Email notifications are a critical part of any successful SaaS app. But too often, they’re treated as utilitarian, transactional messages that do little to help drive growth. That’s a big mistake.

However, when  treated with more creativity and attention to how users actually interact with notifications, they become powerhouses of user engagement and core tools for driving customer conversion and retention.

Quick definitions

First, a quick definition: Transactional emails are triggered by an individual’s specific interaction with a product or site. For example, when purchase is made in an app, a receipt and thank-you needs to be sent to the user.

These kinds messages have much broader use than just purchases: A user may submit their contact info to you, and you return the favor by mailing them a link to an exclusive upgrade or download. Or they may be triggered by inaction, as when you send an email designed to reactivate a user who’s been dormant for a certain period.

Transactional emails often perform better than promotional emails, because they’re personalized and anticipated by the recipient, which results in improved deliverability. Experian’s Transactional Email Report found transactional emails are more likely to be opened, and are even opened repeatedly, making them a great touchpoint for upselling, social sharing, soliciting feedback, cross-promotion and more.

Here are five examples of how transactional emails can be transformed into powerful points of engagement.

 1. Welcome Email

It’s important to thank a new user or subscriber for buying or doing a trial for your SaaS product with a personalized email. If possible, don’t just insert their name, but customize the message as much as possible by including other data you may have on hand about them or their reasons for signing on.

As with most of the solutions we’ll cover, it’s vital to do A/B testing of alternate welcome emails to see which drive the most interaction. What’s that interaction, you ask? It could be anything from a bonus reward to simply launching the product.

In the case of Skillshare, users who signed up for specific online classes were ushered into their first lesson straightaway:

Not only does Skillshare give them the chance to start their course within the email, it works in some pertinent cross-selling with the “Related Classes You May Like,” too.

2. Onboarding Email

The thing to remember about confirmation emails? They’re “pre-personalized” to the user, because they took the specific action you’re confirming. So they’re more likely to be opened by that user, and more likely to capture further engagement.

Here’s the first welcome message a MailChimp user gets:

It’s clear, simple and direct; its main job is to get them to activate their account, so it puts that front-and-center. But it’s still very branded: its very easy and simplicity are what MailChimp is all about.

3. Reward Email

Moving further forward, we can see how confirmation emails can be customized to each step in customer engagement, helping to expand their relationship (and maximize their value to the brand). Take this example from Vero, for example:

This does several very good things: It walks users through initial use of Vero by demonstrating where they are in what becomes, via email, an onboarding process, leading them to the next step, getting them more and more entrenched in the product. Even the graphic of the “progress bar” makes that process come off as simplified, even gamified for the user.

This email saw a 72% open rate, in fact!

4. Receipt Email

It’s an obvious place to try to do some more selling or promotion, isn’t it? They’ve already bought your product, so maybe it’s good to strike while the iron is hot…or before they have a bad experience with your platform..?

There are a lot of approaches to how to up engagement via the lowly sales receipt, some extremely cluttered with product pitches and promos. It’s all a matter of what you’re marketing, and how receptive your audience may be.

For us, an understated and personable strategy like this one from Skillshare works the trick best:

It gives the user a chance to take advantage of a refer-a-friend offer, but doesn’t overstress it or distract from the purported purpose of the email, which is to deliver a receipt.

One good rule of thumb is to keep sales or promo messages to no more than a quarter or a third of the layout, and make them stylistically harmonious with the rest of the design.

5. Feedback Email

Here’s a place where many of the tactics we’ve mentioned above – cross-selling, upselling, viralization – should go on hold.  They’d only conflict with the dialogue you’re trying to establish by asking for user feedback.

In this case, the “surprise and delight” should come from the very fact you’re asking for their input in the first place, and from the authenticity and clarity of your request, as this Campaign Monitor example demonstrates.

The ultimate transaction: trust

I hope that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic, but it’s true. Transactional emails can be strides in forging stronger relationships with customers who are always searching for a vendor, a provider, or a brand they feel they can trust.

The personalization opportunities implicit in each transaction, and the fact you can elevate them into become more gratifying and interesting points of engagement, can make them indispensable tools for an SaaS team that’s pursuing stronger ties with more users.


Today, I thought I would point out a few of my favorite tricks when creating templates. Let’s call them email template hacks. I’ve briefly mentioned some of these in previous blogs, so today I’ll expand on those ideas and add in some use cases and examples.

1. Leveraging Substitution Fields in CSS

The first trick is to use substitution fields for your CSS values. Colors, fonts, height, pretty much anything can be substituted. Many email clients leverage header styles while others don’t. However you choose to tackle formatting your emails across various clients, you can leverage substitutions both inline, in the header block or both.

There are a few different approaches available if you want to inject CSS in the header block in order to maintain standards through all of your templates. The first method is to simply replace CSS values with substitution data. For example, if modifying the text color for an html <a> tag within the <style> block I would modify the color field to reference a substitution field. Here’s an example:

Then, in the transformations JSON call, I would have the corresponding substitution field:

This is the easiest way to modify the look and feel without having to rummage through hundreds of template and make changes. This also assumes that you are holding those values somewhere on your server and can retrieve them fairly easily for the transmission JSON creation.

Building this example up, you may use a dynamic_html and/or dynamic_text blocks. This allows you to make wholesale changes by bringing in large CSS blocks that you may be storing in a repository of standards. Change the blocks in that repository, and you change all of the templates that get the dynamic html/text referenced.

Please keep in mind that dynamic_html/text blocks are held within the global substitution_data blocks, now the recipient substitution_data blocks. A CSS block within the Transmissions dynamic_html structure may look something like this:

This code block is no different than if you had it placed in the HTML template itself. Now it’s just easier to update when referenced into the template via the transmission which pulls from a central repository. The template itself will use this code block with the following entry in the template somewhere in the html <header> block:

If you want to go all out, dynamic rendering even allows for recursive substitution fields. This means that the dynamic code block can have substitution fields as well. A good use case for this is when you OEM or White label your product. In the following example, the CSS block is similar to the one above, but there are substitution fields for the CSS values. Those substitution fields are then placed in the global substitution block of the transmission. For example:

But wait, what if I want to use inline CSS, you ask? Well, just change those big blocks of CSS settings and make them substitution fields.

2. Not sending the email at all if certain data does not exist

As emails become more personalized, they start to look and feel like transactional emails. This is a great trend, but it opens up a greater possibility for unfinished emails. Let’s say a job board sends lists of job opportunities to all active members each morning. Hopefully there are checks and balances that stop the application from requesting for an email to go out if there are no matches for that user, but as a template designer, I don’t want to rely on that. So a little trick that I use is to check for a specific substitution field or array that must be present; if it doesn’t exist, I call a non-existent function with the following line somewhere in the template (I tend to put this on the bottom). This will automatically kill that email from being generated so the bad email doesn’t make it out the door. In the example below, I’m checking for the ProductList array, and if it doesn’t exist, I call the function ‘crash’ with the parameter ‘onpurpose’.

3. Validating data before creating the table for arrays

SparkPost has a very powerful feature that allows a template to loop through an array in order to display a set of information, like jobs, real estate listings or products. In fact, SparkPost even supports having loops within loops within loops. Often, multiple tables, rows and columns get created order to display this information in the fashion the content creator wishes. But what if there is no data to show in one of those loops, but you still want the email to go out, just without the empty rows or tables? In many of my retail templates, I display a list of products that have ‘x’ number of features for each product. If there are no features, I still want the product to be displayed but I may not need to create some of the corresponding html code for the empty features list. In order to keep the email looking good, I check both the existence and the value of my arrays before building unnecessary tables, rows or columns that would house this information. This trick is solved with a simple two part if statement:

4. Using substitution fields in the subject line

So you built your template and placed it onto the SparkPost server. Don’t forget to create a dynamic subject line. One of the easiest way’s to get your email clipped by Gmail or buried into a huge thread is to use the same subject line over and over. So go ahead and use substitution fields for your subject. I often put the person’s name, along with a subject field. My Subject field in the SparkPost UI is set to something like:

5. Use dynamic_html for headers and footers

So, continuing on the theme of standards, I like to send my headers and footers to each template via the Transmission API in the form of a dynamic_html entry. This allows me to keep a library of headers and footers that can be easily modified without having to change every template. Because SparkPost doesn’t have the ability to store those headers and footers on the server then insert them into the targeted template, it’s a good practice to have those standard headers and footers in another content management system that marketing can change without developments help. When the transmission json is getting built, the appropriate headers and footers are placed into the dynamic_html section which is then pulled into the template before sending.

Upcoming Email Template Hacks

So those are some of my favorite template tricks. In my next blog, I’m going to tackle the trick of validating that the transmission payload has all of the data the template is expecting to receive. The blog will be accompanied by a full PHP code sample for this validation step.

Happy Sending

Jeff Goldstein
Senior Messaging Engineer

Any email template hacks we missed? Tweet us or come find us in our community Slack

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The Best in Email: 2017 Sparky Award Winners

How about that Oscars ending last Sunday? While the Sparky Awards don’t have nearly as dramatic of a twist, we are very excited to share the 2017 Sparky Award winners with you and recognize some seriously awesome efforts in the email space.

As word got out about the second annual Sparky Awards, our submissions nearly quadrupled in volume from last year. Our judges pored over nominations and eventually narrowed it down to a field of 2 top entries in each category and deliberated over the final category winners. Turns out you can have some fun with transactional emails, get super creative with subject line testing to gather data, AND solve important real-world problems with our API.

Without further ado, here are our 2017 Sparky Award winners:

Best Subject Line

Winner: Evite
Subject Line: Are you kitten me right meow?
Submission Recap: This email announced the launch of Evite’s new invitation category, “Pet Parties”. Evite had no data on which of their users were interested in pets, so the team needed an engaging subject line that would entice a broad group of users to open. They conducted a 10/10/80 A/B split test on the tone of the subject and message: Playful vs. Traditional announcement. The ultimate subject line for this email, “Are you kitten me right meow?”, had an open rate 2x higher than average. The then-proven “Playful” tone set the precedent for high open rates and engaging copy throughout the rest of Evite’s summer campaign

Best Transactional Email

Winner: Zillow
Submission Recap: Looking to increase engagement on favorited homes, users are sent an email with dynamic up-to-the-time-of-send stats on a favorited home (views & listings) within 24 hours of favoriting. More than 2 saves within 24 hours are batched into a digest version. There are many interaction points in the email – clickable images, links and multiple category buttons per image. Surfacing the number of people who have also viewed and saved that same home introduced an element of transparency (whether or not the home was popular) as well as competition (Be the First to See it!)

Best Use of the SparkPost API

Winner: Audio Images International, Inc.
Submission Recap: AIII operates a full-service multi-tenant messaging system specifically targeting property managers. SparkPost powers the fully integrated messaging service, complementing their best-in-class automated answering service. AIII’s focus is on empowering property managers to send timely and targeted communication to their hundreds of residents. Messages can be sent to individual units, or to an entire building. Residents receive messages in their format of choice, whether that’s html / text email, a text message, or both. AIII then processes webhook event data from SparkPost to let their customers, the property managers, know when they might have a typo’d email address (hard bounce), or what percent of residents interacted with the message (open and/or click). Their preference center and webhook-driven reporting make them stand out as a great use of the SparkPost API.

Grand Prize

The grand prize 2017 Sparky Award winner and recipient of up to $1000 in cash toward an industry conference is… Audio Images International, Inc!

Congratulations to all of the winners, you’ll all be receiving an engraved 2017 Sparky Award with your company name & category!

And special thanks to our judges: Dan Levinson, Clea Moore, Dave Gray & Celebrity Guest Judge Jack Wrigley.


Thoughts on the Sparky Awards or email in general? Leave us a comment below or tweet us.

Triggered Email 101 Orange Dart

What Is Triggered Email?

Alright students, I have a pop quiz for you. It’s a multiple choice question: Which of the following describes “triggered email?”

  1. An email sent in response to a specific cue.
  2. A silver bullet for customer engagement.
  3. The perfect use case for API-driven email.
  4. All of the above.

I’m sorry that I stacked the deck with answers to make my point! Triggered email is most definitely (d) All of the above. However, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s expand on these statements and be a little more precise:

A triggered email is a timely, relevant, and individualized email automatically sent in response to an action taken by a recipient, or to a data point about that recipient.

What Can Be a Trigger for Email Like This?

The above definition really says that a triggered email needs a trigger! What are examples of this? Well, a straight-forward example is sending an acknowledgement message after someone registers on your web site. Or, the trigger could be a relatively simple database-driven event, like sending a greeting and and special coupon gift if you know a recipient’s birthday. A more sophisticated example might be emails triggered by a series of “checkpoints” that are designed to drive user onboarding and engagement. Or, the trigger could be a highly complex, state-driven data model like those used by growth marketers.

Here are just some examples of triggered emails commonly used by many types of businesses:

  • Post-subscription welcome messages
  • App onboarding and activation
  • Order receipts and shipping confirmations
  • Requests for customer feedback on a product
  • Post-purchase emails with upsells and cross-sells
  • Birthday messages
  • Cart abandonment reminders
  • Replenishment reminders – “it’s time to buy more _______!”
  • Promotional emails for items a subscriber browsed on your website
  • Thank-you emails
  • Unsubscribe emails

Transactional Email vs. Triggered Email

By the way, if you’re familiar with the concept transactional emails, you might notice that this definition implies that transactional emails are a specific type of triggered emails, but not all triggered emails are transactional emails. That distinction matters for managing compliance with best practices and regulations around commercial email.

Why Does Triggered Email Work?

The big advantage of triggered email is its depth of engagement with recipients. Unlike other forms of email marketing, triggered emails…

  • Are expected or anticipated by recipients
  • Are highly relevant, with content and calls-to-action personalized for each individual
  • Are appropriately timed to address their immediate or potential needs, key dates and life events

This depth of engagement is why triggered emails see an open rate 8x that of purely promotional email. That’s why for many types of businesses, including retailers and app or cloud service providers, triggered email has become a key aspect of their customer engagement strategy.

Triggered Email Is Key to a Personalized Customer Experience

The success of triggered email stems from personalization, but it’s personalization on a deeper level than simply knowing the name or preferences of an individual.

Here’s what I mean: open your inbox and you’ll probably see a few examples of personalization. A marketer may insert your name in the subject line or body copy of a promotional email. Maybe there’s some list-based targeting or segmentation at work, too, but honestly, too many of those messages we receive reflect just superficial personalization. It’s not truly behavioral or engaging, and it probably doesn’t really feel like a personal communication from the business.

In contrast, triggered emails are deeply and inherently personalized, since they’re tied to a customer’s actual needs: he or she has searched for a product, or has asked for information, or is expecting an update, or is having a life event. Whatever the trigger, our message is relevant to that person at the moment they receive it. That’s why triggered emails are so powerful, and it’s why we developed SparkPost as an API-driven, on-demand email service: batched blasts of generic emails just don’t work for this sort of need.

By putting the right information in front of that person at the right time, triggered email nurtures engagement. And with that level of engagement, a customer is open to having a lasting, deepened relationship with a business. That’s just another way of saying that triggered emails help customers feel like they’re being treated as an individual, not an email address. And that’s a very powerful motivator.

What are your experiences and challenges with triggered email? I’d love to hear how you use triggered email in your business and the kinds you receive in your own inbox.


P.S. Want to dig deeper into the why’s and how’s of triggered emails? Be sure to check these out:

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Commercial Emails and Transactional Emails: Differentiators and Best Practices

Whether you’re sending commercial or transactional emails, making sure your message gets where it’s going, gets read and makes an impression is of the highest priority. What’s the difference? Transactional emails are sent to a person as a result of a specific action taken by the user. Commercial emails are promotional emails sent to a user in order to drive awareness, encourage engagement, or make a sale.

By following a few simple best practices you can ensure both your commercial and transactional emails hit their targets and stay out of the spam folder.

transactional emails infographic


FjordI’m a day from starting my holiday. My wife and I are heading to Norway to explore fjords, learn about Viking history, and soak in an abundance of high-latitude sunlight. At the same time, my experience over the past few days of packing for my trip has made me recognize just how many perishable moments exist in the space of 24 hours.

What’s a “perishable moment?” Let me explain.

Most every year we take a big trip somewhere. We travel light, lugging our belongings on our back. We don’t book but the first few nights of wherever we stay, to avoid being “trapped” in some lackluster tourist oubliette. Nonetheless, every year, I seem to find some new piece or another of gear that promises to make traveling easier, or more efficient.

The other day, I went and picked up a bunch of travel supplies at my sporting good store:

  • 2x ultra light packing cube systems
  • 2x double combo cable locks
  • 2x regular combo locks
  • 1x ultra light mesh stuff-sack
  • 1 GoPro wireless remote
  • 1 Multi-tool (to replace the one that went missing in my black hole of a home office)

This list isn’t extensive but given that these six items are all travel-related, one might infer that I’m taking a trip. Now, if I were in the shoes of the email marketing manager at that sporting goods store, I’d want to know what kind of products my customers are buying, from which categories, and at what frequency. If I could pull together data from these sources, I might discover a perishable moment that warranted an email. So, let’s see what a mockup of what my purchase and email history in the store’s marketing database might look like:

Lens Perishable moments chart

From a superficial glance at this table, one might assume that I like to rock climb and that I get cold easily. What this doesn’t show is that I returned all of the jackets because they didn’t fit. With a closer look, perhaps one could make the inference that my purchases for the jackets were the result of a 25% off coupon—I bought them all at once and tried them on at home intending to reap the 25% off coupon on the one that fit the best. As it turns out, none were for me.

But if we step back and examine the entire list of items, their purchase source, the fact that I didn’t open emails about cycling, but that I purchased climbing and travel gear… well, then the assumption I’d make is that I’m heading on a trip, possibly to a cold place, to do some outdoor climbing. Maybe to a foreign destination, as I might not buy luggage locks otherwise. One more assumption I could make is that the trip is coming up quickly: luggage locks are not something you buy a month in advance; they’re something you discover you need a few days before you leave because you’ve lost the key to your lock or you simply misplaced the lock.

So, that scenario is painted from a number of assumptions, but they’re all based on empirical data. And that’s reason enough to see that I have an opportunity to entreat my customer with an opportunistic marketing message with a subject line along the lines of the following:

  • “Boarding will begin shortly, do you have everything you need?”
  • “25% off in-store any last minute items before your big trip!”
  • “The right gear for the right rock!”

The idea is that I’m making an educated guess that the customer is traveling somewhere, they might be rock climbing, and the trip is probably starting in the next 72 hours.

Perishable moments are opportunities derived from the careful analysis of cross-channel data to make the right assumptions or inferences, and then by testing the results with a series of targeted emails. For a perishable moment to be uncovered you have to have access to data, lots of it, and from multiple sources. Another dimension that’s missing from the simple table above is the customer’s web browsing history; plugging that in would’ve uncovered the fact that I shopped for deals on the outlet site, looked at warm hats, mittens, umbrellas, and rain jackets. The pattern of purchases, the emails I opened—they all infer that I’m taking a trip somewhere possible cold to do some climbing. (In truth, the gear was for climbing in Tahoe not Norway, but I am taking a trip, and I do rock climb, so the assumption is mostly right and would still yield, at the very least, an open.

Perishable moments don’t have to be this complex. They can simply be assumptions about the patterns of our lives, and the fact that we all have routines. The average person goes to work between 7–8 AM. Maybe he or she is riding a train, or stuck in a car, or on a bus commuting to the office. These moments are great opportunities to connect the commute to something simple, an “eye-opening deal,” a “wake up to savings,” something that brings together the routine and the opportunity.

Perishable moments are just that—fleeting. To capitalize on this concordance of place, product, price, and promotion, you’d need to ensure that your messages arrive in the recipient’s inbox in a timely manner. Fortunately, users of SparkPost know that our industry-leading deliverability and throughput mean that latency is, frankly, a non-issue. And SparkPost’s powerful templating API lets marketers create dynamic offers that leverage a wealth of behavioral data and programmatic rules for data and assembly within the body of the message.

Perishable moments like those reflected in the story of my upcoming trip to Norway may be brief, but with the right data and deliverability, they can be very rewarding opportunities for successful marketing.


Nodejs SDKThere are few – if any – apps today that could get away without utilizing email sending capabilities. At the very least, web and mobile applications need the capability to promptly send password reset links when a user forgets his or her password. Additionally, of course, users who buy something these days expect an email receipt. These transactional emails should be sent within a minute – at most. Otherwise, you risk losing users when they tire of repeatedly hitting the refresh button on their email client.

You may already know that SparkPost gives companies of all sizes the ability to send fast and dependable email. But we don’t stop there because it’s not enough to have access to the best market-leading email service if you have to become an expert to use it. We want you to be able to integrate our email service easily and efficiently, so you can get back to working on your app’s key functionality. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to make it as easy as possible for developers to integrate SparkPost into their web or mobile apps. To that end, we most recently released an SDK for Node.js.

The SparkPost team is always looking to see what SDKs would benefit our user community. Node.js has become a popular language for developers building scalable enterprise web applications, so we’ve provided a little syntactic sugar for the Node.js crowd. Using our APIs or SDKs, developers typically get up and running with SparkPost in 30 minutes or so.

Developers primarily use SparkPost SDKs to send a transmission, but we’ve included additional capabilities in the Node.js SDK:

  • Recipient lists
  • Sending domains
  • Suppression list
  • Templates
  • Transmissions
  • Webhooks

These capabilities will soon be added to our PHP and Python SDKs as well. All of our SDKs are provided as open source through Github, and more will be added in the future. Send me a tweet @aydrianh if you have any new suggestions about SDKs you’d like to see.

AnatomyGoodTransactionalEmailOne of my coworkers recently shared with me a transactional email that made us both smile. Did I just out myself as an email nerd? Well it wouldn’t be the first time. There’s a reason for the giddiness over transactional email: I recently had the pleasure of presenting a webinar on transactional email with Justine Jordan of Litmus. We focused on how transactional emails do much of the heavy lifting for a brand’s communication needs. Ever since then I see ‘transactional email’ everywhere in an M. Night Shyamalan kind of way. I get excited when I consider the nuances of transactional messages and how those nuances either make them more impactful or miss the mark. Brands that get it are head and shoulders above their competitors—once in a while I run across a brand that literally hits it out of the park like this L.L. Bean email my coworker shared with me:


The one thing this screen capture isn’t showing you is the subject line of the message:

Subject: Welcome, Here’s Your First L.L.Bean Email

The subject line here is as significant and well thought out as the entire body of the email. This is the first marketing email my co-worker received and the subject line indicates that this is the beginning of the relationship between the brand and the recipient. The body content further emphasizes this and even distills the importance of the relationship down to the company credo.

Everything about this message is well thought out—the unsubscribe link, in case she opted in accidentally, is clearly visible at the bottom of the message. When you consider that this is the first marketing message after she converted on the website, then this is both a thank you message and a marketing notification that helps solidify the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship.

You might be thinking that I’m reading too much into it—my coworker and I are not the right audience: we’re deep in the email trenches and deal with email all day, every day. But given the number of poorly designed transactional messages that lack branding, have overtly promotional tones that may land them in hot water with the FTC, this is a breath of fresh air. This transactional message confirms her opt-in. It also establishes the relationship and reinforces her importance as a customer to the brand while being wholly in-line with the branding and future emails she’ll receive that will be purely commercial in nature.

Transactional messages are too often thought of as a paper trail that shouldn’t be branded in the same manner as commercial (promotional) ones. During our research we ran across a brand that actually took this a step further and reminded us of one flavor of ‘analog transactional emails’ otherwise known as paper receipts:


There are numerous ways to take something as droll as a transactional email, such as a shipping or order confirmation, and spruce it up. By taking the time and effort to think of your transactional messages as more than a paper trail you’re taking the necessary step to engage your customers and recipients at every step of the customer lifecycle—and as we all know, customer engagement is what ultimately defines success in this hyper saturated world of emails, offers and content.

Check out our Transactional Email Infographic.


Navigating the Divide Between Transactional and Promotional Email

What-is-Transactional-Email[Updated June 2017] For developers building out a new web service or app, transactional email is usually seen as a simple means to end: it is a triggered notification such as confirmation of a password reset.

To fully understand what is transactional email, it might help to take a step back and review Email History 101 , as transactional email is not simply a means to an end; it is a large concept, containing multitudes. Within the email community – the world of engineers, direct marketers and systems operations folks whose day-to-day work focuses on email, mobile and social messaging – transactional messaging is widely understood as:

What is Transactional Email?: Also known as triggered email, they are any kind of email message that is generated as a result of a user action, in direct relation to that user action. Examples would include opt-in messages, purchase confirmations or notices of the actions of a fellow user (xx posted on your wall…). 

Email History 101: The Origin of Transactional Email

This wasn’t the case a decade ago, when the U.S. federal government provided a precise legal definition of a transactional message as part of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003:

The primary purpose of an email is transactional or relationship if it consists only of content that:

1.      Facilitates or confirms a commercial transaction that the recipient already has agreed to;

2.      Gives warranty, recall, safety, or security information about a product or service;

3.      Gives information about a change in terms or features or account balance information regarding a membership, subscription, account, loan or other ongoing commercial relationship;

4.      Provides information about an employment relationship or employee benefits; or

5.      Delivers goods or services as part of a transaction that the recipient already has agreed to.

Yet that same law acknowledges that businesses frequently have cause to send messages that combine commercial content and transactional or relationship content. Reread #5 above and consider the implications there. With the rise of social media and mobile devices over the past decade, the definition of what qualifies as a transactional message has expanded significantly. Many in the email community now prefer to use the term “triggered” rather than “transactional” because these types of messages are often prompted by events not directly initiated by the recipient. For Gmail users, pretty much every email that ends up under the Social tab in their inbox has been triggered by the actions of a friend, automatically sent based on a timely event, or sent based on your interests.

Best Practices for Improving Engagement Through Transactional Email

As consumers increasingly use apps to carry on brand relationships or to access customer services, the nature of B2C interactions are changing. This is especially so with ongoing transactions where, say, the business has good reason to message customers multiple times between the time a purchase is initiated and when it is completed. For instance, when you buy tickets to a ballgame a month ahead of time, or when you buy clothes online that take a week to deliver. Customers nowadays expect to be kept informed during the interim.

Where businesses once based their customer messaging strategies on the common practice of sending non-personalized messages like marketing email, offers or newsletters, today businesses must think in terms of ongoing conversations. Transactional messages triggered by an event or a change in the nature of the relationship (“Flight 293 to San Francisco (SFO) has been delayed 15 minutes”) are increasingly expected. When successfully personalized, these kinds of messages present an excellent opportunity to elevate the value that customer conversations bring to the bottom line.

The game has changed. So have customers’ expectations.

No Email History 101 course would be complete without a look at how the future is changing what we know about email. Transactional email used to be a “nice-to-have.”  Customers appreciated getting a confirmation email for their online purchases. Simple text reminders let cell phone subscribers stay on top of usage and billing. Today, relevant and timely messaging is expected in all aspects of a customer’s daily dealings. This morning one of them received an oil change reminder from their auto shop. Just a few minutes ago, a smartphone alert reminded another that an online auction was ending. This in-the-moment style of messaging has simply become a way of life. Developers building out an app or web service need to consider the full diversity of ways in which they can add value through triggered email and notifications.

New technology is pulling customers in different directions—all at once…

…Transactional email is bringing them back. As consumers rely increasingly on smartphones and social media, conventional approaches to customer engagement need to be rethought. Customer communication methods that were designed for the wired desktop and bulk email model of the early Internet era need to be re-crafted for the mobile wireless world we live in today.

Why Transactional Email Works

It’s expected.

  • Transactional email has higher open rates than bulk emails because the customer already expects to hear from you.
  • Transactional messages are insightful and satisfying. Thank users for an order, ask them for their feedback, point them to additional products and information that meets their needs—before they ask.

It’s personal.

  • Transactional messages extend a conversation the client already started when they ordered that product or asked for that help.
  • Transactional messages build dynamic and lasting relationships based on closely followed customer behavior, preferences and data.

It’s seamless.

  • Transactional email can turn individual transactions into a rich conversation.
  • Transactional messages can be sent to one or many devices at the same time.

It’s profitable.

  • Because it is expected, transactional email is a great channel for upsell and cross-sell opportunities.
  • Shipping confirmation emails had a 20.8% click through rate, compared 3.1% for bulk mailing emails sent by the same companies. – Experian Marketing Services, “The Transactional Email Report.” (2010)
  • Average revenue per email was $.80 for shipping confirmations vs. $0.26 for bulk mailings sent by the same companies. – Experian Marketing Services, “The Transactional Email Report.” (2010)

Transactional email is simply good manners.

  • People have a built-in expectation that you’ll reciprocate a conversation they’ve begun—that you’ll confirm their just-placed order with a receipt, that you’ll tell them when their test results are in, or that you’re sorry they’ve decided to unsubscribe from your newsletter.
  • People place a value on personalization—“Dear Greg…” reminds them that they’re not just a number, “Hi Jane, we noticed that your account balance is low,” makes them feel that you value the time, energy and opportunities they may lose if they were to overdraft their account.
  • People appreciate those who make their lives easier—businesses that are quick to adapt to the trend of API-driven, multi-platform transactional message workflows have the ability to offer opportunities for preference-driven communication—freeing customers from a single device for on-time messages and alerts.
  • Additionally, these customers never have to waste their time explaining themselves, as these organizations are fluent in each customer relationship at every level.

Timing is everything.

How long would you wait at a fast-food drive through? On hold with your cable company? For a page to load? For a password reset? Customers expect that their events (an order, a request, a subscription) will trigger transactional messages in literally an instant. Employ a real-time messaging solution that eliminates delays by combining message origination and delivery operations on a low-latency infrastructure.

Technical Considerations

What you send is just as important as how you send it. Here are a few things to consider when building your transactional messaging plan.

  • Use a credible delivery service
  • Consider subscribing to a sender score certification program to improve deliverability
  • Use a unique IP and domain
  • Closely track performance metrics and adjust accordingly
  • Remember: increasing numbers of email are read on smartphones and tablets now – be sure to format your content to work with every device.