Transactional Email Messages - Get Yours in Shape This Year

How are you doing on your New Year's resolution? Let me guess, it includes shedding a few pounds, getting more exercise, making healthy eating choices, etc. Here's another thing that needs to get into better shape: your transactional email messages program.

Transactional emails are any messages that are sent in response to a customer transaction - things such as payment receipts, order confirmation, shipping information, delivery updates, etc.

What's great about transactional emails is that they get opened and read at a much higher rate than typical email messages. They also do not fall under the guidance of the CAN-Spam Act, which means you do not have to include an opt-out mechanism.

OK, that's the good news. The bad news is that you're probably not taking advantage of your transactional email messages.

Believe it or not, there's a high possibility that up to 74% of the emails you use to communicate with your customers and prospects are transactional messages. At least that's what Jupiter Research concluded in their recent study. I was a little skeptical about the 74% figure, until I really started looking at what constitutes a transactional email message. This covers everything from:

order confirmations

service confirmations

shipment notifications

reservation confirmations


inventory updates


payment notifications

customer service messages

information request messages

That's a lot of messages!

The problem that most of us small business owners face with our transactional messages is that they are often occurring behind the scenes. These messages are typically sent by our shopping cart program or email service provider or software system. Many small business owners aren't even aware when these messages are being sent, and they don't realize that these messages can be changed.

Fortunately, your transactional email messages can be changed. Depending on your set up and what system you're using, you might need to find someone with a little technical expertise to dig into the coding if you don't feel comfortable doing that yourself.

What kind of changes should you be making?

First, check out the branding on your transactional messages. These messages are a great way to build rapport with your customers and help them develop trust in your business. Are you using a template that is consistent with the look and feel of your site design and other marketing materials? Do these messages include your own logo - or the logo of your email service provider? When your customer opens your transactional messages, he shouldn't be jarred with an unexpected design.

What is the "from address" on your transactional messages? If you're using an automated software program or an email service provider, your from line might be the default name in your account set up - which isn't necessarily the name you want to use. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen suggests using the name of your company or your brand name, which will be more recognizable than an individual's name.

And, if at all possible, use no more than 25 characters in your from field so the name does not get truncated, especially in PDAs and other handheld devices, which are often used to place web-based orders.

To increase the open rates for your transactional email messages, use a personal, meaningful subject line. A subject line of "Your Confirmation" might be seen as spam (especially if it's sent with an unrecognizable from address), while "Your Smith Bros Order Has Shipped" has a much better chance of being read.

And remember, it is acceptable to include an offer or promotion within the body of your transactional email message, as long as the majority of the message (80% is the conventional industry norm) is transactional in nature.

If your system allows for dynamic content, transactional messages are a great opportunity for cross-selling. If that's not a possibility for you, try timeless offers such as "next order coupons" or whitepaper downloads. Why not promote your number one best selling product? Or, if you have the time and resources, you can update your transactional message template on a regular basis to promote your newly released products.

If you're using a set-it-and-forget-it system, I would avoid including promotions that contain discounts or coupons for a particular product. Personally, I'd be quite frustrated if I just ordered the latest and greatest widget and my order confirmation contained a 25% discount on the product I just paid full price for.

Be Sure To Follow These Guidelines

Do be cautious with adding promotional content to your transactional email messages as there are a few guidelines you must follow. First, in order to be deemed a transactional message, your transactional information must be the main focus of the email and it must be at the beginning of the message. You can't bury your transactional information within a promotional offer. You can't "force" your customers to read your sales copy in order to find their confirmation information.

All promotional copy must come at the end of the message and ideally it should make up no more than 20% of the message. This includes headlines and copy and, yes, even graphics. If your message does fall into this category, it must follow all CAN-Spam regulations.

Now, here's the controversy...

Information request messages amount to transactional messages. Which means every time you send out a free report or a download link or a whitepaper or whatever, you are actually sending a transactional message - and since transactional messages don't fall under the CAN-Spam Act, you don't need to include the unsubscribe link.

I have several clients who complain about "freebie seekers" who request free reports or links to podcasts and then immediately unsubscribe from the mailing list. What are your thoughts on this? How do you handle these "freebie seekers" and do you think there is any benefit to leaving the unsubscribe link out of your free report messages?


Karen works with entrepreneurs who own high traffic websites and helps them implement split testing and optimization to recover the revenues they don't even realize they are leaving on the table.

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