Transactional Emails: Make Your First Impression Count

Relevance is email's holy grail, and no email is more relevant than a transactional email, which relates directly to something the recipient did.

People love them, too: Transactional messages generate an average 47% open rate and 20% click rate, according to several industry studies.

For U.S. email marketers, CAN-SPAM defines a "transactional or relationship message" as any email "facilitating, completing or confirming a previously agreed upon transaction."

The law permits what it calls "dual-use" messages, which combine transactional and promotional content, as long as the transaction remains the email's "primary purpose," with the subject line and message body emphasizing the transaction.

Transactional messages are a golden opportunity to engage with customers: to introduce or extend the email relationship with customers or subscribers, to anticipate and answer questions or to cross-sell or up-sell products or services. Yet, many marketers don't take advantage of this easy and obvious benefit.

The 'First' First Impression

The email relationship doesn't always start when someone signs up to receive promotional email or newsletters. Your first email contact with your customers could be an order confirmation, shipping notice or account registration.

This first email will affect how they think about you and your brand or company and even whether they'll continue to do business with you.

So, what do they usually see? The message has an unfriendly inbox face: an unfamiliar "from" line and a default subject line, like "Order Confirmation" or "Payment Reminder." Brrrr!

The message inside often isn't encouraging, either: no greeting, boilerplate text message, poor design, and no branding, contact information or attempt to extend the relationship beyond the transaction.

Marketing Should Own Transactional Emails, Too

Many marketing departments don't control the content and design of transactional emails. These messages often go out from an email system other than the email-messaging platform  and with little thought given to content and design.



These messages probably don't have the same "from" line as your emails or generate the same kind of reporting that you get on your marketing messages.

You might not know open, click or delivery rates, whether anyone is monitoring blocks, bounces, inbox or bulk delivery or spam complaints and if the messages are authenticated.

Creating Best-Practice Transactional Emails

1. Move responsibility for transactional emails into the marketing department and consider using an email system designed specifically for transactional messages to realize better reporting, personalization and high delivery rates.

2. Set up your transactional message stream on a separate IP address. If an ISP, receiver or blacklist blocks your promotional messages, your transactional messages will not be affected.

3. Redesign the inbox presence.

·-   Use a friendly "from" name, such as your company, brand, newsletter or department where the transaction took place, such as "SportsBobs Orders".

·-    Make sure the subject line reinforces your brand and conveys the key information resulting from the transaction: "Your order from SportsBobs shipped on 4/23."

Because first-time email messages can go to the bulk folder rather than the inbox, strong "from" subject lines help recipients spot them quickly in their junk folder.   

4. Position the transactional message content front and center in the message body. Add promotional content below it or to the side.

CAN-SPAM doesn't specify what percentage of the message body must relate to the transaction, only that the reader should "reasonably conclude" the message was primarily transactional.

However, common sense says you should keep promotional content to well under half of the message real estate.

5. Use HTML design elements to create an attractive and organized message. Don't pack key content into images or banners. The transaction information must appear even if images are blocked.

Use background colors, tables, boxes and type fonts to differentiate transaction from promotion even more clearly. Including a few images is fine, but make sure that a recipient can click all links and view all key information even if images are blocked.

6. Add personality that supports your brand or company image, expresses your thanks for that they're customers and invites them to engage further.

The customers just spent money or registered for something with your company. Show them real people are behind your company, and imply that doing business with your company will be a pleasure for them.

7. Use the transactional message to initiate or expand the customer relationship:

·-    Invite the user to sign up for your promotional emails or newsletters. Include a brief value proposition and succinct details; link to the registration page.

·-    Cross-sell order transactions by suggesting products or services that fit with the purchase, such as accessories or extra supplies for consumable products.

·-    Up-sell by suggesting premium versions of the product or service -- or what related products other customers bought after they purchased that particular product.

·-    Invite registered customers to update their personal information on your Web site, and list contact information.

Santander Consumer USA, an auto finance company, says adding update requests to its email payment reminders has helped it achieve a 40% increase in customer data accuracy, with each email costing 64 times less than a phone call to the customer-service center.

Look Beyond the Typical Transactional Message

A transactional message can be any email that launches from subscribers' preferences or actions, such as notifications from their social networks, reminders, alerts and publication of content that matches specific keywords, etc.

These aren't what we usually think of as transactional emails, but they are highly valued and can break through the clutter in an inbox teeming with the usual promotional email.

I'll be writing in a future column about these kinds of user-centric messages that could incorporate promotional content. In the meantime, please share your examples and experiences with transactional messages in the comments section of this column online.

Until next time, take it up a notch.

4 comments about "Transactional Emails: Make Your First Impression Count".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. David Slatter from Claymore Marketing llc, April 23, 2009 at 11:56 a.m.

    Great suggestions, I agree many companies miss out on so many opportunities with their transactional emails, in fact many do themselves more harm than good. Striking the balance between the primary purpose of that transactional email with the desire to cram in the marketing/promotional stuff is absolutely key.

    Another best practice to consider for your list, and related to number 7 above, is to be sure to make it clear to the recipient why they are receiving the email. Use as much detail as necessary from your CRM, or accounting/reservation systems, or whatever other source, to make the transactional email relevant and personal. After all you don’t want the recipient to ask “why did they send this to me” before they even get to the promotional content you embedded.

    David Slatter

  2. Neil Capel from Sailthru, April 23, 2009 at 12:46 p.m.

    Great article, we've been telling people that for an age!

    The welcome email is your first handshake with your new user, engage them then with a proper branded elegant relevant email and then when you send subsequent emails they are MUCH more likely to read your email.

    Let your open rate of your transactional emails enable the open rate of your marketing emails.

    Neil Capel -

  3. John Caldwell from, April 23, 2009 at 5:22 p.m.

    Good article, Loren!

    While I agree on principle that Marketing should "own" transactional messages, there are differences in the definition of "transactional" that should be watched very closely.

    The primary definition of transactional, according to Webster, addresses money changing hands (think reciepts for purchase). In this type of transactional messaging one must play close attention to the Primary Purpose clause of the CAN-SPAM Act - and this isn't a place to push the boundries.

    Webster's secondary definition of transactional addresses reciprocity, such as a non-paid subscription - you give me your email address, and I'll give you information. For this type of transactional message, knock yourself out....

    Maybe it's time to start to better define the shades of gray in the term "transactional".... :)

  4. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, April 23, 2009 at 9:19 p.m.

    I really enjoyed the article Loren because you have taken what we need to do in our emails and transferred it into the transactional thank you page.

    The Sales Cycle is a highly developed theory in Sales.

    1. Create the Interest 2. Overcome the Objections 3. Close the Sale then.

    Go again with the same customer - that's why it's a CYCLE.

    Your article describes how this cycle can be used in transactional emails - WELL DONE

    Cheers Kurt - Australia's Email Marketing Guru

Next story loading loading..