How to capitalize on transactional emails to build long-term brand loyalty
Transactional emails are as tricky as they are essential. Without them, your customers would wonder whether their purchase disappeared into the ether.
Order confirmations, shipping notifications, and customer service messages are baseline forms of communication—but a lot of brands wonder whether they can do more with them to encourage repeat purchases.
The answer depends on where your customers live.
If most of your customers are in Europe, your transactional emails need to comply with GDPR—which means they need to remain transactional in nature, without additional marketing messages. This is because customers can’t unsubscribe from transactional emails—they’re legitimately necessary—but marketing emails necessitate an easy way to unsubscribe.
If your customers are in the United States, the CAN-SPAM Act offers more leeway for transactional emails. If the “primary purpose” of your email is transactional, then your subject line needs to reflect this—but you have some freedom to promote your brand in other ways.
Transactional emails earn notoriously high engagement rates, so you may be leaving money on the table if you’re not finding creative ways to add more value to them.
Transactional emails earn notoriously high engagement rates, so you may be leaving money on the table if you’re not finding creative ways to add more value to them. That’s what you’ll know how to do after reading this article—specifically in a way that doesn’t violate CAN-SPAM regulation.
From educational content to UGC (user-generated content), what you include in a transactional emails is an opportunity to nurture customers beyond a sale to form lasting connections.
Read on to learn:
- What is a transactional email?
- What’s the difference between transactional emails and marketing emails?
- Why you should set up an automated transactional email flow
- Examples of transactional emails from real-life ecommerce brands
- How to improve email deliverability for your transactional emails
- Transactional email FAQs
What is a transactional email?
Transactional emails are a type of automated email triggered by an action and containing information directly related to that action. Transactional emails are sent to one person to confirm a transaction, communicate important information, or deliver a specific notification like a shipping notice.
These emails are not promotional in nature but serve as a response or confirmation to a user’s interaction with a website, application, or service. Transactional messages are designed to be straightforward, concise, and contain essential details to enhance the user experience and maintain trust.
They are typically expected by the recipients and have a higher open rate compared to promotional emails since they contain essential information that users want to receive.
What’s the difference between transactional emails and marketing emails?
Transactional emails differ from marketing emails in their purpose and content. Whereas transactional emails are personalized to one person to communicate essential information like order confirmations or password reset emails, marketing emails are sent to many people to promote products and encourage recipients to take a specific action.
As a rule of thumb, a trigger-based email that communicates essential information to the customer, rather than generating sales, is a transactional email. Common transactional emails include:
Triggered emails that aren’t transactional emails include:
- Welcome email series
- Abandoned cart email
- Product recommendation or cross-sell
- Browse abandonment
- Surveys or quizzes
- Requests for ecommerce reviews
- Replenishment email or order renewal reminders
- Back-in-stock notification emails
- Referral requests
- Birthday or anniversary email notifications
The CAN-SPAM Act allows for some light overlap between transactional emails and marketing emails, but it’s important to understand the nuances of this gray area before you start playing with them. Here’s what you need to know about the difference:
Consent and compliance are different for transactional emails
If the primary purpose of an email is transactional, it’s mostly exempt from CAN-SPAM Act provisions—but the email still can’t contain “false or misleading routing information.” That just means your domain name and email address needs to accurately identify your business.
Consent is different for transactional vs. marketing messages, too. You need explicit opt-in consent to send marketing emails and an easy way for people to unsubscribe via an unsubscribe link. But for transactional emails, the transaction itself constitutes consent because these emails are necessary to complete the transaction.
Marketing is promotional while transactional emails are operational
Marketing emails are promotional messages that encourage subscribers to take an action, like clicking on a link to your website. This encouragement is what encourages you to get creative with the content of your marketing emails.
Transactional emails don’t need to work as hard as marketing emails.
Transactional emails don’t need to work as hard as marketing emails. You’ve already dazzled your customers—they’re already in the door. So transactional emails just need to share information that’s operational, in a clear and concise way.
But functional doesn’t have to mean boring. You can still write your transactional emails in a style that aligns with your brand voice to make your customer experience cohesive.
Transactional emails are 1:1
When someone purchases a product, they get a transactional email that confirms their purchase and provides details like price paid, shipping timelines, etc. That’s 1:1 email communication. When someone receives an email marketing automation or marketing campaign, by contrast, they’re getting the same customized message as several other people on your (segmented) email list.
For example, you probably customize your abandoned cart email to reflect the specific product someone didn’t purchase, but it’s still an email you send several times over. Transactional emails, on the other hand, are truly only for the one person who triggered the send.
Transactional emails have higher open rates
Transactional emails have high open rates because they contain essential information. According to the latest quarterly Klaviyo email benchmarks, post-purchase email flows earn the highest average open rates of any email automation at 61.05%.
So much of marketing in general is catching people at an optimal moment of interest. This is what transactional emails allow you to do—with tact.
That makes sense—the customer receives these emails at a time when they’re most excited about their recent purchase. It’s also why it’s so important to view your transactional emails as an opportunity to strengthen a customer’s ties to your brand.
So much of marketing strategy in general is catching people at an optimal moment of interest, and this is what transactional emails allow you to do—with tact.
Why you should set up an automated transactional email flow
Because transactional emails are 1:1 in nature, automating them just makes sense. Could you imagine sending a series of transactional emails manually every time someone made a purchase? No, because that would be a terrible use of your time.
An automated transactional email flow includes the following messages—both transactional and promotional emails if the customer has opted into marketing messages:
- Order confirmation: This email confirms the details of a customer’s purchase, including the order number, the products they purchased, billing information, and shipping details.
- Shipping and tracking notification: This email keeps the customer informed about shipping timelines and includes tracking information to help the customer monitor the real-time progress of their package.
- Delivery confirmation: This email confirms the successful delivery of the package, which is crucial for reporting lost items.
- Customer review request: This email message encourages customers to review the product after some time has passed, which then helps other potential customers make informed choices about their purchases.
- Account basics: Common examples of these emails include messages like password reset requests, account update notifications, authentications, or renewal reminders. Add them to your automated sequence to address specific user actions or account-related events.
Here’s what to expect when you automate your transactional email flow:
At its most basic level, your transactional email flow sets up your business to carry out successful transactions.
Transactional emails offer your customers the transparency they need to feel confident they’ll get their order in a timely manner. Order confirmations and shipping notifications send vital details about purchases, including order status and delivery tracking. Delivery tracking especially helps complete transactions by notifying customers when an item has been delivered—because if the item is nowhere to be found but the customer has received an email delivery confirmation, that’s your cue to help figure out what happened.
When someone spends any amount of money online, they want to feel confident their purchase has been processed—anything else feels like a scam. Without transactional emails, customers would feel like they’re in limbo.
Without transactional emails, customers would feel like they’re in limbo.
Transactional emails are also what prevent customers from calling your customer service reps to clarify the details of their order. Where there’s confusion there will always be attempts at clarity, which means you spend more resources on fulfilling customer service demands. Transactional emails help you save money by reducing confusion.
What’s more relevant than a message about a purchase someone just made? Transactional emails are of peak relevance for brands, as they’re catching customers at their most excited state.
Can you curate UGC that shows how other customers use that product? Do you have any instructions or educational information that would help the customer get the most out of their purchase? If someone ordered a cooking utensil, for example, could you include a link to a recipe that utilizes that tool?
Take the transactional email beyond the realm of standard consumerism by injecting it with a dose of humanity.
As long as you’re careful with the transactional-to-promotional ratio in your transactional emails (we recommend 80:20), you can use them to send relevant promotions, discounts, or special offers based on the customer’s recent transaction.
When you do this minimally and helpfully, these add-ons help build stronger customer relationships by adding context to the purchase they just made. Take the transactional email beyond the realm of standard consumerism by injecting it with a dose of humanity.
Trust among customers
Transactional emails do more than just assure customers they haven’t bought into a scam. They also communicate to customers that you value their time and money by telling them exactly when they can expect their purchase.
When you do this enough times and keep the post-purchase experience positive and consistent, you build trust over the long term—which often translates to more revenue.
Higher retention rates
Transactional emails are part of your post-purchase experience—and your opportunity to show customers what to expect if they keep buying from you.
When you automate your transactional email flow, you’re front-loading the work of consistency, low human error, and strategic delivery of content that meets the standards of your brand. After automation, you’ll hardly need to worry about whether or not you’re exceeding post-purchase expectations.
Examples of the best transactional emails from real-life ecommerce brands
As a consumer yourself, you’ve seen and interacted with transactional emails hundreds of times. If you received an email after placing your order, you likely have one sitting in your inbox now.
Here are 3 types of transactional email templates you might send to your customers:
1. Order confirmation emails
Order confirmation emails serve several purposes:
- They acknowledge the purchase is done and assure the customer it’s legit.
- They set expectations about shipping and receipt.
- They create excitement and reinforce the decision to purchase.
This example from Wildfang masters all 3 of those goals. The email itemizes each piece of clothing and says everything is ready to be shipped—while setting the expectation that items may arrive in separate packages. The customer can also see which items are final sale and which items they saved money with a discount code. The total amount of savings is the last little piece of flair that makes the customer feel special.
Image source: Wildfang
2. Account or subscription activations
Account notification or activation emails serve several purposes:
- They make the account holder feel like their data is secure.
- They set expectations for website experience.
- They create excitement about membership.
This example from Verso Books does a great job showing account holders that the brand cares about their experience. Here, Verso communicates a move to Shopify, which requires the user to activate a new account—and explains that if they do so, they can expect a more user-friendly browsing experience. The email clearly explains why Verso decided to make the move, which encourages people to come along with them.
Image source: Verso Books
3. Shipping confirmations
Shipping confirmation emails serve several purposes:
- They assure the customer their order is on the way.
- They set expectations for when the order is expected to arrive.
- They empower the customer to track their shipment with a tracking link.
This example from OSEA hits all 3 notes. The box at the top of the email is a nice design touch, too, as it makes it easy for recipients to track their package.
Image source: OSEA
How to improve email deliverability for your transactional emails
Transactional emails are so essential that even regulators agree they’re necessary for the baseline operations of your business.
But what happens when such crucial emails end up in junk folders? Your customers think their order wasn’t received—and that your business may not be legitimate.
This is why improving your email deliverability to fight against the dreaded spam folder vortex is so important for your brand. Here are some email best practices to improve deliverability:
Use a unique sender address
Remember how transactional emails are mostly exempt from CAN-SPAM Act provisions? They are, except your domain name and email address does need to accurately identify your business.
But it’s not just regulators that enjoy this clarity— email service providers love it, too. You need to send all transactional emails from a unique email sender address specifically created for email sending from your brand’s online store. Your unique email sender address combines your domain name (@[domainname]) with a prefix of your choosing.
A unique sender address establishes trust and credibility with your customers, which makes your emails less likely to be flagged as spam.
A unique sender address establishes trust and credibility with your customers, which makes your emails less likely to be flagged as spam.
When an email receives enough spam complaints, it sends a signal to email providers that it’s not a great email. As a result, the sender’s reputation is tarnished in the eyes of the email provider—and more of their emails end up in spam folders in the future.
Avoid this domino effect by locking down a unique sender address recipients can trust.
Make subject lines specific to your message
Email subject lines for marketing messages often benefit from some (clear) cleverness, but transactional email subject lines just need to be straightforward.
If your subject line is too clever, the primary purpose of the email could be mistaken as marketing-driven—which would subject it to CAN-SPAM regulations. Consider your subject line as the litmus test for defining the primary purpose of your email, and make sure it sticks to the point. Here are a few examples:
- Order confirmation: “Order #123456 confirmed”
- Shipping confirmation: “A shipment from order #123456 is on the way”
- Account activation: “Account activation”
Keep email copy brief and straightforward
Similar to your subject line, brevity is king for transactional emails. This is a matter of respect—your customers are expecting the basics about their order, and they just want to know when they’ll receive it.
You’ve already wooed them. Now is the time to be helpful, not promotional.
Design for long-term brand loyalty
You may not want to use your transactional emails to sell, but that doesn’t mean your brand should take a back seat. Your transactional emails should look like they come from you, which means the same brand colors, fonts, and graphics.
As long as brand content doesn’t overtake the primary purpose of your transactional emails, use the opportunity to strengthen customer bonds. Here are a few ideas:
- Include your social media links in the footer.
- Send one link to a helpful and relevant product guide.
- Include UGC showcasing how other shoppers styled or used the product the customer ordered.
- Notify customers of brick-and-mortar locations near them.
- Add a call to action (CTA) and relevant product recommendations to a shipment confirmation email.
Transactional emails are crucial—give them the attention they’re due
Transactional emails are the operational backbone of your business. To ensure your transactional emails land in a location with high visibility—your customer’s primary inbox—you may need to review whether your content is meeting expectations.
Minimalist, straightforward, and helpful are can’t-lose tactics for making sure the primary purpose of your transactional emails is truly transactional by focusing on functionality. Once you have the basics in place, that’s when you can start playing with additional relevant content that’s more helpful than promotional.
Transactional email FAQs
What is the difference between a commercial vs. transactional email?
A commercial email promotes products with persuasive content and promotional offers to a defined audience with the goal of driving sales. A transactional email provides essential information about a transaction, like an order confirmation or shipping notification.
What are transactional emails used for?
Transactional emails are used to keep customers informed about a transaction. They’re triggered by purchases, account registrations, or password resets, and they deliver personalized, concise messages that focus on the essential details of the transaction.
What is the average open rate for a transactional email?
The average open rate for a transactional email varies depending on the industry but, in general, they are higher than they are for marketing emails. According to the latest Klaviyo email benchmarks, for example, average open rates across all post-purchase follow-up emails, including transactional emails, exceed 60%.