Marketing Via Transactional Messages

Dear Email Diva,

I have an e-commerce client who is doing a complete makeover of their email program. One issue we struggled with was the definition of a transactional email and how much marketing language should be included in that. We loosely defined a transactional email as, "customer does something on Web site, company sends email."

In the lower portion of an email about order shipping status, they wonder if they can or should include language like this:

· Complete our five-question customer survey online and be entered to win a $xx gift card!

· Thank you for your order. We think you might also be interested in these products: (product photos and links to those products on Web site).

The client is considering obtaining certification (Bonded Sender or Habeas) for their transactional messages only, which is why this question has come up. The goal is to obtain 100% inbox delivery for transactional messages, thus the concern that too much marketing language will dilute the transactional nature of the message.


Dear Agency,

It's important to know exactly how the FTC defines a transactional message, lest you run afoul of CAN-SPAM laws. Transactional messages need not comply with CAN-SPAM, either the original or new & improved version, unlike messages deemed "commercial." (Oh, stop whining. Here are the short versions of CAN-SPAM and the update.)

Here is the FTC's definition:
Transactional or relationship message-
(A) IN GENERAL- The term 'transactional or relationship message' means an electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is--
(i) to facilitate, complete, or confirm a commercial transaction that the recipient has previously agreed to enter into with the sender;
(ii) to provide warranty information, product recall information, or safety or security information with respect to a commercial product or service used or purchased by the recipient;
(iii) to provide--
(I) notification concerning a change in the terms or features of;
(II) notification of a change in the recipient's standing or status with respect to; or
(III) at regular periodic intervals, account balance information or other type of account statement with respect to,
a subscription, membership, account, loan, or comparable ongoing commercial relationship involving the ongoing purchase or use by the recipient of products or services offered by the sender;
(iv) to provide information directly related to an employment relationship or related benefit plan in which the recipient is currently involved, participating, or enrolled; or
(v) to deliver goods or services, including product updates or upgrades, that the recipient is entitled to receive under the terms of a transaction that the recipient has previously agreed to enter into with the sender.

So you see that the FTC's criteria are somewhat more specific than "customer does something on a Web site, company sends email." You can certainly include marketing messages in a transactional email, but you have to consider the weight of those messages. They can't overshadow the primary purpose of the email, which is to deliver information pertaining to a transaction or relationship.

Transactional messages, done well, can generate income as well as positive brand impressions. Since they are triggered by a customer action, they are among the most-read and clicked-on messages you will send.

You can comply with the provisions of CAN-SPAM and not concern yourself with the "primary purpose" definition. Typically this is just a matter of including an opt-out mechanism (check the links above for complete rules!). Either way, you want to consider the user experience, and its impact on your brand.

The Email Diva's advice is to focus on service and soft-pedal sales. Put the necessary information first, e.g., order status, and the marketing message second, in terms of both weight and placement. Don't make me sorry I bought from you by shoving more stuff down my throat -- make helpful suggestions and offer complementary products/services that are relevant to my transaction. Email Marketing Reports has put together an excellent collection of articles on improving transactional emails, which offer up a wealth of tips and techniques from a variety of sources.

While 100% inbox penetration is a worthy goal, it may be better to optimize revenue or conversion. An all-text email may be marginally more likely to reach the inbox than an HTML email, but if it isn't achieving the desired results, is it a success? If you're sending HTML, the presence of a marketing message alone is not going to be the deal breaker on deliverability.

You are smart to work with a delivery/reputation vendor, but the Email Diva wonders why you are focusing only on transactional messages. Why not improve delivery for all? If you have questionable practices in other areas, that impact may spread to all email messages, transactional or not. Per Michelle Eicher of Pivotal Veracity, "Currently, reputation is factored mainly by the IP of the email server, but it's moving toward domain. In time, a company's reputation will follow them irrespective of the IP address."

Keep your reputation clean and your transactional messages helpful to realize your cross-sell/up-sell dreams.

Good Luck!

The Email Diva

Send your questions or submit your email for critique to Melinda Krueger, the Email Diva, at All submissions may be published; please indicate if you would like your name or company name withheld.

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