6 Ways to Optimize Your Transactional Emails


Give the people what they want.

Transactional emails may seem like the least interesting emails you send, but for customers they fulfill an important function. In fact, transactional emails are almost three times as likely to be opened and read because of the useful information they contain. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by! Transactional emails can do much more than just deliver information.

What is a transactional email?

Transactional emails are sent out to document any kind of transaction or activity. Often we associate them with financial transactions, but this category of emails also includes account information updates, shipping updates, forum notifications, and any other email that is sent out in response to the action of a user.

In some cases, the actions of another user generate a transactional email. For instance, when you “endorse” a friend’s skills on LinkedIn, they’ll get an email notifying them. Check out all of these transactional emails generated by LinkedIn.

transactional emails generated by LinkedIn

What is the goal of transactional email?

The primary goal should be to communicate information to the recipient quickly and clearly. To this end, transactional emails should be formatted simply, using basic HTML. It should be easy to discern at a glance what the email is about and where the desired information is located.

Transactional emails also provide an opportunity to show your company’s character (#4) and promote other products or services (#5), but these shouldn’t get in the way of delivering information.

6 Ways to Optimize

How can you get the most out of transactional emails? Let us help you optimize your transactional emails in 6 simple steps!

1. Informational Subject Line

The subject line should clearly communicate the purpose of the email and who it is from. For instance, “Account Updated” is not as useful to the recipient as “Account Password Updated – Gizmo Services, Inc.” would be. Put as much useful information in the subject line as you can. Using the right subject line can increase your open rate by leaps and bounds. Make sure that the subject doesn’t sound like a promotional email.

Below, we have two similar emails from different airlines. The first is more useful because it contains the flight’s confirmation number (useful information) and a good description of the contents of the email. The second isn’t bad, but could do more.

Descriptive subject line

Non descriptive email subject line

2. Friendly “From” Address

Use a From address that encourages recipients to communicate with you, and lets them know who they’re responding to. For example, customer_service@company.com lets them know exactly which department they’re responding to. An ambiguous from address, like acct_updates@company.com, looks like it might be an address that’s not monitored for incoming mail.

Generally, one should avoid using addresses that actively discourage customer response, like no_reply@company.com. For instance, this shipping notification from Etsy has a “nereply” local-part (before the domain). Though common with shipping updates, this kind of address doesn’t exactly cry out, “We’re here to help!”

Etsy shipping order confirmation

This reservation confirmation from Open Table is a good example of a from address. Who the email is from is clear, and the local-part invites reply. “Member services” makes it clear what the purpose of this address is: to provide service to members.

Rioja reservation confirmation

A customer should feel like responding to an email is easy and straightforward.

3. Scannable Email Layout

Design your layout with an eye towards scanability. A customer should be able to identify the pertinent information in the email immediately. Stick to basic HTML design to make sure that the email works properly in all environments (and of course, test it with our email previews before you send!)

Take a look at this transactional email from Geico.  This email’s purpose is to inform the customer that their new ID cards are ready. The first link, at the top of the email, can be used to do this, but they’ve also added a nice big button in the center. The email is broken into short paragraphs, and uses bold font to attract attention to the most important sentence. Customers who are curious about what the Policyholder Service Center does can easily read through the bulleted list of services.

transactional email from Geico

4. Give It Some Character!

Start by covering the basic information the customer is seeking, for example a new comment has been posted to their forum post. Then try to add some unique touches to it. People like to know that the company they’re dealing with is composed of humans instead of machines. Remember that adding character shouldn’t make the email more difficult to understand.

For example, here is an appointment reminder from my dentist. It’s easy to find pertinent information and useful links, and yet it has a lot of character!

dentist appointment reminder

5. Add a Pinch of Promotion

There’s nothing wrong with promoting your products or services in a transactional email, just make sure that the pertinent information takes center stage. The rule of thumb is that a transactional email should be 80% informational and 20% promotional. One way to do this is to use the main portion of the body to give the customer transactional information, and reserve a small sidebar for other products they might be interested in. You could also include a navigation bar at the top of the email to remind them of the kinds of products you sell. The promotional material should never overshadow or obscure the transactional information.

Check out this transactional email I got from Southwest informing me of my flight details. They did a bit more than 20% promotional material (red), some of which comes above the transactional information (green). As a user, I would prefer the pertinent information to appear in the upper left part of the email just below the header, but this email is still easy to read and gather info from. The header provides a set of links that might be handy: check in, change my flight, or check my status. All in all, this is a well-crafted transactional email.

southwest flight status

6. Track, Evaluate and Evolve

You probably track the traffic from your promotional emails to see how effective they are, why wouldn’t you track your transactional emails as well? Set up special landing pages for these emails and use A/B testing techniques to find which is more effective. Because these emails are widely read, they offer a great opportunity to interact with the customer and solidify your relationship with them. If you’re not tracking, you’re wasting time. Each of the steps above can be improved through analytics. For instance, you can test two subject lines for your shipping update email and see which gets more opens. Try different layouts and see which gets more click throughs and read times. Don’t forget, though, that the primary purpose of these emails is to keep the customer informed and happy. A successful follow-up offer is only a secondary objective.

Tricks of the Trade

How do you make your transactional emails shine? Let us know in the comments down below!

Author: Alex Ilhan

Hailing all the way from England, Alex brings his email development expertise along with an endless stream of cups of tea and British cynicism. Follow him on Twitter: @omgitsonlyalex.

Author: Alex Ilhan

Hailing all the way from England, Alex brings his email development expertise along with an endless stream of cups of tea and British cynicism. Follow him on Twitter: @omgitsonlyalex.

6 thoughts on “6 Ways to Optimize Your Transactional Emails”

  1. Hi,

    thanks a lot for this input!

    We are just about to optimize the opt-in mails for our customers. We want to put on the google actions because customer can react directly from the subject line (buttons on subject line) what in my opinion gives a comfortable user experience.

    I know it’s a bit controversial to this topic because the user doesn’t see the embassy of the mail. But, gmail actions are based on schema.org which is an open standard and it may well be that many ESPs will follow google.

    What do you think about it?

  2. Hello Geoff Phillips

    I like your 6 Ways to Optimize Your Transactional Emails.thanks for the nice sharing.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Expedia def broke the 80/20 rule but it was a well executed email. I’d love to see the data behind it.

    I especially enjoyed the dentist example, it’s great to see small biz get creative.

  4. Scanning through LinkedIn what should catch my eye but a SouthWest transactional email. Funny, my Creative team at Responsys (now Oracle) re-vamped the transactional program a few years ago. Thanks for noticing the structure, glad to know you enjoy the design. Might be about time to go revisit a mobile optimization strategy though 😉

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