Okay, so what’s a transactional email?

Well, there’s bulk email and then there’s transactional email. Bulk emails are emails you send to everyone all at once, like a newsletter or a company update. Transactional emails on the other hand are emails you send to users one at a time.

The difference between the two types of email lies in the root of the word – trans-action-al. These emails are triggered by the actions of your users:

  • An action a user takes
  • An action one user takes that’s relevant to another user
  • An action that a user doesn’t take

For example, Hootsuite sends you a welcome email when you first sign up for their service. This is an example of the first kind of transactional email. The action is signing up.

Another example is the email Medium sends you when someone recommends your post. This is an example of the second kind of transactional email. The action is another person recommending your post.

A final example is the email Dropbox sends you when you’ve signed up but haven’t installed Dropbox on your computer. This is the third kind of transactional email. The action the person didn’t take was installing the software on their computer within a certain amount of time.

Here’s a list of potential transactional emails and actions that might trigger them:

  • Email with incentive for someone signing up for a mailing list (like an ebook or video)
  • Welcome email when someone signs up for your product
  • “Come back” email when someone starts but doesn’t complete a sign-up or purchase on your site
  • A notification related to an action someone else took within your website (someone liked your photo, or recommended your article, or your friend signed up)
  • A purchase receipt
  • An inactivity email (it’s been 30 days since you signed in)
  • Password recovery
  • Support requests
  • Upcoming event reminders (like flight status)

Whereas these wouldn’t count as transactional emails:

  • Newsletters
  • Weekly recaps
  • Drip or series emails
  • Company or product updates

How Do You Set Up Transactional Emails?

First of all, you have to use a transactional email service like SendGrid. SendGrid is great and really easy to integrate with a web app (we teach users how to use SendGrid in a Rails app with our One Month Stripe Payments class, and we also use it to process our own payments).

Next up, you have to figure out when to send a transactional email. This depends on what your goal is. Growth hackers like to think about this within the context of the Lean Marketing Framework:

  • Activation: incentivize someone to give you their email, reduce sign-up abandonment
  • Retention: stay top of mind, give users reasons to come back, send inactivity emails
  • Referral: offer incentives to share, send something people are likely to share
  • Revenue: retarget, reduce cart abandonment, and offer deals based on actions

The Great Email Copy Blog has a bunch of great examples.

A Few Tips for Transactional Emails

  1. You want one call-to-action per email. The more call-to-actions your email has, the less likely a user will take any action at all. What if you just want to send someone an update about something? Well that’s all fine and good, but you should always figure out a way to get the user to take some sort of action. Every email, including transactional emails should contain two things – value for the user and a call-to-action.
  2. Keep your emails short, simple, and personal. Your emails will have higher open rates if they come from someone your users recognize. I like to send personalized emails from myself instead of One Month. (Whatever you do, don’t use a noreply@email. Users hate that.) Make sure your emails are easy to scan through. Keep them simple. Supposedly the best performing email during the entire 2012 Obama campaign had the subject line “Hey”.
  3. Give users the option to unsubscribe. Even though it’s not technically required for transactional emails, it’s still good practice. Better yet, give your users options when it comes to the amount, frequency, and type of email they receive from you. For example, Twitter lets you choose what events you’re notified about and also how often you’d like to be notified:
  4. Figure out the core action of your app (the AHA moment) and have all your email focused on getting more of that.
  5. Even purchase receipts can be a great opportunity to get some growth.
  6. Get creative about the different actions that can deliver transactional emails. It can be accessing areas of your site in order to get feedback.
  7. You should always… test, tweak, test, tweak, test some more, tweak, and repeat. Your users may be different than Company Z’s users and may respond to different messaging. Create experiments and learn from them for each and every campaign.

If you’re not doing at least 3 things on this list, you owe it to your company to give them a shot. Does your company do transactional email? What are some insights that you’ve come across? Share them in the comments below.

About Mattan Griffel

Mattan is Co-Founder & CEO of Y Combinator-backed One Month, the “For Dummies” of online education. He teaches and advises on growth hacking, learning to code, and online education, at companies like PepsiCo, Bloomberg, GM, NYSE, and JPMorgan, and has been featured in Forbes, BusinessWeek, MIT Technology Review, Huffington Post, Mashable, and The Next Web.

About One Month

One Month is an online education startup that empowers people to change their lives by learning real-world skills, in a short amount of time. Their newest course, One Month Stripe Payments is designed to teach anyone how to make money on the web by accepting credit card payments through Stripe, an online payments startup.

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