Understanding Transactional Email

What is transactional email?

Transactional emails are messages that are sent as a result of a customer’s specific interaction with a business or service, in direct relation to that action. They are narrowly focused to facilitate an agreed-upon transaction between the sender and the recipient.

Good examples of transactional email include:

  • Account creation notification
  • Password reset
  • App error message
  • Purchase receipt
  • Shipping notification
  • Legal notice

Typically, transactional emails are generated on demand, in response to a specific trigger or transaction. Because of this, transactional emails usually are generated automatically by e-commerce or other software when it calls an email API to generate and send the message.

What is the difference between transactional and commercial email?

Commercial or marketing email includes any email message that’s not strictly required to facilitate a specific transaction. That’s a fairly broad category of message, but it includes any promotional email sent to a user in order to drive awareness, encourage engagement, or make a sale.

Common examples of commercial or marketing email include:

  • Sale or other promotion
  • New product or feature announcement
  • User engagement and onboarding reminders
  • Newsletter
  • Event invitation

Unlike transactional messages, marketing emails typically are sent to customer lists or segments of lists, rather than in response to a specific action or trigger. While they may contain some personalization, they often are scheduled in advance, rather than generated on demand.

There’s something of a gray area here, however. That’s because even some messages that we think of as triggered (for example, emails from a social network notifying a user that someone “liked” a post) sometimes are defined as a form of commercial email. Another way to put it is that while all transactional messages are triggered messages, not every triggered email is a transactional email. The intent of the message is what distinguishes the two.

Why does it matter if a message is considered transactional or promotional email?

There are two ways to think about why the difference between transactional and commercial email matters.

  1. Transactional and commercial email messages are governed by different regulations and laws. It’s important that email senders understand the rules that affect when they may send messages and what choices they need to provide to their customers about these messages.
  2. Beyond legal issues, however, there’s a big difference in how customers interact with transactional and commercial email messages. Generally speaking, transactional messages have better deliverability, are opened more often and more quickly, and garner better engagement and response. That difference has major implications for how transactional email should be managed for delivery.

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