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The Beginner’s Guide to Transactional Emails

A transactional email is an email sent by a business to a single recipient, usually after a transaction or a specific action is performed by that recipient. 

Companies use transactional emails to send vital information to users and customers at different stages of the buyer’s journey

In this beginner’s guide, we’ll take a look at transactional emails and explore the different types successful companies use to deliver remarkable customer experiences.

Transactional emails and marketing emails — what’s the difference?

Before we dive into the types of transactional emails, let’s explain how they compare to our traditional marketing emails or promotional emails.

Unlike newsletters and bulk emails, transactional emails are always triggered by the action of the individual recipient, usually related to account notifications, product activity, or commercial transactions. For example, this action could be purchasing in an online store, requesting a password reset, a team member invitation, or something else.

Transactional emails are required to facilitate important transactions or share critical information that the recipient requests. For that reason, businesses do not need to obtain consent to send transactional emails.

Conversely, you must always obtain consent to send marketing emails to your audience. Sending marketing emails to people that have not explicitly agreed to receive promotional messages from you is considered unsolicited messaging, and it’s against most of the email laws out there like CAN-SPAM and GDPR.

For that reason, you are not allowed to sell or promote your products or services in your transactional emails. Emails sent with the goal of promoting your business or generating revenue are considered marketing emails.

As a rule of thumb, it’s always best to separate your transactional emails from your marketing emails. That’s why when you create an account with Encharge, you will notice that the two default email categories are “Marketing emails” and “Transactional emails”:

Google even takes this separation one step further and recommends using different email addresses and domains for each type of email.

Another essential difference to consider is that, unlike promotional emails, transactional emails do not require an unsubscribe link. However, there are some caveats to this that we will cover towards the end of this post. So keep on reading.

Transactional emailsMarketing emails
Emails sent to a single contact after they have performed a specific action like a purchase or password reset. Any email sent with the goal to sell, upsell, or promote your content, services, products, or offerings.
Do not require explicit consent from the prospect or customer.Require that the person has explicitly agreed to receive emails from you.
Do not require an unsubscribe link.Require a clear unsubscribe link.
Can be sent from a “no-reply” email address, e.g., [email protected].Must be sent from an email address that can receive responses.

Types of transactional emails

Now that we have a good grasp of transactional emails, especially when compared to marketing emails, it’s time to look at some examples.

11 types of transactional emails

  1. Account usage warnings
  2. Abandoned cart emails
  3. Confirmation emails
  4. Password change emails
  5. Order confirmation emails
  6. Feedback request emails
  7. Reactivation emails
  8. Double opt-in emails
  9. App activity notifications
  10. Alerts and report emails
  11. Invoice emails

Account usage warnings

For many businesses, their subscriptions are limited to usage, depending on the tier. For example, if you have an email verification tool, maybe the starter tier only allows for 250 emails to be verified.

When that threshold is reached, the easiest way to let the user know is through an account alert email — something like this example.

Account email alert from Segment screenshot
Account alert from Segment

Of course, this is just one example. There are many reasons you might want to send a notification regarding an account. For example, there are multiple users tied to one account, and the admin changed the login credentials. Sending a transactional email triggered by this change to the rest of the users is a quick and easy way to keep everyone updated.

Abandoned cart emails

Abandoned cart emails might sound a bit promotional, and in all honesty, they could be. But, they’re also triggered by a user’s actions. Or lack of action over a certain time, instead. 

Abandoned cart emails are a great example of transactional emails because they’ve helped businesses retarget the customer and complete the conversion.

Cart abandonment email screenshot from Pacsun

Take a look at this abandoned cart email from Pacsun. It lets the customer know that there are still items in their online cart and even informs them that the items they want might not be there forever. This urges the customer to complete the purchase.

Important note: Depending on your local jurisdiction, cart abandonment emails might be considered marketing emails, so make sure to double-check this if you intend to avoid the unsubscribe link or send cart abandonment emails to unsolicited contacts.

Confirmation emails

One of, if not the most common transactional emails out there is the confirmation email. The idea behind this email is relatively simple. It’s a confirmation message sent straight to the recipient’s inbox after they take an action. 

For example, a confirmation email can be sent to the new subscribers after registering for your newsletter. 

BuzzFeed confirmation email

Take a look at this example. When the user signs up for the BuzzFeed newsletter for cats, they receive this confirmation email. 

This is a great example of why emails like this are so helpful. You can see the big CTA button in red, right in the middle, allowing the user to confirm that they are a real person. This is useful for BuzzFeed in this case because they won’t waste time and money sending their newsletter to fake or inactive accounts.

Additionally, confirmation emails like this allow the user to avoid fraud. If someone signed up for this newsletter without the account owner knowing, this is the quickest and easiest way for them to find out. 

If you proceed to send the real user unsolicited emails without confirmation, then the odds are that your email will just end up in the spam folder. The more people that add you to their spam folder, the higher your spam complaint rate. The higher the spam complaint rate, the more likely your email will trigger spam filters, and the vicious cycle continues. The moral of the story, send a confirmation email once in a while.

Password change emails

We’ve all been there. You need to change your password for whatever reason, you make the request, and an email is sent to your inbox. 

This is a typical transactional email. It requires a prompt from the user to be sent, and it is not directly promotional.

Airbnb password change transactional email

If you take a quick look at this email from Airbnb, you’ll notice something important. This password reset message gives all the information the user needs right from the start.

If someone or something is trying to hack into your account, it lets you know everything and gives you the option to review your account for suspicious activity.

It would be easy to let anyone change their password right on the main website, but it wouldn’t be very secure. Password reset emails give an added layer of protection for the user, all without being inconvenient. In fact, this is the standard for any password-related changes for most businesses.

Order confirmation emails

Order confirmation email messages are common in the world of eCommerce, but they’ve also become a way for brick-and-mortar stores to reduce their spending by cutting down on paper costs. 

Order confirmation emails are much more than a digital receipt. In most cases, they provide shipping information, a thank you message, and sometimes even a section for upselling if it’s applicable. 

Chewy confirmation email screenshot

This order confirmation email by Chewy is a great example. In not so many words, they provide a detailed summary of everything ordered, the shipping information, a customer support number, and even some creative GIF with their company name. 

It’s important to lay everything out coherently and clearly so that customers don’t get confused or overwhelmed in any way. For the longevity of this interaction, this email will serve as a reference. Make it a good one!

Feedback emails

Feedback emails are not always necessary but they might prove crucial for your growth. 

Think about the last time you had a good or bad experience with a brand. You wanted to let them know, right? Feedback emails provide that platform for users.

Airbnb feedback email

Airbnb as a business thrives off of user feedback. If a house guest was bad, the property owner can write a review and prevent the renter from being bad anywhere else. Likewise, if the property owner was bad, the renter can write a review so that other potential renters know what they’re getting into.

This specific example is asking for the email recipient to fill out a survey to better their service. 

There are 2 important elements here.

  • The email is short and sweet.
  • The call to action is easily visible and clear.

When you’re asking someone to go out of their way to provide a review or feedback of any kind, it’s important to avoid any kind of friction. Make your intentions clear (perhaps even from the subject line), thank them for their support, and provide a quick and easy way for them to get it over with.

If you are not satisfied with your survey completion rate, you can try avoiding turn-off words like “survey” and “feedback.” This is what conversion-driven copywriter Momoko Price did for to increase their survey response rate.

Petdoors before and after feedback email
Source: CXL Institute

Reactivation emails

Sometimes, we lose customers, and sometimes they come back. Often all it takes is a quick reactivation (or a nudge) rather than onboarding them from step 1.

Take a look at this reactivation example from Duolingo.

Duolingo reactivation email

You might be thinking to yourself that this is a generic marketing email sent out in bulk, and the truth is that it could be. But, it also meets the requirements to be a transactional email. 

How do you know if an account is inactive? It’s triggered by the amount of time someone has or hasn’t spent using the platform or other type of activities (or lack of, therefore). You can use Encharge to create a segment of inactive users and automatically send the reactivation email as soon as someone enters that segment.

The most significant benefit of using an email like this is that it keeps your brand in the back of the user’s mind. If they spend too much time away, they can forget about you. Unless, of course, you continue the nurturing cycle with reactivation emails.

The best part is that you don’t have to limit yourself to emails. You can reactivate passive customers with Facebook ads and even SMS messages. In the example flow below, we add inactive people to a Facebook retargeting audience if they fail to open your reactivation email (and remove them from the audience, as soon as they become active again):

Encharge flow screenshot
Click on the image to start with this flow.

Double opt-in emails

A double opt-in occurs when a user signs up for, let’s say, an email newsletter. This requires them to fill out the site’s information to send the newsletter to them, typically, a name and email address. 

Double opt-in comes into play when you send an email to that user asking for additional confirmation, like this example below.

Double opt-in transactional email from Tedium

This is much like the confirmation email but explicitly requires the user to confirm the subscription twice. 

This is beneficial for two reasons. One, much like a lot of other emails on this list, it provides that extra layer of security. But the second reason may not be as obvious.

The second and probably the biggest reason businesses use double opt-in emails is because it lets the company sending the newsletter know that the user is interested. 

Think about those annoying messages that you get when you want to delete a file on your computer. They always ask if you’re sure because it provides a moment of reflection so that you can decide if you really want to delete that file or if it was an accident.

App activity notifications

If you are using a chat tool like Slack or Discord, you might have received an email informing you of all the newest messages you’ve missed while away from the computer.

Discord notification email

Such notifications come in handy to ensure that you are on top of your important conversations like team messages.

Most of these apps allow you to choose what email notifications to receive. For example, you might want to get notified only when someone mentions you.

Alerts and reports

Some products and services allow you to subscribe to specific alerts or recurring reports. 

This is the daily digest I receive from Asana, conveniently reminding me of all of the tasks that are due for the day:

Asana alert email screenshot

Another great example comes from the popular SEO tool Ahrefs. The tool allows you to set up various kinds of alerts related to the health and growth of your organic traffic. In the example below, Ahrefs informs me of newly earned backlinks to our site:

Ahrefs alert email screenshot

Invoice and receipt emails

Companies send receipts and invoices via email. These transactional emails inform customers of a payment that is due or of successful payments. Usually, the email comes with an attached invoice or a link that leads to a printable invoice page for taxation purposes.

HelpScout invoice email screenshot

Do transactional emails need an unsubscribe option?

Unsubscribe links provide a quick and painless way for email recipients to stop receiving emails that they don’t want. That being said, is such a function necessary for transactional emails? 

Let’s first explore what the email laws have to say about this.

Unlike marketing emails, transactional emails are exempt from CAN-SPAM.

The CAN-SPAM Act explicitly states that:

“If the message contains only commercial content, its primary purpose is commercial, and it must comply with the requirements of CAN-SPAM. If it contains only transactional or relationship content, its primary purpose is transactional or relationship. In that case, it may not contain false or misleading routing information, but is otherwise exempt from most provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act.”

When it comes to the GDPR and transactional emails, the rules are less obvious:

With GDPR, you can send transactional emails without consent if there is a legitimate interest in sending the emails. For example, if you use your emails to communicate critical information to your users and customers, it means you have a legitimate interest.

In other words, according to the email laws, your transactional emails do not require an unsubscribe link.

That being said, is it is a good idea to include the unsubscribe link in your transactional emails?

The short answer is No unless you really know what you are doing. Let’s explain why:

Users and customers could miss critical information

If you allow your users to unsubscribe from transactional emails, you might do some severe damage to the overall customer experience

Imagine someone unsubscribing from your transactional emails and returning to your website to request a password reset a few days later. Unfortunately, they won’t be able to reset their password. That’s why we generally do not recommend including an unsubscribe link in transactional emails.

In Encharge, by default, people can not unsubscribe from your transactional emails. So if you want to send transactional emails with an unsubscribe link, you’d have to add the transactional emails under a different email category.

Some transactional emails like password reset and confirmations contain critical calls to action. Including an unsubscribe link in the same email can distract the recipient and confuse them as to what is required of them.

That being said, there might be some reasons that you specifically want to add an unsubscribe button to your transactional emails. But, again, only do it if you are confident that this won’t impact your critical user operations.

You can lower your spam rate

Being put in the spam folder is a big deal. The higher your spam rate, the more likely you will be to end up in everyone’s spam, regardless of whether they move you there or not manually. Providing a quick and straightforward way to unsubscribe could help to lower your spam complaints.

Avoid customer frustration

In addition to being locked away in the spam prison, sending emails sometimes just makes people mad. Even if they don’t send a spam report, emails can just leave a bad taste in the recipient’s mouth.

Rather than including an unsubscribe button that prevents the recipient from receiving any emails from you, you could use an email preference center allowing them to unsubscribe from a specific type of transactional emails. That way, making the communication more relevant and reducing the frustration.

It’s a way of receiving feedback

It might be hard to think of someone wanting to never hear from you again as feedback, but it really is. If you have a massive rate of unsubscribers, then it might be time to look into why. Maybe your emails just aren’t helpful? Perhaps they’re confusing? There are so many reasons people would want to unsubscribe. Again, the unsubscribe preference center can come in handy here — you can monitor which email categories people unsubscribe more often from.

Conclusions and takeaway

If you’re new to transactional emails or email marketing in general, then I hope this beginner’s guide serves you well. However, if you aren’t new to this topic and still found yourself here, I highly encourage you to consider everything discussed above. 

With transactional emails, the key is not to be promotional. Sure, emails are perfect for upselling, cross-selling, and providing discounts where needed, but all of that is thrown out the window when we talk about transactional emails.

Transactional emails still provide a critical role in delivering amazing user experiences, so make sure to take advantage of them as much as possible.

With Encharge, you can set your email marketing campaigns on autopilot, transactional emails included. Sign up for a free trial today, and see what you’ve been missing.

Read next: 11 Best Practices for Transactional Email Marketing

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