What is a transactional email? Everything you need to know

Transactional emails pick up where marketing emails leave off. These emails are triggered by user actions and can make your life a lot easier…if you use them in the right way.



Transactional emails are something that everyone with an email address has received at least once in their life. But not everyone understands what they are, how they’re used, or how they should be structured within your email strategy. As an email service, we'd feel a little guilty if we didn't devote some time to helping out those who might not know the basics.

Let's get right to it.

What is a transactional email?

Transactional emails are emails triggered by a user's actions within an application or website. They help you maintain your customer relationship by confirming you’ve received their request or are responding to their action. Some examples of transactional emails are:

  • Password reset emails

  • Abandoned cart emails

  • Order confirmation emails

  • Welcome emails

  • Email receipts

These are just a few of the different types of transactional emails, but the core of transactional messages is that they’re action-triggered. They rely on email automation rather than being sent by a real person in real-time.

What’s the difference between a transactional email and a marketing email?

Transactional emails are user-action-triggered, but traditional marketing emails aren’t. Some examples of marketing emails include:

  • Weekly newsletters

  • Product update emails

  • Promotional emails

These can be sent to a bunch of customers at once. But you wouldn’t want to send one customer’s receipt to your whole email list, would you?

Email marketing campaigns have recently leaned into a more automated approach with different content drip strategies. Usually, these drip campaigns rely on a high amount of personalization to drive clicks.

What are some transactional email best practices?

Transactional emails usually have a high engagement rate because user actions trigger them. Your subscriber expects to get this email from you and, as such, is much more likely to open it. Don’t waste this opportunity to make a good impression!

Some transactional best practices are:

  • Don’t use a no-reply address

  • Have a clear subject line and preheader text

  • Crosslink to your social media channels

  • Let your customers adjust their email preferences

  • Ensure your transactional email matches your brand

We’ll unpack each of these below.

Why shouldn’t I use a no-reply address in a transactional email?

It’s tempting to use a no-reply email address. We know. After all, transactional emails are automated confirmations of user actions on your web page or in your app. You don’t want to receive a customer response for every automated email.

But as we mentioned above, transactional emails see a high amount of customer engagement. You can use these automated emails as an opportunity to invite your customers to start a conversation with you. Besides, if your customers really want to get in touch, they will. Why add friction to their user experience?

Why do I need a clear subject line and preheader text?

Well-written, clear subject lines and preheader text serve two purposes. Firstly, they’ll make it immediately obvious to your subscriber why you’re reaching out. If they’re waiting for an email confirmation from you, this will remove friction from their experience.

Secondly, clear subject lines will help to keep you out of the spam folder. And if your subscriber expects an email from you, you want to make sure they don’t have to dig through their spam folder to find it!

5 transactional emails you need to know

1. Password reset email

“Oops! What was my password again?” Password reset emails are amongst the most common and the most functional of all emails.

2. Abandoned cart emails

Abandoned cart emailsare the dark horse of email marketing campaigns. Your customer has clicked through to your landing page, browsed, and added items to their cart. Then, they left your web page just before they completed their purchase. Don’t miss this opportunity to gently remind your subscribers to take a second look at the items they’ve abandoned in their cart.

3. Welcome emails

Welcome or registration emails are a key component to managing your customer relationships and encouraging engagement right out of the gate.

4. Order confirmation emails

Order confirmation emails are functional emails that tell your subscriber you’ve received their order. But just because they’re functional doesn’t mean they have to be plain!

5. Invoice emails

The invoice email is similar to an order confirmation email, but instead of confirming a purchase, you’re reminding your subscriber that a payment is due or was recently made.

Why should I crosslink to my social media channels?

Since transactional emails have a high engagement rate, here’s your opportunity to start a conversation with your subscriber and point them to your social media presence or open up other avenues of communication. You don’t want to slam them with a promotional email disguised as a transactional email, but they might find their way to another purchase after engaging with your social media.

Why is it important to let my customers adjust their email preferences?

Usually, transactionally emails are welcome. Usually. Every customer is different, and some might find it a bit overwhelming to get an email every time they’ve browsed your website and left items in their cart. Add an option in your transactional emails to allow your customers to adjust their email preferences so they don’t unsubscribe from your emails completely or mark your emails as spam.

Why is it important that my transactional email matches my brand?

A transactional email might be an automated message, but it should still match your brand’s tone and visual identity. First of all, it’s a good idea to maintain quality throughout all your communications. Second, since your customers are waiting for your email, they’re on the lookout for something that matches your brand’s tone and visual identity. Make it easier for your subscriber to pick out your email from the crowd.

What can I do to improve the deliverability of my transactional emails?

Your deliverability often relies on what type of email you are sending. When you place an order on an eCommerce website, you expect an email receipt in your inbox shortly after you make the purchase.

Poor deliverability can keep that receipt from landing in the inbox and instead banish it to the spam folder. If you don't receive that confirmation email, you might suspect that the order didn't go through, making it imperative that those transactional emails land in the inbox.

Email deliverability is paramount for transactional messages, and there are several ways you can go about ensuring that they make it to the inbox:

  • Segment your email sending. Separate your marketing messages from your transactional messages via subdomain segmentation. If you're sending a high volume of transactional emails, consider using a dedicated IP address for that portion of your traffic.

  • Follow CAN-SPAM. The CAN-SPAM act has very clear guidelines for our email messages should be formatted. From easy-to-find unsubscribe links to concise subject lines, CAN-SPAM should be your guiding light for basic email creation.

  • Use responsive templates. Your transactional email templates should be responsive for all devices and easy to read for accessibility purposes.

And transactional emails tend to have very high engagement, meaning they have high open rates and click-through rates, improving your deliverability.

How can Mailgun help me send transactional emails?

Whether you're just starting your email sending for your application or are planning to migrate your entire email ecosystem, you need to consider several factors when selecting a new service provider.

Having the ability to send how you want, whether that’s via SMTP relay or Email APIs, should be the first qualifier for your email provider. From there, think about your sending needs. Do you need add-ons like an email validation tool, or would an HTML template editor serve you better? These factors rolled together with your budget will help you determine which provider best suits you.

Wrapping up

And that’s the quick and dirty of transactional emails! We’ve given you some best practices and examples to help get you started.

Whether or not you plan to create dozens of email campaigns or set up simple notification emails, transactional emails are just one component of your overall email program and customer experience. Are you looking to start sending transactional messages? We can help with that. Head on over to Mailgun to start sending today.

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