It’s not a phrase I’m familiar with and while reading around the topic I discovered that I’m not the only one who needed some guidance on what it means.

Therefore I’ve put together a short guide to what transactional emails are and what they’re commonly used for.

And for more information on how marketers use email, download our Email Marketing Industry Census 2013

The definition

The term ‘transactional email’ sounds like it refers to some sort of financial transaction or a message that is intended to persuade the recipient to make a purchase. This isn’t actually the case.

In fact a transactional email is any message that is sent to an individual in response to a specific action. This could be signing up to a newsletter, making a purchase or even abandoning a shopping basket.

Some transactional emails are sent with the aim of prompting further action on behalf of the recipient, while others simply confirm or acknowledge user activity.

As such, transactional emails could also be referred to as ‘triggered’ or ‘personalised’, which is probably a more accurate description.

Regardless, these are some examples of the most common types of transactional emails in ecommerce:

  • Newsletter sign up.
  • Password reset.
  • Account registration.
  • Order confirmation.
  • Cart abandonment.

And here are examples of how brands use transactional emails.

Welcome emails

Welcome emails are a great opportunity for marketers as they often achieve open rates of more than 50%.

I’ve previously reviewed the sign up process for a number of fashion retailers as well as the welcome emails that are sent out in response.

Interestingly five of the retailers actually failed to send a welcome email, while the content of the emails I did receive was quite variable.

For example, Selfridges took the opportunity to try and capture some additional personal information under the guise of personalising the email newsletter.

In contrast, Mr Porter spelled out exactly what I had signed up for and displayed a decent call-to-action directing me to visit Mr Porter should I feel the urge to continue shopping.

Other common tactics include:

  • Asking recipients to add the brand to their address book so future emails don’t end up in the spam folder.
  • Offering a discount code.
  • Thanking the user for signing up to the mailing list.

For more information on this type of email, check out my post on 11 useful tips for designing welcome emails.

Abandoned basket

Studies have shown that transactional email messages can reduce checkout abandonment by as much as 40%.

Even so, I’ve only received a handful of abandoned basket emails in all the years that I’ve been browsing the web and reviewing ecommerce sites.

One example came from camping supplier Millets after I failed to complete the purchase of a jacket.

The design was fairly simple and mirrored a standard checkout layout. It included an image of the product, price and a brief message stating that Millets was holding the item for my ‘convenience’.

The calls-to-action need to be redesigned though, as the turquoise colour blends in with the rest of the email.

I also recently received an abandoned basket email from furniture retailer OKA, however I don’t feel the design was particularly effective.

The bulk of the email is taken up by four paragraphs of text and several random images. It’s necessary to explain the purpose of the email and giving the number for a customer care hotline is also a nice touch, but asking me to sign up to an email newsletter is a step too far.

It means that the product details appear below the fold and weakens the impact of the message.