Transactional Emails: A frequently missed opportunity

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Transactional emails – they are the welcome emails, shipping notices, order confirmations, etc. that are so important for proper customer support and a positive company reputation. Not only do they give customers peace of mind in knowing that their transactions have been processed properly, but they also provide companies with major opportunities for growth and success.

According to Experian’s Transactional Email Report, transactional emails have a higher revenue per email, transaction rates, opens and click rates than bulk mail averages. In Experian’s chart below, you can see that the average revenue per transactional email is two to six times greater compared to a bulk mailing.

Revenue per email

Who should have control over transactional emails? Marketing.

Since transactional emails can lead to a 1-3% increase in revenue, it is very important to spend an adequate amount of time and resources on these emails. Which department should be spending the time perfecting these emails and making them as effective as possible? If the marketing team is in charge of your website, blog, social media pages, commercial emails — essentially everywhere that customers can see your brand — shouldn’t they be in charge of your transactional emails as well? However, that is not the case; in fact, approximately 53% of transactional emails are controlled and written by IT, customer operations, or other departments, rather than marketing. As a result, these emails often lack personality and branding.

That being said, all communication avenues (blog, social media, commercial emails, transactional emails, etc.) should portray your brand in a similar way so they should, therefore, be controlled by the same department — the marketing department.

Give transactional emails the attention that they deserve

Since transactional emails are proven to drive significantly higher response rates than regular commercial email campaigns, they should be paid equal, if not more attention, than regular campaigns. That being said, in order to optimize transactional emails, marketers should A/B test different versions of the emails and segment messages by different customer segments. In addition, all of the links in the emails should be tagged for reporting purposes. If you test and report on the results from commercial emails, shouldn’t you be doing the same for transactional emails?

Optimizing your transactional emails

Design

The majority of the order confirmation, shipping notices, and other transactional emails that I receive are – to put it simply – BORING! They rarely reflect the brand image of the company that I have participated in a transaction with (whether it’s signing up for a newsletter or ordering clothes) and are usually in plain text. For example, check out the difference between a transactional email (left) and promotional email (right) from United Airlines:

United Airlines Example

The email that I received after checking in for my flight was in plain text & didn’t even include United Airlines’ logo in it! While I’m grateful that it included pertinent information, I think they could have spruced it up a bit — even if they just added a banner at the top of it, similar to the one in the promotional email.

With that being said,  HTML design elements should be used in transactional emails in order to create an appealing and organized message. These design elements will enable you to add personality that supports your brand or company image and show that real people are behind your company. When used properly, HTML can add warmth to an otherwise cold, corporate text-based email and showcase how much the company cares for its customers. However, it is an absolute necessity that the transactional information is present and clear whether images are disabled or not!

Content

The content of a transactional email should be, well, mostly transactional. The transactional message should be at the front and center of the email so that subscribers can easily decipher that it’s a transactional email, rather than a promotional one. However, due to the fact that there is a huge opportunity for upselling and cross-selling in transactional emails, Bronto suggests following the 80/20 rule in which 80% of the email’s content is transactional, while the other 20% is promotional. Marketers can cross-sell order transactions by suggesting products/services that are associated with the purchase (such as an accessory) and upsell by suggesting upgraded/premium versions of the purchase.

In addition, a transactional email is a great place to invite subscribers to sign up for promotional emails or newsletters; simply, include a brief value proposition and a link to subscribe. Another great idea is to invite customers to update their personal information, which will ensure that your data is accurate and that your customers will be receiving necessary information. All of this additional content is relevant and valuable content to the reader.

Subject Line, “From” Name & Reply-To Address

The subject line and “from’” name should be extremely clear in transactional emails. The “from” name should be something easily recognizable, such as the company name; the subject line should clearly state the content of the email, such as “Your Amazon Order Details.” And what about the “reply-to” address? It should definitely NOT be a “no-reply” address. When companies use “no-reply’” addresses, it makes the transaction a one-way street and eliminates the opportunity for further customer interaction. Make your “reply-to” address something friendly that will encourage customer engagement — in addition, make sure someone is actually monitoring that inbox for prompt replies.

A typical transactional email 

While I’m a big fan of Amazon, I had to laugh when I read DJ Waldow’s blog, “The Least Valuable Email of All Time,” because the Amazon email he evaluates in this post encompasses everything about a not-so-desirable transactional email that I discuss above.

Amazon transactional email example

For starters, the email is in plain text and doesn’t attract the reader at all. While it simply states the transaction, it doesn’t make the reader feel that Amazon cares about them at all. This is further reinforced in the fact that the “reply-to” address is no-reply@amazon.com. What says “don’t contact us” more than a “no-reply” address?

In addition, the email provides no value to the reader at all. There is no information about why his payment failed and what he can do to fix this issue; instead, there is a link to a general help page so he has to search for the answer himself. As DJ Waldow states, Amazon could have redirected him to a blog post about the issue, a related community forum discussion, or provided a list of top reasons why payments fail. Emails must contain value to the reader in order to be successful and have high opens, clicks and conversions and, unfortunately, Amazon fails at this in this particular email.

However, on a positive note – the “from” name, “Amazon Payments,” and the subject line, “Your Payment to Jon-[last name] has failed,” are both positives. They “from” name is recognizable and the subject line clearly states the (minimal) content that is in the email.

A successful transactional email

While Amazon failed at creating an optimized transactional email, Timbuk2 definitely succeeded with theirs. Check out the confirmation email that Justine received after ordering a backpack:

Timbuk2 Email

This is the perfect example of a great transactional email! For starters, the email’s content is great. The top of the email provides a clear summary of the order and, while it doesn’t try to cross-sell or upsell, it does provide some additional information that a customer would be interested in, such as how long until his or her order will ship, etc., at the bottom of the email. In addition, the content is full of Timbuk2’s fun personality! It isn’t the boring text of typical transactional emails; it has personality and humor in it, which makes customers feel that Timbuk2 is made up of people, rather than computers.

In addition, the subject line, “from” name, and “reply-to” address are great in this email.

Timbuk2 from name, reply to, and subject line

The subject line, “Thanks for your order!” and the “from” name, “Timbuk2 Customer Service,” make it clear that this is an order confirmation email from Timbuk2, which is exactly the point of the email. In addition, the “reply-to” address, customerservice@timbuk2.com, welcomes recipients to respond back to the email if they have any questions. This creates an open line of communication between Timbuk2 and their customers and can lead to customer loyalty.

I also really like the HTML of this email. While it’s extremely simple, it’s so much more appealing than a simple text version. The images in the banners at the top and bottom of the email, as well as the backpack that the customer has purchased, bring life to the email. This email would also look great in text since there is no transactional information in the images. Timbuk2 does transactional emails right!

With so much opportunity in transactional emails more companies should take advantage and spend more time on their transactional emails. Do you have any additional tips for creating a great transactional email? Have you seen any great transactional emails that we should check out? Let me know!

Additional Resources

 

  • http://twitter.com/philipjawilson Philip Wilson

    Lauren, great post, thanks! Really interesting but slightly daunting as I now have a pile of work to do to sort out our transactional emails!

    • Lauren_Litmus

      Glad you liked the post, Philip! You’re not alone with that daunting task — we are planning on revamping our transactional emails as well :) best of luck to you!

  • niico100

    The timbuktu email is super waffly – not to mention cryptic. Full of un-necessary text.

    You could get all the same information in 25% the words.

    “What if I live across the pond” – to a non native speaker thats confusing.

    No one will read all that crap.

    Otherwise though this is a really useful post – thanks.

    • http://www.litmus.com Justine, Litmus

      Timbuk2′s emails are an extension of their brand, and yet another way they can engage and entertain their customers. They know their audience and customers better than anyone, and are the best judge of what is relevant to them. Consider those smaller details to be easter eggs for the more observant, since the email already covers the basics very well.

      • niico100

        I agree that the odd ‘folksy’ touch can add personality. However – people just won’t wade through that huge amount of un-necessary text “ref book – On Writing Well’ & ‘Don’t Make Me Think’. Less is more with writing.

        eg
        International orders are shipped via UPS International Express. Transit times average 3-5 business days for delivery.

        Could be:

        UPS International Express order transit times average 3-5 days.

        Their too long text adds nothing there – its just badly written. Whoever wrote it knows nothing about writing well.

        People are busy – they just want to know about their order. Huge amounts of text put people off – there is a ton of evidence on this.

        People will scan this email – they will not read it all. (I run a blog on the subject of usability – UsabilityHell.com)

        • http://www.litmus.com Justine, Litmus

          Good points, although it’s not very fair of us to criticize an email program from afar.

          It’s possible that Timbuk2 went through an iterative process and A/B testing to arrive at this solution. It’s also possible that they are putting off readers with long, confusing text.

          The underlying lesson is that transactional emails usually have a lot of room for improvement, and Timbuk2 takes an unusual approach—it’s up to them to determine if it’s working (or not).

          • niico100

            Trust me – that is very badly written text that puts off users – they didn’t come up with it after A/B testing ;)

            I don’t disagree that some of the content is good in other ways though.