Make the most of transactional messages: tips for leveraging transactional e-mail. Part one of a series.
How many email messages does your company send each month? I mean all messages, not just those sent with the express purpose of email marketing. If you tally the numbers, you may get a surprise. For many companies, their commercial or marketing email quantities pale in comparison to another type of email: transactional messages.
Transactional messages are defined under CAN-SPAM as any email "facilitating, completing or confirming a previously agreed upon transaction." Unlike commercial messages, transactional messages aren’t required to carry any of the following:
There’s another big difference between commercial and transactional messages: metrics. Though DoubleClick reports commercial messages averaging open rates of 26.9 percent and CTRs (define) of 7.2 percent in Q3 2005, Postfuture showed transactional messages pulling open rates greater than 70 percent, with CTRs surpassing 50 percent in 2004. A 2003 MarketingSherpa study found recipients viewed transactional messages more positively than other types of email; they scored a 4.2 rating on a scale of 1 (not positive) to 5 (very positive).
Many companies have taken baby steps to incorporate marketing messages into transactional email. A client I’m currently working with includes commercial information in a brief PS at the end of its customer service response email. These email messages are currently text, not HTML, and though the message is there, no one feels it’s terribly effective.
So I’ve challenged the client: Can we maintain the transactional nature of these email messages while making them more effective marketing tools? Can we make better use of these moments when we have the customer’s attention and interest, but not make it so in-your-face that we alienate them?
It’s a fine line, but I’m finding it can be done.
The first key is to understand CAN-SPAM rules around mixed messages: email that contains both transactional and commercial information. For these types of messages, CAN-SPAM relies on the email’s primary purpose to determine whether it’s classified as transactional or commercial. Key elements here are:
If both reference the transactional, you’ve got a shot at maintaining the transactional designation. But it’s not guaranteed.
Some articles about determining the mixed message’s primary purpose reference say as long as you keep the message two-thirds transactional and one-third commercial, the primary purpose will be viewed as transactional. But lawyers I’ve been working with on this aren’t comfortable with that blanket statement.
We’ve been focusing on the impression the email will leave on recipients. Will readers feel they’re being marketed to or feel this is a relevant message about their previous transaction with a relevant, but unobtrusive, advertisement in it? If it’s the former it’s commercial; if it’s the latter, it’s transactional.
How do you put structure behind this type of vague litmus test? We created samples of mixed messages and discussed them with the attorneys. We didn’t just get a thumbs-up/thumbs-down on the transactional primary purpose on each, we talked about why the email sample passed or failed the test. This allowed us to create some basic guidelines, knowing these alone don’t guarantee the transactional primary purpose (we’ll still have to pass the impression test mentioned above). But they make it more likely. Our guidelines:
Remember, none of this is gospel, and none comes from CAN-SPAM regulations. These guidelines are based on one legal department’s interpretation of the CAN-SPAM rules for primary purpose. You’ll need to set your own guidelines, based on what your attorneys recommend. But these may serve as a starting point for discussion with them.
One more thought: why does CAN-SPAM matter? Why not just concede that although these messages refer to a previous transaction, their primary purpose is commercial? So you add in the "advertisement" notation at the top (required if your list is not 100 percent opt-in), the USPS address, and an unsubscribe link. What’s the big deal?
It’s really not a big deal for the email itself. It becomes a big deal longer term. If you designate customer service email as commercial and someone unsubscribes, you won’t be able to send her another commercial message. So the next time she submits a question via email to customer service, you’d have to respond with a transactional, not commercial, email.
Can it be done? Sure. But it adds a layer of complexity; you must have two different messages, one transactional and one commercial, for each customer service issue. Most companies want to avoid this, hence the importance of maintaining the transactional nature of the emails.
In part two: other recommendations for making transactional email message better marketing tools for your company.
Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.
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Jeanne Jennings is a 20 year veteran of the online/email marketing industry, having started her career with CompuServe in the late 1980s. As Vice President of Global Strategic Services for Alchemy Worx, Jennings helps organizations become more effective and more profitable online. Previously Jennings ran her own email marketing consultancy with a focus on strategy; clients included AARP, Hasbro, Scholastic, Verizon and Weight Watchers International. Want to learn more? Check out her blog.
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