Transactional email

So what is transactional email? Coming from MEWS state of mind, you might simply think of it as “anything that isn’t bulk“. Basically, it is email sent to an individual based on some action. It could be:

  • an action they took directly
  • an action they were the target of or,
  • perhaps even inaction on their part.

For example, if a user signs up for your website, you should probably welcome them with a lovely email. Bam! That’s a transactional email. Signing up is the “transaction” in this case. Simple, right?

An example of an action happening to a user might be the familiar “so-and-so commented on your hooza-whatsit” alerts we all receive from our favorite social networking sites. In these cases the action was taken by other users, but the recipient was the target of the action, so they receive a notification email letting them know something of interest happened.

In fact, for simplicity, many people refer to transactional emails as “triggered”, “automatic”, “real-time” or even “personalized”. Use whatever term makes you comfortable; the goal is to make sure everyone in the organization is speaking the same language and getting the same meaning. The word “transactional” can be rather misleading to business and marketing types.

Look familiar? Lots of things can trigger an email

Some other worthy sources of transactional email:

  • email address confirmations
  • password resets
  • purchase receipts
  • “thank you for [some action]”
  • account balance updates
  • weekly manifests
  • auto-responders
  • support requests
  • cart abandonment
  • monthly invoices
  • app error alerts (developer tested!)
  • automated re-engagement (marketer approved!)

And many more! There’s not really a boundary as to what kinds of actions can trigger an email. The pros are set up to trigger real-time, personalized transactional emails within seconds of user interaction. You should be, too.

E-Commerce Must Be Transactional, Right?

Nope. I mean, not necessarily. This is a common misconception, but “transactional” does not imply “financial” in this. Transactional email isn’t about purchasing something from inside an email. Nor is it about treating email as a payment method or form of currency. It doesn’t even need to mention money to be transactional.

That said, and somewhat confusingly, e-commerce applications do send a lot of transactional email! Think about the lifecycle of a purchase online:

  1. sign up, confirmation email
  2. throw items in a cart, get nudged if you abandon it
  3. check out, get a receipt
  4. track the package, get shipping notifications
  5. invitation to rate the item(s) you purchased (days/weeks later)

Look at that: all the actions of an online purchase are worth sending an email about, for one reason or another. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be e-commerce to be transactional.

As for the law, the CAN-SPAM Act talks about this stuff as “transactional and relationship” messages. That’s kind of a mouthful, so the modern email industry usually just says “transactional”. Check out this document and search for the phrase “transactional and relationship” for some basic guidelines if you’re worried about Johnny Law.

Okay, But What’s the Big Deal?

Now that all of the confusion is cleared up (and leave a comment if it’s not), we get to a more fundamental question: Why? Why go to all this trouble defining terms and giving examples? Why fret over using an ESP to actually deliver my triggered emails? Why give it an extra thought if this stuff is already working?

In a word: impressions!

We spend so much time polishing the user experience of our web pages, carefully drafting our copy and calls-to-action, optimizing our page load times, and even painstakingly crafting lovely templates for our newsletters. When we aren’t sure about something, we laboriously split test it and pore over the stats to choose a winner.

And why do we do all of this? Because it’s good for business.



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MEWS is a full service web development Internet marketing company and technology integrator founded in 2003, by leading industry consultants with previous technology experience.MEWS is an Internet services and solutions company with interests in website development – Mobile applications– domain name registrations - web hosting.