What is a Transactional Email? Our Best Recommendations

In my experience, one of the questions I hear most surrounding email marketing is: what is a transactional email, and what makes it different from other types of email?

This wasn’t just a question I’ve just heard a lot however; I was confused as well at the start of my email marketing journey.

Now that I know and can explain it in detail, I’m happy to answer the question and provide a few examples as a cherry on top.

What is a transactional email?

A transactional email is an email sent to a user in response to an action taken by that user, like creating an account or making a purchase. Transactional emails contain information specific to each user and are sent to individuals one at a time. Here are a few examples:

  • Welcome emails
  • Account creation emails
  • Password reset emails
  • Subscription confirmation emails
  • Order confirmation emails
  • Payment receipt emails
  • Shipping emails

Transactional emails are emails that users should expect to receive when they complete an action, again such as creating an account on a website or making a purchase. They may contain important information, such as passwords or order confirmation & shipping details.

Transactional vs. marketing emails

The biggest difference between transactional and marketing emails is who triggers them; a transactional email is triggered by the receiver and is sent as a one-to-one email, as where a marketing email is triggered by the sender and is sent as a one-to-many email. Since I’ve already given examples of transactional emails, here are some examples of marketing emails for comparison:

  • Newsletters
  • Promotions
  • Limited-time offers
  • Event announcements
  • Sales campaigns

Transactional and marketing emails are only two of the many ways a company can reach its audience, and they may opt for email marketing & automation software, email delivery software, and/or a CRM to do so.

Via Postmark, here is an image summarizing the difference between transactional emails and marketing emails:

Transactional vs. marketing emails

How do I create transactional emails?

Here are the usual steps in order to set up transactional emails:

  1. Pick a service to send them through.
  2. Use/edit a template or create your own.
  3. Choose when the email should be sent.

Transactional emails use SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) to be sent, and SMTP requires a dedicated service to make sure your emails arrive reliably and have consistent deliverability.

Transactional email services tend to operate on a “cost per 1,000 emails/SMS messages” system, where they then allow you to customize the domain from which your emails are sent and create your transactional email templates.

My recommendation for a transactional email service is MailerSend by MailerLite because you can send up to 12,000 emails per month for free, then at $1.00 per 1000 additional emails. Their paid plan is priced based on how many emails per month you want to send, starting at 50,000 for $25/mo and capping out at 2.5 million for $1,250/mo.

How can I use transactional emails?

Transactional emails are an important tool in any email marketer’s toolbelt, even if they don’t seem like it.

There is a wide range of options for transactional emails, not just limited to the list I brought up above. Additionally, if you’re already in someone’s inbox, transactional emails are the perfect opportunity to utilize that digital real estate, especially because transactional emails have an open rate 8 times higher than marketing emails.

Here are two ways you can utilize transactional emails to their fullest:

Adding value

First things first, transactional emails tend to be a little boring based on their content. However, just because the content is boring doesn’t mean that the email has to be. You could add some bonus content, a promo code, or a special offer to catch the recipient’s attention when they open.

Sendinblue also notes this, and uses Uber as an example. Here is the email receipt you receive after an Uber ride:

There is a lot going on in this email, not just some boring confirmation that your payment went through. There is a map showing the start and endpoints of the ride, chances to review or tip the driver, social media CTAs, and, at the very bottom, an invitation to sign up for Uber’s credit card.

This digital real estate can be very valuable if utilized correctly, and if you can already guarantee that the recipient will open the email, this is the perfect time to provide extra value.

Cross-selling and upselling

If you have a product to sell, there is no better place to advertise than on your transactional emails. In the example below, Squarespace uses their transactional emails’ digital real estate in the best (and most logical) way possible:

This email is the perfect place to promote your product because the recipient has already shown interest by taking advantage of Squarespace’s free trial; maybe they just need a little push to convert them into a paying customer.

Squarespace explains why its product is useful with images and text in an easy-to-read fashion, and makes sure its CTA button is as visible as possible. Plus, they offer access to support if the recipient has any reservations about making the leap.

Final thoughts on transactional emails

No matter the size of your business or even if it’s just you, transactional emails can be an invaluable asset provided they’re of high consistency and deliverability. If your transactional emails are consistently late or end up in the spam folder, customer loyalty might take a turn for the worse.

There are many options for transactional email services that make sure your customers get every email you send, not just limited to MailerSend as I mentioned earlier. This includes Postmark, SendGrid, Mailgun, Sparkpost, and many more.