The Inverted Pyramid:

A journalist's secret for email design

Email design skills we can learn from a journalistic framework

People don't read all the content you've stuffed in your transactional emails. Since these emails generally have one purpose, recipients skip all the other content. So make your emails as clear as possible by using the Inverted Pyramid framework. For years, journalists have used this to report news stories. [Surprise!] it works for transactional emails, too.

Written by: Tom Blijleven Published: March 29, 2021 Latest update: March 29, 2021

The premise of the inverted pyramid framework is to filter and order your email content. Your main message goes first, followed by some extra details and ending with side info. The inverted pyramid framework looks like this:

Using the Inverted Pyramid for email

Over time, this filtering technique became the email marketer's trick for conversion. Place a gigantic header and a CTA right below to improve conversion and you're good!

For transactional emails, however, we take a more conservative approach. Large header images shouldn't divert your reader's attention from what the email actually is about.

As I mentioned before, a transactional email has one purpose: inform or fulfill a request. So the most important part of the email ibeforethe action before the email. Whether it's an order confirmation, a password reset request, or a monthly summary.

The example below shows a typical 'mistake' in transactional email copy:

Here you see that the order information shows side details about the order, only to display the purchased items later. Yet, the email should revolve around the purchased items instead. That's why we like this Asics example so much:

What I love about this email is how it manages expectations . It shows the purchased items and the status of the order is. Plus, the headline adjusts to the expected delivery date. That's all you need to know when you've ordered shoes and socks, right?

Another order confirmation that stands out in terms of pyramidal structure is this one from Etsy.

Crafting transactional emails the pyramidal way

To get started with better transactional email design and copy, ask yourself:

  1. Why am I sending this email?
  2. What is the purpose of this email?
  3. What else does the receiver of this email need to know or do?
  4. How will they know it's from my brand?

Why the email?

Think of why you're sending the email in the first place. Overall, transactional emails are sent as a result of:

  • An order (confirmations / receipts / shipments);
  • A request (i.e. password resets / 2FA / activation codes);
  • Alerts / notifications in an account (mentions / changes / log in attempts);
  • (Behavioral) events (shipment updates / out of stock / reviews);
  • Periodically generated reports (i.e. account summaries);
  • A referral / invitation ("Your friend Tom invited you to use Flowmailer")

The first thing a recipient should read is why you're sending the email. Sending order confirmation emails? Your headline should be somewhat like "Thanks for shopping with us". Creativity is well appreciated, but (transactional) emails are read more often when someone knows what to expect.

Etsy (yes, again) shows how much they appreciate you for buying stuff:

Etsy's confirmation email shows great signs of inverted pyramidal writing

Action / information in the email

What is the most important thing your recipient should do with the email? Do they need to absorb the information or click a button? This is the next section of a well written transactional email.

The most important information in an order confirmation, for example, is an overview of the purchased items. The most important action in a password reset email is clicking the button to reset a password.

Decide the next best action from a customer's perspective, not yours. You may want people to click your cross-sell offers, but they just want to have an overview of the items they bought. Or, like the Asics and Etsy examples, want to know when their items arrive.

Side information on the topic

The next part of a transactional email is the side information that might be valuable to the receiver. We've mentioned some cases already, but think of:

  • Password reset emails saying: "Didn't ask for a new password? You can ignore this email."
  • Welcome emails saying: "Follow us on these social media accounts"
  • Order confirmations saying: "You might like these items too"
  • Monthly report emails saying: "Want to make more of your subscription? Try this!"

It's all information that doesn't (necessarily) suit the email's purpose, but either you or your customer finds a valuable addition to the email. Think of content, User Generated Content, cross- or upsell, or referral / review programs.

Branding in the email

The final part you should worry about in a transactional email is how you're branding it. Are you keeping it plain and simple, like Stripe, or are you going all in on email design, like G2?

Brand your transactional emails clearly. The clearer the sender, the more likely the open. If people don't recognize you (or your emails), they could ignore, delete or report your emails. That's not what you want to happen to your transactional emails.

Picking a grotesque or minimalistic (or anywhere in between) design depends on the email you're sending. Email design can distract the focus of your receiver. Take Postmates for example. Their email design varies, but they're all still recognizable as Postmates'. Check out the difference between their welcome email, order confirmation and password reset.

Handling multiple email triggers

Transactional emails can have various triggers. A password reset has a few, for example. Periodical resets for security reasons, creating a new password, or simply forgetting one. How can you deal with a variety in triggers?

Example of triggers for a password reset email.

As we see it, you can take three different approaches to handling emails with various triggers:

  1. Create emails for all scenarios;
  2. Create one generic email;
  3. Create a dynamic email.

With the inverted pyramid in mind, let's take a look at how to create them.

Create emails for all scenarios

The basis of the inverted pyramid, "why do we send this email?", is quite open to interpretation. For password resets, you could say the goal is to reset a password. Another approach is to say that the 'why' is because someone forgot their password. This approach leads to different answers to the same question.

We often see emails that say "Forgot your password? Don't worry, everyone does sometimes". Very soothing indeed, but not when you've requested a reset because of suspicious account activity. The email headline wouldn't make sense.

Yet, creating multiple emails for one specific action (resetting the password) is time consuming and can be hard to manage at scale. So what's the other option?

Create one generic email

To keep the amount of emails you're sending managable, you might want to design just one transactional email per use case. For a password reset, that would come down to this:

Since some people (like me) frown their eyebrows over misplaced headlines, you want to keep your email copy to-the-point. No marketing hassle. The downside of having one generic email, however, is that there's limited room for creativity. So how do you keep email managable, but still diversify your messages?

Create a dynamic email

To make sure you're not going to lose track of all your emails, but still be able to personalize, create a dynamic email. One email to rock them all. Dynamic emails allow you to change the message of the email based on the input you're giving. So let's say you have four different types of password reset triggers. You can use them all to trigger the same email.

Play with your headline. If someone clicked "Forgot password", the template will choose "Forgot something" as a headline. You can even change your header images based on triggers, like this example from Beekse Bergen:

Dynamic emails allow you to display content based on certain conditions ('if person X clicked button A, show content A'). Since not every transactional email service copes with dynamic content, take your time to discover what transactional email service fits your needs or compare providers.

Wrap up

The inverted pyramid framework helps you design transactional emails that are to-the-point, are well received by your customers, and will result in more engagement. Remember to always put your main message first. Transactional emails can be your best converting emails if you use them right, so start with the correct design and content placement.