How Hubstaff Uses Mandrill to Deliver Transactional Emails

Sometimes I think e-mail is one of those things like printers or remote controls, where I just can’t understand why there isn’t a better solution for it.  Even though they work, it just seems like they’re more complicated then they need to be. You use them everyday, so why hasn’t someone come up with a better way of doing it yet?

E-mail is great, but sometimes it gets frustrating. There are a lot of e-mails that are crucial to business. There are also a lot of complications that can occur along the way. Spam folders and server issues are just a few of the things that can come in the way of an important e-mail finding its way to our customers. Since we send a lot of e-mails every day, there are a lot of chance for something to go wrong. A lot of chances for an e-mail to get lost somewhere between pressing send and arriving in the desired inbox. 

It is an issue we really can’t afford to have. Especially, with transactional e-mails. Transactional e-mails are code based and automatically get sent out when a specific event occurs. Every business sends out transactional e-mails,  when someone signs up or when a purchase is completed. There are a lot of ways to go about it. You can automate e-mails through Mailchimp and Intercom but at Hubstaff we send out 99% of automated emails through our Ruby on Rails code and we use a transactional e-mail service for extra reliablity. To ensure that e-mails don’t get lost on their inbox journey, we wanted to find an e-mail infrastructure service that we could rely on. Today we use Mandrill. 

SendGrid vs Mandrill

Mandrill comes from the people who started Mailchimp. These guys really know e-mail. Mandrill’s system is reliable. Developers love Mandrill because they focus on what matters: webhooks, delivery rates, and good analytics. The downside is that you really need to know code to be comfortable using Mandrill. With the right code and API savvy, you can count on Mandrill to deliver all those one on one e-mail that are important for running your business, like password resets and welcome messages. If a problem does occur Mandrill lets you get to the bottom of it quickly.

As the story goes with tools, we didn’t start with Mandrill. We started with SendGrid. It was one of the first and is now the largest e-mail as a service platform. SendGrid is popular, I’ve used it with other organizations in the past. Before SendGrid, it used to be a real pain to set things up on your own. Good luck not getting blacklisted or junked! It’s hellish. Some people still choose to set up their own servers, but I wouldn’t recommend that, especially considering how cheap e-mail infrastructure is these days. The tools out there, including Mandrill start at just dollars, even a $10 a month plan gives you a lot of headroom.

SendGrid wasn’t the right fit because it didn’t give insight into why our e-mails were failing to make it to inboxes. They were so focused on trying to get you to upgrade to the $80 a month plan, that the rest of the product suffered. SendGrid does offer some interesting functionality. It allows you to build your own e-mail marketing platform and you can plug in a URL that allows threads to automatically update. It’s a great idea, but there does seem to be a potential security issue. For instance, if someone got ahold of the URL they’d have access to all your users. When we used SendGrid we were on a $10/month plan, it included shared IP. This feature is usually not a problem, but there is the risk of it hurting your deliverability if who you are sharing with isn’t using proper e-mail practices.

The basic interface with SendGrid feels out of date, but they are working on some cool things in their Beta. Tracking opens and clicks is simplified, they automatically recreate a code for each individual link to easily track stats. You can go back and look at the data on different campaigns, although it doesn’t save the body of your e-mails.

There’s a lot of similarity in the features and even interfaces of Mandrill and SendGrid, but it’s the little details that set them apart. The most important thing about e-mail infrastructure is being able to get to the bottom of issues when they arise. If for some reason your e-mails don’t make it to their destination you want to be able to find out why. The more information you can see the better, and that’s where Mandrill has the upper hand.

Using Mandrill

The Mandrill interface is really clean. It brings all the important stuff right to the surface. You can keep an eye on how your e-mails are performing by seeing how many e-mails are sent out every month, you can even see what’s happening every hour. The numbers that are really important such as reputation score and deliverability are easy to find and analyze. When an e-mail doesn’t get sent you know about it right away.

Another huge plus of the Mandrill platform is the payment structure. You can top up your account anytime. With most platforms if you don’t send all your e-mails in a given month it feels like a waste of money. With Mandrill, you pay for what you are using. They also over a la carte pricing, meaning you can pay a few bucks here and there for those little features you want, rather than upgrading an entire monthly pan just to get one added tool. Nobody like feature gating.

E-mail infrastructure services are all about stability and we feel like we get that with Mandrill. On top of easily being able to resolve issues, we can generate reports or URL tracking and demographics. Their outbound e-mails section is a lifesaver. We can view all the content and if we see an e-mail that didn’t make it we can resend through the interface. With Mandrill we stay on top of our deliverability by running tests. For one buck  we can run deliverability tests that send an email out to 10 people and ensures that spam folders are avoided.

Email is important. There’s no way around it, but  you can make it easier on yourself. When you look at the cost benefit analysis there’s no question. Use Mandrill and stop crossing your fingers your transactional e-mails are making it to the right place.