Killer Transactional Emails

Dear Email Diva,

I work for a Web 2.0 start up and am in the process of building a series of transactional confirmation emails for our customers. These are primarily "alert" type messages that let them know a particular action has happened on their account -- a friend left them a message, someone added a comment to a thread they are watching, etc.

My instinct is to brand these emails with our logo and a standard set of navigation along the top. They would still be transactional emails, but would include other links back to our Web site (but no ads).  I noticed that companies such as MySpace and Friendster send these types of emails in text-only.  Do you have any insight into why?  Is it to optimize for mobile delivery, or perhaps for bandwidth reasons? 

Kimberly Bower


Dear Kimberly,

Another argument for plain text emails, in addition to those you cited, is a personal feel.  The messages we send and receive that are one-to-one, whether personal or business, are plain text.  In Direct Marketing, we found that a "personal" letter worked better than a flashy brochure, time after time. 



Of course, it may just be that the transactional emails weren't deemed important and did not get the time and attention they deserve.  These emails are among the most-read you will send, so they deserve your careful consideration.

The navigational links you suggest are probably a good idea and can be featured in a text email, as well.  Your logo, at the bottom as part of the email signature, won't detract from the personal feel or take up the preview pane with a (frequently) blocked image.  To get the most of your transactional emails, clarify the goal of the communication. Is it to get people back to the site or deliver a satisfactory experience? Then set up a test of your best efforts in both text and HTML to see which delivers the desired results.

Here is a confirmation email from CDBaby, that is a stellar example of using this humble communication to build your brand and improve the user experience.

Melinda -

Thanks for your order with CD Baby!

(order details)

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterward and the whole party marched down the street to the post office, where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Tuesday, July 10.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby.  We sure did.

Your picture is on our wall as "Customer of the Year."  We're all exhausted, but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Derek Sivers, president, CD Baby

the little store with the best new independent music (503)595-3000

This message does many things right:


  1. It gives the user something of value -- in this case, amusement.
  2. It projects a positive brand image.  Despite the tongue-in-cheek delivery, you get a sense of quality and care.
  3. It feels as though it is from one person to another, rather than a faceless corporation to a name in the database. 
  4. The "from" address is "CD Baby Loves Melinda," which is great on two counts.  First, the personalization is unusual and attention-getting, and second, it starts with the name of the company. How many times have you been frustrated searching for an email from XYZ Company because the "from" address is "Customer Service at XYZ Company" or something similar?

Hoping we can all be as creative with our transactional emails as CD Baby, I wish you Good Luck!

 The Email Diva

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