Transactional Emails: Learn When and How to Use Them

Discover ways to make the most of one‑to‑one emails like password reminders or order confirmations.

Octopus delivering emails/mail to mailboxes.

Unlike bulk marketing emails, transactional emails are one-to-one communications, making them a powerful channel for engagement.

Transactional emails are typically related to subscriber account changes or transactions, and are often triggered by a request or action from the contact. Examples include order confirmations, password reminders, product notifications, or account balance updates.

“Some people don’t recognize the opportunities in transactional emails, but marketers are becoming savvy about making sure all the ‘real estate’ that touches the customer is optimized,” says Chris Beauregard, Director of Product Management at Mailchimp.

Learn how to use transactional emails and what rules apply to these important communications.

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How to use transactional emails

Transactional emails are a type of automated email, but unlike many other automated emails, transactional emails are relevant only to the intended individual recipient and not a group of people. And, they’re based on the relationship the recipient has with the sender.

An example of a purely automated email would be a bulk message about a promotion to all your subscribers, followed by another email to everyone who didn’t open the first message. These could also be tied to activities in other channels, such as a sales event at a retail store. Basic automated emails are scheduled to send something a person subscribed to or registered for, like daily newsletters.

Transactional emails, on the other hand, are sometimes called “triggered emails,” because they’re set off by a need or behavior that’s more specific and timely. There are many situations in which transactional emails are expected.

  • People expect confirmations when they make a purchase, update user account information, or sign up for something online.
  • Activity in an app, such as a purchase or an update on user activity, requires immediate account notifications.
  • Reminders—like shipping notifications, upcoming event dates, or new comments on a post someone is following—are always appreciated.

Even though transactional emails are very different from marketing emails that typically go to an audience of many people, you can include a limited number of marketing elements in these triggered communications.

Just remember that there are legal restrictions on how much marketing content you can put in a transactional email. As the FTC details, a transactional email confirms or facilitates a transaction the consumer has already agreed to, or gives information about an ongoing commercial relationship. The majority of the transactional (or relationship-based) information in the email needs to be at the beginning of the message to be legally considered a transactional email.

“If you book an airplane ticket, the confirmation email could have messaging about other related activities,” Chris explains. “This could include things like renting a car or buying travel insurance.”

Transactional emails often share 3 elements:

  • They’re typically sent in response to an action or user request. Transactional emails are directly related to the way the recipient does business with you, and they’re often waiting for the information, like an account verification, password reset, an update that their food delivery has arrived, or a confirmation of a ticket purchase.
  • They may have an element of security or privacy, and the information is only for the eyes of the intended recipient, such as a bank statement or a notification from their accountant.
  • They are hyper-personalized to the recipient and their business with the sender, such as an alert that a checking account balance has slipped below a required level, or a notice that the size 8 high-tops the customer coveted are now in stock.
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Set a transactional email strategy

The first step to create your transactional email strategy is to identify the content where you can increase engagement with your audience, says Chris. Look at your current email strategy, and see if there’s a touchpoint that could benefit from personalized content.

“Maybe there’s an onboarding series keyed to actions taken by someone,” he says. “Remember that the email should complement what the person is doing.”

Then, work with your developers to decide what email templates you need based on audience activities and needs. Transactional email typically relies on an application programming interface (API) or Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) integration for sending. As needed, a developer will set up a system to send coded templates to specific recipients based on specific actions. If you don’t have developers on staff, an all-in-one marketing platform like Mailchimp can help you create customized transactional email templates that fit the look and feel of your brand.

Glasses.

Learn transactional email logistics

Like any part of your customer communications, success with transactional email requires some testing to find the right message. Here are several important details that will make your communications more relevant and engaging.

  • Timing: Transactional emails should always be sent as soon as possible, because the recipient triggered a request and is waiting for the information.
  • Copy: In transactional emails, be task oriented, and don’t needlessly take up a lot of your recipient’s time. Keep the imagery to a minimum, and have a clear call to action, if needed. Make sure the subject line reflects that the email is information the recipient is waiting for or requested. “Be direct, and state upfront why this message is in their inbox,” says Chris. “You can add marketing elements, but the greater balance should sit more on the side of the task they’re already working on.”
  • Testing: Open rates of transactional emails are always higher than marketing emails, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Subject lines are one of the best things to A/B test—testing 2 variables against each other to see what works—in your transactional emails, says Chris. “Keep the content of the email the same, and play around with the subject lines for drastic improvement that can really add up,” he advises. As for other elements to test, see what’s underperforming and tweak there.
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Stay compliant

Transactional emails are compelling, since they respond to a contact’s immediate need and provide an opportunity for you to market to them. If your transactional messages veer too much into marketing, they could violate the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s CAN-SPAM Act, which could lead to fines of $11,000 for each offense.

As the FTC explains, if the primary purpose of an email is transactional and related to a recipient’s business relationship with the sender, it cannot misleadingly be primarily marketing or commercially-focused. Use this additional guidance from the FTC to shape your transactional emails.

  • Don’t use misleading header information—your “from,” “to,” and routing information (including the originating domain name and email address) should accurately identify who sent the message.
  • Don’t use deceptive subject lines. Make sure they really reflect what your email is about.

In addition to the requirements for transactional emails stated above, the CAN-SPAM Act specifies the following for marketing emails:

  • Include your postal address in your message, so recipients know where you’re located.
  • A clear, identifiable way for recipients to opt out of receiving future emails from you should be prominently featured. These requests must be honored within 10 business days.
  • If you hire an agency to do your email marketing for you, monitor what they do on your behalf. Outsourcing doesn’t take away your legal responsibility.
Email celebration with stars.

Optimize your messaging

Transactional email is a valuable tool for deepening your relationship with your audience by providing a rapid, targeted response. Take advantage of these regularly opened—and read—communications to let people know you’re listening and to reinforce what else you can provide.