Digital MarketingEmail MarketingMaking Transactional E-Mail Better Marketing Tools, Part 1

Making Transactional E-Mail Better Marketing Tools, Part 1

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:

  • An advertisement notation at the top
  • A U.S. Postal Service address
  • An unsubscribe link

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:

  • The subject line. Is it referencing the transactional or commercial information?
  • The content. Which is first/most prominent, the transactional or commercial information?

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:

  • The subject line must be completely transactional, with no mention of the commercial information.
  • For text email, the transactional message must appear first, in its entirety. Only when the entire transactional message has been delivered can the commercial part of the email begin.We did get the OK to include a brief, soft-sell reference to the commercial message in the first paragraph (“My name is Jeanne and I will be handling your request today. I’ve also included a ’Did you know’ offer at the bottom of this email. Take a look, it may interest you.”).
  • The commercial part of the message shouldn’t be more prominent than the transactional message.For text messages, bullet points were a no-no in the commercial portion of the information, as they make it too prominent. Bullet points were OK, though, if the message was HTML.
  • HTML provides more flexibility in how the commercial message could be presented and where it could appear while keeping the primary purpose transactional:
    • Including a narrow right column in the email as a location for the commercial message was approved. In doing so, we were able to get the message into the preview pane and make it more prominent, without making it too prominent. Also OK was a box in the top right with the commercial message in it.
    • A light colored background behind the commercial message was approved, so long as the commercial message didn’t take up more than about half the right column.
    • Including a longer commercial message, one that took up all the right column, was fine, so long as it didn’t have a colored background.
    • Bolded text, used sparingly in the commercial portion of the message, was OK.

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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