Email marketing

All you need to know about transactional emails + 3 examples from ecommerce brands

Emily Riedy, February 11th 2021

Every email you send is a transactional email in a way and according to some data companies can send send over 100,000 transactional emails per month.

That’s about 3,289 emails per day. Evidently, transactional emails are a primary means of communication between you and your customers. But they operate under a unique set of rules. 

To make sure the email marketing strategy you adopt is focused on acquisition, retention and also brand awareness you should understand the basics of the different types of transactional emails.

Read on to discover: 

What is a transactional email?

A transactional email is a non-promotional email that contains valuable information for the recipient. A shipping confirmation email is an example of a transactional email (also referred to as an operational or triggered email).

When a recipient takes a particular action either on your website or within your app, that action can trigger a transactional email to send. The information in your transactional email is so valuable, in fact, that your customers expect this email to appear directly in their inbox. 

It’s information that applies to an action your customer took, like placing on order, and it’s personalized to them. 

Example of a trigger action: Perhaps you decide to up your cooking game and you place a six-month order for a meal-kit delivery service, like HelloFresh. Placing the order would be the trigger, and that action would set off a chain of transactional emails like your order confirmation, your shipping confirmation, the reminder about when your next order will ship, and more. 

Key component: Transactional emails are a key component of your customer communications strategy.

Transactional emails like order confirmations, shipping confirmations, or account updates are messages that your customers rely on. In short, transactional emails confirm the actions you took and remove any guesswork from the equation.  

What’s the difference between transactional emails and marketing emails?

Transactional emails are frequently mistaken for marketing emails. Yes, you send both kinds of emails to your customers, but there are some distinguishing characteristics that set the two apart.

Consent and compliance does not apply to transactional emails

A marketing or commercial email is a piece of content that you send to people who have opted-in or provided consent to receive email communications from your business. 

These emails must comply with federal laws and regulations, such as CAN-SPAM and GDPR, that protect the rights of your email recipients. Transactional emails don’t fall under these regulations, meaning consumers don’t need to opt-in in order to receive them.

Why don’t transactional emails fall under compliance regulations

Well, transactional emails contain information that pertains to a commercial transaction your recipient has already agreed to, or that applies to a previously established commercial relationship. 

Say you sign up for Netflix’s streaming service and create a new account, wouldn’t you anticipate an email that summarizes your subscription plan and outlines your account information? 

In this example, the act of subscribing is your agreed upon commercial transaction and the establishment of your commercial relationship with Netflix.

Marketing is promotional while transactional emails are operational         

Marketing emails are essentially advertisements, aiming to drive your new or existing customers to take a particular action. Because you’re hoping your audience will do something like make a purchase or sign up for your emails, the content of your marketing emails is usually enticing and creatively crafted.    

Transactional emails don’t need to work as hard. You’ve already dazzled your customers—they’re already in the door. Transactional emails share information that’s operational, in a clear and concise way.

But functional doesn’t have to mean boring. Create your transactional emails in a style that aligns with your brand voice so that your customer experience is cohesive. 

Lower quantity of transactional emails are sent

Another difference between marketing emails and transactional emails is the quantity in which you send them.

When a user resets their password, they receive a transactional or an operational email outlining how to do so. That’s a one-to-one email communication. 

For marketing emails, you most likely segment your email list and send out emails in various batches at a time.

Email marketing campaign types browse abandonment and cart abandonment emails. 

All transactional emails have high open rates 

The open rates of a transactional email are head and shoulders above the open rates of a marketing email. And that’s not surprising. 

Your customers most likely need the information in a transactional email—either to complete next steps or track product information and updates. So they’re eager to open it when they receive it. 

Transactional email examples from ecommerce brands

Transactional emails are messages you’ve seen and interacted with hundreds of times. They’re emails that include account information (new account creation, changes to your subscription, password reset details), order confirmations, shipping confirmations, or delivery confirmations—to name a few.

What was the most recent item you ordered online? If you received an email after placing your order, you likely have a transactional email sitting in your inbox. 

Here are three examples of a transactional email you may encounter.  

1. Order confirmation emails are transactional emails

When you check out at the grocery store, what does the teller hand you before you leave? An itemized receipt of everything you purchased.  An order confirmation email is your virtual itemized receipt. It helps you ensure that you bought the right product(s) and summarizes your order total, allowing you to keep track of what you’ve spent. 

An order confirmation email example from Fenty Beauty:

Brand tip: Not only does Fenty Beauty notify you that they’ve received your order and that it will ship soon, but they also list the number for customer service in case you have any questions while you wait for your package to arrive. 

2. An email that asks your customer to activate an account or subscription is transactional

Have you ever been swept up in the excitement of discovering a new product or service and created an account on the spot (think, Tiffany & Co. or Reebok)? I can say from experience that it happens frequently. 

But often, once the moment passes, I forget I signed up. That’s precisely why transactional emails ask you to confirm your subscription or activate your new account. 

They’re subtle reminders of your initial excitement and encourage you to follow through on the final steps towards making a purchase, like inputting your credit card information and selecting your desired products.  

Bodewell reengages customers after a purchase with an activation email:

Brand tip: After creating an account on their website, Bodewell Skin sends you an email requesting that you activate it.  It’s an effective tool Bodewell uses for re-engagement—reeling in the customers who need a little extra nudge in the right direction. 

3. Shipping Confirmation emails are transactional emails

Waiting for an online purchase to arrive on your doorstep can feel like eons, even when in reality it’s usually only a week or two. 

Shipping confirmation emails can help you level set your expectations and, if need be, allows you to sure up your plans to be home when the package is delivered. 

WildOne Brand example for a shipping confirmation email done right:

Brand tip: Wildone’s shipping confirmation email is short and sweet. They share the information you need without making a fuss or promoting other products. 

Included at the bottom of the email is the tracking number, in case you want to flex your sleuthing skills and keep tabs on where your incoming package has been and where it’s going.  

Land your transactional email in your customer’s inbox

Transactional emails are essential for your online business and, more importantly, for your customers. 

So getting your email banished to the netherworld of the spam or junk folder is the last thing you want to have happen. Improving your email deliverability and creating separate sender addresses is how you can fight back against the dreaded spam folder vortex. 

What is email deliverability, again?

Email deliverability is the ability to land your email in your customer’s or subscriber’s inbox. While there isn’t a finite formula for improving your email deliverability, engaged recipients (or lack thereof) tend to be at the crux of the matter.  

Email providers want to see that your audience is engaging with the content you’re sending them. If your open rates, click-through-rates, or unsubscribe rates are historically very low, chances are you’ll have poor email deliverability. 

If you’re working to improve your email deliverability (well done, you) and don’t want to sacrifice the performance of your transactional emails in the process, here’s a tip that can help. 

Have a sender address that’s unique to your transactional emails

You want to have the best chance of delivering your customers’ order confirmation emails straight to their inbox, right? Having a separate IP address or sender address for your promotional emails and your transactional emails is a good place to start.  

Remember when I mentioned that marketing emails are subject to compliance regulations? Under those regulations, you have to give consumers the option to unsubscribe from your marketing emails. 

High unsubscribe rates can hurt your sender reputation and decrease your deliverability, because they indicate to email providers that you aren’t sending relevant content to your audience. 

Consumers don’t subscribe or unsubscribe to transactional emails. When they make a purchase from your business, they’ve given you permission to send them information regarding that purchase.

So you don’t have to segment out certain categories of customers, because all of your customers will receive, and expect to receive, a transactional email from you at some point in time. 

If you send your promotional emails from one email address and your transactional emails from another, the unsubscribe rates and open rates of your marketing emails will be less likely to impact the deliverability of your transactional emails.

Transactional emails are different, so treat them differently

In the world of email marketing, transactional emails like to operate to the beat of their own drum. 

They aren’t subject to the same regulations as promotional emails, and they contain content that’s crucial for your customers to receive. To ensure the delivery of your transactional emails to a location with high visibility—your customer’s primary inbox—you may need to adjust your email strategy.  

If your customers created a new account or placed an order, they’re eagerly anticipating next steps. Give the people what they want!

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Emily Riedy
Emily Riedy
Content strategist
Emily Riedy is a content strategist at Klaviyo. She creates and optimizes content to help online businesses own their growth. Before joining Klaviyo, Emily worked at a digital marketing agency where she created content to help small business owners and marketers grow their online advertising presence. When she’s not writing, Emily enjoys making tacos, running, and sipping on orange wine.