Updated on April 1, 2021
What makes for a beautiful experience of using a platform or an app? Interactive interfaces? Mind-blowing designs? Interesting copy? Maybe. But what most users really care about is getting stuff done — quickly buying a product, easily launching a website, smoothly implementing a feature. Since it’s impossible to follow every user on every step of their customer journey, companies incorporate transactional emails to automate the processes. Let’s explore what these emails are really about and how to set yours up.
Transactional emails are messages that you often receive when using a product, website, mobile app, etc. They are triggered when a transaction happens. In this context, “transaction” doesn’t only refer to the action of buying or selling an item (as any dictionary would suggest). It also refers to requesting a password reset, breaking a new record in your fitness app, or adding a new card to your account. It can be literally any action and each can trigger a reaction.
What’s the difference between transactional and marketing emails?
Marketing emails such as newsletters or product updates are typically sent in bulk with the same content delivered to all recipients at the same time. Their goal is usually to recommend a product or feature, or to get you interested in an upgrade of your subscription (or your 3-month-old sneakers). In other words — to sell you something.
Transactional messages, on the other hand, are one-off, event-driven notifications sent based on users’ activity on a platform. They can be properly personalized and usually arrive immediately after an event is triggered.
What’s included in transactional emails?
When a transaction happens, an automated email can be sent to an address provided, usually at sign up. Such transactional emails can give you further guidelines or update you on your progress so far. They can be used to request a certain action from you or to inform you what just happened. They can also just welcome you to a platform, a mailing list or a new group, or bid you farewell when you decide to close an account. The opportunities are endless.
When should you use transactional emails?
Here are some situations when a good ol’ triggered email would be appreciated:
- A user requests a password reset and successfully does so
- A user signs up to a platform or joins a mailing list
- A double opt-in is in place
- A credit card has been added or removed
- A user was verified (or, quite the opposite, their verification failed)
- A user used a vital feature and needs to know what to do
- A purchase is made and a receipt needs to be sent
- A payment fails and an action is needed from a user
- A user’s trial period is about to expire and they need to be sold on a premium plan
- Terms of service or any other legal files are amended
These are just a few examples. Of course, transactional emails will look very different for a Tinder-like app than for a government taxation platform. The key is always to carefully go through the entire customer journey and figure out where such triggers should be placed.
Why are transactional emails important?
First of all, many transactional emails are simply necessary — password resets, 2-step verifications, failed payment notifications. Users need to receive them to be able to move forward. Others are maybe not must-haves, but users, taught by their experience of using many other products, have come to expect them. These include order confirmations, credit card charge receipts, or just usual welcome emails sent moments after registration. Don’t send one, and people will think right away that something is wrong.
For e-commerce businesses, transactional emails are also crucial for improving sales of a product. Companies often use these emails to chase clients who abandoned their carts or didn’t submit a payment on time. They even use casual order confirmations to upsell or at least pique the buyer’s interest in a related product. Even a little effort in this field often goes a long way.
How do you send transactional emails?
There are two approaches to building and sending transactional emails. Depending on your tasks, the volume of messages you need to send, and the infrastructure you already have, you can choose between marketing automation tools and dedicated transactional email sending providers.
Transactional emails can be a part of automated marketing workflows. When you need to send up to 2,000 — 3,000 transactional emails per month, it can be more efficient to set this process in your CRM or email marketing system. Such tools provide you with a set of templates and pre-built sequences. HubSpot and Zoho are among the most recognized CRM systems, while Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign, and AWeber are renowned email automation tools.
When you have a solid user database and various email notifications are a crucial part of their user experience, it makes sense to rely on an email sending provider that can offer a scalable email infrastructure. This is a more tech-savvy method as you will very probably need to manage email triggers and set sequences on your app’s backend, but it provides you with greater flexibility. Reputable transactional email sending providers are SendGrid, Postmark, Amazon SES, SMTP2GO, etc.
You should understand what’s under the hood of your email sending process and be aware of the technical aspects that influence deliverability and the overall success of your email campaigns.
First of all, let’s review what is technically needed for sending transactional emails.
Email sending provider
Selecting a proper sending provider is half the success. Email deliverability depends both on the domain reputation (which is on your, the sender’s, side) and the IP reputation, which is on the sending provider’s side (in many cases).
When you pick an email sending service, you will be using their shared IPs first (this is recommended if you are not a super high volume sender). They will handle the IP warmup and control its reputation. When a new sender enters the game, the recipient’s email clients are suspicious about it — they can’t be sure that they can trust it. If you start by sending thousands of emails at once, they will very probably be treated as spam. It is the job of an email sending service to manage throttling and increase the volume sent per batch gradually. Read more about shared and dedicated IPs and their impact on email deliverability in this article.
Proper functionality, understandable user interface and documentation, as well as the way of addressing issues also matter a lot. So, here is a list of criteria we recommend following when selecting an email sending provider:
- Reliability. Remember that building a solid infrastructure requires investments. Choose a known company. Learn about their servers, uptime, spam rules — this can help you understand whether they are able to ensure proper deliverability.
- Clarity. Everything should be clear and easy: simple pricing, understandable documentation, intuitive UI, as well as the ability to quickly contact their team and resolve any kind of issues.
- Functionality. There may be dozens of features that matter to you, but there is one common point that is important for everyone: reporting. This includes both the comprehensive analytics and system of alerts. It is crucial to be notified when something goes wrong in order to be able to quickly find the reasons and fix them.
The vast majority of transactional email services offer two ways of sending emails: SMTP and API. API provides a more flexible way of integration with your app or service and is considered a quicker and more robust method of sending emails. However, it requires advanced coding skills and is not as versatile as SMTP. If you need to dive deeper into this topic, read the Do you need Email API or SMTP Relay? article on our blog.
Domain verification and authentication
To explain the essentials of email sending, let’s start with an example. Let’s say, you have the Help Fries company that owns the helpfries.co domain and you need to start sending account confirmation emails from the email@example.com address.
In this case, helpfries.co will be your sender’s domain, but the email sending process will be handled by an SMTP server provided by the email sending service. Let’s call it RockSMTP.
To let RockSMTP send emails on your behalf, you need to prove that you own this domain (otherwise, spammers would be able to use any company’s website to send their spam messages and kill everyone’s reputation). This is called domain verification and is performed by adding a CNAME record to your domain’s DNS records. It’s easy — you just need to copy a special code provided by RockSMTP and paste it into your helpfries.co domain host’s DNS settings (this is where you purchased your domain from — AWS, GoDaddy, etc.).
Once this is done, you can start sending messages. However, it is strongly recommended to perform domain authentication in order to ensure good email deliverability. Domain authentication is also performed by adding a few other types of records to the DNS settings.
- SPF record is a TXT file where the domain owner specifies the list of IP addresses that are authorized to send emails from this domain. (RockSMTP’s IPs are authorized to send emails from helpfries.co).
- DKIM is a CNAME record that helps ensure that email content is not changed during transit. It is based on the public-key cryptography principle and is implemented as a digital signature attached to an email.
- DMARC is an additional layer of security and requires SPF or DKIM. It is a TXT record that sets DMARC rules. It “tells” the recipient’s email client what to do with emails that failed SPF and/or DKIM checks. The DMARC policy can also generate reports on these checks. It is not strictly required for sending emails, but it’s a reliable method of preventing spoofing.
Why you should test your emails and how to do this right
Finally, let’s assume that you have chosen the tool, set up the right triggers, and configured the most effective emails to be sent at just the right time. Can you move on to other tasks now?
By all means, don’t. Actually, don’t send any communication before you test it first. There are many things that can go wrong:
- Password reset links won’t work
- Buyers won’t be able to download their invoice (or worse, they’ll download someone else’s!)
- You’ll send some hints for completing an important step days after a user reached this goal
- The formatting of an email will make it impossible to read or click-through
- You’ll let someone know that their card was declined when it was not
And these are just a few of the many examples. We strongly recommend that you test each message before it’s delivered to a real person.
You can do this with a fake SMTP server such as Mailtrap. It lets you send test emails without the risk of spamming real users. It also enables previewing each automated message as well as checking whether it’s likely to fall into spam folders. You can try Mailtrap for free and upgrade later if you need more functions.
Bonus: Best practices for using transactional emails
It’s not enough to just set up and send a few emails every now and then. Those who really succeed in the field spend many hours trying to understand their users and optimizing their emails for this audience. We recommend that you do the same. Here are some tips for improving your transactional emails:
Think like a user — focus on their needs
Try to put yourself in the shoes of a user of your app or a visitor to your page. Don’t assume that something is obvious to them just because it is to you. You know the product inside out and have probably been through each screen 184 times. Maybe you even built it. Assume that visitors know even less than Jon Snow. Think where they may get lost, what could be hard to grasp for the target group, and fix it with the proper transactional emails. Focus on what users want to achieve, what their goals are, and make it easy for them to reach them.
Don’t send too many emails
Resist the temptation to set up tons of triggers on the way. Think where they’re essential and where they can make a lot of difference. Start small. If you observe a lot of support tickets about a certain step or a low conversion on some step of a funnel, think about whether adding some automated emails may help fix the problem. Adding an enormous number of emails will quickly flood users’ inboxes and cause them to unsubscribe (or worse, mark you as a spammer).
Don’t solve problems with emails
Once you get the first results of your campaigns, you may feel the urge to address all issues this way. Don’t fall into this trap. If users successfully traverse several steps but then nearly all drop on the following one, sending an automatic follow-up email may not fix the problem. Analyze what the reason for this sudden drop could be. Maybe some bugs are preventing users from completing the process? Maybe something is counter-intuitive? Or maybe they were looking for something completely different and ended up in the wrong funnel? Even the best written email won’t fix such issues and implementing one will only give you false data about the success of your other campaigns.
Focus on timing
Figure out the best time to send a particular communication. Order confirmations should be sent right away, that’s a no-brainer. Should an invoice be generated simultaneously or maybe right after an order is delivered? When should you remind visitors about an abandoned cart? In an hour, a day, or a week? How much time should you give a user to complete some step on a platform before you give them further tips? Or maybe you shouldn’t bother them at all? There are no “right” answers to these questions as every website, app, and client base is different. You’ll need to figure out the answers on your own.
Have the right subject line
The topic of your email is the first thing that recipients will see. As a result, it will play a key role in their decision on whether to open it or not, assuming they spot it in the first place. Don’t give them a chance to miss important information. Make your email subject concise, straightforward, and recognizable. Compare “Payment Help Fries” to “Action required: you payment for Help Fries failed”.
Keep it short and focused
Keep your email short and straight to the point. This way, you’ll increase the chance that someone will read through all of it. If the hint you’re sending requires a longer explanation, write a blog post and link to it in your email. Your reader has a very limited attention span — use this short time wisely.
Write an engaging copy
Make your copy interesting, even if you’re writing something boring. Try to build an emotional connection with readers, encourage them to ask questions, share what your company has been up to. Make it a pleasure to read your emails and users will be looking forward to the next ones. Some may even share the best ones in articles like this.
Properly format each message
The copy is the most important bit, but it needs to be properly formatted too. Make sure your messages look good on different screen sizes and especially on mobile. Use your branding materials in every email, even the dull ones like password reset instructions. Readers will learn to recognize your brand, which could go a long way.
Send from a recognized name — don’t use no-reply addresses
Send emails as “Kate from Mailtrap” instead of vague “Mailtrap marketing team” or worse, “firstname.lastname@example.org”. Users are more likely to open an email if they know (or believe) that they’re communicating with a real person. Sign an email with a real name and maybe even add a picture. Encourage them to write back to you with any questions or feedback. Even if such replies don’t go into your individual inbox but instead to support folders, many will appreciate such an opportunity. It’s way easier to respond to an email than it is to find a contact form somewhere on your website.
A/B test, over and over again
Once you implement all the above tips, test whether they really work for your business. It may be that some won’t apply. It’s also likely you won’t be able to figure out at the first attempt where users could use some help or how to properly stalk those who abandoned their cart. Send different emails to different groups and see how they interact with them. Are there more opens or clicks in one of the groups? Does something work better for improving the conversion or decreasing churn? You won’t know until you test it.
Add Google’s Email Markup to your emails
Google lets you add Email Markup to your messages to add an action prompt to your email. As a result, this lets users take an action without even opening the message and also improves the conversion. This way, users can RSVP to an event, confirm a subscription, or quickly look up the order or shipping details. Of course, it won’t work for many use cases, but if it could work for you – consider giving it a try.
Ensure your emails are delivered
Finally, all of the above tips will be in vain if your email doesn’t reach the recipient’s inbox at all. And this can happen even for the most important emails such as order confirmations or password reset instructions. We’ve covered tips on improving deliverability in another article. Emails going to spam folders are also far from desired – read about how to avoid such a fate here.
Transactional emails are a huge topic. In this guide, we’ve given an overview of all the important aspects you should know about when working with this type of email. Each of them deserves a separate article — and we have a bunch of them on our blog — so it wouldn’t ever have been possible to squeeze all the information into one article. We hope that after reading this post you have the whole picture of transactional emails and know what specific guidelines to look for and where to find them.