s an example

A dating tips mailing list (I sign up for A LOT of newsletters) sent me an email with this subject:

What never to say to a woman

My lizard brain couldn’t resist that email subject (even though I’m happily in a relationship).

But that’s just the subject line, what about the rest of the email?

I’ve found that a great way is to structure emails is to use a technique created before email by the wizards of direct mail. When you write emails, structure them emails using A.I.D.A. That stands for:


You’ve got 2 seconds to capture and hold the lizard brain’s attention. Use the subject line and the first few lines to suck them in.

“The human brain has three parts” is an example first line that captured your attention


This is where you educate the user and share the details of the email. Make sure to focus on the benefits to the reader. Don’t spend the whole time talking about you!

If you’ve made a feature update, talk about benefits of those features in the “interest” section.

If you’re trying to recruit people to an event, show them why they should go to the event and give them details the event – where it will be and when.


Write at least one line to build up to the action you want the reader to take.


  • “Your clients are going to personally congratulate you on the improvements we’ve made in this release”
  • “Tickets are going fast, and will increase by a dollar each day until they’re all sold out”


Try your best to limit what you’re asking people to do. Stick to one action per email.


  • “Log in and see the changes”
  • “Reserve your spot today”

I can’t wait to show you some of the emails I’ve written using AIDA.

This week see if you can stimulate some lizard brains.

Take a look at one of your emails and rewrite it by breaking it in to Attention, Interest, Desire and Action.


P.S. For 3 people who reply (before Monday) with an email broken down in to AIDA, I’m going to buy and send you a copy of “Ogilvy on Advertising”. This is a MUST READ if you want to stimulate lizard brains with compelling emails and website copy.

The dumbest thing has done

Last Thursday we opened’s doors for anyone to sign up. For the unfamiliar, we’re a niche email product targeted at SaaS companies.

Believe it or not, when John and I started, we were scared to send emails. When people signed up, we didn’t say anything other than “thanks for signing up”.

We put up a splash page in January and were quietly collecting email addresses until June. Our thinking was: “Saying anything is bad. We’ve got one shot at emailing people to check out our product. Let’s make it perfect”.

That’s the dumbest thing we’ve done and here’s why:

A month after signing up, most people don’t remember they signed up. After 6 months, forget it. The entire list of people is cold. Dead. Gone.

After 6 months, you have to reconvert the person to your product. Whatever goodwill you have earned has evaporated.

So what did we do about it?

One day, with encouragement from Ramit Sethi, I started emailing everyone who had signed up. And over 4 emails I improved our open-rates so we had over 50% of people on our list reading the emails.

Open Rates

What do you write weekly emails about?

When we spoke with people who had signed up for our product’s launch list, we heard something interesting. In addition to wanting a great tool to email their customers, they wanted advice on what to say in the emails.

So, I started researching copywriting, bought some books and videos online, and started putting into practice the things I was learning. I would learn something new (or get an expert to talk about it) and share that knowledge with people on my list.

I never (or barely ever) talk about our product

A good rule of thumb is to give more than you ask for. And in weekly emails, give a lot more than you ask for.

The one time I did do an email about our product, it was to say we launched.

More companies should email their leads

Very few companies do this, and it’s a huge opportunity. It starts with overcoming your fear of emailing people. The next step is to just get into a regular schedule of writing interesting, meaningful content for your audience.

Want to see what I mean? Sign up for my list for a week to check it out. You can always unsubscribe.

How one company achieved a 55% click through rate

There’s a universal truth about people. A truth that Paul at “Circle CI” understands and has used to amazing effect in the welcome email he sent out. And it goes something like this…

When you were a child, you lived at the center of your universe. When you closed your eyes, everything disappeared. When you were hungry, you cried and food would appear. If you were too hot, you cried. Too cold, you cried.

Everything was you you you (or me me me since you’re you — boy that’s confusing).

When you became an adult you learned how to repress some of those urges. But they’re still there. YOU are still the center of YOUR universe.

Now, you and me… we’re savvy email people. When we receive emails, we don’t just care about ourselves, right? We just want cold hard facts and data and we can decide what solves our problems, right?


If doesn’t matter how smart your audience is or what your product or service is…

You’ll want a pen and paper to write this down. I’ll wait.

People don’t care about you. They only care about themselves

Think about that next time you write an email. Everything in your email should be about the reader and their problems, not about you and your company.

Here’s an awesome (short) example of this sent in by Paul from

Hey Colin,
Here’s your invite to the Circle private beta:

In 20 seconds, your code will be set up for Continuous Integration, and your first tests will have started running on our servers. It’s that easy!

Try it now:

Founder, Circle

PS I love to hear feedback, so please let me know what you think 🙂

Paul killed it with this email. The value to the user is so clear: In 20 seconds, the product will be working. And he delivers. We’re a customer of Paul’s. If you don’t know what Continuous Integration is don’t worry. It’s something that developers know they SHOULD do, but it’s a pain to set up and maintain yourself (kind of like the emails we power).

Paul’s service makes Continuous Integration easy to set up and he communicated that extremely well in the email.

As a result, Paul got a whopping 55% of people to click on the link to check out Circle CI. Pretty awesome, huh?

I want to help you achieve ridonkulously great results like Paul’s (55% click through!)

Need a little inspiration before I challenge you to apply some of these ideas?

I got you an awesome 10 minute video of Neville Medhora. Neville is a professional copywriter who writes copy for AppSumo. In the video with Andrew Warner of Mixergy, Neville breaks down and improves a company’s welcome email.

This is usually paid content and one of the videos in Neville Medhora’s Kopywriting Kourse. (There’s no referral link in there. I paid $89 for the course and it was well worth the money)

I begged, borrowed and stole from Neville to show this video to you. To respect his awesome course, you need to watch it before July 31st. We can’t keep it up forever.



P.S. If you’re among the first 50 people to reply with what you changed in one of your emails, I will give you a discount code for 40% off’s email service for 6 months to use when you sign up.

P.P.S. Neville let me use the video with permission. Please don’t send me DMCA takedown notices. The phrase “People don’t care about you, they only care about themselves” also came from Neville’s course.

P.P.P.S. Last week’s email on open rates had an open rate of 52%… our best ever!

Gasp! We’re baring it all and exposing our open rates

Hello Friend,

Have you ever been to the beach and there’s that hairy guy with a big gold chain, wearing a speedo and showing just a little too much? 
For the faint of heart, turn away now because…

…this week’s email is all about open rate data. I’ll show you ours, ask to see yours, and I’ll cover a key metric: the email open rate, which is one way to gauge whether your users are engaging with your emails.

Most companies don’t write interesting emails. Just take a look at averages across industries.

Mailchimp publishes “Email Marketing Benchmarks”. Averages across different industries vary, but most industries have between 10 and 20% open rates on their marketing emails. The top industry is a mysterious “Other” with a 33.52% open rate.

I’m feeling a little nervous sharing this… but here are our email open rates for the past few emails.

Open rates on Customerio emails

We started off with a rate of 33% opens, equal to Mailchimp’s best performing industry segment. But by applying the advice experts have been giving and incorporating feedback from you, we’re now at open rates of 47% — nearly a 30% improvement!

If you’re relying on open rates as a key metric, it’s important to understand how they’re calculated.

So, how does almost every email provider calculate open rates?

A tiny invisible image, unique for every recipient, is placed somewhere in the email. So, when you send an email to and the image is accessed from the server, you know Tyrion opened the email. This works the same way across almost all email products. 

Tracking using an image works great except for one tiny problem…

Gmail turns images off by default and so do a few other email clients. As a result, open rates tend to be under-reported.

For example: A friend of mine runs Timehop (an awesome startup that sends a daily email about what you did on that day a year ago). They have A LOT of gmail users who also use iPhones. If these people receive the email before they get to work, there is a good chance they’ll open the email on their iPhone.

Here’s the tricky part: iPhones automatically load images. So their open rates report higher when the emails are sent early in the morning. But it would be wrong to conclude that more people are reading the emails.

Moral of the story: take the accuracy of open rates with a grain of salt. 

Consider where people will be when they receive your email, and what device they use to read your emails.

Do you get killer open rates on your emails?

Forward an example of one of your highly performing emails to It’ll just be between you and me unless you tell me:

  1. You want me to feature it on
  2. I can share it in the newsletter next week.

Do your open rates need improvement?

Great, let’s work on it together. Forward me an email you wish had performed better. Don’t forget to include some context about what purpose that email should have served.

Next time, I’ll share some common traits of high performing emails that we will all be able to learn from to kick our emails up a notch.

Before you move on to surfing reddit, hacker news or maybe doing some work, do me a huge favor. 

Forward ONE email you currently send to Let me know if it’s “killer” or “needs improvement”.

Until next time,


P.S. A few days ago I did a blog post about how I would re-write an email for Trello to improve readability. They read it and changed the email they were sending. My top tip is to set the width of your text emails to 550px max

I recently made that change on all of our text emails.

Writing killer subject lines

Hello Friend,

Last email I asked you what you wanted us all to learn about next. Here’s a little status update

  1. This time: Writing killer subject lines
  2. Next time (all going well): Email open rates (based on analysis of our own data)
  3. Later: Mapping out the emails your app should send

I can’t wait for the Email Open Rates newsletter. We have a great data scientist working to uncover gems of information in our data… But this email is about writing killer subject lines

I used to be bad at writing copy. So bad that at my last job, we hired someone to compensate for my poor skills.

If you’re anything like me, when you’re bad at something you want to get better. About 8 months ago, I learned about a series of Ebooks from CopyHackers. I read them cover to cover. If I’ve gotten better at copywriting, it’s because of these books as well as lots of practice and experimentation.

When you guys said you wanted to learn more about subject lines, I knew I had to speak with Joanna Wiebe, copywriter extraordinaire and founder of

Joanna kindly broke down subject lines into her Top 5 things to think about when writing subject lines. We got a little excited about talking to Joanna and decided to record our conversation. So click on the 3 minute video and if you want to learn subject line kung fu like Neo in the Matrix. Or read on for the text version of Joanna’s wisdom:

Here are Joanna’s 5 things to think about when writing subject lines

  1. The Basics
  2. The Trigger
  3. What’s in it for them
  4. Friend-ness and Relevance
  5. Context

So let’s dig in to what Joanna recommends (note: I’ve paraphrased a few lines, but these great ideas are hers not mine):

1. The Basics

  • Use the brand name somewhere in the line, even if it’s in the From line
  • Stick to 50 characters with spaces – or less (unless you have data that suggests longer headlines work better)
  • Don’t use title case but rather use sentence case
  • Avoid overtly spammy words, or more than 1 spammy word
  • Mirror the subject line in the email headline

2. The Trigger – Why is someone getting the email?

  • Are people expecting this email or aren’t they?
  • How long ago did they ask for this email?

3. What’s in it for them?

  • In a newsletter, what’s intriguing, timely or curious about the subject?
  • If it’s an enticement to upgrade, what’s the offer? When does it end? What new highly desirable feature should I want to get?
  • If this is a “welcome” email, what will make them feel welcomed? Do they event want to feel welcomed, or do they just want access to your free ebook?

4. Friend-ness and Relevance

How can you make the email look like it’s from a trusted source who understands them, not from a company with an agenda? Get strategic about:

  • Personalization
  • Recent behaviors (e.g. “you just signed up”)
  • Time since we last spoke (e.g. “It’s been a while, Sarah”)
  • lowercase, like a friend would write.
  • Tone
  • Avoiding creepiness! How do you know so much about me? If an email gets triggered from inside an app, what level of detail should you share with me in the subject line?—When does it get creepy?

Or, if they consider your brand a friend then use your brand voice. Good examples of this are and Kate Spade

5. Context

Remember, you’re trying to get noticed in the midst of a massive inbox (in many cases) filled with competing messages from invited and uninvited people. You must consider context in all copywriting, and subject lines are no different.

Thanks Joanna Wiebe for chatting with us.

Listen to the audio (15 mins).

Want this newsletter to have more issues with audio and video? Let me know. It’s a little more work, but you guys are worth it.

  • Colin

Lifecycle Marketing Fail

I got an email this morning from a service I signed up with on March 3rd. They were trying to move me from a free trial to be a paid user. It’s a service that’s tremendously useful for businesses. They’ve garnered a lot of attention from the press, and have a wonderful story. I want them to succeed.

Is this a good way build a relationship with a prospective customer?

Here are the emails they’ve sent:

  • March 3rd: Welcome to our product!
  • April: … (Nothing)
  • May: … (Nothing)
  • June 28th: Pay us money. No more free plans.

No! It’s not a good way to build a relationship. After almost 4 full months of me not logging in, I’m being asked to pony up a credit card or have my account canceled. What does the product do again?

With their current strategy, they gave themselves one shot to activate me a as a user. One chance to have everything go right. Why would you give yourself such poor odds?

What should they have done?

Here’s my response to their email:

I signed up on March 3rd to check out ______. This was the wrong timing for my company. I promptly forgot about you. This is the only communication I’ve received from you since then. Why haven’t you emailed me more?

At this point, I haven’t gotten any value out of your product and you’re writing a long email asking me to give something to you: my company’s money. Give something to me! Educate me. Share the knowledge I know you’re gaining talking with customers every day. I can’t tell you how much this email feels like a stranger walking up to me asking me for money.

Here’s what I’d recommend:
* Send 3 – 5 emails when a user signs up educating them about how to get value from the product.
* If they don’t log in for 30 days, send them an email asking them if they need help.
* Send an email to your entire user-base every week or two with amazing, interesting advice.

I like your story and I want you to be successful, and you may achieve success in spite of the radio silence. But, I guarantee you if you send those emails, you’ll have more paying customers getting tremendous value out of your product than if you don’t.

Your biggest fears about sending more email

This post was originally sent as an email

Hello Again,

In my last email, I shared how foolish we were for not emailing you sooner. I received this response from Luke B. which helped me know I was on the right track:

My opinion of you guys changed completely today. I love the tone, style and content of this email and totally agree with the sentiments you are describing. You have totally won me back and also you have established your credibility and quality of your email content and I will now going forward read what you write.

Many more of you wrote me offering encouragement and sharing your fears. Thank you! You helped me overcome mine.

So what are your biggest fears about sending more emails to your users?

For Jason S. it’s “Having people unsubscribe”. Stacy I. said “Getting buried in the inbox and ignored”. Shawn A. said “Sending (another) email stating that we are delayed in launching”. For Chris A. it was “Having my emails blocked by spam filters.”


p class=”p1″>These are totally legitimate concerns. However, they’re outliers in the pattern I saw.

Overwhelmingly, people shared fears about sending irrelevant emails. Often using the words irrelevant or relevance when describing their fears.

So it’s somewhat counter-intuitive when i tell you that sending only monthly marketing blasts is actually the problem.  Sending one monthly marketing blast increases the likelihood that your emails aren’t relevant to your users. If you try writing an email for everybody, then you end up connecting with nobody. So what’s the alternative?

Write for your core audience. Focus on making them ridiculously happy

This will cause some people to unsubscribe. Guaranteed. But so will writing emails that lack personality. Don’t be scared if your emails don’t have universal appeal. It’s better to have 15 people who love you and 5 who unsubscribe than 20 who don’t care.

How do you identify your core audience?

The best way is to talk to your users. I have between 10 and 20 conversations a week with existing users and prospective users. From those conversations, I’ve learned our product appeals to engineering, product or marketing people. When I write to you, I imagine a combination of everyone I’ve spoken to. Some kind of super product focused CTO marketer who believes in the power of email to improve relationships with customers. When I write with that image in my head, I’m not confused about how to communicate. Mostly it’s because we speak the same language.

Make sure you test emails on real people before sending them out to everyone.

By the time you read this, it’s gone through at least 5 people who have proof-read it to make sure I don’t come across like a boring idiot. Last time, I knew it was good when my girlfriend said she read it all the way through. (I can’t even get her to pay attention when I’m showing her our product). 

So focus on writing for real people. Get people you trust to review your email for clarity and interest. If they come back and are ridiculously happy with the email, send it out to everyone. That’s what will make your email relevant.

This is my second newsletter email (ever). How am I doing?

Is there a topic you’d like me to cover? Let me know by replying to the email. Here are three of my ideas: 

  1. Mapping out the emails your app should send 
  2. Writing killer subject lines
  3. Email open rates (based on analysis of our own data)

Or, suggest something else.

Reply to this email, and paste the topic you want me to research and write about next. I’ll do the heavy lifting.

  • Colin

The dumbest thing has done to date

This post was originally sent as an email

Hello Friend,

Believe it or not, when John and I started, we were scared to send you email. We thought: “We’ve got one shot at emailing you to check out our product. Let’s make it perfect”.

Not communicating with you is the dumbest thing we’ve done to date. Here’s what we learned from Ramit Sethi, New York Times bestselling author and probably the best “white hat” email marketer around:

After a month, most people don’t remember signing up. After 6 months, the entire list of people is cold. Dead. Gone. It’s basically as though the person never signed up. But what about when you have a live product that people can sign up for?

We spent months asking companies “what happens after people sign up for your product if they do nothing else?”. The most common answer?

Absolutely nothing. They spend 30 – 60 seconds on the site, and never hear from that site again. People are so afraid of email that they sit on their hands. They wait until the next “Monthly Newsletter” to write a boring, generic update. If your product is live, and you have people signing up but they never hear from you again except for newsletters, you’re making a big mistake.

Even if you aren’t afraid to email — what do you say?

The two most common strategies we’ve uncovered are education and personalization. A series of educational emails keep a product in the front of the user’s mind while teaching about the product. Then, there’s personalization — an email from the CEO just after signing up. Often this email is followed up a day later with someone checking in from the support team. When we’ve analyzed successful web apps, they’re almost always using one of these strategies.

You could be printing money. Why haven’t you built this yet?

“Even the dumbest possible implementation of [lifecycle emails] prints money in my experience” – Patrick McKenzie (patio11 on Hacker News).

We know this, and I’m guessing you knew this which is why you’re interested in our product. We’re working to release publicly in the next few months, and are adding more people to our private beta as soon as we can.

Even while you’re waiting, I can still help you.

While we get the product ready for broader use, we’re excited to share what we learn from you, our own testing, and from conversations with experts like Ramit Sethi and Patrick McKenzie. So let’s get started making us all experts:

Question: What’s your biggest fear about sending more email to your users?

Write me a few sentences explaining what your biggest fear is with sending more email to your users. I’ll compile what everyone says, anonymize it and share the feedback next time I write.

  • Colin

How we built our HTML email editor using liquid, wysihtml5 and premailer

Managing email design and content is extremely important to our customers. From day one, we wanted to give our customers full control over the look and feel of their email. Here are our first iterations of email editing in

The naive approach

We started with a big old text box using Ace editor for syntax highlighting. Here, you could paste raw HTML for a single email.

We started dogfooding the editor to manage our transactional, triggered and drip HTML emails that we send to customers. We realized that a single text box combining form and content was not a great experience for creating and editing emails. The styles (form) were not reusable, and it was hard to find the actual content. We had an idea, inspired by Jekyll.

We love the static-site generator Jekyll. We’ve used it since day 1 to power all of our public content including our homepage and this blog. Two of our favorite things about Jekyll are the use of Liquid tags and Templates.

Separating Content from Form

We were already merging content into emails using Liquid e.g.: {{ customer.firstname }}. We decided to take it a step further and use this technique to separate the email body from the template.

The first step is two html text boxes. One contains your template. The other, your content. The content gets merged into the template where a {{ content }} tag exists.

This makes it easy to separate concerns. A designer / developer can worry about the email template, and someone else can worry about content. You can even quickly customize a mailchimp or campaign monitor template and drop in a {{ content }} tag. (That’s how we built our template).

Making it easy for everyone to write emails

So, now we have some separation. The content is separated from the template. But we learned that the people who are most likely to be editing the content are less-technical.

After looking at another option, we implemented a slick WYSIWYG editor, WYSIHTML5. One of our concerns with any WYSIWYG editor is the quality of the code that gets generated. WYSIHTML5 passed our tests with flying colors.

What’s great about this is we’ve limited what’s available in the WYSIWYG portion of the editor. When users add content, they don’t want to worry about HTML or CSS styles. They want to write and add things like bold and headings. The theme takes care of the rest. But, if they’re sophisticated and want to drop in a table to align an image to the right, they can do that in HTML mode too.

Putting it all together

We’ve got a template with styles defined, and content with standard html tags. In a browser this looks great, but in email there’s one more step:

inline the styles

This means taking everything that’s pretty in CSS and uglifying it by adding things like style="padding-bottom: 12px" to tags in your email. We parse the email through Premailer. This moves all the styles inline and helps us make sure the email hits the inbox looking as pretty as it does on the site.

We think we arrived at a pretty neat solution to two perpetually annoying problems: WYSIWYG editors and HTML formatted emails.

Want to talk about it? Discuss on Hacker News

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