Getting to grips with transactional emails

Transactional emails – they’re not exciting. Least of all when they land in your inbox. A notification of this, or letting you know you’ve only got $2 left in your bank account. Typically transactional emails are sent when a customer does something on a website. Creating an account, making a purchase, updating their profile, those sort of things.

Transactional emails have a track record of having a higher engagement rate than your regular marketing emails. Talking opens, click-throughs and conversions here. But they’re often overlooked.

A huge part of my job has been to create transactional emails from scratch. Talking design, figuring out their website triggers, for customers all over the world. Different languages, different cultures. The learning curve has been steep. And I’m still learning. One of the best forms of learning? Teaching others about what you’ve learnt. So here I go.

1. Start Small

We made the mistake of thinking the customer will want to be notified via email for almost every action on the website. You know, like the big boys of retail do. Alright for the big boys, not so much the new players in town. What with being new and relatively unheard of, complaints came in of too many emails. We just didn’t have the street cred with our customers to be okay with them to send them an email for every notification. It’s an easy enough fix to go through. Review your current emails and scale back. What are the important things that the customer needs to know about and they need to have in their inbox. Everything else can be communicated on-site. Start small and build when you need to build.

2. Keep it simple

Design wise, keep things simple. Transactional emails are meant to convey some important information to the customer, which they need to understand within seconds. While it’s tempting to pack the email with glorious hero banners and amazing imagery that take up half the email, this may lead the customer into believing this is a marketing email. With many ESPs there’s no way of unsubscribing from transactional emails, so you may end up getting a complaint off the back of a reaction like this. Keep designs simple and relevant to the point of the email to avoid confusing customers.

3. Code like it’s 1990

With so many transactional emails to build (talking hundreds here, for countless the different countries), the core template for the emails needed to be resilient and stand the test of time. We’re talking relatively simple designs using robust code that won’t break in a week because an email client has decided to stop supporting something or another. Unlike marketing emails, with transactional emails, they’re going to be designed, built and left to sit for a considerable amount of time without being able to review them. While still being continually sent out to customers. So make sure your build is rock solid. Keep the interactive/kinetic email for the marketing campaigns.

4. …But don’t forget about them

While it’s easy to create your slew of transactional emails and kick them off to your customers, you will have to revisit them at some point. Whether it’s to update the content, optimise when its triggered or recode the template because some email client has gone and buggered things up for you. Keep an eye on how the emails are performing. 3 months, or 6 months down the line, make a point to revisit them. After all, transactional emails are high earners, but you’ve got to make sure you keep them that way.

Transactional emails aren’t sexy. They’re meant to be the work horse of email – solidly built and reliable.

Would be great to hear from anyone else who’s been working on transactional emails. Like I said before, I’m still learning and would love to know what you’ve learnt from working with transactional emails?

7 thoughts on “Getting to grips with transactional emails”

  1. So good, Jaina! I agree that transactional emails are super-useful and under-utilized.

    I’ve recently run into issues with #’s 3 and 4. It can be tough to maintain emails like this once they’re engrained into a system. It’s also easy to set up a few essential email types (signup confirmation, reset pw, etc.) and then completely forget about transactional emails and let them languish on autopilot for years. I feel like this could be a blog post unto itself!

    Any hoo, thanks for bringing this up and making us think. Cheers!

    1. The maintenance is a killer. It can be daunting as well, especially when you have a whole slew of transactional emails and you know they need to be reviewed and maintained, but slotting it in to your schedule can feel like a bit of a bummer. But definitely worth doing.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Ted!

  2. Excellent post. I love bringing up the Transactional open/click/conversion rates and comparing them to the marketing numbers. The effort to get your already existing customers to come back really pays off. Very hard to pitch it though because they don’t have that marketing sex appeal.

    1. There’s such a big onus on attracting and acquiring new customers in email marketing, the existing customers can often be neglected. And making sure your transactional emails are top notch is such an easy solution to keep them with you.

      Thanks for the comment, really glad you enjoyed the post, Ryan!

  3. This is a great post! I can totally relate to every point you made, Jaina. I have recently been tasked to redesign a transnational email that was created by our ticketing provider, and I feel like the programmer who created it just dumped everything they could into it. To make the email even more complex, they use Javascript to post different sections of code in the HTML depending on what was purchased before the email sends. There is also no documentation at all telling me what everything does. So its taken many months tweaking small things here and there to figure out what everything does (thank you Litmus!) and I’m still working on it.

    1. Wow, what a headache! Documentation is so helpful! Definitely something to add to this list actually. Even if it just explains the basics of what’s going on. It’s vital when team members change. Hope you manage to untangle your transactional emails!

  4. On the contrary, I review our transactional emails multiple times a week and test that all is working properly. I like the cleanliness of them, as compared to marketing emails where I feel like the employer wants as much junk in there as possible.

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